Hello hello hello
Is there anybody in there? 🕸
No more ramblings from me in this one, Elizabeth. I’ll come straight to the point and start you on the tour. I’m going to introduce you to some of the most popular characters in Indian mythology.
The Greater Gods: the ‘super’ gods of the Indian pantheon:
Brahmā – [Not to be confused with the term Brahman which refers to the cosmic entity representing the essence of the universe; or Brahmana, a part of the Vedas; or Brahmin, the caste.] This is the god associated with Srishti or ‘creation.’ He is a three-headed god with four arms, usually shown with a white beard. He has a calm, composed personality. He is the primary ‘creator’, the ‘giver’, so to say. He is also the bearer of the Vedas, and thus, a repository of knowledge. In the mythological stories, the gods come to him first whenever any peril befalls them. Brahma advises them and redirects them to other persons. Brahma is the consort of the goddess Saraswati.
Vishnu/Hari/Nārāyaṇa – The four-armed, mighty-limbed god, who is associated with Sthiti or ‘maintenance.’ Vishnu is the veritable hero-figure among the Indian gods. He is tremendously powerful, maybe the most powerful god there is. His strength, beauty, intellect, shrewdness, leadership, and overall attractive personality make him the most loved and also the most widely worshipped god in the pantheon. The bad guys fear him as the good guys love him. He is a master of armed combat and has his signature weapons, but having great physical strength and mystical powers, he hardly needs them in combat. Vishnu is the consort of the goddess Lakshmi.
Shiva – The most enigmatic, most eccentric, and most revered god of them all, Shiva is one of his kind. He is associated with Laya, which is ‘dissolution.’ He is a hermit among the gods, and wears only a tigerskin as his garment. His power is untold, his greatness is beyond description. Having a strong sense of justice and liberty, he is equally impartial to gods, demons or men. The power of Shiva equals or exceeds that of Vishnu (this is the subject of quite a few entertaining tales), but due to his bohemian nature, he is considered a class apart. Shiva is the consort of the goddess Durga.
Among all the gods in Indian mythology, and indeed – world mythology, Shiva is my favourite. He is the one I relate to, the one through whose eyes I see the world, and in whom, sometimes, I happen to discover myself.
Saraswati – Saraswati is the goddess scholastic, the ever-youthful White Lady of the celestial realms, the patron of learning, music and art. Like the European goddesses Athena and Minerva, she is the goddess of wisdom and understanding, percipience and peace. Radiantly beautiful, adorned in white, and accompanied by a swan, she is the goddess of artists, poets, and thinkers.
Saraswati is my favourite goddess. If you ask me which goddess I’d want to go on a vacation with, I’d easily pick her. She has been a friend, you see, since I was a child. I grew up under her wings when I was at school.
Lakshmi – Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. But prosperity, when represented by Lakshmi, does not mean the stagnating kind of prosperity that pools wealth out of covetous greed, accumulating more and more at the cost of everyone else. Nor does it represent mere materialistic growth. Wealth and prosperity, when associated with Lakshmi, is essentially enriched in the spiritual sense too. When your prosperity is imbued with the spirit of Lakshmi, your riches do not agglomerate for the sake of your greed, rather it proliferates into your neighbourhood for the sake of universal affluence. Lakshmi is the goddess of good times, good spirits and good prospects. She is also notoriously fickle and will depart from a household if especial care is not taken to maintain its material and spiritual standards. Lakshmi is renowned for her proverbial beauty. She has a white owl as her companion; she is the consort of Vishnu.
Durgā – The epitome of beauty, grace, power and strength, Durga is the high queen of the gods. She is the ultimate personification of universal kineticism, the goddess of formation, fluidity, and fulfillment. She has many incarnations and forms. In some, she is the benevolent mother goddess, protective and affectionate towards all her children. In some others, she is a warrior goddess of unthinkable power and strength, reducing malignant forces to nothingness with extreme ease. In some forms she is a maiden of irresistible beauty and overpowering appeal, overloading a watcher’s mind with desire; and in some forms she is an ascetic, severe yet magnificent in her austere beauty, evoking awe in the heart of the beholder. There are many stories associated with Durga, each one related to one of her forms. The different forms have their own names. In her warrior form, Durga rides a lion.
Kāli – An alter-ego of Durga herself, Kali is the same as Durga, but with a darker, less approachable character. She is bluish in complexion, wears (if anything at all) a skirt made of the arms of demons she has felled, and is in a perpetual berserker mood. Her fight with the demons is simply a continuous sequence of slaughter – she cuts, stabs, hits, kicks, tramples, smashes her way through their armies until nothing is left but blood and corpses. She does not speak, deliberate or play with her victims. She just kills. She dances, yes, but it is not a thing of artistic beauty, not something sensual or alluring. It is a red dance of death.
Pārvati – Another alter-ego of Durga, Parvati is the calm, affectionate wife of Shiva. This form is akin to other ‘homely’ forms of the goddess, like Uma or Annapurna. In stories, Parvati is often requested by the gods to assume the forms of Durga or Kali, and get them out of a tough spot (usually involving some demon warlord.) Parvati is a gentle person; but when she is moved to anger, even the likes of Brahma and Vishnu are afraid of her wrath.
The Lesser Gods:
These are full-rank gods in their own right, but their powers are not on the level of the powers of the ones mentioned above.
Indra – King of gods. A great warrior, but often succumbs to greater demon warriors and needs help. Nevertheless, as the king of the gods, he is a mighty force, and wields the fearsome weapon ‘Vajra’, which is the Thunderbolt, comparable to the bolts of Zeus or the Mjolnir of Thor.
Agni – The god of fire.
Varun – The god of water.
Vāyu/Pavan – The god of wind. Pavan is also noteworthy because he is the father of the popular ‘monkey-god,’ Hanumān.
Yama – The god of death. An inescapable figure, and as he commands death – undefeatable. In the stories, he hardly ever fails with a challenge or an antagonist. There are some interesting cases where he does, though.
Vishwakarma – The god of art and architecture, building and engineering. He is like the Greek god, Hephaestus.
Ganesh – The younger son of Parvati, he is the most learned of all the gods and an extremely powerful warrior. In fact, he should be classified along with the ‘greater gods’ mentioned earlier. Ganesh (or Ganesha) is famous for his elephant-headed appearance and his vast appetite for food. According to the tales, he is also the only scribe who measured up to put the Mahabharata to paper, taking down the lines as the poet-sage Vyasa dictated them to him from memory. In a queer twist of incidence, Ganesha’s mount is a mouse.
Kārtik – The elder son of Parvati, and the warrior-general of the gods. A consummate warrior, he is nearly unstoppable in battle. His mount is the peacock.
Characters from the Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata:
Rāma – An incarnation of Vishnu and the hero of the Ramayana, the most popular king of Indian legends, Rama was the prince of the state of Ayodhya. The name Rāma means ‘beautiful’. He was a very lovable figure – handsome to look at, gentle in his behaviour to everyone, a brilliant student, a man of character, and a gifted warrior. The people of Ayodhya loved him like family. He had three brothers, – Bharat, Lakshman and Shatrughna.
Among all the brothers, Lakshman was the closest to Rama. Both of them were fearsome fighters and extremely powerful in the body. The duo faced many mighty opponents in their career and emerged victorious every time.
Sitā – Sita was the most illustrious princess of Rama’s time. Superlative in terms of everything – be it beauty, behaviour, courage, character, or regality – she was a matchless person. In the story, in order to claim her hand, the suitor had to string a great bow, which her father Janaka had received as a gift from Shiva himself. The bow was so strong that no one could even lift it, let alone bend it or string it. The feat was finally achieved by Rama. Sita married Rama, and her three sisters married his three younger brothers.
There is an obscure fact about Sita and the bow, mentioned in some versions of the Ramayana. Every morning, when the princess used to tend the temple of Shiva herself, she used to lift the bow with one hand and clean the seat where it rested with the other. No king or prince who came to attempt the stringing feat knew about this little fact. If they did, probably they would have thought twice about ‘claiming’ her hand. Sita is considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Lakhsmi.
Rāvana – The main antagonist of the Ramayana, Ravana was the mightiest king of his time. He was a king of the Rākshasa people. There are historical complexities here. Historically speaking, Ravana was a non-Aryan, – a Dravidian king. But in many versions of the Ramayana, which is of course written by the Aryans, his image is corrupted and he is made into a monstrous demon. Ravana ruled over the island kingdom of Lanka. His state was so prosperous that it was known as ‘The Golden Lanka’, somewhat like the legendary city of El Dorado. Ravana was renowned as the most dangerous warrior one could face, but he was also known to be a great scholar and administrator. Rama himself, after having defeated Ravana, sought counsel from him about the duties of kingship. As he lay dying, Ravana graciously taught his wisdom to Rama, as all enmity ends in death.
Ravana had been among the kings who had attempted to string the bow of Janaka. He had failed. Later, he kidnapped Sita.
There are interesting theories regarding why Sita submitted to Ravana, even though she should have been to defend herself. Most experts ascribe it to the patriarchal nature of Aryan society, where a woman was not trained to ‘fight’, even though she had enough strength and skill. Submissiveness was the required quality in a woman. – This is in sharp contrast to the character of Durga, who is from an earlier time period. Over the long centuries, social customs had changed.
Krishna – Krishna is another incarnation of Vishnu. The name Krishna means ‘attractive’, ‘one who attracts.’ This character is too complex to deal with in a letter like this, so I will not attempt to do so. Krishna is many things. At different stages in his life, he has been a mischief-maker, a seducer, a lover, a monster-killer, a warrior, a diplomat, a philosopher, a king-maker, a king. The many pivotal roles he plays in the Mahabharata is enough to give him the status of a super-character. In terms of global popularity, Krishna is the most successful Indian deity. Why and how this has happened is an interesting topic, but that is a historical discussion, and we can save that for later.
There are two images of Krishna that are most popular. One is his image as a child, flute in hand, playful, lovable, and yet the one who easily repels fearsome fighters and demons attacking his people. Krishna’s childhood-teenage period is a string of events highlighting his beauty, grace and strength. As you move from chapter to chapter, reading story after story from his childhood, you see that he was both the protector and the heartthrob of the whole village, like a combination of Herakles and Adonis in one body. He was also a brilliant flautist and a virtuoso dancer.
The second image is that of Krishna as a statesman and philosopher, a man in his prime, who took part in the great battle of Mahabharata. It is this Krishna who creates the Gita. The whole book of the Gita is nothing but a long, motivational lecture by Krishna, given to his friend Arjuna, to boost his spirits for the battle. This might be the oldest ‘motivational book’ in history, and yet it is also one of the densest philosophical texts.
That, in brief, is an account of some of the main figures in ancient Indian tales.
Be warned that there exists innumerable versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which are heavily modified versions of the original books. The Hindi television series called Ramayan (1987) and Mahabharat (1988) are among the most influential. If you genuinely want to know the books, stay away from these cheesy embarrassments. They’re iconic series in the history of Indian television, but they’re still bad work.
In the next part of this letter, I will try to tell you a bit about the philosophical underpinnings of Durga and Kali.
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As I had told you earlier, all these stories and characters concerning Durga, Kali, et al have twofold meanings. One meaning is the plain, simple narrative that we can understand as soon as we read it. Another meaning is very difficult, very metaphysical in nature, and not every person is deep enough to think about these stories in that way. To most people, Durga remains a goddess with great supernatural power and charisma, whom we worship devoutly. Kali remains a manifestation of Durga herself, as goddesses are supernaturally strong and can do anything. But there is more to it. If we ever stop to wonder, why do the books call Durga ‘mother’? Why is a female deity placed so high in these mythologies? Why she is called ‘Shakti’ – that is, Energy or Power itself? – Many questions arise in our minds, which can be answered once we understand the metaphysical nature of the narratives.
After Fritjof Capra wrote his iconic book, The Tao of Physics, the world was made familiar with the terms ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. These are terms from Taoism, representing two aspects of the universe. Let us use the words ‘Brahman’ and ‘Shakti’ in our discussion, which are two special terms in ancient Indian philosophy.
Brahman is the basic identity of the universe, one that is beyond change or mutation. This Brahman is not subject to human observation, as observing it would mean changing it. This part is a bit tricky. Let me explain.
In order to be perceived by our senses, everything needs to be limited somehow. For example, in order to be heard by our ears, sound needs to be limited between 20 to 20,000 hertz. In order to be seen by our eyes, light waves need to be limited within the VIBGYOR spectrum; once light enters the ultraviolet or the infrared range, we cannot see it anymore. In order to see a tiger, you need to be able to differentiate it from everything that is ‘non-tiger.’ A border is essential to define anything. A ‘definition’, by definition, limits a thing to certain fixed parameters.
Of course, this is why we speak of ‘well-defined muscles’ on a person, meaning that their muscles can easily be differentiated from each other when we look at their body. If a body had NO definition, it would be a blob.
Now, limiting something means making something subject to change.
A geometrical figure is limited by its border. So you can easily change it, edit it. But suppose there are no borders, no limitations. That means, in short, you have only this blank sheet of paper, no geometrical figure at all on it. So how can you edit a blank sheet?
Is it possible to change the qualities of something that has no qualities? Something that has no ‘definition’ to speak of, nothing to fix it to qualities it possesses?
If something has discernable qualities, only then can we discern a change in it.
So, by extension, – if anything has to be beyond change, it needs to be beyond limitations. No parameters can be imposed upon it, none. Brahman is such. It is beyond change, and thus beyond limitations. You cannot define It. You cannot describe It. Even if you say It is ‘everything,’ you fail, because It is also ‘nothing.’ Even if you say It is ‘great,’ you fail, because It is also ‘small.’
Every object in the universe, on this earth, are bound and defined by two things, name and form. Think about it a bit, you will get it easily. Nothing exists but for their name and form, not in reality, not in imagination. Now, for Brahman to be expressed as this universe bound by rules, something is needed. It needs something that helps to ‘manifest’ Itself, – this latent, underlying Brahman.
This ‘something’ has to be essentially as omnipresent and omnipotent as Brahman, right? —- This something is called Shakti.
Think of a raging, rocking ocean. As you look at the ocean, allow yourself to ask your own mind, ‘What do you see?’
Waves, foam, undulations; flying spray; light glimmering on the tossing waves, water breaking into a thousand droplets before falling back into the turmoil – this is what your eyes see. This is what your senses feel, your mind perceives. These discrete, separate elements. Waves, waves, waves. Where is the ocean?
The ocean is right there, and you cannot see the ocean just like that. You see it manifested as waves on the surface. But are those waves separate from the ocean? No, they are not. You can point at any wave and say, ‘Look, the ocean!’ The waves are momentary, each of them, and yet they are eternal. Without the waves, what is the ocean? Without the ocean, where are the waves?
Brahman is the ocean. Shakti gets this ocean manifested in the form of waves. What was the motive force behind any given phenomenon? What causes the universe to be manifested thus? That factor which causes everything to come within the scope of measurements, cause and effect, changeability and occurrence – that factor is Shakti. Without it, things stay frozen in potential, never transforming into kinetic.
Durga stands for Shakti. That’s why she’s the top one. One who cannot be defeated, cannot be escaped. The most powerful, the most beautiful. She is the origin, and she is the end. She is the creator, and she is the slayer. She can be Parvati, and she can be Kali.
Now, about Kali.
In the film League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, there’s a scene where Captain Nemo (an Indian) is seen worshipping the black, multi-armed, scary-looking idol of Kali; a couple of onlookers (they’re Europeans) watch and recoil in fear and revulsion: “He worships death! Can we trust him?”
This problem had Western civilization confounded for many years indeed. It took many lectures, speeches, books and classes by Eastern and Western scholars on India to dispel this misconception.
Kali is indeed death. Kali is death, Kali is time. Kali is what takes things away, kills, destroys, lays waste. Kali is no comfort. Kali is pain.
And this is exactly why Kali is essential to the Indian philosophy of looking at the world.
Imagine the city of Rome; imagine a span of 5000 years, played before your eyes within a period of 5 minutes. How would it appear? Try to imagine. A swirling, shifting, sprouting, crumbling, changing sequence of movements. Now, try to imagine Kali as time. Is the picture getting clearer?
Kali destroys. Time destroys. But this destruction is not the end, it has the germs of new creation within it. Time recycles everything, and so it destroys and creates. Kali is the destroyer, the leveller. The continuous force of demolishing that is ever at work everywhere. If we observe the mythological stories, when the population graph of the demons reaches the peak, it has to come down again. So Kali slaughters them all. A new beginning, on new soil. Then again, a new threat will come, and be vanquished again. It is not much different from the locust population. On a greater time-scale, think of the dinosaurs. They ruled the earth, and very naturally, they are no more now. It is time here at play. That is Kali. That is why, with all her fearsome qualities, Kali is worshipped and hallowed. Because she is death, and that is exactly why she is life.
Since I am writing to you, I cannot help relating this concept to what athletes do in bodybuilding. You know this a thousand times better than me. What is the process through which you put on muscle and mass? What is the process through which your muscle fibres break and heal, break and heal, break and heal… till you get to the point where you need to be? ‘No pain, no gain,’ – as the t-shirts say. That destruction necessary for rejuvenation, that dying necessary for the rebirth – that, Elizabeth, is Kali.
And that brings us to the end of our trip.
Of course, we could go on. I could keep writing, and the letters would never end. But it is important to end.
Even King Julian ended his song, bruh.
I’ll drop you off right here, by the steps of the library. Now you get on with your journey, and I go on with mine. We’ll keep meeting along the way, I guess.
May the odds be ever in your favour, and may the Force be with you. 🖖🏽