One unique feature of India’s two great epics is that they are packed with charming stories, and myths not to be found in any other literature in the entire world. I had written about two months ago an essay, narrating a few charming myths and tales. I propose to narrate in this essay a few more. There are many versions of these tales. But as before, I have stuck to the versions, I have read or heard in Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu.
I propose to begin this essay with the charming and touching myth concerning Shabari, a poor woman, who was living in a village near a mountain in Dandakaranya forest.
She went and saw the sage (Rishi) Matanga, after many days of travel. With a desire to acquire knowledge and to know the meaning of dharma she served the sage with devotion for many years. When Matanga was about to die, the aged Shabari, requested him to take her with him to the abode of peace. The sage replied that, if she offered seva (service), to Rama, who was coming soon, he would give her “darshan”. Then the sage left for his abode of peace.
As a ritual, Shabari would go out everyday, aided by a walking stick, and pluck berries for Lord Rama from the trees in the forest. She would taste the berries, put the sweet ones in her basket and discard the bitter ones. On his arrival, Rama went straight to Shabari’s ashram. On seeing Rama, Shabari became ecstatic and said, “There are so many enlightened sages waiting for you with tasty dishes, but you have come to see this humble devotee”.
This clearly showed that Rama did not care whether a devotee lived in a palace or in a hut, whether he was an erudite scholar or illiterate. He cared only for a true bhakta. Shabari pleaded her inability to offer anything to him, other than her devotion, and some berries. Rama tasted them, and said that of the many types of food he had eaten, nothing could equal these berries, that had already been tasted by Shabari. Some scholars are of the view that Rama willingly ignored such a trivial fault, because he was touched by Shabari’s devotion. He blessed her. Shabari in return advised Rama to take the help of Sugriva and told him where to find him.
Vaali, the monkey King of Kishkindha was very courageous. He did penance and prayed to Brahma. He asked Brahma for a boon that in any duel, his opponent would lose half his strength to Vaali. Brahma granted the boon. Vaali, who had been as powerful as 70,000 elephants became invincible.
A ferocious demon called Mayavi, once came to Kishkindha and challenged Vaali to a fight. As the fight progressed the demon got terrified and ran into a cave. Vaali entered the cave telling Sugriva, his brother, to wait outside. Vaali did not return and Sugriva, heard demonic voices from inside the cave. In addition he saw blood oozing out from inside. He mistakenly, concluded that Vaali was dead. He sealed the entrance of the cave with a large boulder, and proclaimed himself as king of Kishkinda
However, Vaali had killed Mayavi and returned. Upon seeing Sugriva acting as king, Vaali thought his brother had betrayed him. Sugriva tried to explain the situation but Vaali found it unconvincing. In fear Sugriva ran off to Rishyamook mountain as it was the only place where Vaali couldn’t come because of a curse of the sage Matanga, that if Vaali set foot on Rishyamook mountain, he would die.
Ravana, the Rakshasa King of Lanka (now Srilanka) who came to know about Vaali’s strength became extremely jealous, and went to Kishkinda. He challenged Vaali to come and fight (Sugriva had fought with Ravana first and was defeated). They fought a fierce battle. Vaali defeated Ravana. He took Ravana in his tail and took him around all the world. Vaali, thus demonstrated that he was indeed the most powerful warrior on Earth.
Rama had to wage war against Ravana to free Sita. He sought the help of Sugriva and not Vaali, as advised by Shabari and Kabandha (a demon who had been released from a curse on being slain by Rama). But Rama knew that even he would not be able to defeat Vaali in a straight face-to-face combat. So Rama hid behind the trees. However, during his first attempt, he could not recognise which one was Vaali and which one was Sugriva due to their similar looks. During the next attempt, Sugriva wore a garland of red flowers and went to fight Vaali. Rama hid himself behind Vaali. This time, Rama could recognise Vaali and shot an arrow that killed him.
According to Vali, Rama’s decision to take Sugriva’s help in getting Sita back from Lanka, and his manner of slaying him, from behind in a stealthy manner, were unethical
Rama was an exiled prince and was acting as a king only on the insistence of Bharata who had not accepted kingship officially. So according to Vaali, Rama as a third person, had no moral right to kill him and that too in a stealthy manner.
One question is often raised – why did Rama choose the weaker of the two brothers as his ally? As indicated above Shabari and Kabandha had advised Rama to seek the friendship of Sugriva who knew the geography and the topography of the world and in addition was in deep trouble like Rama. So Rama and Sugriva needed each other’s help, and developed a bond of friendship.
Therefore, Vaali was justified in thinking that it was expedience, and not ethical considerations, that had dictated Rama’s decision to kill him and befriend Sugriva. Some scholars agree with this view.
However some other scholars have unconvincingly tried to explain away Rama’s conduct, by pointing out that Rama was after all a human and therefore could not have been expected to be perfect.
Ahalya, the wife of the Maharishi Gautama, was considered even more beautiful than the Apsaras of heaven. The lecherous Indra was smitten by Ahalya’s beauty. Taking advantage of sage Gautama’s absence he came to his ashram disguised as Gautama to have sex with her. He declared his love for her while simultaneously praising her unrivalled beauty. Though she saw through his disguise, she was flattered and consented to have sex with him particularly since she also had developed an instant liking for him. Gautama saw what had transpired through his divine visual power. He cursed Ahalya to become a stone. When she begged for his forgiveness, he said that someday Rama’s foot would touch the stone and she would regain her human form. But the sage cursed Indra saying his face and limbs should be covered with one thousand vaginas. Indra was ashamed and pleaded that he would not be able to show his face and limbs to people. Gautama said that to other people the vaginas would only appear as one thousand eyes.
Devavrata, the eighth and surviving son of Shantanu, was made the heir-apparent, of the Kuru kingdom, and the citizens loved him because of his noble qualities. Shantanu went one day to the forest and met a fisherwoman named Satyavati, who operated the boats crossing the Yamuna. He fell in love with her and asked her father for her hand in marriage. However, the fisherman-chief told Shantanu that he would only agree if he promised to make the son born to Satyavati his heir. Shantanu said that he could not do so, as he had already promised the throne to Devavrata. After he returned to the palace Shantanu, shunned company and spent his time alone in bed in grief. Shantanu’s sorrow was noticed by Devaavrata and he learned the reason from a minister.
Devavrata immediately rushed to the cottage of the fisherman-chief. He begged him to allow Satyavati to marry his father, but the fisherman-chief repeated his condition. In order to make his father happy, Devavrata ceded his rights to the throne and promised to make the son of Satyavati the heir to the throne. However Satyavati’s father was not satisfied, as he feared that disputes would later arise between Satyavati’s son and Devavrata’s children over the right to the throne. To set his mind at ease, Devavrata took the vow of lifelong Brahmacharya (celibacy), thus denying himself the pleasures of marital love.
The celestial “devatas” showered flowers from heaven on him, and he came to be known as ‘Bhishma’ as he took a terrible vow. With the consent of the fisherman-chief, Bhishma took Satyavati to his father on a chariot and informed him about his vow. A loving father Shantanu gave him a boon of “Iccha Mrityu” the right to choose the time of his death. Bhishma was the only warrior in the Mahabharata, who could choose when to die and came to be known as Pitamaha (grandfather)
Bhishma was the greatest warrior in the Mahabharata. Though he fought on the side of the Kauravas, he was a righteous person and was a great devotee of Lord Krishna. He was respected by everyone, including Krishna. He was invincible but he had one flaw. He would never fight a transgender person or a eunuch. This was the weakness that Arjuna exploited. While fighting Bhishma, in the battle of Kurukshetra, he brought a eunuch, Shikhandi to face Bhishma. Shikhandi was none other than the princess Amba in her previous birth. She bore a grudge against Bhishma for not marrying her because of his vow of celibacy. She obtained a boon from Lord Shiva to be born as a eunuch in her next birth and make Bhishma to give up his fight by standing in front of him, during the battle. This was why the great Bhishma dropped his bow and arrows while fighting Arjuna. Then Arjuna shot an arrow which wounded Bhishma, fatally.
Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna and Subhadra and was the nephew of Lord Krishna.
Like the Pandavas, Abhimanyu was trained in all forms of warfare by Lord Krishna himself and Arjuna. While still in the womb, of Subhadra, Abhimanyu heard the intricacies of a military battle formation called the padmavyuha from Arjuna, his father when he was narrating the same to his mother( the Padmavyūha was essentially a multi-tiered defensive formation that looked like a blooming lotus or disc when viewed from above. The Padmavyūha or chakravyuha was used to surround enemies who entered. Mere knowledge of how to enter it was of no use. A warrior had to know how to get out of it.
Abhimanyu, knew only how to enter but did not know how to get out, as Arjuna was summoned by Krishna before he could narrate the latter half.
Abhimanyu entered the padmavyuha with confidence and fought valiantly. He defeated many warriors. But Abhimanyu was isolated and cornered when the soldiers of the Kaurava army surrounded him. As he did not know how to come out of the padmavyuha he was slain.
I would now like to narrate the story of the golden deer which Sita wanted Rama to procure for her.
Maricha and Subahu were the sons of the demoness Tataka. Maricha and Ravana flew to Panchavati. Maricha assumed the form of a beautiful golden deer. It appeared in the vicinity of the ashram, as Sita was collecting flowers. The deer lured Sita, who asked Rama and Lakshmana to get it for her. Lakshmana sensed foul play and warned that the deer was Maricha. But Sita pestered Rama to get her the deer. Rama asked Lakshmana to take care of Sita and went after the deer. After a long chase, Rama shot him down. Maricha took his real form and cried out mimicking Rama’s voice “Oh Sita! Oh Lakshmana!” Sita asked Lakshmana to go and search for Rama. Lakshmana insisted that no one could harm Rama.
However Sita ordered Lakshmana to go.
Lakshmana who could not bear to see Sita cry in grief, reluctantly went in search of Rama, warning Sita not to cross the protective line, called Lakshmana Rekha he drew. Anybody other than Rama, Sita and himself attempting to cross the line would be burned by flames erupting from the line. Once Lakshmana left in search of Rama, Ravana came in the form of a mendicant, and asked Sita for alms. Not suspecting any foul play, she crossed the Lakshmana Rekha to provide alms to him and Ravana kidnapped her in his Pushpaka vimana.
Bhasmasura was a devotee of Lord Shiva. He performed great penance to obtain a boon. Bhasmasura asked Shiva to grant him a boon that anyone whose head he touched with his hand would burn and immediately turn into ashes (bhasma). The wicked Bhasmasura then wanted to test his new found power by placing his hand on Shiva himself! So Shiva ran and prayed to Vishnu for help. Vishnu, in the form of Mohini, a damsel appeared in front of Bhasmasura. Bhasmasura was immediately smitten by her beauty and asked her to marry him. She told him that she was very fond of dancing, and would marry him only if he could match her moves identically. Bhasmasura agreed and they started dancing. The dance went on for several days. As Bhasmasura matched the disguised Vishnu’s move by move, he began to let his guard down. While still dancing, Mohini, struck a pose where her hand was placed on top of her own head. The foolish Bhasmasura imitated and was tricked into touching his own head. Bhasmasura was immediately burned to ashes.
Nothing illustrates the manner in which poets introduce twists and turns into a tale better than the story of Prahlada. Prahlada was a very young boy, but he became a bhakta of Mahavishnu. His father the cruel rakshasa Hiranyakasipu, was a sworn enemy of Vishnu. He tried various methods to make him stop worshiping Vishnu. As Prahlada continued to worship Him, Hiranyakasipu began to hate him. So Hiranyakasipu wanted to kill Prahlada. First he abused him; Second he cursed him; Third he tried to kill him by throwing him into the sea; Fourth he pushed him down from the top of a hill;. Fifth he made him stand beneath waterfalls; Sixth he hit him on the head and body with maces;. Seventh he got elephant hordes to walk over his body- but Prahlada did not die. Hiranyakasipu was aghast and asked Prahlada, one day at twilight to tell him where his protector Vishu was, so that he could kill him. Prahlada answered that Vishnu was there in every object in the universe. Hiranyakasipu then pointed out a pillar and asked him to show Vishnu in that pillar. Here I must digress. Hiranyakasipu had obtained a strange boon from Brahma stipulating the various kinds of protection for his life. There are various versions of the boon. I shall narrate one. Hiranyakasipu could not be killed by a man or an animal. He could not be killed by any weapon. He could not be killed by the living or the dead ; He could not be killed either in daylight or at night time. He could not be killed on the ground or in the air. He could not be killed inside the house or outside. Of course he was not allowed immunity from death itself.
As it happened Hiranyakasipu kicked the pillar with great force. Vishnu emerged from the pillar in a strange form and appearance. He had the face of a lion and the body of a human being. He had long sharp nails like the claws of a lion. He also had sharp teeth (canines and incisors) like a lion. He lifted up Hiranyakasipu in the air, carried him to the door separating the house from the street, and spread him on his lap. He then tore Hiranyakasapu’s stomach with his claws killing him. In this manner Vishnu circumvented the various kinds of protection granted to Hiranyakasipu as a boon by Brahma, and destroyed Hiranyakasipu.
The Mahabharata,” one of India’s two great Sanskrit epics, has about 100,000 stanzas. To put it in perspective, it is 15 times longer than the Bible and eight times as long the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”put together. The story of the Mahabharata revolves around two branches of a family – the Pandavas and Kauravas – who, in the Kurukshetra War, battle for the throne of Hastinapura. The Pandavas triumph in the end.
The Ramayana (the story of Rama and Sita), though not as long as the Mahabharata is also massive, containing about 24,000 couplets. It is about three times the length of Homer’s “Iliad.” It is the story of Rama, king of Ayodhya, and his wife Sita. The rakshasa Ravana, King of Lanka, abducts Sita, and so Rama invades Lanka, kills all his enemies and brings Sita back.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are packed with hundreds of fantastic, and intricately woven stories, many of which are interconnected.
Truly Hindu mythology has no parallel in the world’s literature. Compared to the stories and myths in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Iliad and the Odyssey are mere fairy tales, taught at school.