Book Reviews

The Transmogrification of Myth

Four years after Sitayana, the 'Epic of the Earth-Born', comes Dr. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar's 'Saga of Seven Mothers', Satisaptakam. It is a unique effort to portray the evolution of the female archetype, Adya Shakti, through the four ages of humanity as envisaged in the itihasa-purana of Bharatavarsha. Iyengar chooses as his protagonists Devahuti, daughter of the very first humans Svayambhuva Manu and Shatarupa, and wife of Kardama, charged by Brahma with the mission to turn from world-renouncing sage into progenitor; Sukanya, who restored her decrepit husband Chyavana to health and thereby obtained for the Ashvins a share of soma despite Indra's opposition; Devayani, the first Brahmin woman to force the king Yayati into an inter-caste marriage, and founder of the Yadava dynasty in which Krishna is born; Damayanti, who invites the retribution of the gods by preferring the human Nala to them, and whose trials prefigure Draupadi's; Renuka, mother of Parashurama, the Treta Yuga avatara, who is beheaded by her son at the behest of her husband; Draupadi, whose being staked at dice becomes the cause-celebre of the Dvapara Yuga; and Kannaki in the Kali Yuga, whose anguish sends Madurai up in flames.   The author prefers to look at his creation not as an agglomerate of seven distinct images of Hindu womanhood, but as typifying the evolution of one power: as a rainbow arc whose seven colours are 'subsumed as it were in the splendour of the White Rose.'

Each of these protagonists has to face a unique challenge. It is in their response to this that the author seeks to portray the emergence of the inherent spiritual force, which is at the core of their being. Thus, Devahuti has to turn her husband Kardama away from his natural ascetic role to that of a householder, but that too after rejecting his offers to install her in aerial cars, bedeck her with ornaments and surround her with attendants, though his yogic prowess. This refusal on Devahuti's part is Iyengar's modification of the original myth in order to bring out the spiritual theme. From her Kardama learns that egoistic ascesis is but an exercise in vanity and a hoard of vainglory. The consequence is the birth of Kapila, an incarnation of Vishnu, who teaches his mother the Sankhya way to liberation. Devahuti realises that she may some day

're-enact the true wife
and redeemer of my Lord:
a Madonna of sufferance,
founder of a future line of kings. . . .
returning by choice
from the Transcendent, I might
temper and turn my severance itself
to an ascesis unique.'

Here the author looks forward to Sukanya, Draupadi, and Kannaki.

Sukanya is forced into marriage with decrepit Chyavana. We are taken aback to be told by Iyengar, in a sudden descent from empyrean heights to colloquialism, that her parents 'could only grin and bear it in silence'! However, she conquers the temptations of the flesh [having made sure 'There were no booby traps in the bargain . . . all appeared straight and fool-proof'!] to rejuvenate her husband, and thus fulfils gloriously her wife-hood. The author provides Sukanya's mother with 20th century syntax: 'I've a hunch she took for pity's sake', and describes how the king and Chyavana 'barged in,/and they were in high spirits' as if they were inebriated teenagers romping about. Iyengar has Sukanya experience a mystic one-ness with Devahuti, which is confirmed by her mother Sridevi:

In the drama of manifestation
there's seeming repetition, 
but also doubled with variation
pointing towards the future ...
The person that was Devahuti once
carries on evolution: 
Adya Shakti's fresh manifestation
is the bride of Chyavana.

However, Iyengar unaccountably loses an opportunity to enrich the symbolic and spiritual content of his work when he has Sukanya mention the Ashvins having rescued blind Upamanyu from the pit but does not take up that mini-myth for bringing out its profound symbolic import (cf. my The Secret of the Mahabharata).Again, when he has Sukanya say, 'It was up to me/to see for both of us ...and it did work/indeed, and wonderfully', he misses the chance to enhance the beauty of her character by comparing this with the attitude of Gandhari, who refuses to see for both of them and deliberately blinds herself out of a sense of outrage at the deception practised upon her.

It is in Devayani that Iyengar first departs radically from his sources. He paints Kacha as a deceiving, smooth-smiling, unscrupulous villain, who exploits the infatuated Devayani in order to obtain the secret of immortality from her father, and then peremptorily discards her, though this 'ruffled Kacha a good deal'. Iyengar also speaks of an impasse created by the amrita of the gods matched by the sanjivani of the Asuras, while the myth is quite clear that at this stage of thedeva-asura conflict, amrita had not been churned out and the celestial armies were being depleted while the asuric hordes were being constantly revived by Shukra's mantra. If the gods had access to amrita, as Iyengar states, there would have been no necessity for Kacha to be sent out to garner the knowledge of immortality from the asura preceptor.

Further, Iyengar glosses over the fact that it is because of Kacha's curse that no Brahmin would marry her that Devayani is so desperate as to seize upon the first Kshatriya who meets her, and virtually hounds Yayati into marrying her. Iyengar's Yayati speaks in modern idiom to tell us, 'I was naturally scared a good deal'. Iyengar also makes a mistake when he has Devayani curse Kacha with loss of the knowledge he has acquired. She only cursed him that he would be unable to use the mantra. Kacha noted that it would be effective in the hands of those to whom he passed on the knowledge. Iyengar portrays Yayati very much in the fashion of a villainous Victorian husband, turning Devayani into a drug-addict, letting off steam by abusing her when she is drugged, and having a fun time with his wife's maid Sharmishtha. However, 'their shared cussedness split them', says the author in modern idiom! The original myth, on the other hand, makes it clear that Yayati was wholly under the thumb of his overpowering wife (just as Shukra was totally under the control of his spoilt darling, so much so that Iyengar eschews stylistic consistency and has him make 'a bee-line to the king' to avenge his daughter's insult) and that it was only on the repeated pleas of Sharmishtha not to deprive her of her right to motherhood, that he obliged her. Moreover, he was naturally more attracted to a princess than to the daughter of a sage, Iyengar carefully omits the fact that the dynasty is continued not through any child of Devayani's, but  through Puru, son of Sharmishtha. Devayani's sons are cursed by Yayati for their insolence and refusal to help him in his decrepitude, never to have kings in their families. Iyengar also misspells her son 'Turvasu' as 'Durvasu'.

What Iyengar fails to clarify is what challenge Devayani faces and conquers, and how he sees her as an emanation of that Adya Shakti whose previous manifestations have been Sukanya and Devahuti. The story of Devayani in theMahabharata is that of a wilful, spoilt, father's only darling, who ends life frustrated, having abandoned her husband, Iyengar's creation fails (o alter this impression. By turning Yayati into an unmitigated villain, he completely misses the picture of this archetypal symbol of lust and its fruits, except for this solitary passage:

'In a stinging mood of introspection,
Yayati perched on the edge 
of the perilous narrow strip between
the Ascent and the Abyss.'

Damayanti is placed by Iyengar immediately after Devayani, presumably because the gods are still on visiting terms with princesses' bridegroom-choice ceremonies! In Vyasa, this story is set in a timeless matrix, with Nala and Damayanti having no predecessors or successors, and not belonging either to the solar or the lunar royal dynasties, Iyengar consciously treats Damayanti as a prefiguring of Draupadi. Nala, like Yudhishthira, loses all in a dice-game to his cousin, but does not pledge his wife though urged to by Pushkara. Nala's misjudgement is shown as the direct result of the machinations of the god Kali, which is why the story touches us far less than the existential situation of the Pandavas. On the second occasion, Nala does pledge Damayanti against his kingdom, which is in Pushkara's hands, and wins back everything because Kali has been exorcised from within him. It is Draupadi, of course, who wins back everything for her husbands, including their freedom, after she has been sought to be disrobed. That contrast is not touched upon by Iyengar. Iyengar's creative touch lies in turning Damayanti's trials with a serpent and a lecherous rescuer into psychological dream experiences, and in rare passages of beauty such as describing her 'Like a blinding lightning-flash unafraid/of a massed cluster of clouds'.

He makes Nalayani, or Indrasena into the daughter of Nala and Damayanti, married to the leprous Maudgalya, who is restored to youth like Chyavana because of her chastity. The author never tells us why her parents, following their traumatic experiences, should have married their daughter to a decrepit, diseased sage. Iyengar changes the original myth in which she is cursed by her husband to have five husbands because she begs him not to take to asceticism without quenching her desires. Iyengar has to do this because in his scheme of things the husbands of his heroines are all emanations of Purusha, whatever their actual deeds might be. Instead, he has Indrasena beg of Shiva a young, noble husband, repeating the wish five times in her eagerness. Hence, she is reborn as Draupadi. But what a shock it is to find Kunti speaking like a brothel-house madam, consoling Draupadi who is faced with the awful prospect of being shared by five brothers. 'There, there! ' twill be all right, Panchali dear'! Of a piece with this jarring style is the description of Yudhishthira as: 'He would keep mum, or heave a sigh or gasp,/or merely mumble about'.

It is in the story of Renuka that Iyengar has truly become myth-maker. The wanderings of the princess are reminiscent of those of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri, like whom she fares forth 'on a new pilgrimage of understanding', as 'a girl no more nor yet a woman', aspiring 'for far-off lights'. In the case of Renuka, Iyengar has her experience a unity with Sati, who 'had scuttled herself' writes Iyengar in his inimitable mixture of the high-serious and the bathetic, when she sees the face of the icon in the temple town of Hasti. His Renuka belongs to south of the Vindhyas, and she meets Kapila in Hasti, though his ashram was supposed to be in Sagar island at the mouth of the Ganga. In this meeting, Iyengar wishes us to see Devahuti meeting her son. However, if Renuka is Sati, how can Jamadagni be regarded as Shiva? Particularly when Iyengar portrays him as a psychologically sick person, bedevilled with jealousy and imaginary fantasies, which appear to be the product of, repressed libido [he is described by Iyengar as 'demure' (sic.)!]? The influence of K. M. Munshi's Bhagawan Parashurama is clear in the picture of Renuka as the loving universal mother, ministering to all, as also in the brief reference to Vishvamitra as the architect of Bharatavarsha through the revelation of the Gayatri mantra 'to bring about a transformational/overmental change within'.

It is also here that Iyengar's writing is at its best. When the sons, except for the enigmatic Parashurama, shrink away in horror at Jamadagni's frenzied command to slay Renuka, Iyengar has her come forward and command Parashurama to strike:

That was a moment of time torn apart
from its magisterial 
movement from the hither to the far side
of teasing Eternity.

At that moment, the apotheosis occurs; the Divine Spirit flames forth, 'and Renuka/seemed all the worlds in herself.' Thus Iyengar transforms an ancient myth into something new, creating a new meaning as 'the mighty Mother' reveals 'Infinity's marvels/in the soul's tabernacle' to transform

that doomsday writ of slaughter
. . . into a radiant Apocalypse 
of the Motherhood Divine.

Unfortunately, after such glorious writing, we are faced with the banal, 'There was a radical relaxation/from the heavily built up/tension of the last few hours'!

Iyengar's Jamadagni is the archetypal MCP, graciously awarding Renuka the title of 'Chinnamasta' ['head-chopped-off'] Following the killing of Jamadagni and the bloody revenge taken by Parashurama, she wanders out all over the country, carrying the message of goodwill and love to all, worshipped variously as Gangamma, Mariamma, Durga, Pattini. But the point is that it is nowthat she feels the promise of fulfilment, which she has not felt since the first years of her marriage, and 'felt seraphically free', a welcome change from Iyengar's favourite 'electrically free'. Jamadagni remains a failure of Iyengar's, particularly as he begins by trying to present him Shiva-like.

Iyengar's picture of Draupadi contains some memorable writing, particularly during the dice-game when she faces the elders in the court:

'Not I but you, not trembling Draupadi
but you, you are the trapped ones. 
Not I but you are the caged animals
stripped of your vast pretensions. . . 
Forever trapped in History's annals,
forever bywords for all. . . . 
Trapped in the pigeon holes of History,
you'll be castigated for your culpable moral neutrality
in the war against Woman!'

That is a fine expression of how we, today, see the great Kuru elders. Again, the clouding of Yudhishthira's judgement during the dice-game is described as:

'Like sudden lightning depriving our eyes
of their power of seeing, 
the sharp bludgeonings of fate enfeeble
our faculty of judgement.'
Draupadi and her husbands are
'Like the five fingers, I said, different
yet united at the base . . .
there was none better, and none 
inferior, even like the fingers.'

There are echoes here of Professor P. Lal's theme of the 'five fingers of feeling' in his long poem The Man of Dharma and the Rasa of Silence [writers workshop, 1974].

The special relationship between her and Krishna is also well brought out:

'they're my champa's five petals, 
but Krishna is my sole passion-flower, 
champaka, the divine Smile!'

It is important to note that, in his retelling of the dice-game, Iyengar does not fall prey to the temptation to expatiate on Krishna's miraculous intervention to save Draupadi's honour. Instead, he sticks to the original, where ominous portents (and Gandhari) force Dhritarashtra to stop the disgraceful proceedings before any stripping of Draupadi takes place.

However, why Iyengar gives her the name 'Krishnai' is inexplicable since Vyasa names her 'Krishnaa'. Similarly, Iyengar mis-spells 'Yadava' as 'Yadhava' and 'Yudhishthira' as 'Yudhishtira'. He also jolts us from the mythical times into today by describing the coming of Karna as 'a shot in the arm' for Duryodhana. Iyengar is mistaken in stating that Karna is 18 when the Pandavas arrive (cf. p. 637, Notes) and that Karna is conceived immaculately. The Mahabharata does not mince words about the physical act between Kunti and Surya and is quite clear that Kunti's svayamvara did not take place immediately after she had delivered Karna. There would have been at least a space of a year. Thus, when Kunti marries Pandu, Karna would have been at least a year old. It is only after a few years as king that Pandu leaves for the forest, and after some time there gets Kunti to summon Dharma et al to beget children. This cannot take less than four to five years. Hence, at a very conservative estimate, Karna would be at least four years elder to Yudhishthira and six years older than Arjuna. According to the epic, Yudhishthira is 16 when they arrive in Hastina. Some years would be taken up in weapons-training by Kripa and Drona. Therefore, when Karna first challenges Arjuna in the tournament, he would be a young man in his early twenties trying to stare down a boy in his mid-teens. Hardly a very heroic stance, which is the point missed by even such a fine creative artiste as Shivaji Sawant when he creates the unforgettable figure of Karna in Mrityunjaya.

Through Draupadi's exhortation to Virata's queen, Iyengar voices his passionate concern over the exploitation of women:

O Queen, when will Man born of Woman learn
to honour, respect, revere womankind, the supreme mother-shakti
the sole source and fount of all? 
And when will Woman, born of Woman too,
learn the sheerest modicum 
of self-respect, enabling her psyche
to grow to its native height?

Instead of portraying Woman as plaything, property, domestic drudge, showpiece, stimulant or 'as animal farm', Draupadi's coming is to exemplify Woman's basic role as Life, 'as the Mother of the race, as fosterer, and also redeemer'. Why, then, should she question' the current doxies/concerning the weaker sex', or dream of Arjuna from her earliest years? There is another flaw in Iyengar showing Draupadi as gradually attaining the marriageable age, although she is actually born full-grown out of the sacrificial flames. Iyengar strives to invest her with the super-normal by declaring that 'her nude soul against the world, was ready/sovereignly against the world'; but mere echoes of Savitri,such as this, hardly serve the purpose. Even his evocation of the bridegroom-choice ceremony compares poorly with Vyasa's terse yet pregnantly poetic picture:

'Without smiling, she seemed to smile:
she radiated feeling; her way
of walking was a way of speaking.'

Iyengar writes,

'Draupadi was like one transfigured, and
a glow was on her face, and
she walked with firm steps to the winner, and
garlanded him graciously.'

Unfortunately, Draupadi's fostering and redemptive aspect mentioned by Iyengar is not evident anywhere. Merely describing her, along with Krishna and Vyasa, as the roots of the Tree of Dharma, the 'Everlasting Yea' vis-'-visthe Tree of Falsity, 'the Everlasting Nay' [I have doubts if Carlyle would agree!], does not establish this. Readers are aware only too well that the Pandavas won a kingdom peopled by wailing widows, infants and the decrepit j that they witnessed the suicide of the Yadavas; and that, disgusted with their inability to protect the Yadava women even from ordinary dacoits, they abdicated in favour of the minor Parikshit, leaving the kingdom in the hands of Yuyutsu, the sole surviving son of Dhritarashtra, born of a maid. Draupadi is never a redeemer, but a destroyer, like the flames out of which she is born. Instead of this, Iyengar's last picture of Draupadi is virtually a Ram-rajya one of perfect monarchy, with her sharing the throne with her husband, 'and Nature smiled and humankind was wise, / and Mother Earth felt fulfilled.'

Far truer is the picture he draws of Draupadi here:

But for all her painful entanglement
with the key antecedents 
of the war, Draupadi's own role would be
one of agonised waiting.

Or his portrayal of Arjuna on the first day of the war:

In a flutter of horripilation
and fear of dissolution, 
that creature of contraries folded up
before his friend and mentor.
The sealed centre had to open within
and break through the prison-house 
and learn to turn towards the Light of Life
in readiness to respond.

What a contrast this is to the tortuous turgidity of Iyengar's description of the revelation in the Gita:

'An analytic microscopic probe
into the trinitarian division of the static, kinetic,
and harmonised modes of life. . .
giddy Everest of revelation
of the Golden Purusha.'

It is with Kannaki that Iyengar appears most at home. His terse, succinct Eliot-echoing description of the Kali Age is itself memorable:

'promise without performance, 
form without substance, 
and lust
 without love, 
become the rule.'

Take his picture of long-suffering Kannaki when her husband returns to her:

'She might be sipping poison from one hand, 
and nectar from the other.'

In her, Iyengar shows the all-destroying fury of Mahakali, controlled to touch only the evil. Fortunately, on this occasion the author does not repeat his initial bathetic description of Kali as 'the termagant adversary/of cocksure complacencies'. This is complemented by her spiritual daughter Manimekalai, born to Kannaki's rival by her faithless husband, who carries Shakambhari Devi's horn of plenty, fighting hunger, disease and ignorance everywhere, and in this finds fulfilment as Mother of All:

'From this hushed sanctuary of her soul
she let divine compassion do its work untrammelled by the ego's
falsities and sophistries. . . 
for her love and concern for humankind
was large as the universe.'

That last line takes us back to Sri Aurobindo's magnificent evocation of Savitri; 'Love in her was wider than the universe/The whole could take refuge in her single heart.'

These seven tales are placed within a Prologue and an Epilogue. In the latter, Iyengar paints a powerful picture of the modern predicament, coining epic imagery to draw upon our subliminal depths:

'While the Seers have been dreaming and talking
about Man's self-transcendence 
and the coming of the gnostic species,
here's the margin of the Pit. . . . 
It's truly a land-mined Kurukshetra
where mad Aswathamans charge 
at night, and sworn secrecy veils father
from son, and darts boomerang.'

Such impressive writing is, however, sometimes marred by the use of clich's and the bathetic, such as 'the pure heart's S.O.S. appeal', 'I'm rattled all the same', 'tulsi and rose and champa and lotus/cheek by jowl with aggressive others'. Parashurama is described as 'frenziedly romped about' and we have his evocation of Brahma who 'occasioned the Big Bang'! Iyengar is fond of using the archaic and inappropriate 'twy-fold' doxies', and 'rune' [for mantra]. There are also echoes of Shakespeare, Sri Aurobindo, et al, which grate on the sensibilities of the reader because the encapsulating syntax is far inferior in inspirational quality. Thus, Devayani speaks of 'the fitful fever and fret that is life', side by side with 'my sons would do well in life'; Vyasa tells Drupada, 'Our life is like a web of mingled yarn/dark and white alternating/ and neutral grey intervening sometimes'; Kunti's life is the 'still sad music of reminiscentrial remorse'! Draupadi turns Shakespearean while speaking to Satyabhama: 'But in my sessions of sweet silent thought/my fancy or whimsy would/ sort them out as Guru, grown-up Baby, /Bowman, Yogi, Prince Charming!' Krishna turns into the Ancient Mariner when he recites the Gita, 'mesmerising with his glittering eye . . . oozing such authority'. Added to this is the erratic use of diacritical marks, all of which detract from the beauty of this otherwise attractively produced book.

Having traced the saga of the select seven, who Iyengar wishes us to see as 'a spectrum/of archetypal variety', depicting

'A long struggle Woman has had of it
playing her predestined role 
as maiden, mother, fosterer, healer,
saviour of the human race',

he finds that it hardly constitutes a rejuvenating recipe for the ailments of modern civilization, threatened by the spectre of nuclear ragnarok. He finds the answer in Manimekalai's Chalice of Nectar, seeing it carried forward today in the Sisters and Mother of Charity, and in the youth of today making 'a quantum forward leap' in 'an explosion of consciousness'. His call is for Hope and Faith as he sees the time now as one of transformation as heralded by 'the twin seers' of Pondicherry:

'Ours is the Age of the Atomic Bomb
and the awesome Doomsday Clock: 
but it's also the crucible of change
and birth of New Consciousness . . . 
The breaking of the Atom, the cracking
of the Genetic Code, and 
now'the tearing of the mental veil, and
the burst of the Superlight!'

For him it has not been merely a five-finger exercise, a literary challenge, a tour-de-force, or even a search for roots, but verily a yogic process through which he has achieved the conviction that

'the mists 
will recede and disappear, 
and retreating from the brink, 
the race will renew itself and endure ....
I the dark saw the Dawn.'


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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