De-myth-ify: Kurmavatara (Part Three)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the second of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Kurma or the tortoise, today. This is the last part of a three-part series on the Kurmavatara. If you haven’t read the previous parts, do go and read Part One and Part Two before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

This was quite an elegant series, was it not? Even if I do say so myself. It is definitely a much more complex and richer story than that of the first avatar, Matsya. This myth is also a very classic tale and a solid jumping point into Hindu mythology. 

One of these typical tropes is that Hindu myths always tend to have ‘morals’ associated with them quite unlike the more entertainment-oriented Greek myths. This is simply because of the reasons the myths were written; Greek myths were performed for an audience while Hindu myths were typically used to impart a moral education across younger generations. This myth is no exception. There is the ever-so prevalent and oft-repeated, “Good always triumphs over evil”, the very Dumbledore-esque, “Help will always be given to those who ask for it”, the downfalls of greed contrasted with the virtues of patience and hard work and many many more lessons that I have probably missed.

This avatar in itself is also a level up from the first one. This tends to also be a theme with Vishnu’s avatars, with each Avatar becoming more powerful, with a more complicated story and more human. I think it is quite underrated though, as far as the Dasavatara go, overshadowed by the more pompous later avatars. It is quite undramatic, kind of anticlimactic and just simply, focused on the need of the hour. That is not to say that the Kurma is unimportant; there would be no Samudra Manthan without it, just simply appreciating the no-frills attitude it had.

The myth though is quite the opposite. You have way too many contenders for both the protagonist and antagonist positions, issues at every turn and all these new people turning up to resolve those issues constantly. It makes for good storytelling but is definitely not quite as unproblematic as the Avatar whose story we are telling.

The fact of the matter is that while the Kurma itself can be thought of as a tiny part of the ocean churning, the god behind it,a.k.a Vishnu was the orchestrator of the Samudra Manthan. It was him that gave the gods the idea in the first place, him who told them to involve the Asuras, him who took the form of the Kurma to make it possible and him who ensured that the Amrit was given to the Devas, finally. This is very classic Vishnu, the Preserver God, who is often the brains behind many such myths. I also have to mention that he did get his wife out of this, as the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who came out of the ocean during the churning, chose him as her husband, so you know, good for him.

Another important point to make here is that there is no western counterpart for this myth, quite unlike the Matsya, which was quite biblical from the get-go. Things like the Ocean of Milk and using a mountain and a snake as churning equipment are very quintessentially a part of Indian mythology and can not be found anywhere else. It is these totally different and unique stories that set it apart from most western as well as quite a few eastern mythologies and it is this aspect that makes up, for me, the charm of it all.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: As this is the first ‘classic’ Hindu myth we have discussed, what do you think of it and the tropes we have talked about? Comment below with what you think about it, I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Kurmavatara (Part Two)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the second of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Kurma or the tortoise, today. This is part two of a three-part series on the Kurmavatara.

For the previous post in this series, click here.

I last left you on a note of suspense, with a comment about how the Samudra Manthan’s problems were far from over. With Kurma supporting Mount Mandara on his back and Vasuki acting as the rope, the Devas and Asuras were able to commence the churning of the Ocean of Milk. This, of course, led to the next series of events.

During the long and strenuous churning process, many things were released from the ocean before the Elixir of Immortality or Amrit. These included supernatural animals like the wish-granting cow Kamadhenu, valuables like Kaustubha, the most divine jewel, nymphs or Apsaras, and the goddess Lakshmi. Most of these were equally divided between the Devas and the Asuras. However, not all that came out of the ocean was good(Dun dun dun).

The Samudra Manthan also brought forth Halahala, a deadly poison or Vish that threatened to cease life in all the three worlds,i.e. Swarga (The skies, home of the Devas), Dharti (The Earth, where regular folk lived) and Patala (The underworld, home of the Asuras) The Devas and Asuras were being suffocated and weakened by the poisonous fumes and beseeched Shiva, considered the destroyer and protector in Hindu Mythology to come to their aid.

Shiva, upon hearing these cries for help, came and took the Halahala in his mouth to protect life and save all three worlds. Instead of swallowing the poison, he held it in his throat, giving it a bluish hue and him the moniker of “Neelakantha”, the blue-throated one. ( Can we just talk about the heroics of it all? Shiva, in a surprise move, takes over from Kurma as the hero of the tale. What a twist.)

Thus, after everyone was saved by Shiva, the churning started again and soon, the fruits of the Devas’ and Asuras’ labour was upon them. Dhanvantari, the God of Medicine emerged with the Elixir of Immortality or Amrit in his hands. (Huzzah!) As soon as he emerged, the Asuras took control of the Amrit and began to run away. Do you remember how Vishnu had told the Devas to not be angry if the Asuras tried to steal anything forcefully? That’s right, it’s time for that part of the story.

The Devas turned to Vishnu, for once, actually remembering his words. (This is like, super rare for them, you guys. I don’t think you understand just how mature this is for them) Vishnu took the form of the beautiful enchantress Mohini, who then went up to the Asuras and convinced them to let her distribute the Amrit among them. With her wily charms, she managed to distract the Asuras while she distributed all of the Amrit among the Devas. (What a comeback. Such a power move. Vishnu is coming back for the hero spot, y’all)

Two Asuras did not fall for Mohini’s charms and disguised themselves as Devas and snuck in to get the Amrit. However, the Sun and Moon gods ended up identifying them as imposters and thus, Vishnu, taking his true form, cut off their heads with his Sudarshan Chakra before the Amrit crossed their throats. The heads of these two Asuras, named Rahu and Ketu are believed to still be flying around the universe and once in a while, they swallow the moon and the sun, as revenge. That’s why eclipses happen, according to Hindu mythology, anyway. (I find this a surprisingly neat explanation for what is a complex scientific phenomenon, although maybe slightly too gore)

Obviously, the jig was up. The Asuras realised that Vishnu had tricked them. They picked up arms and came to fight for what was promised to them. However, the Devas had now consumed Amrit and were at full potential and thus, defeated the Asuras and drove them away. So, the Samudra Manthan came to a violent end and goodness was restored. The curse of Durvasa lifted and the Devas brought peace and harmony back to the realms. All was well (Unless you were an Asura in which case, oh well).

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: Do you think the end of the Samudra Manthan was truly a ‘happy’ one? Or is it a tragedy, much like the Greek myths we have dissected? Comment below with what you think about it, I’d love to hear from you!

 

De-myth-ify: Kurmavatara (Part One)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the second of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Kurma or the tortoise, today. This is part one of a three-part series on the Kurmavatara.

For the previous series of posts on the first of the Dasavatara, Matsya or the fish, click here.

The story of the Kurmavatara is usually considered a chapter of the bigger, way more important myth of the Samudra Manthan,i.e. the churning of the ocean. I, however, personally believe that there is no Samudra Manthan without the Kurma; that these stories are too tangled to be taken apart. The story of the Kurmavatara is the story of the Samudra Manthan. People may not agree, but how I choose to interpret this story remains my choice and one of the more lovely things about mythology and stories in general. So, without further ado, let us begin.

Last time we left Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe, he had just saved all of Earth and its inhabitants.(So you know,just a regular day of being Vishnu) This story is set thousands of years later and is a story that involves no mortals directly. It is one of the many Hindu myths that deal with the regular power struggle between the Devas, or the gods and the Asuras or the titans/demons.

Devas and Asuras, though cousins, were at war with each other all the time. (If you have siblings you get it, right?) One time, during one of these wars, the notoriously ruthless sage Durvasa(Also known as the grump of Hindu mythology) visited Indra, the god of the skies and king of the gods and offered him a flower garland. ( If you think that Indra sounds like Zeus, you are right. Indra is the Zeus of Hindu mythology) Indra, who had a bit of an ego problem, carelessly threw the garland to his elephant, angering the short-tempered sage. Durvasa cursed all the gods which ended up leading to them all losing their powers. ( Eesh, that’s extreme. If I was another god I’d be SO mad at Indra)

This meant that the Devas were now on the verge of defeat to the Asuras and were soon largely depleted. As a last resort, they approached Lord Vishnu and pleaded with him for help. He advised them to obtain Amrit, or the Elixir of Immortality by churning the Ocean of Milk to regain their powers. He told them to use Mount Mandara as the churning stick and the king of the serpents, Vasuki(Remember him from the previous myth?) as the rope.

The gods were unable to lift Mount Mandara without their powers and Vishnu suggested they ask the Asuras for help in exchange of a portion of the Amrit. He also warned them to not take anything except the Amrit that comes out of the ocean during the churning, or feel angry if the Asuras forcibly take those things. He also calmed their concerns about the Asuras stealing the Amrit at the end of the churning and promised them that that would not happen.

Thus, the Devas and Asuras set Mount Mandara in the middle of the ocean, wrapped the snake god Vasuki around it and each held onto one end of his body and began to pull. They soon realised, however, that the mountain was sinking into the soft ocean floor and again beseeched to Vishnu for help. This is where the main part of our story happens.

Vishnu took the form of a giant tortoise, or a Kurma and supported Mount Mandara on his broad back while the Devas and Asuras churned the ocean, until the Amrit was successfully obtained. ( Heroic,sure but also, mildly anticlimactic,don’t you think?) This, of course, is the second of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the titular character of our story. Thus, with the Kurma present, the churning of the ocean began in full swing and all problems were solved. Or were they?

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: This story seems pretty grey on who the bad guy is. Who do you think is the “villain” here: the Asuras,Durvasa or even Indra? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

De-myth-ify: Matsyavatara (Part Two)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the first of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Matsya or the fish, today. This is part two of a two-part series on the Matsyavatara.

For the previous post in this series, click here.

So, where were we? Matsya or Lord Vishnu fulfilled his devotee Manu’s life long desire of seeing him. He also gave him instructions to build a boat and put the seven sages, seeds of all plants and males and females of all the animals(Plus the snake god Vasuki) on it. (And we all thought of a certain biblical hero) Then, he set off to find the horse-headed demon Hayagriva, who had stolen the Vedas from the Lord of Creation, Brahma and was hiding at the bottom of the ocean. Now, let’s focus on that part of the story.

Matsya, a fish as large as the ocean itself, made its way to where Hayagriva sat, guarding the Vedas. Hayagriva saw the huge fish from afar and was terrified of this unnaturally sized fish. (You get that, right, just a giant fish coming at him, anyone would be terrified.) Before he could even think of how to protect himself, the fish attacked him and sent him reeling. There was a brief and with no offence to Hayagriva’s demon abilities, highly futile struggle, at the end of which, Hayagriva was dead and the Vedas promptly returned to Brahma, to their rightful place. (Sorry, no major action sequence here, you guys)

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Our Hindu(Read biblical) hero, Manu on the other hand, had successfully built his ship. He had brought the seven sages, seeds of all the plants, male and female of all the animals and Vasuki, on board. He patiently awaited his Lord, while the Earth was ravaged by torrential rains and flooded to such an extent that it seemed that all of the earth was one giant ocean. The boat almost capsized several times as the water level rose, however, all the occupants of the boat had complete faith in Lord Vishnu.

They were rewarded for their faith as the fish eventually turned up and told Manu to use Vasuki, the snake god as a rope and tie the boat to its horn. The flood swept over the land but the boat was safe because it was protected by Lord Vishnu. Watching the death and destruction, Manu wondered why humanity had earned such a deadly end. At this, Lord Vishnu told him that he was the only moral man left on earth and he would go on to be the father of future generations of mankind, or the Manavas. After the storm abated, Matsya dropped them all off at the Himalayas, for them to begin the new Yuga and continue human civilisation.

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With this, the story of the first of the Dasavatara of Vishnu, Matsyavatara, as well as the Satya Yuga comes to a somewhat mixed end.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

This story is not a ‘classic’ Hindu myth. It is relatively unknown, and a very simple story, which I see as being representative of the simpler times it was set in. It is set in the era where people were the nicest, even if they did go immoral by that standard. (Can you imagine? What is immoral to people who never ever lie?) It does still have some features of Hindu mythology that are unique and quite different from other world mythologies.

For instance, it is highly reverent. Hinduism is a present and thriving religion, even to this day, and is one of the oldest religions in the world. So, Hindu mythology is usually about gods or their incarnations and they are very much involved in the stories. (Which is wildly different from the Greek trope of demigods, or heroes) They are also quite positive and tend to have morals associated with them. (Basically, in a very un-greek fashion, they make great stories for little kids) For this story(In my opinion), the moral is that God will always protect you if you’re a good person. There’s many more, but I think this story makes a good foray into Hindu mythology and as the first of the 10 major incarnations of Lord Vishnu(Who is usually quite prominent in Hindu myths), a great beginner tale.

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Vishnu’s Dasvatara

Now, let’s talk about the elephant(Or giant fish, more aptly) in the room. The really really obvious similarities between this story and the story of Noah’s Ark from Biblical mythology. Both stories have God telling a good man that there will be a flood(Which also implies both have a great apocalyptic flood), both have him instructed to build a boat(Or an ark), both have him bring seeds and male and females of all the animals on it, both have the boat survive as it is protected by God and finally, in both, civilisation begins afresh. (That was an excess of the word both, I don’t ever want to do that again)

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So, the obvious question is, who cheated off whom? Who copied? To which, I say, I genuinely believe there was no copying as such. Hindu Puranas are much much older than the Bible but I really think that as people travelled in the old world, they took stories with them and stories would grow and modify with each retelling, making them similar but different stories that stand on their own and represent the people who believe in them well. Hindus like to visualise God, make him tangible and real and thus, in their version of the story, God is a giant fish. Christians, on the other hand, believe in a capital G- God, and thus God is not physically present to protect Noah, but his protection is with him. All in all, it is just another coincidence in the wonderful world of mythology, and these coincidences are something that I have always loved to find in various mythologies.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: How did you like this story and what do you think of the differences and similiarities in various mythologies? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Matsyavatara (Part One)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the first of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Matsya or the fish, today. This is part one of a two-part series on the Matsyavatara.

In this myth, unlike in Greek mythology, I cannot just launch into the main story because it is far too complicated and far too confusing if you are not aware of the background in which it is set. This series is an attempt to simplify the story found in the Matsya Purana, and among the oldest stories in the eighteen major Puranas in Hindu literature. So without further ado, let us begin with somewhat of a prologue and set the scene for the story, hope you’ll enjoy it.

In Hindu mythology, time is considered cyclical and is divided into eras or Yugas. Each Yuga is supposed to be approximately 4320 million human years and equivalent to a day in the life of the Lord of Creation, Brahma. When evil overrules the good, there is Pralay or an apocalypse and a new Yuga begins afresh. Also at the end of every Yuga, Brahma goes to sleep, after a whole day of creation having tired him out. (Cmon, he earned that nap, let him have it, its been literal million years.) Brahma’s knowledge of creation came from the Vedas, which are the oldest religious scriptures of Hinduism and which he kept on his person and will be very important in this story.

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Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of Creation with the Vedas in his right hand.

Humans were becoming immoral day by day and the Satya Yuga was close to ending. (This immorality is by the standards of an era when people were the most honest they ever were or will be. So, you know. Go figure.)  Right on schedule, Brahma decided it was time for his ‘daily’ slumber and as he started to close his eyes and go to sleep, he yawned and the horse-headed demon Hayagriva came out of his nose, stole the Vedas and went and hid at the bottom of the ocean, thinking that no one would find him there. (Can you blame him? 95 per cent of the Earth’s oceans are still undiscovered, to this day. It was a good plan, you know, apart from the thieving and stuff.) Vishnu, the God of Preservation was worried by this development because if the Vedas were stolen their knowledge could not be used in the next Yuga which was about to begin. Since it was his job to ensure the preservation(of knowledge) for the next era, it was time for Vishnu to take his first incarnation and come to Earth and that is where our story, truly, officially, begins. (Finally.)

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Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of Preservation

On Earth, there lived a man named Manu, who was very pious and devoted to Vishnu. He used to pray and perform penance to fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing Vishnu with his own eyes. One day, as he began his prayers at the river and took some water from it in his hands and was about to pour it back, he noticed a tiny fish in his hands. The fish was begging him to not put it back in the water as other bigger fish might eat him. (This is very ancient times, he can speak fish, its not a big deal) He decided to help the fish and took it to his house and put it in a small pot. When the fish outgrew the pot, he put it in a bigger one. Soon, it outgrew that pot as well and went on to outgrow every other pot in Manu’s home. So, he put the fish in the river. Then a bigger river. Then an even bigger one. Soon, this fish outgrew all the rivers and Manu put it in the ocean.

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When put in the ocean, the fish grew to the size of the ocean, a horn grew out of its head and it revealed itself to be Vishnu. Manu bowed in reverence and was overwhelmed to see his dream fulfilled. He asked him what the Lord wanted of him. Vishnu then told Manu that the Yuga was going to end in 7 days; there would be a great flood, and all life on earth would perish. He instructed him to build a big ship, take seeds of all the plants, male and female of all species of all the animals, and the Seven Sages on it. (The Seven Sages or Saptarishi are a big deal in Hindu mythology. They are considered the patriarchs of the Vedic religion) He also told him to bring the god of the snakes, Vasuki on the ship. (Did it remind you of a very famous story yet? If not, ‘Ill give you a hint. Think biblical.)Matsya avatar

Having given his instructions and completing one half of its mission on Earth the Matsya Avatar,a.k.a Lord Vishnu set off to the bottom of the ocean to find the demon Hayagriva and bring the Vedas back. That tale though is for the next part.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: This tale begins with the idea that time is cyclical. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

My Love For Mythology.

Let’s talk about my relationship with mythology today.

Hi! Today I will talk about one of the great loves of my life that I don’t believe I have addressed on here in a manner it deserves (Read: aside from a few references to it here and there I haven’t talked about it all) It is actually quite surprising and shocking that I haven’t addressed it on here yet and it has been almost three years since I started sharing my thoughts with you. So, today I share with you one of the bigger pieces of me: my love for mythology.

I was very very young when I had my first encounter with mythology and let me tell you, it was love at first sight. (Or encounter, in this case, but sight has more poetic charm now, doesn’t it?) Being born in a Hindu family, I was very small when I first heard the stories of Vishnu’s many incarnations, Shiva’s abode on the top of the Kailash, Ganesha’s many intellectual and food driven adventures and so many other stories. I heard these stories before I was capable of reading myself and they completely captured my imagination.

As I grew older, I was able to read these myself and reading and rereading the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which are very famous great epics from India was only the tip of the iceberg that was the world of Hindu mythology for me. The many gods with their many different forms and different powers, the sages with their curses, the Asuras or the demons, entirely fascinated me. It was great fuel to my very active imagination and it was only the start to a love that well, as of now, would last a lifetime.

Then, like many travellers of lands far away, I stumbled upon the Greeks. Greek mythology was and probably is my favourite mythology to date(With the Hindu mythology) The Big Three with their three realms, Zeus with the skies, Poseidon with the seas and Hades with the underworld, Persophone and her travels changing seasons, Medusa’s fixating stare and monsters like the Minotaur or the Hydra were incredible stories to my 7-year-old brain. I also loved it more because of just how similar it is to Hindu mythology. The same many gods, the god of thunder, rain and lightning as king of the gods, the whole big three business, the similarities are endless and can be a post themselves.

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A picture of the council of gods I found at http://maggiesemple.com/greek-mythology/

After the Greeks, I found their more disciplined and stricter descendants and neighbours, the Romans. The parallels with Greek mythology were obvious and established but the differences were what fascinated me. Poseidon’s might staying not as mighty as he becomes Neptune, the much higher reverence to Mars, the god of war because Rome fought a lot of wars, the importance of the beauty of the gods in Grecian tales versus the war generals of Rome, it was amazing to me that something born from the same place went two such different directions.

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I found this picture at https://www.realmofhistory.com/2018/03/20/15-roman-gods-goddesses-facts/

After that, I stumbled upon many very different mythologies, the Norse with the tales of Thor and Odin, the Egyptians with Ra, Osiris, the eye of Horus and Set’s wrath and even mythology associated with younger religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is a love that has only grown over the years and an interest that I am highly passionate about. Passionate enough that when I found a friend who loved mythology the way I do, we seriously discussed having a mythology youtube channel together. (It never happened because duh, that’s how most plans with your friends go)

I would be remiss to not mention the wonderful boon that Rick Riordan has been to the world of mythology. His books brought my favourite myths to life in the modern world in the most literal sense and I am so thankful for his books because they have not only popularised this obscure love of mine but also expanded upon my knowledge and love of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. (I haven’t read his books on the Norse mythology yet but I’m sure they’ll have the same effect.)

In conclusion, this has been my ode to my love, mythology and I’m glad that you could join me on this nostalgic little journey where I profess my love for one of my biggest passions, mythology. Thank you.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: Are you interested in mythology? What is your favourite mythology? Comment below with what you think about it, i’d love to here from you!