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Surprised by Joy

With the European colonization of India, western scholars noticed a commonalty between the Hellenic and the Indian mythologies and sought to establish that this was a consequence of Greek traditions filtering through to India with Alexander’s invasion. A British army officer even wrote a study showing that the Ramayana story had been borrowed from Homer (after all, Alexander is supposed to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow). Therefore, 

The similarities between Helen and Sita are not a new discovery. Aware of this, Doniger begins with Helen but quickly switches to what is her new contribution to Indological studies: the Rig Vedic myth of Martanda, the “dead egg,” named Vivasvant the Sun, and his wife Saranyu-Samjna. She suggests that both Helen, the adulteress, and Sita, the chaste wife, have their model in Saranyu who is sexually ambivalent. Doniger brings in the modern comparison with Bram Stoker’s Lucy who is prim during the day and lascivious vampire by night. It is by night that Helen tries to trap the Greeks hidden within the wooden horse, Svaha-like with Agni (a comparison Doniger misses) assuming the persona of their wives. Doniger does not notice that when the disguised Ravana approaches Sita, he begins with an elaborate description of her physical charms. Sita does not sense something wrong in a sage using such language, but proceeds to engage in dialogue, like Ahalya revelling in Indra’s praise, climaxing in the rape. In her hidden sexuality she resembles Helen who is, of course, much more open about it. Both are ayonija, not of woman born. 

If Sita immured in the earth, Ahalya is petrified. Doniger fails to study the myth of Sita’s transformation into Shakti for slaying the thousand-headed Ravana who knocks Rama unconscious, which offers further insights into the complicated mystique of the feminine. Rama, terrified as Arjuna of Krishna’s Vishvarupa, and prays to her to resume her familiar form. Saranyu is also linked to Demeter who changes into a mare to avoid Poseidon but is raped by him in stallion form. Like Helen, she is linked to semi-immortal twin brothers/sons [the Dioscuri and the Ashvins]. Doniger provides a valuable hint of why the Ashvins are called Nasatyas, possibly akin to the Greek verb nes connoting returning to life and light. That is why Nasatyas are “retrievers” and recover the daughter of the Sun, Suryaa. Doniger’s analysis takes us back to mankind’s origins: immortal Saranyu, wedded to the Sun that dies daily, gave birth to Manu, the first man, and to Yama, lord of the dead. Saranyu’s aversion of her ill-shaped or ill-favoured spouse leads to the creation of the shadow self Savarna [like herself] and her own transformation into equine form. This is where Doniger brings back Helen and introduces Sita, throwing around them the common myth of the shadow-self whereby Helen approaches the chastity characterising Sita. In one version, Paris is supposed to have assumed the form of Menelaus [like Indra assuming Gautama’s form before Ahalya] leaving Helen blameless in the seduction. This absorbing presentation is enriched by comparisons with little known Japanese and Indonesian myths and analysing how the Saranyu myth is presented to modern Indian children in comic book format. 

Next, she proceeds to study the myths of Indra-Ahalya and Zeus-Alcmena. The theme of doubling and the dilemma of which is the real self recurs along with the male myth-maker’s predilection to condemn the woman, wondering whether she was at all truly deceived, suspecting that innately she is the dark one who manoeuvres to satisfy her sexual desires [Pandora and la belle dame sans merci]. There is an interesting parallel to Zeus disguised as Amphitryon and Indra as Gautama in the tale of Agni who becomes the Brahmin Suvarcha to woo Bhasvati. The mortal maid rejects the god, as in the other Greek and Indian myths, preferring his mortal disguise. The Indra-Ahalya story has a very interesting parallel in that of Ruchi, wife of the sage Devasharma, who longs to be seduced by the eager Indra, but is saved by the faithful disciple Vipula who occultly enters her body and prevents her from responding. In both cases, the ascetic’s wife is curious about sexual intimacy with a celestial. But there is an interesting aftermath: Vipula sees two symbols and realises that during the act of possession his genitals had touched his guru’s wife’s. Subodh Ghose used this hint in his retelling of this story (Bharat Prem Katha), as Candra Rajan does in her poem on Ahalya, to provide a brilliant psychological reinterpretation of ancient myth. The opposite of this is found in the myth of Shrutavati who mortifies herself through incessant austerities to win Indra as her spouse, like Vedavati for Vishnu. Indra tests her by disguising himself as Vashishtha and setting her to cook magical berries. Running out of kindling, Shrutavati uses her own body as fuel. This is the original of the folk tale Doniger cites of the ghost-wife using her own legs as cooking fuel. Failing to acquire their celestial beloveds, both Vedavati and Shrutavati immolate themselves. Similarly, the femme fatale theme is paralleled in the tale of Sushobhana, the mundaka princess, who makes a career out of seducing men and leaving them forlorn by disappearing in frog form, till she meets her match in Parikshit who launches a holocaust of frogs, forcing them to give her up to him. Here, like Pandora, Sushobhana turns out to be the nemesis not only of men, but also of her own race.

Changing tack, Doniger studies Penelope and Odysseus side-by-side Nala and Damayanti. Here is a different type of woman, intelligent and faithful, who uses strategy to recognise her disguised husband and win him back. Part of this is the fascinating conundrum of how to distinguish a human from a god, for which she seeks clues in the story of Cyavana and Sukanya, in the film Total Recall, and the even more fascinating question: why prefer a human to a god? She could have added here how the disguise of the Pandavas is seen through by Krishna, although he has never met them. Krishna’s is a Sherlock Holmesian deduction, which forms a fitting complement to the hints by which Sukanya and Damayanti make out their spouses. Doniger points out that the male rejects the immortal female [Arjuna/Urvashi, Odysseus/Calypso, Enkidu/Ishtar, Cephalus/Aurora], while the female at times chooses the immortal mistaking him for mortal owing to the disguise [Ahalya/Indra, Alcmena/Zeus]. Most of the Indian myths she studies have been retold with superb psychological insight by the eminent Bengali novelist, Subodh Ghose, in Bharat Prem Katha whose study would have benefited Doniger. Her impeccable scholarship takes a tumble when she refers to Urvashi instead of Shakuntala as “the mother of Bharata.” 

In preferring the mortal, woman shows her inability to withstand the inhumanity it takes to become immortal, unchanging, barren. Doniger provides an extremely refreshing and telling symbol in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy prefers her real home to the magical world of fantasy. The point is that goddesses bring death to mortal men, while women prefer death to immortality--it is the female who is responsible for death. However, she does not take the discussion farther to include Saranyu’s twin sons fathering twins on Madri (mortal woman choosing the immortal equine twins—the exact opposite of Sukanya—going on to become the immediate cause of her husband’s death and then immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre). Analogous is the case of Kunti, a mortal who can compel any immortal to her bidding, a unique character in Indo-European myth. Both are examples that stand outside the paradigm Doniger seeks to build, of the mortal woman unwilling to succumb to the immortal’s desire. Nor does she explore the similarity between Ganga and Kunti, immortal female and mortal woman, who consign their firstborns to the river. Kunti, like Aditi who rejects her dead son-sun, consigns her sun-born son to sure death in the river and is responsible for his death by concealing his true birth. Similarly, Thetis is responsible for the death of her son Achilles who, Karna-like, blazes like the sun in his divinely forged armour, by leaving that vulnerable spot on his heel while immersing him head-first (drowning him?) into the river. It is surprising that Doniger omits the pertinent tale of Tulsi and the demon Shankhachuda invincible because of his wife’s chastity. Vishnu took the shape of Shankhachuda and bedded Tulsi, leading to the demon’s decapitation. The consequence is significant: Tulsi, like Daphne, turns into a plant after she transforms Vishnu, by her curse, into stone (Saligram)--a reversal of the Ahalya situation, with the deceiving god being petrified, while the woman escapes from her raped self by assuming a different form. But as Daphne-laurel is inevitably linked with Apollo, so is Tulsi an indispensable part of worshipping Saligram-Vishnu.

The fourth and fifth chapters deal with the intriguing theme of beheaded women and men, and the transposing of heads on different bodies. The myth of Renuka is compared with that of Scylla and the symbol of Chinnamasta who carries her severed head in one hand, with the core issue of schizophrenia analysed through Bram Stoker’s Lucy. The medieval legend of the Lamia would have provided valuable insights had Doniger analysed it. The myths of Chinnamasta and Renuka need to be studied alongside the Bacchic maenads who, in Dionysian frenzy, rip off their husbands’/sons’ heads, for this Greek myth is exactly the opposite of the Indian. She provides a fascinating comparison of the male instance from the Vetalapancavimsati with the fictional Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde. While discussing the phenomenon of splitting personalities and of sex change, Doniger does not take up the myth of Ardhanarishvar, the hermaphrodite, so akin to Greek myth. This form, half male-half female, appeared when Shiva embraced Vishnu-Mohini passionately. Doniger provides a long extract from Vilas Sarang’s amazing tale, “The Bottom Half of a Woman” but misses one of the most apt modern renderings of this concept: Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Chessmen of Mars creates heads with spider like chelae that choose a body according to their need, while the bodies, like the torso-less entities of Vilas Sarang, lead mute animal existence. These heads literally possess the bodies, like Sindbad’s Old Man, and remind us of the tales of possession that figure in world mythology, including male spirits taking possessing women’s bodies. How often does one hear these days, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body!” 

In the split personality/transposed heads/doubles discussion, Doniger spans the gamut from Stevenson and Oscar Wilde to Hollywood [Face Off, Dark Mirror, A Stolen Life, Dead Ringer, Double Impact, 3 Faces of Eve, Shattered, Total Recall]. She even includes Superman-I, the modern version of a god involved with a mortal woman, and quotes a hilarious piece by Larry Niven describing the danger if the Kryptonian bedded Lois Lane. She could have added that as Saranyu/Alcmena found the radiance of Vivasvant/Zeus unbearable, so did Ganga who had to cast Shiva’s seed out on the reeds, finding it literally “too hot to handle” as Larry Niven forecasts Kryptonian semen would be for Lois Lane. And why does she forget Semele who was burnt to ashes by Zeus’ radiance? Doniger misses out Superman-III, where the hero gets split into an evil double who is typically unshaven, dissipated and keeps company with the vamp, providing a 1980s version of Jekyll and Hyde. She also overlooks the very powerful portrayal of Batman in films that conflate the darkness and terror of Dracula with a moral purpose: man donning evil’s garb to fight evil. The comic books have taken this a step further by turning the vampire figure itself into a friend of law and justice. The entire genre of comic book heroes, starting with the masked Phantom [significantly ‘the Ghost who cannot die’] and The Lone Ranger, down to the legion of super heroes, depicts the apotheosis of the alter-ego concept in the American imagination. 

The final chapter deals with bisexual transformation in India and Europe. One of the most engrossing insights Doniger provides is how Kali reincarnates as Krishna while Shiva takes birth as Radha to savour the delights of a different sexual existence. Doniger’s conclusion is that women in Hindu myths are more akin to Greek women than to their own men. Penelope testing Odysseus is much more like Damayanti confronting Nala than another Greek like Menelaus when he faces Helen. Thus, gender is seen to transcend culture, in that women across different civilizations resemble each other more than men in their own cultures. In a way, Culture is seen as the shadow of Gender. 

Engrossing and impressive as the book is, there are a few points that Doniger seems to have missed. One is surprised to find the only instance in mythology of a woman split five ways—Draupadi—missing from the discussions. Besides this, Draupadi has to split herself into three contradictory roles with five brothers: wife, mother (as spouse of elder brother) and daughter (as spouse of younger brother), changing the roles every year. The brothers themselves have to ring changes in their roles as spouse, father-like and son-like, matching her shifting persona. There is a treasury of prohibited relationships here deserving analysis. Draupadi is not only ayonija like Ahalya, Sita and Athene, springing full grown from the sacrificial altar, but also has a twin in the warrior Dhrishtadyumna, who compensates Drupada for his offspring Shikhandi, woman-turned man. Moreover, Doniger ought to have noticed that Draupadi is the reincarnation of Vedavati who became the shadow-Sita.

Professor Doniger’s latest work is an astonishingly gripping book. Into an intensely erudite examination of comparative mythology that could have become turgid reading, she infuses a style that sparkles with wit, revelations that startle, unexpected comparisons that surprise with joy. Her stated purpose is to show that “myth responds to the complexities of the human condition by splitting its characters into two unequal halves…centring on two primal topics: sex and death.” The splitting is not only of oneself, but also of others to get what they want or to avoid some eventuality. The myths investigated brilliantly and presented so engrossingly are shown to serve another purpose: to enable men and women to express their creativity in envisaging possible futures that transcend the traditional norms and expectations by constructing other selves to live in. Thus, stories have been used, Doniger writes, “to storm the oppressive barricades of gender and culture.”        


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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