Agastya and Hercules

A Philosophical Interlude

The mythologies never cease to fascinate me -- both Indian as well as Western, and the parallels between them as well as the contrasts.

Only this morning, a question occurred to me. Who was Agastya? I began to search for his roots and was quite elated to discover that he was conceived in an archaic test tube! It appears that Mitra (the God in charge of sunlight or daytime) and Varuna (the God in charge of night) had fathered Agastya and Vashishth respectively. Before I bring up that tale though, one question needs to be settled. Wasn't Varuna the Rain God? The answer to this question appears to border on the metaphysical. It seems that the Aryans worshipped the all covering sky as God Varuna and, in the Rigveda, Varuna lived somewhere near the horizon where the sky joins the sea. Proceeding from here, it seems to be an acceptable hypothesis that Varuna was given charge of the rains, which arrived at Varuna's will when he removed the covering over our planet.

Well it seems that they were present during the performance of one Aditya Yajna, which Urvashi also attended. And believe it or not, they lost their self-control at the sight of the famed beauty and this led to the conception of Agastya and Vashishth in an earthen pitcher, the latter being the closest approximation to a test tube in the days of yore. How they made sure that Urvashi's ovum or ova found the way to the same pitcher will remain a mystery till, hopefully, future research throws light on the subject.

This being the tale of Agastya's arrival into the breathing world, he has been known by a variety of names. A few of these are: Kalasi-soota, Kumbha-samvab, Ghatotvab, Kumbhayoni, Urvashiya. But there are several other names that adorned him too, one being Vindhyakoota. It is this last name that I want to dwell on today.

He was Vindhyakoota because the Vindhya Hill was his disciple. Vindhya was much impressed by the Sun's journey around the Sumeru Hill (essentially the North Pole I think) during its appearance with the day and disappearance with the night. And in an ego trip of sorts, he wished for an orbit of his own around the Sun! And the Sun was not too happy with the idea. His objection seemed to lie in the fact that this could lead to changes in its Heaven ordained flight path. I can’t quite understand what caused him to object however, since even if Vindhya travelled around him, what could have prevented the Sun himself to go his own happy way? But we are not allowed to ask such stupid questions today.

Vindhya was not too amused to hear this and expressed his dissatisfaction by assuming a monumental size, a size so large that he managed to block the Sun from following its accustomed route. Rishis and lesser Gods began to cry, weep and snivel for a saviour and it was Agastya who answered the call now.

He visited Vindhya’s lodgings and the latter was more than honoured to see his Guru. He bent down to touch the Guru’s feet and the Guru ordered him to remain in that state till he returned. Return of course he never did, which appears to be the etymological explanation of the phrase ‘Agastya Yatra’. It occurred on the first day of the month of Bhadra, which is considered by chaste Hindus to be an inauspicious day for starting out on a journey. No one’s supposed to come back home from a journey that commenced on that day!

Agstya clearly played a trick, but as a devout Hindu, Vindhya continued in his prostrated state for the rest of eternity, thereby allowing the Solar system to function and keep civilization alive and kicking. And it is this event apparently that the name Agastya signifies. For the Sanskrit derivation of Agastya is: Aga (= mountain) + stai (= dumbfound, a verb) + a (active voice). Agastya, in other words, was one who astonished the mountain that tried to put a brake on the movements of heavenly bodies.

Some believe of course that this allegorical tale speaks in reality about the Aryan invasion of the Dravid kingdoms but we needn’t pause and discuss the cynics here. I have something more interesting to bring to your attention, this time from Greek mythology.

Like Agastya, Hercules or Heracles was an illegitimate child, born out of the union of the King of the Greek Gods, Jupiter, and Alcmena (a human). (Unlike Hercules though, who was a great warrior, strong, muscular and huge, Agastya was known for his diminutive structure. This apparently was the reason why he was called Mana.) Now Juno or Hera (the real Mrs. Jupiter and a God by her own right) was mighty displeased by Jupiter’s infidelity. She was jealous too and contrived to have Hercules destroyed by assigning him impossible tasks to perform. These tasks, all of which Hercules successfully performed, are referred to as the Labours of Hercules. The one I have in mind was Hercules’ eleventh labour.

Hera’s accomplice, Eurystheus, set Hercules to fetch three fruits from the golden apple-tree, the latter being Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera. Hera, delighted endlessly by the gift, had the tree planted in a divine garden on the slopes of
MountAtlas, the destination of the Sun’s chariot each day. Hera was so attached to the tree that she had set the ferocious dragon Ladon to coil around the tree to protect it from pilferage.

There are conflicting accounts of how Hercules reached
MountAtlas, but there doesn’t seem to be too much disagreement that he needed to employ Atlas himself to fetch the fruits. Unavoidable dangers lay in his way if he would try to accomplish the task by himself. However, there was an apparently insurmountable problem in the way of using Atlas’ services. For an unrelated act, he had been punished by the Gods to bear the burden of the Heavens on his shoulders for all time. Unless he was relieved of this burden, there was no way for him to go and fetch the apples! Mind you the apple tree was located on his own slopes, but I guess his hands were not free to touch the tree. Big Laugh

Atlas agreed to perform the task only too gladly, since he wished to be relieved of his burden, even if for an hour or so. Also, Hercules made his task somewhat simpler by shooting Ladon, the dragon who protected the tree, with an arrow.

Atlas then transferred his burden to Hercules, who bent down to receive the colossal weight. Needless to say, Atlas happily walked away while Hercules sweated it out and waited. True to his promise though, Atlas did bring back the three apples required. But he had also found his freedom absolutely delightful. So, he told Hercules, no doubt with Agastya like intentions, that he would himself deliver the apples to Eurystheus, if Hercules were to carry the burden for a few more months. Unlike Vindhya though, Hercules saw through the ploy. He pretended to agree, but requested Atlas to hold the burden for just a moment while he found a pad to protect his head. Gullibly enough, Atlas agreed and then Hercules set out on his own Agastya Yatra!

One could go on with the details of the story, but I am more interested in a comparison of the two events. Agastya as well as Hercules cheated of course. But note the difference in their styles. Agastya depended entirely on Vidhya’s faith in his Guru (reminds you of Ekalavya doesn’t it?) to clear the way for the Sun’s movements. Hercules, by contrast, used a material artefact, the celestial globe, to keep Atlas at bay.

And I see here an essential difference between Hindu thought and Western philosophy. Even at the mythological level, Hindus ultimately relied on Faith, while Westerners could not thrive without a material aid. The Western mind seeks for tangible evidence, while Hindus are content to stick to their Faith and that alone. Not that Hindu philosophy lacks a logical structure, but I think Faith, as opposed to reasoning, is the ultimate refuge for Hindus.

I put up this intriguing post to share with you my confusions of the day. Treat this as an intermission please. The clown in me will soon show up again to talk about the very same Agastya and his adventures with Illwal and Bataapi.

More By  :  Dipankar Dasgupta

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Thank you Kerman: If you wish to read my stuff here, it is best to visit me at the following address first:

18-May-2010 08:47 AM

Comment  Oj Kaku...
brilliant piece....I'm going through all your posts here sorry if I'm unable to leave a comment on all

18-May-2010 05:11 AM

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