Sunday, March 05, 2006

Indra's wicked, wicked ways

Oscars? Don't care (but do enjoy Tom the Dog's amusing liveblog of the event). Tired. Didn't accomplish much. Here's a thing I wrote about Indra, the Hindi sky god.


Myths are often bowdlerized. As children and youths, we read them (here in the Western world, we read nearly exclusively Greek stories) for the adventure, little suspecting at first that Heracles had more than a fellow comrade's affection for Hylas, or that Ganymede brought Zeus more than his cup of nectar, or that Achilles had a rather suspicious attachment to Patroclus, his "Cousin. He's my cousin. Cousin. Totally my cousin. In conclusion: Cousin."

Later, if we are fortunate enough to have been instilled with an interest in the myths of bygone eras, we read further and come closer to the original ideas. Often, the ancients seem to have had really only two main interests: war and sexual oddities (again, looking to the Greek myths, we have sex with swans, sex with bulls, etc, etc). Say, there's some phrases that will bring in a new type of web surfer!

Myths from the subcontinent are no different, as the carvings at Khajuraho can attest. Or, the case in point I want to expound on, the tale of Indra and Ahalya.

Indra, the ruler-god of the heavens (and in some older traditions, the highest of all the gods), seduced Ahalya, who was a perfect, beautiful woman created by Brahma himself. However, Ahalya was married to Gautama, a sage. Gautama, with his super-yogi powers, instinctively sensed Indra's betrayal and returned to catch them in flagrante delicto. Indra turned himself into a cat to try to get away, but Gautama saw right through that tired old ruse.

Now, in the Indian tradition, sages are not the prolix philosophers of the Greeks, or the peaceful missionaries of Christian ideal, but often fiery ascetics with pride to match their vast magical powers that derive from their prayers and meditiation. They may renounce the world at times and go stand on one leg in the forest for a thousand years while bugs make nests in their beards, but they may with equal alacrity indulge in a lust for life that would make a Roman emperor proud. Clearly, Gautama was the latter type, being married to Miss India 1500 BC and all. It may strike the student of Western myth as odd, but even though Indra was a god and king of heaven, while Gautama was a mere mortal yogi, Gautama had the power to zap Indra with a curse.

This is where accounts differ. All of the punishments Gautama is said to have inflicted on Indra, however, are made to ironically reflect on Indra's prurience. Some say that the sage turned Indra into a woman. Some say that he castrated Indra via magical means. But my personal favorite is this:

He causes vaginas to sprout all over Indra's skin. Yes, that's right. The body of Indra, the god of the sky, is covered with a thousand vaginas. (Hello, web surfers!) Now that's bawdy!

Later, either Gautama or some other busybody takes pity on the sky god and changes the vaginas to eyes. And also, Indra gets ram's balls! Say! Now there's a consolation prize! "I'm sorry, Indra, that was not the correct course of action. You don't get the girl, but you do get a thousand big ol' vaginas all over you! But don't feel too bad, though --- here are some nice ram's balls so you can keep on doing your thing! Thanks for playing!"

Man! Myths are cool.

As with all ancient stories featuring women's morality, it's hard for modern readers to get a sense of how much guilt Ahalya should have borne for the cuckolding of Gautama. Some ancient people (and, I'm sorry to say, some modern Eastern cultures) considered a woman complicit in her own rape, after all. Some versions of the tale make it clear that Ahalya deliberately cheats on her husband, lured by the prospect of sex with a god. Other versions have Ahalya ignorant that Indra is seducing her (he comes in disguise as Gautama), or she finds out too late to stop him. Of course, really, even if she had found out early enough, how could she have stopped the king of heaven?

Any way you look at it, Gautama's punishment is harsh by modern standards --- he changed her into a rock (or, in some versions, kept her rooted to the spot in the forest) in which form she remained for an undetermined number of years until her normal form (and virginity, one infers) is restored at the touch of Rama.


Kate said...

Can you recommend a good book with the theme "myths Kate has never heard"? Sounds like something I could really dig into, but I know most of the books at my local B&N are the same tired Greek/Roman (or occasionally Norse!) myths with which I am familiar.

Chance said...

There are a couple of good ones, most unfortunately out of print. A good start is finsing a readable version of the Mahabarat or Ranayana, sources of lots of good tales. R.K. Narayan's versions are very entertaining, though there are lots of good versions.