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.

 

Andhra Meals in Religious Rituals

A long time back I’d compared massage parlours in Bangkok to Andhra meals, where there is a “basic menu” (the core massage itself) which everyone orders, on top of which other add-ons (such as happy endings) can get tagged on.

Today, while performing a religious ritual (it’s 10 days since my daughter was born, so there was some ceremony I’d to perform), I realised that every religious ritual, happy or sad, also follows the “Andhra meals” principle.

So the “meals” part is the stuff they teach you to do as part of your daily “sandhyavandane” ritual immediately after your thread ceremony. Starting with the aachamana (keshavaaya swaaha, narayanaaya swaaha etc), going on to reciting the Gayatri mantra, repeating the aachamana several times in the middle, and then ending by apologising and atoning for all the mistakes in the course of the ritual (achutaayanamaha, anantaayanamaha, govindayanamaha, achutanantagovindebho namaha).

This is the basic sandhyaavandane you’re supposed to perform three times every day, and the interesting thing is that most other rituals are add-ons to this. Be it a wedding ceremony, worship of a particular god on a particular festival or even a death ceremony, all these parts remain and don’t go away. What changes from ritual to ritual are the add-ons, like the meats you might order during Andhra meals.

And so in the wedding ceremony, there is the wedding itself. In a death ceremony, there’s all the part where you wear the sacred thread the wrong way round (praacheenaavEti) and build rice-til balls (piNDa – have you noticed how similar they are to sushi?). While worshipping a particular god, you perform the worship in the middle of the regular sandhyaavandane ritual. And so forth.

I must say I’m fairly impressed with our ancestors who devised this “modular form” of performing rituals. What rocks about this practice is that pretty much everyone who wants to perform these rituals will know these rituals (the “basic Andhra meals”) bit, which makes it that much easier to “consume” the “extra fittings” appropriate to the occasion.

Varamahalakshmi and Organic Chemistry

Today is Varamahalakshmi Vrata, a minor festival for South Indian Hindus. It is major enough, however, for a sufficiently large/influential proportion of the population, that schools declare a holiday on this day. It is not major enough, however, for the day to be declared a public holiday.

Mine is one of those families where this festival is not major enough to be celebrated. “It’s not an important festival for people of our caste”, my mother told me, though this now confounds me since this is a rather major festival in my wife’s family, and she belongs to the same caste as me.

The fact that this festival has been rather minor has meant that I don’t have much memories of past occurrences of this festival. There is one exception, though, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Varamahalakshmi Vrata of 1999 played an important part in shaping my performance in the IIT-JEE ten months hence.

In 1999, I was in class 12, and had spent the holidays between classes 11 and 12 attending the International Maths Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in Mumbai. While I didn’t ultimately get selected to represent India, I had an overall great time at the camp, and learnt a lot of maths.

By the time I returned to Bangalore, though, class 12 had already started in school, and classes were also underway at my JEE factory, which I had joined just prior to my travel to Mumbai.

With the school teachers intending to finish the entire academic year’s portions by November, classes had been scheduled for Saturdays as well. This, combined with my JEE factory having classes on Friday and Saturday evenings and all day on Sunday, this left me little time to do pretty much anything.

It wasn’t that I wanted to do too many things – my focus that academic year had been to simply focus on the IIT-JEE and (to a much lesser extent) my class 12 board exams. Yet the near non-stop schedule at both school and factory had meant that I was constantly “running” to catch up, with little time for independent study outside of school, factory and their assignments. I desperately needed a holiday to slow down, grab my breath and catch up.

It is a quirk of the Indian festival calendar that there are few holidays between May Day and Independence Day (August 15). If one of the Muslim festivals (which move around the year) doesn’t occur in this time period, it is possible to not have any holidays at all. 1999 was one such year. And this is where Varamahalakshmi Vrata came to the rescue.

I don’t remember the exact date it occurred on in 1999, but it was a Friday (it always is). I had been especially struggling with organic chemistry in the past month, totally unable to grasp the concepts.

Now, the thing with class 12 organic chemistry is that there are lots of patterns, which you need to learn to recognise. Simply mugging is an option, of course (and I suppose a lot of people take that path), but the syllabus is so voluminous that you rather take a more scalable approach. Learning to recognise patterns, however, means that you be able to spend a sufficient amount of time on the concept without distractions. It takes a special kind of focus to be able to do that.

And so I sat down on the morning of Varamahalakshmi Vrata 1999 with “Tata McGraw Hill guide to IIT JEE Chemistry” (forget precise name), and started doing problems. I didn’t intend to discover patterns that day – simply to solve lots of problems so that I’d somehow get a hang. The fact that the festival wasn’t celebrated in my family meant there was no disturbance (of bells and prayers).

So it happened sometime around noon, or a bit later. I had started the morning mostly struggling with the problems, and having to put major fight to be able to solve them. Over time I had gotten better steadily, but slowly. Now, suddenly I found myself being able to solve most problems rather easily. I had to only look at a problem before I could recognise the pattern and apply the appropriate framework. Organic chemistry would be a breeze for the rest of that academic year.

It’s funny how learning happens sometimes. There is usually a moment, which usually comes after you’ve spent sufficient time on the problem, when there is a flash of inspiration and it all falls into place. It has happened to me several times hence. So much so that I fundamentally believe this is how all learning happens!

Or at least so I believed back in 2004 when I had to give a lecture on “Quality takes time” (this was part of a communications course at IIMB). Watch the video:

Holy Week and Ganesha Chaturthi

Over the last one week, ever since I stepped foot in Còrdoba last Friday, I’ve been exposed to Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions of different sorts, shapes, and sizes. Most of these have been observed in Sevilla and Malaga, which I visited for three days each earlier this week, and one small one in Còrdoba.

Based on my reading about this phenomenon (sometimes when stuck in traffic jams caused due to such processions), I understand that each such procession is undertaken by a “fraternity” and goes through the city before ending up at the fraternity’s church.

There are basically two floats that are carried – one depicting the Passion of Christ (with a statue of Christ carrying a cross, and a few others. The first such float I saw I wasn’t sure if it was a statue of Christ or an actor playing the role) and a more sober one with Mary and some candles. Then there is a bunch of people wearing some conical caps that cover their heads (with holes for eyes) who march along with the floats. And there is also a marching band (which played fairly robust tunes in Malaga, though the tunes I heard in Sevilla were more sober) according to which the float marches.

Walking just ahead of one such procession in Malaga (which finally ended up close to the apartment where we were staying), the similarities between these processions and the Ganesha Chaturthi processions back in India were hard to miss.

There were a few important differences – the Ganesha Chaturthi processions happen AFTER the festival, as the idols are immersed in water bodies, while the Semana Santa processions happen in the lead-up to Easter. More importantly, most Ganesha Chaturthi processions use motorised means (such as tractors and trucks) to move the idols, while Semana Santa floats are actually carried by large groups of volunteers (thus necessitating the band, to whose tunes they march).

The similarities are hard to miss – in both cases, there are large numbers of fraternities or groups that organise their own processions, and different groups organise their processions on different days. The processions go along predetermined routes through residential localities, whose residents come out to pay obeisance to the processions.

Most fascinatingly, as the Semana Santa made slow progress (given that floats are heavy and carried by humans, frequent stops are imperative) behind us, we noticed something markedly similar to what would happen with processions in India. Each time the procession stopped, some incense would be lit (like camphor in India), and bells would be rung (identical to the Indian case). And then a short rest and the procession would move on.

It is incredible how different religions in different locations have co-evolved and come to influence each other over time. In a way, this reinforces my belief that religion and religious practices are memes.

Mythology, writing and evolution: Exodus edition

I watched half of Exodus: Gods and Kings last night (I’d DVRd it a few days back seeing it’s by Ridley Scott). The movie started alright, and the story was well told. Of Moses’s fight with Rameses, of Moses being found out, of his exile and struggle and love story and finding god on a mountain. All very nice and well within the realms of good mythology.

And then Moses decides to hear god’s word and goes to Memphis to free his fellow Hebrews. There’s a conspiracy hatched. Sabotage begins. Standard guerrilla stuff that slaves ought to do to revolt against their masters. Up to that point in time I’d classified Exodus as a good movie.

And then things started getting bad. God told Moses that the latter wasn’t “doing enough” and god would do things his way. And so the Nile got polluted. Plants died. Animals died. Insects attacked. Birds attacked (like in that Hitchcock movie).  What had been shaping up to be a good slave-revolt story suddenly went awry. The entire movie could be described by this one scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:

When you see the guy twirling the sword, you set yourself up for a good fight. And then Indiana just pulls out a gun and shoots him! As a subplot in that movie, it was rather funny. But if the entire plot of a movie centres around one such incident (god sending the plague to Egypt, in this case), it’s hard to continue watching.

Checking out the movie on IMDB, I realised that it has a pretty low rating and didn’t recover its investment. While this is surprising given the reputation of Scott, and how the first part of the movie is set up and made, looking at the overall plot it isn’t that surprising. The problem with the movie is that it builds on an inherently weak plot, so the failure is not unexpected.

It did not help that I was reading mythology, or a realistic mythological interpretation, earlier in the day – the English translation of SL Bhyrappa’s Parva. In that, Bhyrappa has taken an already complex epic, and added his own degrees of complexity to it by seeking to remove all divinity and humanise the characters. Each major character has a long monologue (I’m about a third into the book), which explores deep philosophical matters such as “what is Dharma”, etc.

While moving directly from humanised philosophical myth to unabashedly religious story might have prevented me from appreciating the latter, it still doesn’t absolve the rather simplistic nature of the latter myth. I admit I’m generalising based on one data point, not having read any Christian myth, but from this one data point, it seems Christian myth seems rather weak compared to Hindu or Greek or Roman myth.

My explanation for this is that unlike other myths, Christian myth didn’t have enough time to evolve before it was written down. While the oral tradition meant that much valuable human memory was wasted in mugging up stories and songs, and that transmission was never exact, it also meant that there was room for the stories to evolve. Having been transmitted through oral tradition for several centuries, Hindu, Greek and Roman stories were able to evolve and become stronger. Ultimately when they got written down, it was in much evolved “best of” form. In fact, some of these myths got written down in multiple forms which allowed them to evolve even after writing came by.

While writing saves human memory space and prevents distortions, it leaves no room for variations or improvisation. Since there is now an “original book”, and such books are determined to be “words of God”, there is no room for improvisation or reinterpretation. So we are left with the same simplistic story that we started of with. I hope this explains why Exodus, despite a stud director, is a weak movie.

Vaastu Shaastra

My apartment has allegedly been built according to the principles of Vaastu Shaastra. I wasn’t particularly particular about this – in fact, I wouldn’t have minded my apartment NOT following the Vaastu Shaastra if that meant I could get it for cheaper. One such apartment wasn’t available, though, (I presume that market is illiquid), so I settled on this one.

There are several aspects to Vaastu Shastra, at least a subset of which has been followed while designing my apartment, but I will focus on one – the position of the master bedroom. Vaastu Shaastra dictates that the master bedroom be in the south-west corner. I can think of a few practical reasons for this, such as not being woken up with the first rays of sun, and getting the South-Westerly monsoon breeze.

The problem, however, is that the Southwest monsoon is now over and the North-East monsoon has begun. And my bedroom is insanely hot. Irrespective of what windows I open, the South-Westerly location means that most of the time the room is deprived of the cool rain-bearing wind blowing over Bangalore from the North-Easterly direction! From a practical standpoint, the design is not great.

While I believe that most of our “traditions” and “customs” have some scientific backing, my problem is with blind implementation – reading the letter of the ancient rule rather than with the spirit.

And with Vaastu Shaastra, based on the wind patterns here, my sense is that it was not designed for Bangalore, and we have just followed the rules here without analysing their merits. The Vaastu Shaastras, I suspect, were developed somewhere up north (in the Swat Valley, perhaps?), where there was no North-East monsoon. Hence these cool rainbearing winds have been completely left out from the calculations.

And our builders, in their infinite wisdom and guided by televangelists, have decided to adopt these Shaastras by the letter without suitably modifying them for local conditions.

Woresht.

PS: Thinking about it, the Vaastu fascination is to cut decision fatigue when it comes to designing residences. It provides automatic formulae to lay out the house, so you can mindlessly design it and not feel bad about not consulting an architect.

vaDe for meat and tithi ooTas

The story goes that the humble medu vaDe was invented a couple of millennia back when Brahmins went veggie (to compete with Buddhism and Jainism), and needed a source of protein to replace meat. The vaDe, packed with urad dal and deep fried, can perhaps be described as the perfect keto snack, especially considering that it’s eaten with coconut chutney.

So the humble vaDe is a fixture at lunch during death ceremonies. A standard feature of Kannadiga Brahmin death ceremonies is the “feeding of the brahmins”. These are no ordinary brahmins – they are special brahmins who are part of the ceremony where one represents God and the other represents the deceased in whose name the death ceremony (colloquially called ‘tithi’) is being performed.

Given that these brahmins have fasted before the meal and will fast the rest of the day (this is all in theory, of course), they need to be fed nutritious meals, and what is a better source of long-lasting nutrition than the humble vaDe? The vaDe has become so synonymous with tithis that in Karnataka it is symbolic of death ceremonies, and not prepared on auspicious occasions. The phrase “I’ll eat vaDe in your name” can be considered as a mild death threat, for example.

Right from childhood I’ve always wanted some crunchy stuff to eat with my rice. Back then, my parents would ensure that our house was well-stocked with crunchies such as Congress peanuts, nippaT, mixture, etc., which I would eat along with my rice. Occasionally my mother would make happaLa (fried paapaD). Back when was at IITM, I would make the decision on whether to eat chapati or rice for lunch based on the availability of happaLa – I’m such a sucker for crunchies with rice.

Death ceremonies being solemn occasions, however, crunchies aren’t made. It’s taboo to serve happaLa during these kind of ceremonies (despite the protein that packs, too). The occasional lunch can be eaten without crunchies, but if you have to eat tithi ooTa on a regular basis, some “adjustment” has to be made?

The epiphany happened on the 13th of April 2007, at Paschimavaahini near Mysore. My father had passed away two days earlier after a prolonged illness, and after having cremated his remains, we had gone to Paschimavaahini to dunk his ashes in the Kaveri. This was my first exposure to performing death ceremonies, and I found it so unpleasant that I only performed a limited subset of them when my mother passed away in 2009, and gave up altogether on performing my parents’ annual death ceremonies in 2012 after a series of unpleasant experiences.

That day in 2007, however, was when I discovered the utility of the vaDe as the crunchy during tithi ooTas (ooTa is Kannada for meal). Chutney had also been served, and some vaDes were served at the beginning of the meal along with the rice. You break off a piece of vaDe, dip it in the chutney, and then pick it up with a morsel of huLianna (sambar rice) or saaranna (rasam rice), and you get both crunchies and enhanced taste. And that has formed my template for tithi ooTas (which I’m forced to occasionally attend, though I don’t perform tithis myself) ever since.

Yet another epiphany happened last month, when I was at one such tithi ooTa (in memory of my cousin’s grandmother). Sometime between the initial epiphany and this, I had started eating meat, and this was a key component going into this epiphany.

As I was polishing off huLianna with vaDe and chutney at my cousin’s grandmother’s tithi, the process seemed rather familiar. Considering that I don’t eat too many tithi ooTas, this was surprising. And then it struck me that the way I was eating was exactly the same as the way one eats meat with rice (while eating with fingers in South Indian style). You break off the piece of meat, and pick it up with a morsel of rice (mixed with whatever), and put them together into your mouth.

That was when I got reminded of the vaDe replacing meat in the Brahmin diet. It all seemed to fit in now. Even the way it is traditionally consumed (nothing gets more traditional than a tithi ooTa) is the same!

Tailpiece: Speaking of tithi ooTas, there’s a saying that goes “tie up the cat and perform the tithi”. So I was quite amused when I saw a cat polish off a rather large mound of rice outside a “tithi hotel” yesterday. The rice had been put out on a plantain leaf, evidently deliberately for the cat. From getting tied up during tithis to getting mounds of rice, the cat has come a long way.

Tasting Gods’ food

The norm during festivals and other “happy occasions” when food is “offered to the Gods” is that the food is not tasted during preparation. For tasting thus would contaminate it, and make it impure for the God. Thus, the first time a human will taste such food is when it is offered as “God’s offering” after the rituals are over.

While there might be good reason for doing so (food thus prepared is distributed to a lot of people and you don’t want to contaminate it and so on), the problem is that if the food is not accurately prepared, it cannot be corrected. By the time someone figures out something is not right, “the God would have tasted it”, and if the food hasn’t been accurately prepared, you would have ended up serving the Gods bad food! Which can only bring ruin upon you.

Let me draw an analogy. Instead of food, let’s assume that you’re offering God a computer program that you’ve prepared. You’ve got the best team of programmers in the world and written a kickass algorithm and got these programmers to code it, and you offer the program to God. And what happens when he tries to “consume” it by running it? Most likely, a stack overflow or some such error.

Would you let that happen? Even when you’ve got a kickass algorithm and a kickass team of coders to code it in, it’s not guaranteed that the code will perform as it should on its first running. Irrespective of how good the code is, it needs to be tested, to make sure it is doing what it’s doing before the user sees it. Especially if it’s an “all-important” user such as a God.

If you were to do that for code, why should food be different? Why would you want to “cook blindfold” by not ta(/e)sting it adequately, and making sure that it’s as perfect as you want it to be? After all, you’re offering it to a God!

Bah, these silly rituals!

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata principles

An army of monkeys can’t win you a complex war like the Mahabharata. For that you need a clever charioteer.

A business development meeting didn’t go well. The potential client indicated his preference for a different kind of organisation to solve his problem. I was about to say “why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can.. ” but I couldn’t think of a clever end to the sentence. So I ended up not saying it.

Later on I was thinking of the line and good ways to end it. The mind went back to Hindu mythology. The Ramayana war was won with an army of monkeys, of course. The Mahabharata war was won with the support of a clever and skilled consultant (Krishna didn’t actually fight the war, did he?). “Why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can hire a studmax charioteer”, I phrased. Still doesn’t have that ring. But it’s a useful concept anyway.

Extending the analogy, the Ramayana was was different from the Mahabharata war. In the former, the enemy was a ten-headed demon who had abducted the hero’s wife. Despite what alternate retellings say, it was all mostly black and white. A simple war made complex with the special prowess of the enemy (ten heads, special weaponry, etc.). The army of monkeys proved decisive, and the war was won.

The Mahabharata war was, on the other hand, much more complex. Even mainstream retellings talk about the “shades of grey” in the war, and both sides had their share of pluses and minuses. The enemy here was a bunch of cousins, who had snatched away the protagonists’ kingdom. Special weaponry existed on both sides. Sheer brute force, however, wouldn’t do. The Mahabharata war couldn’t be won with an army of monkeys. Its complexity meant it needed was skilled strategic guidance, and a bit of cunning, which is what Krishna provided when he was hired by Arjuna ostensibly as a charioteer. Krishna’s entire army (highly trained and skilled, but footsoldiers mostly) fought on opposite side, but couldn’t influence the outcome.

So when the problem at hand is simple, and the only complexity is in size or volume or complexity of the enemy, you will do well to hire an army of monkeys. They’ll work best for you there. But when faced with a complex situation and complexity that goes well beyond the enemy’s prowess, you need a charioteer. So make the choice based on the kind of problem you are facing.

 

Why Bharadwajs are so numerous

This morning I was at the faculty lounge at IIMB, drinking coffee and conversing with a few professors. Soon, the discussion moved to Bharadwaj gotra and related stuff. And something a professor (who is a Bharadwaj) said explained very well as to why the gotra is so prolific.

So he said that the Bharadwaj ashram was quite well known in its ancient times for the quality of its food. Another professor related an anecdote about how Rama, on his flight back from Lanka made a detour to eat at the Bharadwaj ashram, even as his subjects back in Ayodhya were waiting fervently for him. Food at the Bharadwaj ashram was so good, he said.

Now there are two ways in which this explains why Bharadwajs are so numerous. Firstly, the quality of the food in the ashram meant that Bharadwaj’s children and grandchildren and other descendants were all very well fed. Now, considering that these were times much before the industrial revolution and there was generally a shortage of food, this meant that infant and child mortality rates were generally high. But not in the Bharadwaj ashram, thanks to the food there!

So that meant that the Bharadwajs grew up fitter and healthier than descendants of other rishis, and thus lived longer and were able to procreate more. The bullwhip effect caused due to enhanced longevity and fitness of the early Bharadwajs has resulted in the proliferation of Bharadwajs today.

The other explanation is that the superior quality of food at the Bharadwaj ashram attracted more people into the ashram, and these people would yearn to become part of the “family” (I’ll spare you the gory details here). That meant that Bharadwaj and his immediate male descendants had much more access to furthering their lineage compared to competing gotras. And hence you have so many Bharadwajs today.

In fact we might have had several more Bharadwajs but for the fact that the gotra system is designed such that no one gotra ever gets to big. That two people from the same gotra are not allowed to marry each other naturally keeps the size of a particular gotra in check.

Let’s say for example that more than half the Brahmins were Bharadwajs. Considering that a Bharadwaj can only marry a non-Bharadwaj, that would leave a number of Bharadwajs being unable to marry, which means that the number of Bharadwajs in the next generation would be lower!

It is interesting, though, that everything can be explained through food!