History and Mythology

Yesterday, on yet another reasonably routine visit to the Shankara MaTha in Shankarpuram (where else?), I happened to notice this series of illustrations which sought to tell the story of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. The story starts out with Hinduism being in trouble in the 8th and 9th century AD, which leads to a bunch of Gods and Angels to lead a delegation to Shiva asking him to “do something” about it.

Since I was in the rather calm precincts of the temple, I prevented myself from laughing loudly, but this whole idea of mixing mythology with history intrigued me. The story got even more interesting later, since there was a panel that depicted Shankaracharya getting lessons from Veda Vyasa (the author of the Mahabharata, for the uninitiated). “Was he still alive in the 9th century”, the wife thought aloud politely. I made some random comments about not remembering if he was one of the Chiranjeevis.

A long time back, maybe when I was in school, my grandmother had wanted to see this movie on Shirdi Sai Baba (*ing Shashikumar). There again, there was a mixture of history and mythology, with one of the Gods (Shiva, I think) planting himself in some mango lady’s womb (not sure of the accuracy of this, close to 20 years since I watched it). In that case, however, it being a part of a popular movie, I thought there was enough poetic license to do that. But as part of the panels inside a temple, which is supposed to give out the authentic story? I’m not sure providing entertainment is a stated objective of that temple.

Now I begin to wonder how devout some of the devout could be, if they could actually believe that in the 9th century AD, there was a delegation of Gods who appealed to Shiva to rescue the religion! There are also other implications of this. One, that the Gods closely watch over what was happening on earth (well, I guess the omniscient model of God does permit this). Two, the admission that there might be religions apart from the Sanatana Dharma – which is something that is not made in any of our ancient texts. The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts were all written in India so long ago that no other organized religion existed back then. If you look at the myths, you will observe that all characters are religious, and they all worship parts or the whole of the Hindu pantheon.

My guess is that the series of illustrations in the Shankara MaTha and the associated commentary are the results of the efforts of some particularly over-zealous “devotee”, and the rest of the managing committee hasn’t had the heart or mind to call out this absurdity and get rid of the ambiguous illustrations. Or maybe the entire maTha has lost it, and actually believes that there was a delegation of gods only 1100 years back.


Today is Shivarathri. It is a holiday for the National Stock Exchange, which has made it an optional holiday for us (there are 10 such days of which we can choose 3). And I’ve chosen to exercise this option today. Sitting at home and battling internal demons. And saying goodbye to winter.

My mother says that the fact that it has become considerably hotter today points to the greatness of God. “It is ordained that on the day of Shivarathri, winter will cry ‘shiva shiva’ and run away, and that it has suddenly become hot today is an indication that God still makes nature obey ‘the laws’ “.

I agree with her argument but not with her conclusion. I say that the fact that winter seems to be on its way out today, on the day of Shivarathri, points to the greatness of the people who made our calendar. That they managed to study the stars accurately, and came up with a sustainable forecast regarding the closing date for winter that is valid even thousands of years hence is a good indication of how brilliant they were.

Like that coffee bite argument used to say, the argument continues.

Today being Shivarathri also means that it should be a night dedicated to the lingam – the most commonly worshipped form of Shiva. I wonder how many people are currently looking at their hands and thinking of a form of Vishnu that is worshipped in Puri.

This morning, my neighbour went to a nearby Shiva temple, to take part in something like “linga abhishekam”. She took along a mixture of milk, ganga jal (water from the Ganga; not H2SO4 of Bhagalpur) and sugar to do the pooja. Later on, my mother was on the phone with her sister, and after a long philosophical discussion they concluded that women doing the “linga abhishekam” is not part of South Indian Brahmin culture.