Published in Modern Literature
When I was a child – way back in the 1970s – I was entranced by festivities on Diwali. On one hand, there were fire crackers and prayers in my friends’ houses; on the other, we had Kali Puja in our home. They had the Dhanteras Puja – prayed to the goddess Lakshmi and Ganesh – ate vegetarian. We, on the other hand, fasted till late night and then ate, mutton – the prasad or the gracious gift of Ma Kali.
In 1991, we moved to Singapore. I came across many from the Southern part of India who celebrated ‘Deepavali’. Some of them could not even relate to the word ‘Diwali’, which is what I grew up with. They celebrated the occasion by praying to Krishna. A friend told me they bathed after anointing themselves with gingelly oil early in the morning, prayed and had fireworks before sunrise!
I had come across stories around Diwali that centered on Rama’s return home, Krishna killing the monstrous Narakasura, Kali killing the demon Raktabija, whose clone would sprout every time a drop of his blood touched the ground. To prevent more of him from springing up, the Goddess Kali drank up his blood. (Who said mythology is not gory!) Could there be more myths? How did these come about? What are the sources of these stories?
Rama’s story of his victorious return home, after killing the arrogant Ravana who had kidnapped his wife Sita, was written at an indeterminate age in our epic, Ramayana. Ramayana has been dated back to 7 century BCE by some sources and has inspired much poetry and myths. A number of Persian versions can also be traced from Akbar times. And, of course, Tulsidas rewrote it in the Awadhi dialect of Hindi around the same time. The Persian versions continued to be written through Jehangir’s regime to Shah Jahan’s, perhaps till the onset of Aurangzeb.
Modern writers like R.K.Narayan, Amish Tripathi, Devadutt Patnaik, Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni and Kavita Kane have also retold the story from many perspectives, including that of Sita, Ravana and his sister Surpanakha. The story as I had heard from my grandmother said, that people lighted lamps all over the city to welcome their victorious, long gone prince home after fourteen years.
The myth around Krishna had me intrigued. This story had its roots in the Mahabharata, our other epic, which also is likely to have had its origins around 8th or 9th century BCE. Vishnu in the form of the Varahaavatar, the third in the series of Dashavatar, had spawned a child after killing the demon Hiranayakashya, called Naraka when a drop of his sweat fell on Bhoomidevi. He blessed the child and asked him to uphold the Dharma, the right way of living. Naraka eventually became powerful and demonic. Finally, Vishnu in the form of Krishna killed him. As he died, Narakasura realised that Krishna was no other than his father, Varaha, and bowed down to accept his fate. He saw light, the path of Dharma. It was dawn when Narakasura breathed his last, which is why Deepavali is celebrated in the morning for believers in the Krishna myth. A number of children’s books have also evolved around these two myths, including Amarchitra Kathas. In context of Mahabharata, there are again retellings by R.K.Narayan, Girish Karnad, Krishna Udayasankar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Shashi Tharoor, Gurucharan Das and many more.
What I found was the moderns do not really focus on Diwali celebrations but on their own interpretation of the stories in context of how they think the readers would perceive the story…though, Gurucharan Das’s version discusses Dharma, the lack of which led Narakasura to his grand death at the hands of his father. Given the current context, one wonders if a new Peter Handke will not turn up with an empathetic tale of the woes of Naraka!
I find old fashioned myths endearing because there is a positive message in them that does not justify or give the story from a single perspective but tells us a great story and expects us to learn from the mistakes made by the characters, much as the heroes of the ancient Greek theatre did. None of the characters are ideal but they are real – vibrant, interesting and intriguing. In Ravana’s or Bali’s hubris, we are to find our own catharsis. That is just the tip of the iceberg. These characters inherently address many larger issues through these myths.
The origins of the festivities as we know them in parts of India evidently can be found in Vatsayan’s Kamasutra, dating back to the fourth century BC.