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
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