Monday, July 19, 2010

The c(o)urse of events

The Puranas are a great source of stories, generally counted as 18. Unfortunately these are wrongly refered as "Mythological stories". The context of "mythology" is more of Greek and Roman origin. The puranas were named "mythology" based on comparison of other cultures. Even Amar Chitra Katha, a pioneer in Indian story comics, categories these stories under "Epic and Mythology", which is according to me a misnomer. People who narrated the puranic stories to others are called paurAnikas and commanded great respect. If Puranas are mythology, can we call the paurANika's as mythologists? Several Puranas seem to be based on actual historical events, of course with a great flight of imagination, that took place in and out of the land of Bharata. I make a conscious effort to never call these 'mythology', instead call them as puranic.

In the fables like panchatantras, jataka and hitopadesha the story moves towards establishing or concluding a certain moral. While in purAnas, moral is not central, though the overall moral-base is "good triumphs over evil". The purAnic stories may not have any logical beginning, proceeding or an ending. Events happen due to fate, somebody's wish or just because it is so. There is a lot interplay, connections, tangential references between stories, yet there are plenty of contradictions too.

But There is one fundamental theme that occurs throughout the puranas and itihasas. Before we getting into that, lets try to answer a few questions:
Why did
  • Vishnu take 10 avatars?
  • Krishna die ?
  • vAli die at the hands of Rama ?
  • Dushyanta forget Shakuntala ?
  • Hanuman hesitate to cross the ocean?

The answer is a simple "Because of a curse". Every little incident that happens in a Purana has a story behind it and it usually begins or ends in a curse. Curse makes fiction or adaptation very easy, I wonder why the modern writers do not use it effectively; it could be used as an effective tool for turn of events.

Let us pause for a moment and think about the word "curse". It does not even come close to convey the meaning of the actual word used in Samskrita - "shApa". The word shApa has so much overloaded context in it, the word 'curse' simply does not carry that. Just like dharma, papa, punya, guru do not have any direct translations, it is hard to bring out the complete meaning of shApa in "curse". I will try to use the word shApa throughout this blog.

In saying "Im giving you a curse" vs "Im giving you a shApa", the latter definitely sounds effective and more realistic. Try and say it in different Indian vernaculars. And try to use a mega-serial heroine (or a truly filmy mother) tone: 'mein tujhe shAp deti hoon, tum vinAsh ho jaoge'; 'unakku shAbam kodukkaren, nI nasamai povai'; 'ninage shApa kodtini, nI nAsavagi hogu'. All these certainly sound effective and make good one-liner cliches for mega-serials.

In the PurAnas every one or other is found to be giving shApa to others. To some extent one is lead to believe that ones fate is not in one's hands but in the mouth of others. There are certain characters in the purAnas, whose only job is to just give shApa to somebody.

The famous among them is durvAsa, who literally has a "template shApa" in his mouth. If somebody sneezes and he doesnt like it, poof, there is a shApa. If he comes for alms, and you are little bit late in giving it, poof, he lets another one. He is a very interesting character though; lot of stories would not have happened without him. Do you know the actual birth of durvAsa? Once Shiva was just getting angry at silly things. Parvati was getting very uncomfortable at Shiva's behavior. So she says to Shiva "durvAsam bhavati me" (Your presence is very difficult to me). Shiva realises it, feels ashamed and does a classic "spin off" of this anger into a new person and thus durvAasa is born. He appears in several purAnas, the primary aim being to give shApa to someone. The puranic writers have a convenient character in Durvasa where he is summoned at-will to alter the fate of any character.

Sometimes the shApa is very complex, other times the reasons are plain ridiculous. In general the rules of a shApa can be categorized thus:

  • A shApa can be given for the silliest of reasons
  • Every one - all mortals, gods, asuras, rakshasas, even the Supreme Lord are subjected to shApa; there is literally no-one guaranteed to be shApa-free.
  • Once given, the shApa can never be taken back
  • shApa-s cannot be amended directly, but an escape route can be provided, or 'eased-out' in phase
  • - All shApa-s have a mandatory expiration date and ends in shApa-vimochana.
  • At the end of the expiration period, the receiver can either be restored to original state or become somebody new
  • In most cases, the shApa can be redeemed only by the giver, others cannot change this
  • A shApa can be counter-shApa-ed. The reciever can in turn give another shApa to the giver

There are cases where A curses B and B curses A in turn. This is called a shApa-deadlock. They really have to timeout each other to obtain the shApa-vimochana. There are also cases where a subsequent shApa renders a previously given shApa ineffective (although temporarily) because of the impossibility of the event. Once Silavati was carrying her leper husband Ugratapas. Sage Mandavya sees the amorous state of Ugratapas and curses that he will die at sun-rise the following day. Silavati, now curses that sun will not rise the next day, thus making the first shApa impossible to happen.

Most purAnic characters are prompted to act only because they are given a shApa. In fact we see this even in Samskrita literature. The most original of Samskrita works, Kalidasa's mEghadhUta, starts off with a brilliant line: "A certain yaksha, because of some shApa put upon him, was separated from his love and lives in the foothills of rAmagiri in the vindhyA mountains". KalidAsa doesnt bother to say what is that shApa, but just a passing mention of it was sufficient enough to convince us that the yaksha had indeed done something miserable and is suffering from it. Think about it: just one word puts the whole poetry on course. If the concept of shApa was not that powerful, kAlidasa would either have to explain why that yaksha got stuck there, or give some other logical reason behind it.

Even though we think that shApa can be effecitvely given only by rshis, there are stories where any Ram, Shyam and Hari gives shApa to anybody. Were people's words that really powerful in those times? Why were the rishis the primary shApa-givers? Was their life-long meditation not helping them to restrain heir anger? And where is all that power now? Why is shApa not that effective in kali yuga?

Here are some of the popular shApa-s and the course of events:

Giver - Receiver - Course of events
  • Durvasa - Sakuntala - Sakuntala forgets to invite Durvasa; Dushyanta forgets Sakuntala
  • Gautama - Ahalya - Indra seduces Ahalya; Gautama turns her into stone; Rama rescues her
  • Durvasa - Airavata - Airavata tears Durvasa's garland gift to Indira; Durvasa curses Gods will become old; Leads to finding of Amrutam
  • Vasishta - Apa (Dyau) - Ashtavasus took cow Nandini by force; Vasishta cursed 7 would be born as men and die immediately except the main thief, who would live long (Bhishma)
  • Bhrgu - Vishnu - Vishnu kills kAvyamata, mother of Sukracharya in a battle; Bhrgu curses Vishnu to have countless incarnations to atone the sin of killing a woman
  • Some sages - Yadava dynasty - Yadavas make fun of some sages; they curse the whole dynasty will be destroyed, including Krishna
  • Srngi - Parikshit - Parikshit puts a dead snake around a rishi; Rishi's son curses that Parikshit will be killed by snake Taksha in 7 days
  • Matanga - Vali - Matanga curses Vali cannot enter RshyamukhA mountains; so it becomes a safe place for Sugriva


Sathya Srinivasan said...

Interesting post! ShApa does play a vital role in stories. I can see some form of it applied in games - it's like getting a new 'life' or an 'extra power' - in this case, in the opposite sense.

So, if IthihAsa is Epic, then what is the closest to purAna if not mythology? Is it a saga? Is it 'embellished' history? What is the etymological meaning of purAna and for that matter, shApa? I was hoping you would explain that.

The point of mentioning something unverifiable as the starting assumption seems to be prevalent elsewhere as well. For example, even in brahmasutras, most of them start with a statement that 'it is so' without necessarily explaining why it is so. It's an argument I have seen being made by many scholars as well, but not sure if that really holds water now. I mean, you cannot accept something for 'as is' just because Krishna did it or Vashishta said so.

Good write-up. Finally nice to see your humorous side again!

Vasu Srinivasan said...

Purana simply means 'that which happened in the past'. shApa: comes from the root 'shap', meaning "to curse".

There is no proper equivalent word for purANa in English. The lack of the word can be understood by comparison to stories from Bible: they are not called mythology, they are called 'Biblical' instead. Similarly Puranas must be called purAnic, instead of mythological.

Calling puranic as mythological is akin to using the word 'physical' instead of 'yogic'. Well yoga is a physical exercise, but its not same as "exercise", as everyone understands it.

For philosophies, "it is so" may not work well, but that concept works very well for fiction and stories. Even for Harry Potter and Lord of Rings.

Shiva said...


Quite interesting read! I did not know that the Vishnu's 10 avatars were because of shApA. The shApAs or anything related to the Puranas are a quite interesting subject for me.

shApA explains many times things that otherwise can not be rationally explained. All the demons that Krishna killed as a kid were given shApAs by some Rishi. What puzzled me initially was when I came to know that the asuras attain moksha if they were destroyed by the Lord himself. Later some one explained the concept to me and, I understood it better. In sanatana dharma we have the choice to relate to the supreme Lord/Bhagavan in many ways. We can relate to the Lord as a friend like Arjuna, enemy like Hiranyakashipu, devotee like Meera or any other type of relation. I was told that the type of relationship does not matter, but the intensity is the key. That was a revelation for me. So, you can be the enemy of the Lord and if the intensity of your enmity is 100% and without any guilt, then you obtain Moksha.

In any case, I have a different take on, shApa defining the "Course of Events". I see shApA as only a small part of the whole which is "Leela". shApAs illustrate the karma theory very well, which is the fundamental of sanatana dharma. However, "The course of events", I see them as "Leela" of the Lord. I don't think shApas can define the course of events. I see shApAs as one piece of the "Leela" which encompasses much more. shApAs make "Leela" more interesting and sometimes better to comprehend the course of events, but not define the course of events in my opinion.

Anyway, just wanted to express my thoughts and interest on this subject.


ssriram said...

puRANam - are old tales or mythological stuff
itihAsam - iti hAsam => 'This happend' which is real history

Vasu Srinivasan said...


see my earlier comments on this. puraanaas, strictly, are not "mythology". The context of "mythology" is more related to greek and roman stuff. Just like we use the words like "yogic", "vaishnavite" (ie english adjectives derived out of samskritam words), puraanaas are technically "puraanic".

In a related vein, even words God, Lord, soul etc does not apply to indian "deva, bhagavan, aatman". God and Lord have a specific context in Western ideas, but using that word for Hindu context, only misrepresents the latter and severely dilutes the idea.