Oct 17, 2014

Crows and dogs: Messengers of death

During Tihar, the festival of lights, five different elements of nature are worshipped. What many might not know is that the five elements are all associated with death, and the festival ‘Yama Panchak,’ is named after Yamaraj, god of death. But crows and dogs, particularly, are also known as ‘Yamadut’ or messengers of death, and their association with death is almost universal, even beyond the Hindu culture.

Dr. Bina Paudel, Professor of Culture at Tribhuvan University, explains that the festival is a very logical one from the ecological point of view.

“Everything in nature is connected, and by worshipping elements that are ignored everyday, we realize their importance,” she said. Dr. Paudel informs that dogs are worshipped because they help protect human lives and property, especially during Tihar when the year’s harvests are brought in. Also, they are the most lovable and attached of domesticated animals.

Birds are usually pretty and have a beautiful voice, and crows are an exception to both. But by worshipping crows, we acknowledge that even the humblest of birds has a role to play in the ecological cycle.

In the larger ecological circle, crows and dogs are eaters of carrion and help dispose of the remains of living beings. As such, they are naturally attracted to and associated with Yamaraj, the god of death. It is believed that when a person is about to die, Yamaraj does not come to fetch the dead one but sends his messengers. And true to that, a large number of crows are seen around places of death like battlefields, graveyards, and also when someone is dying.

Other birds like vultures also eat carrion, but since crows appear to foretell death, it came to be believed that they have oracular powers in other areas too. For example, in Nepal there is the belief that if a crow caws near your house, it brings news, especially of those members away from home. The news may be good or bad, and meanings are read into all kinds of crow behavior. It is said to be a good sign if you see a crow with a mouthful of meat at the beginning of a journey, and a bad sign if a crow swoops in from the left.

Recognizing their functions in nature, mythology has accorded a place for these birds which fits their activities. Crows are most prominent in Norse mythology (practiced in north European countries before the advent of Christianity) where they are associated with the father-god Odin. Odin is the god of poetry, wisdom, and not to forget, death. He has two ravens (birds similar to crows) named Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory). They ride with him into battle, and everyday, bring him news of death from all over the world.

Hindu mythology has split the two functions of crows—messengers and symbols of death—into two parts.
Dr. Dirgha Raj Ghimire, former professor of religion at Valmiki Sanskrit University, informs that during creation, Brahmaji gave different rights to different animals. According to information found in Ananda Ramayana and Padma Puran, crows were assigned the function of traveling all over the world and communicating messages. That is the reason there is meaning in everything that crows do.

On the other hand, their function as ‘Yamadut’ is to warn of imminent death. They are the favorites of Shani, the lord of fate and destiny. Many Hindus in India feed crows during Shraddha as a symbol of death and ancestors. In Nepal, it is customary to feed crows on the tenth day of the 13-day death rituals. Dr. Ghimire advises that as messengers of death, crows should be fed everyday. But since most people forget to do so, there is a special day designated for this during Tihar.

Ravens are believed to be the spirits of dead people in Denmark, and many other mythologies, from Celtic to Greek to Swedish, have given crows predictive and/or death-related functions.

This powerful mythology has seeped into popular culture as well. In the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, a raven is the constant (invisible) companion of young Brandon Stark who slips in and out of consciousness after a fatal accident. The raven here is a symbol of the underworld, and Brandon emerges from the world of the dead where the raven took him. In the series Mortal Instruments, a raven called Hugo (a play on Odin’s bird Hugin) secretly watches and gathers information for years.

Odin, who takes half of the dead warriors who have gathered in the great hall of Valhalla, also has a pair of wolves. Called Geri and Freki, these wolves (from which dogs evolved) assist him in his ghostly duties.
Similar to that, Yamaraj in the Hindu mythology has two dogs: Shyam and Sadal. They guard the doors of Narka. Unlike crows which are seen as messengers, dogs are seen more as guardians, which relates to their function as guardians of human homes and properties. If you want an easy passage into hell, Dr. Ghimire recommends that you feed dogs everyday and stay in their good books.

Dogs as symbols of death make frequent appearances in Hindu mythology. In the Mahabharata, a dog follows the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi on their final journey. Yudhishthir is asked to abandon the dog before he ascends to heaven, but he refuses because of the dog’s loyalty. It is then revealed that the dog is a form of Yamaraj himself who wanted to test Yudhishthir. A dog is also the vahana of Lord Bhairav, the god of destruction.

Perhaps the Greek guardian of hell is the most famous dog of all. Known as Cerberus, a three-headed dog stands outside the doors to the underworld kingdom of Hades. Cerberus features in many Greek stories. A notable one is the story of Orpheus, a musician. Since Cerberus eats only live meat, no one alive can pass him and enter hell with their body intact. But Orpheus, a living man in search of his dead wife, lulls Cerberus with his music and is one of the few persons to enter and exit hell.

In a playful take on this myth, JK Rowling has created Fluffy, a three-headed dog, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Fluffy only looks fierce: if you play any musical instrument, Fluffy falls asleep. Considering that Harry was not very skilled with the flute which he used to lull Fluffy, Fluffy does not need music to be played well, unlike Cerberus who has excellent taste in music. Dog as a symbol of death makes its appearance again in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where most of the wizarding world believes that anyone who sees the Grim, a big black dog, dies soon.

This motif has been recurring in literature for a long time. The Hound of Baskervilles, a Sherlock Holmes novella, features a hound of extraordinary size and supernatural powers, the sight of which sends people to death. In fact, even this tale borrows from old British folktales about the black dog of death.

Hence, we see that mythology draws intimately from nature, and animals are given roles according to their natural behavior. At some point human interpretation of animal behavior takes over, and we interpret things that the animals perhaps never intended. For example, the crow may not be aware of its function as a ‘messenger’ of death when it follows soldiers into battlefields; it is just acting according to its instincts. The dog may not be aware of its role as a ‘guardian’ of human property, all it cares about is its relationship with its owner.

But for humans, it is the interpretations of animal behavior that is the most relevant, which they enshrine in their mythologies, by giving divine functions and meanings to animals. These stories are replicated in popular culture and serve to embed those ideas deeper in our psyche. In the end, they strengthen our belief in a human-centered outlook where animals play peripheral and human-oriented functions.

Published in Republica on October 17

Thailand: land of incredibles

On a seven-day trip to Thailand with my sister Junkiri, the official tour took us to the beauties like temples and beaches. Unofficial trips that we adventurously took ourselves showed us a different side of Thailand that was just as vibrant, complex, and mysterious.

First of all, gender fluidity is an interesting and visible aspect of Thailand. We noticed many individuals whose gender seemed indeterminate: short hair, androgynous features, unisex clothes. There were people who were clearly men, with perhaps a shade of facial hair, wearing women’s clothes. The number of men wearing lipstick and eye makeup was equally high.

On our first night, Junkiri and I decided to go to a cabaret because we had nothing to do. The performers were very graceful, but most of them were six feet tall. “Their heads could almost touch the roof,” I exclaimed! “Obviously, they are lady-boys!” said my well-researched sister.

After the show, the performers were lined up outside the theater, posing for (paid) photographs. They were all talking in male voices. I had to accept that these beauties with perfect figures that could put any Miss Universe to shame were men. Our research later told us that it is quite common for men to identify and dress up as women in Thailand. Known as “lady boys,” they worked in every sector, including the formal sector, though it was entertainment they were most famous for (at least to outsiders like us).

On our way back, the road alongside the beach was lined with girls wallowing around doing nothing. Some of them heavily made up and obviously waiting for customers, some of them not so easily identified. It became a kind of game for us—we would look at couples and ask each other: what’s their relationship? A young couple walking hand in hand we labeled “romantic,” and an old white man with a young Thai lady we relegated to “professional.”

Our taxi driver confirmed our views. “They are lady friends, you pay,” he said in polite terms. We wanted to know if they were all women, and he replied that half of them were lady-boys. How to tell them apart? The driver seemed too shy to tell, but we figured from other sources that you look at their breasts and Adam’s Apple. (Since both can be operated on, neither is foolproof.)


We were walking along the next day when a tuk-tuk driver accosted us. “I take you around the city, ten baht per hour only,” he said excitedly. He then pointed out a Buddha temple that he could take us to. We had been told that that particular ride would cost us around 100 bahts, so we were suspicious.

“Ten baht only because it’s Sunday,” he explained. “But first we make one stop. A tailoring store. You look, you look, then we go Buddha temple.” We had no intention of going to a tailoring store. He had other options for us: “Factory, madam? Jewelry store? You only look look, no buy. Then I take you to Buddha.”

Finding the driver quite fishy, we dismissed him and walked on, only to be accosted by another driver with the same low price offer. This one we accepted, because he did not make any unreasonable demands.

“First we stop for five minutes, where I’ll get free gasoline,” was the only request he made. We agreed to it.

It turned out that the “stop” was the very same one that the first driver wanted to take us to: a tailoring store. We went in, looked around at swathes of fabric, and came out. It was clear to everyone that we were not interested in tailor-made suits, and the salespersons made it clear that we weren’t their favorite customers.

What’s the deal, we asked the driver. “I get three liters of petrol for every customer I bring in, and five liters if they buy something,” he replied frankly.

Since he was so honest with us, we decided to be nice to him and go to two more stores. But he seemed to have mistaken our niceness for enthusiasm. “Buy something for me, get me more petrol,” he pleaded. He seemed to have forgotten that he was taking us to a jewelry store where the smallest item was beyond our entire shopping budget.

The second store was even more painful, stretching our bounds of niceness. “We’ll bring our mother here,” we tried to pretend that we were genuine customers. But they were not to be taken in. “You buy one for your mother now, she be happy,” said the saleswoman with an expression like a pinched lemon. We ran out of the shop and promptly canceled our third appointment, but our driver convinced us by saying that it was nearby.

At the third store (a tailoring store again) we lucked out, and found Nepali speaking people from Myanmar (which shares a border with Thailand). They told us there were many Nepalis from Myanmar in Thailand who had come for the higher wages and better living conditions. Some of them were recent arrivals, and some had been there for several generations.

“Barshaipichhe ghar janu hunchha?” we asked the salesperson who had been there for only seven years.

“Janu ta hunchha tara hami jadainam,” came the reply. We realized their Nepali had developed in quite a different stream from ours, and they had lost some expressions. Or maybe it was we who had acquired new ones.

Outside, out tuk-tuk driver wore an expression like a cat that got the cream. But from the next day, we ran far from any driver who offered a ride for 10 bahts.


Animal tourism is quite prominent in Thailand. We signed up for an underwater walk where we were given a roll of bread to hold. Catfish came and ate them from our hands! We touched corals, and dipped our fingers into shells to find the soft flesh inside. You can take pictures with pythons draped around your neck for a mere 100 bahts.

The zoo houses giraffes (the largest herd in the world) which can be touched from a terrace. The crafty giraffes know where to find food, and if you have nothing to feed them, they turn away. Colorful parrots come to feed from your hands (and claw at you if you have nothing.)

Dolphins, seals, and elephants are said to be easy to train, and the zoo has shows featuring each of these intelligent animals. But Thais have even managed to train orangutans. The orangutan show (marketed as the only such show in the world) has orangutans pretending to play music and enact a boxing match and a short skit, quite entertaining for children.

But the most striking animal was definitely the tiger. At a place called Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, about 10-15 tigers were chained to the ground. Visitors could pose with the tigers for photos, guided by trainers. The tigers neither growled nor roared, nor showed the slightest bit of interest in the visitor. They seemed effectively dead.

When I asked why they were so passive, a volunteer replied that it was because tigers slept for 16-18 hours everyday. Plus these tigers were raised by humans from infancy, so they were not very aggressive. But just the previous day, we had seen baby tigers at the zoo. The cubs had been restless in their cage, pacing to and fro, in complete contrast to these adult tigers which lay like drugged.

Later, we found out that the place was highly controversial for these very issues. Many people alleged that the tigers were tranquilized, but no one had been able to prove it, even after several individuals had gone undercover as volunteers and workers for months. The officials do admit that the tigers are fed chicken and milk, and not red meat which would make them more aggressive. But still, nothing we know about tigers matched up to tigers being passive in the vicinity of humans, even in the daytime. At the end, though I touched the tigers and took photos with them (bigger than me, rougher than a cat, as mesmerizing in real as in pictures), I don’t think I got to the essence of tigers!


After a seven-day trip to Thailand, Junkiri and I had only thing to say about it: “the land of incredibles.”

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Thailand is its food, which caters to all your senses and takes you to a different world altogether. We realized how much we loved when we nearly picked a quarrel with a co-traveler who complained about the food. If the Thai restaurants in Kathmandu are half as good as Madam Suzy’s outside our hotel, I know where I am spending my Dashain bonus!

Menstruation in myths

After Karna’s death, Krishna tells Arjuna: You have slain your Vritra. Now people will talk of this battle in the same breath as Indra’s defeat of Vritra.

Today we remember Arjun but Vritra is just one of the many half-remembered characters in our mythological jungle. But at one point, every hero was compared to Indra and every villain to Vritra.

Vritra occurs first in the Rig Veda, of which Indra is the central hero. Here the story is not linear and has to be pieced together from different verses praising Indra’s deeds. It then occurs as a coherent narrative in Mahabharata, where we are told that Indra acquired his exalted status by killing Vritra. But Vritra happened to be a Brahmin, and by his murder, Indra acquired the sin of Brahmahatya.

To free himself from the sin, Indra divided his sin into four parts and gave them to trees, water, fire and women. Women’s monthly periods is a manifestation of that sin, which is why she is considered impure during her menstruation.

This story defines menstruation as a sin, but does not lay out the rules for menstruating women that are practiced today. This was done by latter dharmashastras and Puranas. Manusmriti, the foremost law of Hindus, instructed that women would be “clean” when they bathed after menstruation. A Brahmin was not to eat any food touched by a menstruating woman. According to Vashishta Dharmashastra, menstruating women are not to be allowed to touch the fire, and even essentials like ointment are not to be accepted from them.

“After that, almost every Purana has prescribed rules for menstruating women,” says Pundit Ram Prasad Pokharel Acharya. “Our scriptures say that menstruating women are not even human. On the first day, they are Chandalini, on the second day, Brahmaghatini, and on the third day, Dhobini.” In Bhavishya Puran, Krishna informs Yudhishthira that women can cleanse themselves of the sins incurred during menstruation through the Rishi Panchami vrat.

Modern interpretations assume that menstruating women are segregated for reasons of hygiene, but in scriptures women are actually encouraged to be just the opposite. According to Vashistha Dharmashastra, these women should not bathe, should not anoint themselves with collyrium, and should not clean their teeth.

The labeling of menstruating women as “impure” seems to have little to do with their physical condition and is more important as a symbol. Manusmriti says that a Brahmin should not even look at a menstruating woman when he is eating, and “the wisdom, the energy, the strength, the sight, and the vitality of a man who approaches a woman covered with menstrual excretions, utterly perish.” A simple conversation with a menstruating woman is considered inauspicious, and hygiene is not a consideration.

The key to understanding the shaming of menstruating women lies in the story of Indra’s conquest of Vritra, which is referenced by all latter scriptures to validate women’s impurity. Vritra is identified as Ahi (snake/lizard/dragon). In many cultures across Europe and South Asia, snakes are identified with women. Conquest of snakes forms an integral part of early myths.

One of the more famous stories occurs in the Bible where Eve listens to a snake and bites an apple. For her sin, she is punished with the pain of menstruation and childbirth. Similar stories can be found in many Middle Eastern religions, now extinct. Perseus who kills the serpent-head Medusa (which means divine feminine wisdom) is heralded as the founder of a new order in Greek myths.

Merlin Stone writes in her book When God was a Woman that these stories are proof of matriarchal civilizations that preceded the present patriarchal tradition. For example, while the latter characters in Hindu scriptures are known by their father’s name, Vritra, a Danav, is named after his mother Danu. The subjugation of such civilizations is represented by parallel stories which associate female reproductive functions with sin.

Archana Thapa, a feminist scholar, agrees that the rituals of menstruation are a means of regulating women’s behavior. “A virgin goddess is worshipped, and so is a mother. But during her fertile period, a woman is impure. This is a moral disciplinary act to suit the logic of men who made the rules,” says she. Indeed, the label of impurity restricts women from taking part in rituals, invalidates their worship, and generally reduces them to a non-entity when it comes to religious authority.

Since our earliest texts begin where matriarchal civilizations ended, they give the impression that patriarchal traditions have been with us since the dawn of time. But in fact, these texts are built on the ashes of an older one, and set up a new order: one where the power, mobility, and authority of women were systematically circumscribed by labeling their fertility “impure”.

Krishna: The Making of a God

There is no Hindu god as multidimensional as Krishna: Krishna the naughty boy, the lover, the trickster, the god. What if we were to be told that Krishna was none of these?

The earliest scripture that mentions Krishna is Mahabharata, and this Krishna is completely different from what we know today. There is no mention of gopinis or his childhood mischief with butter, and he is not a clownish trickster. He has 16,000 wives, but these are women he rescued by killing Narakasura. He has no romantic relationships other than with his eight wives.

One could argue that Mahabharata is about Kurus and not necessarily Krishna’s biography. Even so, many famous incidents are missing. In the Cheerharan scene, Draupadi does cry out for Krishna, but Krishna does not come to her rescue. Vyasa writes that it was ‘Dharma’ who saved her modesty. (Dharma’s identity is a matter of debate. Both Yudhishthira and Vidur are addressed as Dharma, but it is unlikely they helped her. Dharma as an abstract concept fits best here, so Draupadi’s own goodness saved her.)

It seems Draupadi cried out for Krishna not as a god but because Krishna is her go-to friend, dearer than anyone else. Later, when Krishna visits the Pandavas in exile, she complains to him about her warrior husbands who could not save her from humiliation. To be noted: She doesn’t thank him for what he did. Krishna regrets that he could not come because he was away fighting a certain Shalva. His helplessness is all too human.

Krishna’s divine image was created from books thousands of years after Krishna’s lifetime. Mahabharata is attributed to Ved Vyas who lived around 3,000 BC and was a part of the story. Harivamsa Puran—1st century AD, Vishnu Puran—4th century AD, and Bhagawat Puran—10th century AD, are also attributed to Vyas. How plausible is it that Vyas survives for more than 4,000 years and writes radically different versions of the same story?

The gradual construction of Krishna’s divinity is evident through these books. The Mahabharata mentions Krishna’s killing of Putana and other demons through human means. These stories, when exaggerated, made Krishna a folk hero. In the Harivamsa Puran, completed 3,000 years after Krishna’s life, new and old stories appeared with divine explanations.

Krishna finds an official place among the Dashavatara in the Vishnu Puran written three centuries later. His romance with 16,000 gopinis makes its appearance in Bhagawat Puran, which some say was being edited until the sixteenth century. And most Krishna stories, like his darshan to his parents before birth, his miraculous transport to Gokul, his naughty-boy days in Vrindavan, etc can be traced to Bhagwat Puran.

Radha does not appear until the 12th century, and it is amazing just how prolific she became since. Even until the eighteenth century, new folktales about Krishna kept popping up, and the entire accrual is treated as canon today.

Some of these stories do have basis in Mahabharata. Sure, Krishna is a trickster. To convince Arjun that he has to fight, he first gives the carrot: worldly sufferings do not matter to the soul. And then he gives the stick: if you don’t fight, you will be defamed, the world will laugh at you. He brings in the worldly emotions that he denounced as inconsequential moments ago.

But here, Krishna is not the chature kind of trickster who goes for cheap thrills (that he is today). He can be better described as a strategic thinker. After Jarasandha attacks Mathura eighteen times, Krishna is forced to migrate to Dwaraka. This earns him the title of Ranchhod—deserter of battlefield. (Doesn’t this spectacular defeat alone prove that Krishna is human? Please, not the ‘humans cannot understand divine leela’ explanation!). “Your Rajasuya Yagya cannot be successful without killing Jarasandha,” he whispers into Yudhishthira’s ears, making sure his nemesis is eliminated (by someone else!).

Krishna could invent logic out of thin air to turn the situation in his favor: Arjun must kill Karna immediately, though it is against the rules of engagement to attack an unarmed warrior. So the Pandavas always turn to him for advice: how to wed Subhadra to Arjun, how to kill Duryodhan. Krishna’s plans worked because he knew human nature intimately, not because he was an omniscient god. Shishupala’s diatribe tells us he was a controversial man in his own times, his godhood was unknown.

But today it is difficult to separate Krishna the man from Krishna the god because his divinity had managed to creep into Mahabharata itself. Mahabharata was written over a span of centuries, begun in 3,000 BC and finished in 500 BC. Other Puranas were also written over hundreds of years, and these books freely borrowed from each other. As a result, Mahabharata is full of inconsistencies. It is not easy to decide which parts are original and which are later additions.

For example, when Krishna goes to the Kaurava court to speak for peace, Duryodhan plans to capture him. Krishna blinds everyone with his divine roop to escape, but what he does before and after is ignored. Krishna was not alone, he had thousands of Yadavas. He did not learn of Duryodhan’s plot through Divya Drishti, it was his friend Satyaki who found out. Satyaki arranged for a chariot and informed Krishna of the plot. Krishna laughed it off, blinded everyone, but nonetheless rushed to the chariot and galloped away. In the midst of such entirely human self-defense activities, the divine roop is clearly a latter addition.

If one is looking to deconstruct Krishna’s image, the difference between reasonable and superfluous is evident. Krishna as a god leaves gaping holes in the story. With Krishna as a human, everything makes sense. Even in Geeta, the first few chapters explaining the conundrum of duty versus desire are the most impactful. Later chapters showcasing Krishna’s divinity do not have the same philosophical depth.
On the one hand, the graceful and dignified human of Mahabharata is extremely attractive. On the other hand, in a romantically repressed society, (others are sexually repressed, Hindus don’t even get there) a playful figure who celebrates romance is gratifying. His sensuality is an outlet in a philosophy that idealizes renunciation and control of senses. Bigots have a hard time explaining why Krishna had 16,000 married mistresses, so Krishna helps make a case against bigotry. Both as a god and human, Krishna’s moral ambiguity is delightful. In the company of morally uptight gods, Krishna shows us that complex questions have complex answers. The multifaceted Krishna is an example of Hinduism’s acceptance of diversity.

Why is Krishna blue?
There are several theories to explain why Krishna is a deep shade of blue. In classical texts we do not find Krishna described as blue. The words that describe his complexion—Krishna, Shyam, Neel, color of dark lotus, color of dark clouds, etc – all mean ‘dark’ and not necessarily blue.

Some believe that since black is inauspicious, Krishna is painted blue. But up until the fourteenth century, we find images of a black Krishna.

The word ‘Neel,’ which means dark and not blue, may have been misinterpreted as blue by artists.

Another theory is that since Vishnu resides in the ocean, the ocean’s color is reflected on him and all his avatars like Ram. But again, other deities like Shiva and Kali are also blue.

Yet another theory that explains all these anomalies is that things beyond human comprehension, like the ocean and the sky, are blue. Hence, blue is the color of the infinite, and is given to gods who are infinite and beyond human comprehension.


Timeline of Krishna stories
  • 3rd millennium BC: Events of Mahabharata happen
  • 5th century BC: Vyasa’s Mahabharata given final form
  • 3rd century BC: Bhagawad Geeta given final form
  • 1st century BC: Beginning of Krishna sects
  • 1st century AD: The Harivamsa Puran written, describing Krishna’s prowess
  • 4th century AD: Rise of Vaishnavism
  • 4th century AD: The Vishnu Puran written, establishing Krishna as Vishnu
  • 4th – 10th century AD: Rapid growth of the Bhakti Movement
  • 10th century AD: Bhagawat Puran written, detailing Krishna’s mischief
  • 10th century AD: Unnamed Gopini mentioned in Bhagawat Puran that could be Radha
  • 12th century AD: First recorded mention of Radha in Jayadeva’s love poem Gita Govinda
  • 16th century AD: Krishna Pranami sect established
  • 1966: International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) established

Note: Dates are approximate and contested by various groups.

Published in Republica on August 15, 2014

Aug 11, 2014

double adventures on saun ko sombar

सपना: ओहो लाइन त कति लामो 
म (छिर्न खोज्दै): बिचमा घुसिदिम न 
सपना: नाइँ तेसो गर्न त मनले पनि मान्दैन 
पछाडीबाट आवाज: छिर्न पाइन्दैन है पाइन्दैन 
भोलुंटीयार दाइ: के हो बहिनी हरु, महादेव लाई पाउनलाई त अलि अलि तपस्या गर्नु पर्यो नि 
म (लज्जित भएर लाइन बाट निस्किंदै): हो दाइ 
सपना: अब भगवानले पनि के भन्ला, मलाई भेट्नलाई तिमीले यति पनि गर्न सकेनौ भन्ला 
एकछिन पछि फेरी सपना: हुन त त्यहाँ भित्र जाँदैमा भगवान पाइने त होइन …… 

म: फोटो खिचम अब
He's the bomb!! (Or so he thinks!)

सपना (पोज दिंदै) : हो हामी तेइ गर्न आको पशुपती 
पसले: लानुस बहिनी फूल, बेलपत्र, अगरबत्ती, नरिवल, माला ………… 
म: मेरो चाहिं फूल नजिकै फोटो खिचिदेउ

सपना (१० वोटा खिचिसकेपछि) : आहा फूलमा कति राम्रो फोटो आउँदो रहेछ, मेरो पनि खिच्देउ 
पसले (बिच्किंदै ) : अलि पर जानुस, याँ मेरो डिस्प्ले नछेल्नुस 
म: प्लीज हाम्रो एउटा फोटो खिचिदिनुस न 
पसले (ठुस्किंदै) : खिच्न सकिन्छ 
म (मनमनै): तर सकेसम्म खिच्नु नपरोस?????

सपना: थ्यांक यु दाई
पसले (रिसाउँदै ): ओ बहिनी ओ, फुल चाहिं खोइ त किनेको  ?

सपना: जाम ऊ त्यो बुढा संग फोटो खिचाम 
म: बाबाजी को घर कता हो?
बाबा: जनकपुर, सिराहा 
सपना : हाहाहा बोल्दो पो रहेछ, मैले त मुर्ति भन्ठानेको 
म: फोटो खिचौं है 
बाबा (खुशी भएर हरियो तन्ना ओछ्याउँदै) : हुन्छ

म: एकछिन गफ गरौँ है 
बाबा (झर्किदै ): के गफ गर्नु पर्यो?
म: किन साधु हुनुभाको?
बाबा: भोले बाबाको कृपाले 
सपना: कति बर्सको उमेरमा लाग्नुभो?
बाबा: १५ वर्ष 
म: घर परिवारले के भने त?
बाबा (ठुलो स्वरमा ): यौटै घर को सबै मान्छे थोडी न साधु हुन्छ 
म: अनि कसरि हुन्छ त?
बाबा: हामी सिक्न जान्छौं 
म: स्कूल जस्तै?
बाबा: इस्कुल होइन हाम्री गुरु महाराज छ अजुद्धे मा. 
म: के मान्छेलाई भविष्यमा पनि एस्तो साधु बन्न मन लाग्ला?
बाबा (रिसाउँदै ): त्यहाँ पनि सबै साधु हुँदैन, जसमा भोले बाबाको कृपा छ त्यहि हुन्छ 
सपना: किन साधु बन्नुभाको? संसारिक बन्धन मन नपरेर हो?
बाबा: ………. 
म: आइमाई मान्छे मन पर्दैन?
बाबा (उता फर्किंदै ): आइमाई भनेको दु:ख हो 
म: किन?
बाबा (exasperated): अब बिहा गरेपछि  बाल बच्चा हुन्छ, परवरिश गर्नु पर्यो 
म: गृहस्थी जीवन गर्ने सबै दु:खी हुन्छन त?
बाबा: गृहस्थी मात्रै होइन सबै दु:खी हुन्छन 
म: तपाईंलाई के दु:ख छ र?
बाबा (sighs): छ नि, कैले खान पाउँदैन, भोकै हुन्छ।
म: कसले खान दिन्छ त?
बाबा: भोले बाबाको कृपाले 
म: तपाईं को दिनचर्या कस्तो हुन्छ?
बाबा (तिमीलाई केहि था छैन? जस्तो पाराले): त्यहि भजन गर्ने, भोले बाबाको नाम लिने  

सपना: उनीहरु खुसी छैनन् जस्तो लाग्यो 
म: किन?
सपना: हेर न कति दु:खी कुरा गर्यो. अब सानैमा छिरी हाल्यो, निस्किनु पनि भएन 

अर्को बाबा जिउमा आर्ट गर्दै :

म: यो के लाउनु भाको 
बाबा: यो लालसिरी हो 
म: किन लाउनु भाको?
बाबा: यो हाम्रो कर्म हो, साधु हरुको 
म: एसको केहि अर्थ छ?
बाबा: ……………… 

साथी १: कति बेसन लगाको यसले 
साथी २: जति बेसन लाए पनि राम्रो हुन सकेनछ 
साथी १: तेसोभए किन लाउनु त बेसन? 
साथी २: that makes no sense
म: हाहा त्यो बेसन होइन खरानी हो 
साथी १ र २: that makes even little sense

सपना: बाँदर लाई केरा दिउँ न 
म: बिहान देखि केहि खाको छैन, हामी नै खाम न. 
(तर सपना मान्दिनन र केरा दिन जान्छिन।

एउटा केरा दिंदा दिंदै भुइमा झर्छ।
हेर्दा हेर्दै सपनाले अर्को केरा पनि बाँदरलाई दिन्छिन )
सपना: हेर झोलामा अझै केरा छ तिमीलाई 
म हेर्छु, झोला मा तीनवटा केरा
म: बाँदरलाई एउटा मात्रै दिएको भए हामीलाई दुइ दुइटा हुन्थ्यो 
सपना :S

र अन्त्यमा,
'सांसारिक मोह माया देखी मुक्त' बाबा ऐनामा आफ्नो शृंगार मिलाउँदै


भरे बेलुका 
रोशनी: म त आरती हेर्न जान्छु 
म: म पनि जान्छु, बिहान छिर्न नपाको अहिले पाइन्छ कि 

बाटोमा माइजु भेट हुँदा:
रोशनी: कतिको भीड छ?
माइजु : निकै भीड छ, आज चरीलाई पनि ल्याउने अरे नि त 
रोशनी: ला…………. बम पड्क्यो भने?
म: ला …………… खुस्बु आएर नाटक गरी भने? बम भन्दा डर लाग्दो होला 
रोशनी: ह्या केही हुन्न, जाम. केही भएछ भने निउज लेखाम्ला !
(Note to self: I should have guessed something was afoot....
the normally gentle roshani was behaving quite out of character
her Inner Wild Woman was rising, but I chose to be blind to it)

रोशनी: लाइन मा छिरम 
म: बिहान त मलाई छिर्न दिएन!
But Roshani seems more persuasive than me.
She jumps into the melee and also manages to pull me in.
(Roshani's Inner Wild Woman had woken up. 
I still did not suspect any thing)
We enter the temple by cutting the line
And as we enter, a shout goes up.
I assume everybody else also entered by cutting the line.

the environment inside is, to say the least, hectic
since it is the first time for both me and roshani, 
we try to ask around about where the arati will be held
People point to the general direction of the temple, 
where Roshani spies a big crowd of people 
Roshani's Inner Wild Woman (IWW): Shall we go there?
Me: Umm, err, let's think about it?
But without waiting for my answer, IWW jumped into the fray
Assuming she knew that was where the Arati was, I follow her
Inside I find IWW joining in the chants of the hundreds (yes, hundreds)
of devotees singing about Bholenath
But since everyone wants to enter the temple and no one wants to leave,
soon the small room gets packed like sardines. 
I am gasping for breath, and even IWW is struggling. 
We decide to get out.
we make it in thanks to IWW
IWW: Well, I guess that was the arati
Me: How can you tell? We did not see any flames
IWW: Well,  the crowds obstructed us, 
but the door was shining with reflected light
Me: So the only proof that we saw the arati was a door that shone?
IWW : plus it happened at 7PM, which is the time for Arati
plus that old woman had told us it would be taken out from that particular door 
Me: But we didn't actually see it, only the shining door!
IWW (confused): well, err, umm, we will have to come again to actually see it
Me: Yes, so that when we see the arati again, we will be able to recognize it,
IWW: It was fun though, even if we didn't get to see it.
Me: Indeed, that was quite an adventure. Let's come again
IWW: But let's come in a more boring way so that we get to see everything!

Jun 20, 2014

Interaction with the Amish

My first encounter with an Amish person was at a departmental store. I saw a black horse, standing where cars should be parked. It stood perfectly still like a statue.

“Is it real, do you think?” I asked my friend who had lived in the small town in Western Illinois, the US, longer than me. “Why don’t you find out?” he laughed. I walked over, and found that it was as real as me. Not only that, but it had an owner too, who had come walking behind me and was now looking at me quizzically as I stroked the horse. He was as out of place in the parking lot as the horse: he was wearing a top hat—the kind Abraham Lincoln wears in pictures, had a bushy white beard, and wore a very conservative black three-piece suit.

The man trotted away on his horse, and later I saw more and more people like him around town. Men wearing the conservative suits, women wearing floor-length monochrome gowns — dark green or navy blue — and bonnets of the type worn by Jane Austen. More often than not, they were traveling on horse carriages. They were the Amish people, who had chosen to shun modernity and live a lifestyle handed down to them since historical times.

Here and there I would here whispers about them. Two of my colleagues were discussing where they could get the best patchwork quilt, when a third suggested the Amish as renowned craftsmen. While one person praised their organic gardening, another criticized their lack of hygiene and said they would never eat anything an Amish baked. Jokes abounded about them: someone pointed out an abacus and exclaimed that this was an Amish computer. My curiosity about these peculiar people grew.

Finally, at a farmers’ market, I struck up a conversation with an Amish gentleman who was manning a stall. “How do you travel when you have to go far and your horse carriage cannot take you?” I asked.

“We are allowed to go on trains but no planes. And if someplace is too far to go on buggies, we can hire someone with a van to take us,” he replied. He then added that horses were used not just for traveling, but also for farming. They may use chainsaws and some machines for threshing, but these machines have to be powered by horses. All their cooking was done on wood stoves, wood fires warmed their houses in winter. This must not have been easy, because the region where they lived got at least two feet of snow every year.

Just then, the man pulled out a watch from his pocket to check the time. “That’s a machine,” I pointed out.

“Yes,” he grinned sheepishly, “we are allowed that.” Even then, the watch was the old fashioned kind that you carried in your pocket, it did not have a strap.

He went on to tell me the Amish were simple people who did not like to draw attention, and thus stuck to colors like blue and green in their clothes. They bought the fabrics and made their own dresses. Even in weddings the women wore the same kind of pleated dresses, but were allowed to have a little white embroidery. And they only married within the community.

“If anyone wants to marry the English, they are excommunicated,” he informed.
“The English?” I was confused, since we were in the middle of America.
“People like you folks,” he explained.
“I am not English,” I laughed.
“But that’s what we call you folks,” he seemed to be wondering why I was so slow to understand.

They practiced monogamy, and did not believe in contraceptives. They would have as many children as possible. The children grew up to make their living either by farming and cattle raising, or through crafts like carpentry, tailoring, etc, which they did for outsiders too. If their health went wrong, they went to the doctor and took medicines, but tried to stay as natural as possible. They grew their own food, churned their own butter.

But despite their efforts, sometimes they were forced to purchase from the outside world. For example, they did not make their own shoes. But when they bought shoes, they only chose plain ones.

“You won’t find us wearing no tennis shoes,” the man smiled. That led the conversation to games. He told me they played traditional games for fun. For music they played the harmonica, anything more modern than that, like the guitar, was a no-no.

They had a phone booth at their community, but no cell phones. They used no electricity, no radio, no TV, and no internet. “We have been asked a lot if we miss these things,” he confessed, “but we are so used to it that we don’t even think about it.”  

I wondered if the children and younger generation was as complacent, and if they ever wanted to do things that normal Americans did. “They don’t know any better,” he replied coolly. “They don’t grow up with all these things, so they don’t know what it does.”

The Amish had their own schools, their own curricula: they did not follow government textbooks. Children of both sexes were educated up to the eighth grade in these schools, no more. Nobody went to college. “That never happens,” he confirmed. If any youngster wanted to go to college, or do something drastic like live an “English” lifestyle, they would be excommunicated. The Amish way of life was protected by the government, they were legally allowed to have their own schools and had a host of other legal concessions.

I asked for the man’s name, I knew I wanted to write about him at some point. He declined on grounds of modesty, saying the Amish people did not like to publicize themselves. I desperately wanted a photo of him, but that was out of the question. I walked out with my purchases: the freshest strawberries and the best rhubarb pie I had ever had.

My later research told me that small groups of Amish people were found in many parts of the US. They derived their way of life from an ancient Swiss brotherhood of reformist Christians, and many groups of Amish in the US still spoke German and Dutch. Maybe that was why they called everyone else “English”. Though their customs, rules and dresses varied from community to community, they shared the core values of simplicity, humility, and rejection of modernity.

Some communities let their children go out into the wider world when they were sixteen, and had them make a choice at the end of the year. Most youngsters chose to go back to the Amish community, because outside of it they had few close people.

Here in Nepal, we would call this inward-looking mentality–that shuns knowledge and exposure—“backward” and do everything to bring them into “mainstream” society. In the US, while most people made fun of them, there were some “English” people who romanticized them, believing the Amish life to be uncomplicated and self-sufficient. Only time will tell if the Amish people can continue to hold on to their unique customs, or are forced to embrace modernity like the rest of the world.

May 9, 2014

Flights of fantasy

Here I plan to document some of my favorite fantasies, their characteristics, similarities, differences, themes, etc. This post may change with time. Here goes:

With the popularity of Harry Potter, the niche genre of fantasy shot into the mainstream and stayed there. Since then, every year one or the other fantasy series has climbed the charts and garnered critical acclaim. After Harry Potter elbowed out adult books in the bestseller lists, the publishing industry responded by creating a new category called ‘young adult fiction.’ Most fantasies that fit this category today seem to be responding to Harry Potter in some way, some with obvious adoration like Mortal Instruments, and some with refutation of Harry Potter’s tight plot like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Harry Potter was notable for dishing out grown up themes like death without patronizing children, and some books like Hunger Games responded by taking such themes further.

The virtual deluge of fantasies since then can sometimes be hard to navigate. Here’s a helpful guide to some of the best fantasy books out there, some well known and some not so much, but all worth your while.

Mortal Instruments
By Cassandra Clare
The writer admits to being an avid fan of the Harry Potter series. You can find many elements in this book that remind you of Harry Potter, like an academy for wizards (though they are not called that), and a protagonist who discovers her magical powers only late in life. But soon, the book starts taking flights of its own, and leaves you breathless with its smart and fast plot. By book two, it leaves Harry Potter behind with an interesting maze of a plot and heartbreaking characters that you will fall in love with. Also, this series is an example of how adolescent books after Harry Potter have been gingerly stepping into ‘grown up’ territories: this one explores forbidden sexuality, which was a subject Harry Potter stayed far away from, even though it is of prime concern to adolescents.

Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Because of its adolescent characters, the Hunger Games trilogy definitely falls under ‘young adult fiction’. But one generation ago, parents would not have allowed their children to read this book that traverses the ‘grown up’ territory of dystopia with ease. This series can be called fantasy noir, starting as it does with a cynical protagonist in a crumbling world. She never does shed her thick skin, and we are not sure if her crumbling world builds itself again. Gone are the days when fantasy meant a giant lion riding in at the last moment to save the world (Aslan of Narnia). Here little girls learn to survive, because if they don’t they will be demolished by their harsh society. And if they survive that, the government will crush them like ants. This series depicts how war can force children to grow up early, how trauma can leave you broken for years, and how it can tear normal families apart.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
By Lemony Snicket
If you are looking for answers, solution to mysteries, or to happy endings, turn around. This book is not for you. The writer warns you of the same many times, and yet you want to go on, to be with three uniquely gifted children (one inventor, one scholar, and one infant biter) who lost their parents to a fire. They are then shadowed by thugs who are after their parents’ vast property. The trio’s misadventures are not for the fainthearted: They never manage to kill their villain, never find out what killed their parents and what secrets they had nurtured. There is no poetic justice. You never even know the identity of the writer! But if you want to read a book sparkling with wit where every line shines like poetry, go for this aimless ride that you will enjoy. Also, we have a genius female lead who plausibly saves the situation most of the times.

Wind on Fire
By William Nicholson
Like many modern fantasies, Wind on Fire explores a dystopian world where people are not free to make choices about their lives. How the protagonists rescue their world forms the story of the first book of this trilogy. In the meantime, the writer creates entirely original fantasy characters: old children who are ready to infect everyone else with a touch, soldiers who will fall to death just so that other soldiers can climb upon their body and cross a gorge. The haunting concepts often have no explanation or origin. But then the plot goes into how after freedom, delirium can make people complacent and weak, ripe for picking by power-hungry lords. And this needs no explanation because it rings true. The trilogy then explores the concept of slavery: is it really bad if you are well fed and happy with your duties? Finally, it ends with what true freedom means.

His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman
This trilogy about an epic battle between the Devil and a little girl was published the same year as Harry Potter was. So in many ways, it is uncontaminated by the fantasy fever that swept the world after Harry Potter, and shows you the possibilities of what fantasy could have been if different writers had followed different paths. Like most fantasies, this one, too, is an epic, but at the heart of it is not a battle between good and evil but between childhood and growing up, innocence and experience, and sin and love as defined by the Bible. Though it is a fantasy, the series walks through complex real subjects like physics (multiple universes), theology (was God simply the first being that came into existence, who claimed ownership of everything that came after?), and morals (is it right to sacrifice one for the sake of many)?

The Owl Service
By Alan Garner
If you want to read a fantasy completely unconnected to current trends, this is the book for you. The Owl Service is the name of a set of china plates and bowls, in other words, Service, that depicts owls. Three teenagers find themselves embroiled in an ancient myth—of a woman who is made from flowers and becomes an owl—that comes alive every generation. The classic Welsh plot of one woman and two men, divided loyalties, and betrayal is borrowed from real myth of a woman called Blodeuwedd. It recurs time and again in a little village with new characters, and it is up to the characters how they handle it: whether they punish themselves and bind each other again as owls, or whether they set themselves free as flowers. With lilting language that gives a glimpse into the beliefs of Welsh society, this little book is a joyride.

Petrol (dispenser): Girl’s new best friend

“I don’t want a diamond ring, all I want from my man is an unlimited petrol supply,” said someone on my facebook wall. The words rang over and over in my ears, and I nodded inwardly. I had been standing in line for an hour already, and I was ready to give my heart and soul for a litre of petrol. Actually, ‘line’ is an understatement because five motorbikes stood abreast in each row, with the threat of a sixth coming and joining them from the side whenever possible. The pump owners had put up a rope to cordon off a waiting area, but since the area could fit only two bikes in a row, the rope had long since been trampled.

Despite standing in line for an hour, the line had barely moved two inches. Time and again someone (presumably with at least half a tank of petrol) would talk about leaving the quest and going home, but since the motorbikes were meshed like fingers of two hands linked together, the only way to get out was to fly. I decided to make use of the time. I took out a book and settled down on my cushy scooter seat. Immediately, the honking started from behind, “Sister, you need to be a little active,” said the most insensitive of them. Yea, if I put down my book and stared fixedly at the petrol dispenser like he did, the line would move forward magically.

I soon realized I could not concentrate on reading because a fight had broken out between motorbike owners and car owners, each pulling one hand of the petrol dispenser. Others joined in and soon it became a tug of war, with the petrol dispenser in danger of having his hands torn off. The police arrived, whistles started blowing, and the problem was apparently solved by limiting the supply: Rs. 500 worth petrol for motorbikes, and Rs. 1,000 for cars.

It was not over for some. There was one drunken man who threaded his way through the motorbikes, telling each and everyone how he had championed their case against the cars. I had supported him as he made his argument, but I did not want to stand there patting his back while I should be watching for loopholes in the line.

But what annoyed me the most was neither the slow line nor the brawls, nor the drunkard who continued singing for the next half an hour. It was the man beside who kept his engine running the whole time, ready to lurch whenever the line inched forth. I had just enough petrol to get me halfway home, from then on I would have to drag it. “If you have so much petrol, why are you in the line in the first place?” I fumed inwardly.
Besides me, some people were facing bigger problems. A girl in stylish red top and high heels paced the pavement back and forth, restless like a cat. She often sent irritated glances at our direction, and I trembled as I asked myself if I knew her. But then she turned around and addressed the guy behind me and I heaved a sigh of relief.

“Rajuuuuuu, why don’t you doooo something? Look, people who came later than you are so far ahead of you, some of them even got petrol and left. Start your bike, take out the money, just DO something,” she yelled, waving her arms wildly at the offending motorbikes that had managed to get petrol.

My friend’s facebook status again rang in my ears. They used to say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Not any more, no more. I looked back at the guy, expecting a grumpy face, but he had a remarkably calm expression. He had started his bike and was taking out his purse as she had asked. Since there were 30 bikes ahead of him (5X6), I doubted if that would help. In the end, neither he nor I were successful – the petrol ran out. As we wheeled our motorbikes away, I could hear her muttering under her breath, “Useless fellow, utterly useless!”

He must really love her! I wondered how many others, who did not have such a deep bond, had broken up in this season of scarcity.

“How do you manage to get petrol?” I asked my colleague at work the next day. She was happily driving to work everyday. “I’m just friendly with the local petrol pump owner,” she replied. “He lets me know before the lines even form, so I get there first.” Well, I was on smiling terms with my local petrol pump guy too! I decided to extend my friendship to him from that very day. He had a pot belly. I reminded myself it wasn’t about looks.

But I soon realized that this was not the right time for friendship bands. I had two plastic bottles with me, having left my empty scooter at home. I hovered around him with the bottles, but he did not even return my smile. To my annoyance, the same drunkard from the day before was championing the cause of motorbikes again, and leading a movement to ban plastic bottles. The previous day, as I supported him, I had never realized the tides would turn so fast against me.

“Get away, girl,” said my would-be-best-friend petrol dispenser. “They will all yell at us if we give petrol in bottles. If you stand here, you just disturb us at work.” There goes my new best friendship, BOOM!
I could not think of giving up when I was this close to the magic liquid. Desperately, I called my sister to bring her scooter. She must have understood my desperation, for she left her warm cocoon at home, arrived in her pajamas, and parked her scooter on the line, 20-strong already. I hovered near the dispenser as she neared the pump, my mind increasingly hazy due to the proximity with petrol.

That day, thankfully, the petrol did not run out by the time she got to the front. It was now or never! While my sister was getting her scooter filled, I yanked the nozzle and started filling my bottles (for an hour I had them open, their lids in my pocket!) “It’s the same thing,” I told the horrified onlookers, “you can just give her a little less!”

My best-friend-of-an-hour yanked the nozzle back, spilling some petrol on my hands. I did not care, at the moment it was the sweetest smell in the world. Besides, my bottle was full already. I knew I would not shower for the next few days. I did not wonder when my colleagues refused to share a cubicle with me the next day.

Later that same night, I wanted to share my victory. I attached a photo of myself holding a bottle of petrol and sent it off to friends with the caption: “I’m a full-tank girl!” It rhymed perfectly with “I’m a Complan girl.” Though I had never drunk Complan in my life, my pose would give the Complan girl a complex.

“Drink it, drink it like Complan,” came a response to my photo. “Then every time you pee, you will get petrol!”

The fumes of petrol must have really gotten to me, because this seemed like the sanest thing I had heard all day. I thanked the gods that I had already poured the petrol into my scooter, otherwise who knows maybe I would have tried it? I fell into a deep sleep where I vividly dreamt of bathing in petrol.

Apr 4, 2014

Child of mystery: Skanda / Kumara / Kartikeya

When elders insult him for taking into his fold a warrior with questionable origins, Duryodhan justified his steps by evoking a powerful deity. “Talent needs no proof of birth” said the haughty king “nobody knows the parents of the mysterious Lord Guha.” Known today as Kumar or Kartik, the scriptures point to a vast extended family for this elusive older son of Shiva. Mahabharata, especially, is very helpful in this regard since it traces the evolution of the stories regarding Kartik’s birth.

Most stories agree that Kumar was conceived when the gods needed someone to kill the asur Tarak and approached Shiva for a son. But they panicked when they realized that a child born from the union of Shiva and Parvati would be extraordinarily powerful. Hence they decided to disrupt the union of Shiva and Parvati. And here start the trouble.

The earliest version of the story has the “seed” fall into fire, or in other words, on God Agni. Unable to bear the energy of the seed, Agni immerses himself in the river Ganga. This seed ends up impregnating the six Krittikas (celestial damsels who reside in the sky as the constellation Pleiades) bathing in the river. After they give birth, they join their children (why?) to make one fused child with six heads. That is how he comes by the name of Kartikeya (of Krittika). Alternately, in some stories, Ganga herself is impregnated with the seed, but is also unable to bear its energy. She throws it upon reeds growing by the river, where the child is seen by the six Krittikas. Each claims the child to be hers, and the child nurses from all six mothers at the same time with his six faces. In this story the child is also called Gangeya, from Ganga.

Later Puranas like Shiva Puran and Skanda Purana will give one or the other variation of this tale. But Mahabharata, known as the oldest Purana and thus the source of many stories in later Puranas, has bizarre versions to offer.  It starts separately with the story of Agni, who, as the God of fire, is called to the homes of Saptarshis all the time for homa rituals. Agni becomes infatuated with the wives of the Saptarshis and pines for them in solitude. This is not unknown to Swaha, a celestial damsel in love with Agni. She decides to approach Agni disguised as the wife of a Saptarshi, and convinces him that she and all other wives of the Saptarshis reciprocate his love. Six times she approaches Agni, each time disguised as a different woman of his desire, and six times she receives Agni’s seed in her mouth. She takes the form of a bird (since she does not want the wives of Saptarshis to be seen as consorting with Agni), takes the seed away, and throws it amidst reeds. When finally she fuses them, she gives birth to a child with, again, six faces.  (Incidentally, it was Kumar who united his mother with his father. Swaha, knowing that Agni had no great affection for her, asked Kumar to intervene. Kumar gave her the boon that if men wanted their homa offerings to reach their ancestors, they would have to utter the word “Swaha” as they flung it into fire. Thus would Agni and Swaha be always together.)

Swaha cannot impersonate Arundhati, the wife of sage Vashistha, because of the power of Arundhati’s purity. In a later version of the story, this characteristic of Arundhati becomes decisive. Some versions of the Swasthani have the wives of Saptarshis walk by a fire and stay behind to warm themselves by it. Since just a few lines ago, Agni is said to have found the seed of Shiva unbearably hot, we can make the educated guess that this fire is the God’s sexual energy. Again this is corroborated when Arundhati walks away, claiming that she will not “warm herself by someone else’s fire.” The wives of the six Rishis have no such compunctions, each of them conceive after their proximity to the “fire.” And there comes the six-faced child again. Their husbands abandon them, consequently. So when we see Saptarshis as stars (big dipper) in the sky, we do not see their wives. Only Arundhati is there besides her husband Vashistha, because she was the only faithful one. 

It is interesting how Agni and Rudra were identified as the same person in the Vedas, and even up to the time of Mahabharata. But later, Rudra took on a new name, Shiva, which was used only a handful of times in the Mahabharata as compared to Rudra or Mahadeva which were used profusely. If we are to investigate his back story further, we will find that there were eleven Rudras in the Vedas, of which one was crowned the Mahadeva. With help from faithful devotees willing to sing his glory, Rudra went on to become one of the most revered gods of Hindudom while Agni languished as a demigod. Who is this person that we worship today as the father of Kumar? Just an illustration of the fact that gods rise and fall with the vagaries of fashion, and their personalities change with human fancies. Merely the final, most refined specimen of a long evolution. The story of Kumara is one of the few well known stories that link us to the “Maha”deva’s humble beginnings.

Each step of the evolution of this story contain elements that are forgotten today. The number six forms the core of the story, and perhaps was a major part of the identity of the real Karitkeya (if there was ever one), or at least, the core of the original legend, which has survived. This is the reason the child is called Shanmukh (six faces). Since Agni and Rudra were identified as a single person, that establishes the paternity of the child in all versions. In some versions of the story, the child is entirely Agni’s. When the gods disrupted Shiva and Pravati’s union, Parvati cursed them to be childless. Since Agni was missing from the scene, the curse did not affect him. And so the gods sought him out to bear a child strong enough to crush Tarakasur. But the mothers of this child are variously Ganga (today the only famous Gangaputra is Bhishma, but once there was another), Krittikas (which leads to the child being called Shadananda—child of six), the wives of Saptarshis (some recent versions equate the Krittikas with the wives of Saptarshis, perhaps in an effort to reconcile the wildly differing versions), and Swaha (his hidden birth among the reeds led to the name Guha—from secret—a name that is largely lost today). Today, the ubiquitous family portrait of Kumar simpering beside Parvati has taken over all versions, when Parvati was, in every version of the story, disappears from the scene after the initial wrangle with the gods.  

Incidentally, the story of a god who was born and then fused together to be reborn seems to be an important one in many cultures. The Greek god Dionysus, god of wine among other things, is often identified with Shiva or Indra for his proclivity to intoxication, and for being an outlaw that doesn’t really fit in the pantheon. But on closer inspection, Dionysus seems to make an even closer parallel with Kumar.

Both Dionysus and Kumar were born long after the pantheon had taken a full shape. Semele, the mother of Dionysus, asks her lover Zeus to show his real form. When she sees Zeus in all his divine glory, she cannot bear the energy and bursts into flames. This is very reminiscent of Ganga who could not bear the blazing seed inside her and threw it away. Like Agni who was standing ready to rescue the seed from Shiva, Hermes rescues the baby in Semele’s womb and sews it into Zeus’s thigh. In this way, Dionysus’ father had a more important role in his conception and delivery than his mother, just like Kumar, who in some versions of the story is discovered by Krittikas only after he is born—apparently without a mother.  But most importantly, Dionysus was torn apart by Hera after he was born, and sewn back together by his grandmother Rhea. The theme of six children fused to form one runs strongly through most versions of Kumar’s story. Do different cultures come up with the same stories? Or do stories travel from one place to another? Or are they the same group of people who moved in the opposite directions and continued to hold the same stories dear? These are questions that this parallel raises.

It is also interesting how sexuality takes centre-stage in every version of the story, giving us a window into the sexual mores of bygone days. Agni’s infatuation with the wives of Saptarshi did not involve the ladies themselves. But a later version of the story is used to condemn them for the same. Their desertion by their husbands tells us how extra marital affairs were viewed then, and the same effect is achieved by the exaltation of Arundhati, the pure one. Besides, Agni does not face punishment for his part in the extra marital affair in any version of the story.

Kumar’s other name Skanda, from which the name of Skanda Puran derives, itself means “spurting,” “fallen,” or many other ways in which the seed of Shiva came out. This is perhaps an indication of how freely sexuality was discussed in the times when these treatises were written. What happens next is always shrouded in language of utmost reverence: Agni could not bear to see the seed of the great lord Shiva go to waste. The world would be destroyed if the blazing seed was let go waste. Etc. But there is no denying how the story proceeds: Agni took the “seed” of Shiva into his mouth. And to me, this is as graphic a representation of a homosexual act as it can get. No matter the amount of devotional language and motivations used to cover it up, this is the story that is told in living rooms, out loud, over the month of Magh. In later versions, for example in Swasthani, the person of Agni was changed to a bird, perhaps to make the scene less shocking and in-your-face. But still, this scene leaves the question of whether or not homosexuality was a part of “Hindu culture” open to the reader.
There was an error in this gadget