Stories from Indian Mythology: March 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Birth of Ganesh

Ganesh Mahotsav in India
Ganesh is said o be the most worshiped god in India. As the lord of all successful beginnings, he is worshiped by devotees of other Hindu deities - Shiv, Vishnu and the Goddess. Ganesh is the son of Lord Shiv and Goddess Parvati. However, his birth in our Universe has one of the most strange beginnings. 

Let me tell that story today.

Nandi, Lord Shiv's Bull
In the human world, Lord Shiv and Parvati have their aboard in Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Shiv was often away from this worldly aboard to help the Devs in their wars with the Asurs. In such times, he would leave behind Nandi, his faithful bull, to guard his home and Parvati. 

On one such day, Parvati was preparing to take her bath. As she didn’t want to be disturbed, she told Nandi to guard the door and let no one pass. Nandi faithfully took his post, and stood guard outside his master's home intending to carry out Parvati’s wishes. But, when Shiv came home and naturally wanted to come inside, Nandi had to let him pass, being loyal first to Shiv. Parvati was angry at this slight, but even more than this, at the fact that she had no one as loyal to Herself as Nandi was to Shiv. 

Shiv Returning with his Gana (Warriors)
So, when Shiv was away the next time and Parvati had to take a bath, she took a handful of saffron in her palm, added a little water to make a paste and created a clay like model of a child. Then from her breadth she blew life into this saffron figurine and thus was born Gahesh, her son. The child bowed before his mother and seeking her blessings asked her command. Parvati told Ganesh to guard the house while she was bathing and to let no one pass till she came out. So, taking a hefty stick in his hand, Ganesh stood guarding the door. As it so happened, Shiv returned with his army of followers at that very moment. Shiv strode ahead to meet Parvati while his followers settled themselves on Mount Kailash. However Ganesh, acting on Parvathi's orders verbatim, did not allow Shiv to enter the house. Shiv tried to reason with the young child saying he was the lord of the house, husband of Parvati. Ganesh would hear none of it and stood firmly between Shiv and the door. As Shiv's anger rose he sent his armymen to remove this tiny obstacle from his path. However Ganesh, with his stick, defeated and chased Shiv's well trained and battle hardened warriors one after the other. 

Seeing his warriors defeated by a small child, Shiv was both embarrassed and infuriated. He strode forward in anger and with his trishul (trident), cut off Ganesh's head in a single stroke. Such was Shiv's fury and the power of his trishul, that the severed head was knocked off beyond the realms of the Universe. The torso of dead Ganesh fell down on the ground at Shiv's feet. 

Painting Depicting Ganesh's Birth Story
Shiv Parvati and Ganesh
By this time Parvati had completed her bath and came out of the house hearing the commotion. Seeing her beloved child lying dead on the ground she was overcome by grief and anger. Seeing Parvati so grieved,Shiv's anger cooled off and he realized his mistake.  He sent out his army to look for Ganesh's head or to bring the head of the first creature that they could find. One of his warriors soon returned with the head of a strong and powerful elephant, which Shiv placed onto Ganesh’s body. Breathing new life into him, he declared Ganesh to be his own son as well. However Parvati was still not pacified, saying that with an elephant's head, who would worship Ganesh as a god. So Lord Shiv blessed the child, Ganesh that he will be the lord of beginning and people will worship him first before any other god in any kind of undertaking – PratamaPujya and empowered him on all his servants (gana) to be ever known as “Ganapati".

And so it came to be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Samudra Manthan - the churning of the celestial ocean

In the early days of our universe, the devs (demigods) and asurs (demons) were in an eternal fight for superiority.The devs, led by Indra, their supreme commander, were gaining victories after victories over the asurs and were set to rule the universe. Our story begins then.

One day, Indra was roaming around in the celestial plane riding his elephant and came upon Durvasa muni (sage). Durvasa, the renowned muni, was wandering in a divine ecstasy and coming upon the dev took out a garland from his brow and gave it to Indra in the form of his blessings. Indra however was bloated up by hs recent victories over the asurs and instead of showing the due respect to the muni, paced the garland on the trunk of his elephant. Irritated by the floral smells, the elephant threw down the garland and trampled on it. Sage Durvasa was enraged by Indra's insult. 

Durvasa muni, who was born out of the anger of Lord Shiva, was renowned for his rage.  Brahma and Shiva once got into a heated quarrel. So violent was Shiva's rage as a result of this quarrel, that his consort, Parvati, complained that Shiva was now impossible to live with. Realising the disharmony his anger had caused, he decided to deposit this anger into Anasuya, the wife of sage Atri. From this portion of Shiva deposited into Anasuya, a child was born, who was named Durvasa (literally, one who is difficult to live with).

But coming back to our story....Slighted by Indra's behavior, Durvasa cursed Indra and all the devs to become poverty-stricken and bereft of all influence and strength and that their lives loose all auspiciousness. Afflicted by the muni's curse, the devs began floundering in their war with the asurs. Distressed by the declining fortunes of the devs, Indra prayed and appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu advised the devs to join hands with the asurs and churn the milky ocean of the universe (Milky Way?) to obtain amrit (nectar of immortality) from its depths. 

With a promise to share the amrit with them, the devs were able to reconcile with the asurs to churn the great ocean. The samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) that ensued was an elaborate affair. The entire race of devs and asurs came together for the first time. Mount Mandarachal was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the churning rope. To demean the devs, the asurs demanded that they would hold the head of Vasuki in the churning. However, this strategy of the asurs worked against them. As the manthan began, poisonous fumes coming with breath from the million heads of Vasuki caused much distress among the Asurs. 

As the churning began, the great Mandrachal mountain began sinking into the ocean, pulling with it the devs and asurs. Realizing that the sinking of Mount Mandrachal would create a great deluge in the ocean which would engulf the entire universe, Lord Vishnu took the form of a giant tortoise, Kurma, and lifted Mandrachal on his back. This was Lord Vishnu's second avtar in our known universe. Supported by Vishnu's Kurma avtar, the churning of the ocean began. As the churning intensified, the first thing that emerged from the bottom of the ocean was Halahal, the most dangerous poison in the universe with the capability to destroy entire creation. Both the devs and asurs were terrified expecting imminent destruction. However, Lord Shiv came to the rescue of the entire creation. Out of compassion for living beings, Shiv swallowed the poison in an act of self-sacrifice. However, his consort Parvati who was looking on, terrified at the thought of his impending death, choked his neck with both her hands and prevented the poison from descending into his body. Thus the poison was stuck in Shiva's throat with nowhere to go, and it was so potent that it changed the color of Shiva's neck to blue. For this reason, he is also called Nilakant (blue necked). 

Once again the manthan progressed and fourteen ratnas (treasures) emerged one after the other. These the devs and asurs divided among themselves. These included Goddess Lakshmi, various Apsaras, Varuni (goddess of alcohol), Kamdhenu (the all wish granting divine cow), Airavat, Uchhaishravas (the divine 7-headed horse), Kaustubh ( the most valuable jewel in the world), Parijat (the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt), Sharanga (a divine bow) and Balchandra (the moon which adorned Shiva's head). In the end emerged Dhanwantri, the doctor of the devs, carrying amrit in a kalash (pot). Seeing Dhanwantri holding the desired amrit, both the devs and asurs forgot their pact and started fighting among themselves. In the epic battle that followed, the asurs defeated the devs and seized the kalash containing the amrit for their own consumption.During the battle, four drops of amrit spilled from the kalash and fell finally on four spots on earth - Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. This legend is the basis for the belief that these places acquired a certain mystical power and spirituality.

Seeing the devs defeated in their purpose, Vishnu transformed himself into the most beautiful woman, the divine enchantress Mohini, and approached the asurs. The asurs were enraptured by the beauty of Mohini and readily handed over the kalash to her for distribution. Mohini then sat the asurs in line on one side and the devs on the other. She then walked down the line giving a portion from the kalash in her hand alternatively to the seated devs and the asurs. However, while she gave a portion of amrit to each dev, when she turned towards the asurs, she replaced the amrit kalash with one containing madira (wine) and gave that to the seated asur. The enraptured asurs did not notice the change. 

Only one asur, Rahuketu, seated down the line saw what Mohini was upto. His entrapment by her beauty was shattered and he saw the true form of Vishnu behind his facade as Mohini. Rahuketu, who was a shape shifter, then transformed himself into a dev and went and sat near the end of the devs line in between Surya and Chandra. As Mohini poured amrit for Rahuketu, Chandra and Surya through their light saw Rahuketu's true form and shouted out to Vishnu as a warning. as Rahuketu ran away from the assembly, Vishnu transformed himself into his true form and throwing his sudarshan chakra cut off the head of the asur. However, the amrit had already made its way into the body of Rahuketu and so he could not die. From that day, his head was called Rahu and body was called Ketu who became planets later.

With the nectar inside, the devs regained their original splendour and strength and they were able to conquer the asurs, who had to flee to the netherworld.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Vishunu's Matsya Avtar - Our Universe's First Saviour

Over the existence of our current universe, Lord Vishnu, the protector of the Universe, has taken 10 avtars, or incarnations, to reestablish Dharma and for the salvation of the good and the destruction of evil. Of these ten avtars, Matsya (fish) avtar was the first. In this avtar Vishnu, protecting the seeds of creation from the last universe, heralded the creation of the current Universe and the beginning of a new day in the life of Brahma.

Lets hear the story now.

The day was coming to an end and Brahma was tired. Soon it would be time for him to sleep and the universe which would have lasted for the day (4.3 billion human years) would come to its end. Only the Veds, eternal and outside the Cycle of Creation, would persist. They would lodge safely inside Brahma's body while he sleeps through the night (another 4.3 billion human years) and would be given back to the universe in the next Cycle of Creation.

At this moment Brahma gave an immense yawn, and the Veds slipped out of his lips. It so happened that an asur (demon) named Hayagriv lurked around watching Brahma. Hayagriv had a longstanding desire to become immortal and was observing Brahma for any such opportunity. As the Vedas flowed out of Brahma's lips, the cunning asur immediately realized that the eternal nature of the Veds would also make him eternal. He immediately swallowed the Veds and dived into the ocean and hid in its utmost depth.

The loss of Veds brought about a crisis of catastrophic proportions. With the universe coming to its closure and pralay approaching, without the Veds Brahma would not have the means to recreate the universe and the cycle of creation and destruction would be broken. Realizing the problem, Vishnu, the protector of the universe, decided to pursue this trouble-making asur to the depths of the ocean and retrieve the Veds. Vishnu also decided that in the process of retreiving the Veds, he would find the next Manu for the cycle of creation. Manu acts like a cosmic warden to oversee the creation and spread of life in the world and in each cycle of creation, 14 Manu come to be one after the other till the universe gets destroyed at the end of the day of Brahma.

During those days, a great river flowed down the Malay mountains into the land of Dravida. On its shores stood king Satyavrat offering prayers to Lord Vishnu. As he cupped his hands to collect water from the river, a Shaphari (a small carp) swam in to his hands. The little fish begged the noble king to save it from the big fishes in the river. Satyavrat, surprised by a talking fish and overcome by pity, took the fish to his palace and put it in a pot. However, the fish outgrew the pot in minutes and had to be shifted in a larger vessel. No matter the size of the vessel Satyavrat found, the fish outgrew it in moments. The king shifted the fish to a pond, then a lake and then finally to the ocean. In the process Satyavrat realized that the fish was none other than Lord Vishnu. When he released it in the ocean, the king prayed to Lord Vishnu and requested him to show his true form. Then Vishnu came infront of Satyavrat in his true form and told him of the nearing pralay. Vishnu asked Satyavrat to go along with his wife Niharika and collect prototypes of the entire flora and fauna on the earth over the next seven days. On the seventh day pralay would come. Then a boat would come to Satyavrat and Niharika, and along with the Saptarishis (Seven Eternal Sages) they would save the prototypes of all lifeforms by this boat. Having given these instructions, Vishnu took the form of matsya and dived into the ocean looking for Hayagriv.

Hayagriv had hidden himself in the dark depths of the ocean in a huge shankh (conch). As Vishnu swam in the darkness, his body glowing in a golden light, the hiding place of the asur was soon revealed. In a raging battle that went on for the next few days, Hayagriv was torn to pieces and Vishnu's matsya avtar reclaimed the Veds from his body.

In the meantime on the seventh day, as the waters began to submerge the world and creation came to an end, a large boat appeared near the high ground where Satyavrat and his wife stood with the Saptarishis and the prototypes of all life forms on earth. By the time all the beings flocked into the boat Lord Vishnu's Matsya avtar arrived at the spot glowing with a golden light. It was the only illumination available as darkness had fallen across the cosmos and torrential rain had begun, creating a huge deluge of water that would sweep away the tired old creation. Satyavrat tied the boat to the horn of Vishnu's Matsya form using Vasuki, king of the serpents as a rope. Then Vishnu towed the boat across the cosmic deluge for the entire night while Brahma slept (equivalent to one cycle of creation and 4.3 billion human years). Over the night Vishnu also educated Satyavrat and the Saptarishis on the various problems of human existence and on the true knowledge of Brahman. When it was time for the new cycle of creation begin, Vishnu passed the Veds back to Brahma and these remnants of life from the last universe became the starting seeds of creation in the next.

And so it came to be that Vishnu's Matsya avtar became the first protector of creation in our current universe.