The Hermit and the Householder

The Hindu worldview is a gigantic jigsaw puzzle that speaks through two critical pieces: the hermit's perspective in the myths of Shiva and the householder's viewpoint in the lore of Vishnu

Satyadeep Delhi

Book: 7 Secrets of Shiva
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Westland Ltd
Pages: 222
Price: 350
Year: 2011

Book: 7 Secrets of Vishnu
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Westland Ltd
Pages: 220
Price: 350
Year: 2011

The bull, Nandi, once overheard a conversation between Shiva and his wife, Shakti. The sage Narada heard about it from the bull and narrated it to Valmiki, who wrote an epic based on it: the Ramayana. In fact, a lot of Hindu mythology takes the form of conversations in which Shakti forces Shiva to break his silence and reveal his wisdom.

In 7 Secrets of Shiva, the author, a mythologist by passion, sets out "to make explicit patterns that are implicit in stories, symbols and rituals of Shiva". The "7 secrets" are unravelled (or "unlocked") in seven chapters – one for each secret locked in various myths associated with Shiva, also known as Lingeshwara, Kaal Bhairava, Shankara, Bholenath and Nataraja, among many other names.

The author argues that the complex Hindu idea of God eludes those who take the notion of God in the Bible as template. To the Hindu, God is how nature is perceived by the human imagination. In nature, all things have forms limited by space and time, but all forms are eventually destroyed and replaced by new forms. Shiva is the God who breaks free from all these limitations of form.

The "self-stirred phallus" of Lakulesh – another of Shiva's many names – represents the "tranquillity (ananda) that follows when the mind (chitta) discovers the truth of nature and of the human condition (sat) by purging itself of all memories and prejudice". Lakulesh becomes "master of his own contentment by discovering the infinite possibilities of imagination". This is the secret of the phallic symbol: Lingeshwara's secret.

Shiva has "violent disdain" for territorial behaviour among human beings, rooted in the fear of death, which makes us respect and yearn for strength and cunning in order to survive in a world where might is often right. With their ability to imagine, however, human beings can disregard, overpower or outgrow the regime of fear, and with it, the need to establish territories and hierarchies. Shown as a child riding a dog, Bhairava – Shiva as the remover of fear – reveals how our fears gave rise to the notion of property, and invites us to erase the distinction between what is 'mine' and what is 'not mine'.

The lore of Shiva resonates deeply with the 'flower child' sensibility, associated with the counterculture (or 'hippie') movement of the 1960s. Blissfully ignorant of social mores and rites, Shiva is also Bholenath, whose apparent naiveté comes from the deep wisdom that power does not overcome fear, but actually fuels it.

Shiva's third eye – the eye of wisdom – is indifferent to hierarchies and distinctions between 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' conduct. Cultural rules transform a woman into a wife, but Shiva's transcendental gaze does not distinguish between the two as it sees all rules as delusions. So when Ravana requests him, "I want your wife to be my wife," Shiva replies, "If she wants to go with you, she is free to do so." As Bholenath, Shiva inspires us to question cultural norms, asking why human constructs should not change in accordance with changes in the human gaze.

While Shiva sees culture as a delusion that distracts us from discovering our humanity, for Vishnu, through culture we can become fully human by outgrowing the beast within us. Vishnu became a key figure in Hinduism after the rise of Buddhism, which spoke directly to the common man and addressed their everyday concerns. Confronted with a wave of people moving towards Buddhist monasticism, Hinduism was forced to adopt the popular medium of stories in its attempt to reach out to the masses.

Complementing the stories of Shiva that represent the "alternative but equally valid" viewpoint of the hermit, the stories of Vishnu communicate the householder's perspective of the Hindu worldview. In 7 Secrets of Vishnu, the central theme is about how "spiritual reality" (purusha or human) comes wrapped in "material reality" (prakriti or nature).

Hindu mythology uses gender to communicate metaphysical ideas of the interdependence of material and spiritual reality. That is why conjugal images were often placed prominently on the walls of Hindu temples, with the female and male forms expressing material and spiritual reality respectively. As Vishnu's female form, Mohini, the enchantress, is male in essence and draws humanity's attention to spiritual reality within material reality. Similarly, Vishnu and Lakshmi validate each other, and one cannot exist without the other.

Another recurring theme in Hindu mythology is the conflict between the Devas and Asuras, the eternal enemies. The Devas refer to the forces of the sky – sun, moon, rain and fire – while the Asuras represent the regenerating forces of the earth. Vishnu sides with the Devas who release Lakshmi – wealth – from the confines of the earth, but he also knows the value of the Asuras, as only they can give birth to her. Therefore, Vishnu does not seek the total defeat of Asuras as that would bring about the end of the world.

Dedicated to "those hundreds of artists and artisans who made sacred art so easily accessible to the common man", the two books are extensively illustrated with images from a wide diversity of sources and genres, including poster/calendar art, Mysore paintings, North Indian miniatures, South Indian sculptures, Pahari paintings, stone carvings, wood carvings, Cambodian temple wall sculptures, Kalamkari cloth paintings, Mughal paintings, Indus Valley seals, clay dolls and more.

The author sees myth as a social construct that helps bind individuals and communities together by providing a common understanding of the world. Myths are made tangible by stories, symbols and rituals that are heard, seen and performed; together they construct the "truths of a culture".

Religious fundamentalists have one thing in common: their stubborn hostility to any open-minded appreciation of how there are "many types of truth". In an earlier book, Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, the author argues that ancient Hindu seers knew myth as 'mithya' – "truth seen through a frame of reference", which gave "a limited, distorted view of reality". That is how they distinguished it from 'sat' – "truth, absolute and perfect in every way." As its perfection made it impossible to confine sat to a word or reduce it to a symbol, those ancient seers knew they had to rely on "hundreds of thousands of incomplete and flawed symbols and words" in their effort to communicate "the infinite perfection and boundlessness of sat".

Thus, despite the apparent paradox, "the delusion of mithya served as an essential window to the truth of sat". Here is an author who gives pride of place to this ancient Hindu approach to mythology, which is completely at odds with the Rightwing politics of using myths to prop up monolithic Hindutva notions of "our nationhood".

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2011-JANUARY 2012