Hindu myth plots

This morning, on the occasion of Naraka Chaturdashi, I was telling my daughter the story of how Krishna killed Narakasura in an aerial battle. The story, for those who are interested, has been articulated extremely well by V Vinay here:

So while I was narrating the story, I realised how similar the plotlines of so many Hindu myth stories are. The plot goes like this:

  1. There’s this guy who does a lot of tapas (meditation, not Spanish small eats) and prayers, and manages to impress some gods
  2. The said gods, impressed with our guy, grant him some boon that he asks for
  3. Usually this boon offers some kind of immortality. Rather, it guarantees that certain methods of death won’t work on our anti-hero
  4. Now that he’s received the boon, he becomes arrogant, and soon starts misusing this boon
  5. The world comes to despair, and one set of gods take a delegation to another set of gods, asking for help
  6. The other set of gods (usually a subset of those that had granted our anti-hero the boon in the first place) realise their blunder, but a boon once granted can’t be taken away
  7. They figure that the only way to defeat the superpower they’ve already granted is to create a superior power, which will be granted to one of the gods themselves (just so that it won’t get misused. So our gods had trust issues it seems)
  8. And so this god takes this superior power, and then confronts the anti-hero with the superpower, and since the superior power defeats the superpower (like how paper covers rock, or rock breaks scissors), annihilates the hero. The hero usually dies in this process (the concept of “resignation” isn’t there in Hindu myth).
  9. In order to commemorate the occasion of the annihilation of evil, which was created by gods in the first place (by the grant of the boon), a festival is celebrated.

And so we have Naraka Chaturdashi on the day Narakasura was killed. Onam on the day Bali was sent to the netherlands (no, not Holland Netherlands). Dasara on the day Durgi outwitted Mahishasura, and so forth.

I’m usually a big fan of Hindu myth, and am proud of our heritage for having created such a rich set of stories. After having identified this pattern, though, I’m not so sure. The only creativity comes in the different powers that the anti-hero is granted, and the superior powers that are created to defeat this.

I wonder why we ended up creating so many stories that are so similar, or rather why so many similar stories (memes) survived while the other memes fell by the wayside in our cultural evolution.


Dictators and straightening dogs’ tails

There is this story from Hindu mythology I remember reading when I was a kid. I don’t remember the source but I remember the story really well. It basically goes like this.

A man wishes for a servant and gets one. The servant tells the master, “I’ll do anything you ask me to do. But I’ll serve you under one condition. If at any point in time I don’t have work, I’ll eat you up”. Given the amount of work the master has, he thinks this is a pretty good deal, and hires the servant.

The servant turns out to be super efficient. All the tasks the master gives are completed in a jiffy, and the master is hard-pressed to give more tasks, let he be eaten up. Finally the master pleads with the servant, that he has no more work to give, and that he will “free” him, and the servant to spare him.

The servant doesn’t agree. “This is not according to the terms of the contract”, he says, and threatens to eat up the master. Just then, the master sees this dog, with a crooked tail. The master tasks the servant with straightening out the dog’s tail. Legend goes that the servant is trying to straighten a dog’s tail until this day.

So why did I tell this story? Because I saw this tweet from former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, and found it pertinent.

A powerful and efficient dictator is like the servant in the above tale. Once he is done with “getting the trains to run on time”, he uses his power to come after you. And the only way you can prevent him from coming after you then is to give him some nonsensical work like straightening a dog’s tail.

Notice that the servant in the above story does only one job at a time. So once he started trying to straighten the dog’s tail (a task assigned to him so that the master survives), he wasn’t able to do any other task. In other words, he became useless!

So the moral of this story and Kasparov’s analogy is that a dictator, even if he works for you, will do so only for a short period of time.


Internal Conflict

When a bunch of friends and I described ourselves as a pantheon a few years back, I was War. Part of the reason was that in Hindu Mythology Karthik is the God of War, but more importantly, I was War because I was always at war with myself. With three others being conveniently called Disease, Hunger and Madness, and another being Death, we formed a formidable force indeed.

True to the name that these guys gave me all those years ago, for the last six months or so, I’ve been absolutely consumed by internal conflict. It mostly has to do with my professional career, which hasn’t particularly taken off the way I imagined it would when I graduated from IIMB some 5 years ago. For the first time ever, I’ve completed two years in a job, and things don’t particularly look rosy, especially if I evaluate myself based on where I could have been had I not made those big blunders.

A part of me wants to go easy upon myself, and not be too harsh. Everyone goes through tough phases, that part tells me, and that mine has been a wee bit longer than most people’s. This part tells me to not worry about peer pressure, and to concentrate on keeping myself peaceful and enjoying the good things in life. This part further asks me to not worry too much about the future and that things will get into a flow. And that despite my corporate career not exactly taking off, life isn’t all that bad.

The other part, on the other hand, holds me responsible for all my troubles. It tells me that it’s because of my mistakes in the past that I’m where I am, and that I need to work really hard to rectify them. This part takes me to LinkedIn, and shows me the wonderfully sculpted oh-so-successful careers some of my old associates seem to be having, just to prove the point that I’ve messed up. This part wants me to conform, and be a good employee, and climb the stairs in the same way others have, and follow the well-trodden path into successful corporate whoredom. And this path is also supported by those pesky relatives who ask you uncomfortable questions about your career every time you are unfortunate enough to bump into them.

The first part is quite worried about my health, both mental and physical, and believes that messing up one’s health is too high a price to pay for corporate success and the associate perks that it brings. The second says I need to learn to adapt, and somehow reduce the impact of my health, while still being a good corporate whore.

And like in that old Coffy Bite ad, the argument continues. Except that these two parts of myself have completely ravaged my head over the last few months. I’m reminded of the story of the Bherunda bird (the “state bird” of Karnataka) which has two heads and one body. The two heads get into a quarrel. One of them gets so upset that he drinks some poison, thus killing “both of them”. These two parts of me, by means of their continued conflict have ended up completely consuming me, and my head.

And here I am, trying to figure out once again what it means to chill.