Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 3

This article is part 3 of 7 in the series Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels

Nature Myths: In novels like ‘Vamshavruksha’, Jalapatha’, ‘Grahana’, ‘Datu’, ‘Parva’, ‘Nirakarana’, ‘Nele’ and some other novels, nature myths, natural phenomena and natural features like rain, spring or change of seasons, rivers, floods, cataracts, eclipses, mountains have been used effectively to reveal the influence of nature on the human situation. The use of rain as a nature myth has been exploited to its maximum limit in Bhyrappa’s magnum opus ‘Parva’, as the rain and flood acquire a mythical power, force and grandeur here, and become the image and symbol of destructive and constructive phenomena. The same rain and the same floods are used to a lesser degree in ‘Daatu’, ‘Grahana’ and ‘Vamshavruksha’. Bhyrappa’s first major novel ‘Vamshavruksha’ begins with the cyclic phenomena in nature: the floods in the river Kapila (Nanjanagudu, near Mysore). This reveals the relation, harmony and conflict between human and non-human and the effects of these natural phenomena on human life. In the fertility myth, rain is considered as bringing fertility to the land. Nature myths consist of a common recurrent pattern, as winter signifying old age and death, spring signifying rebirth, youth etc.

In ‘Moolatatva’, the play in ‘Vamshavruksha’, the basic myth of Prakruthi and Purusha as female and male principles are treated as two characters. Mythological deities like Devaraja, Devaguru, also become characters in the play. Nature has been portrayed as an entity with eternal youth and an eternal spirit. The exchange of words between two old peasants evoke the myth of fertility in nature, the myth of the earth waiting for the rains that make her fertile (page: 122-123). One peasant says: ‘Ragi crop is very good this year’. The experienced old man who was standing nearby says: "It is true, the tendrils have grown green, yet more rain is needed. The crops won’t grow well if there is no mating between the earth and the sky...” This myth of the earth waiting for the rains from the sky, inviting and placating the rain god in various ways is a ritual observed in many parts of India, and in many parts of the world as well. This myth of rain, the gathering of clouds, humidity, descent of showers, torrential rains with or without thunder and lightning are the pattern of myths applied to agriculture as well as to human passions, emotions and sensuality. The main character of the novel, Katyayani, overhears the peasants and ponders over her mental and physical condition.

In ‘Grahana’, the natural phenomenon of the solar eclipse or suryagrahana is utilised to evoke the popular traditional beliefs about grahana and its effects on human life on the one hand  while it exposes how people make use of this natural phenomena to hide the real facts, mishaps and misdeeds in the name of eclipse, on the other. The phenomenon of the eclipse is explained scientifically, astronomically and mythologically. In India, it is believed that these eclipses of the sun and the moon are caused by two demons Rahu and Ketu, who were cheated by the devas during the great churning of the sea by the devas and the demons to get nectar. It is believed that the Sun and the Moon were instrumental in identifying these demons who had infiltrated the ranks of the devas. Thus, arch enmity reigns between these two, at certain moments these catch hold of the Sun and the Moon. Grahana is considered a myth of nature, a recurring phenomenon in nature, that occurs as the earth rotates. At the start of the novel ‘Grahana’ the Principal of the college Himagireeshwara, lectures about the eclipse of the sun, explains the phenomena scientifically  but  follows the traditional rules that his wife Lalitha wants him to observe, , albeit reluctantly.

Grahana rituals: During the period of ‘Grahana’ certain cleansing rites are observed in India by people belonging to all castes and creeds, as it is believed that the ‘Grahana’ brings with it a certain impurity or pollution. These customs are described in the depiction of the family life of the Principal and his wife Lalitha, an educated woman. The water reservoirs in the bathroom are cleaned, emptied and refilled only after the eclipse is over, when the Sun or the Moon are fully visible. Eating or drinking during the eclipse are forbidden. After the end of the eclipse everybody should take a bath. Religious people offer ‘tarpanas’ to their departed ancestors. The idols of Gods are washed and worshipped. During the period of eclipse, darbha grass is put into all the articles of the house. Another belief  that has prevailed till today is that pregnant women should not come out of the house during either the solar or the lunar eclipse. It is believed that the foetus will be affected adversely by eclipse. Solar eclipses are not to be seen with bare eyes. Even if the image of the solar eclipse in water is viewed continuously for a while, it can have repercussions, as shown in the transformation of the character of Swamiji in the novel. But the novel also reveals that this change in the attitude of Swamiji is not due to the eclipse alone. In the same way, when Lalitha goes through a pseudo-pregnancy and does not deliver a child at all, this too is attributed to the effect of eclipse. Through many incidents, the novel unmasks several popular beliefs and at the same time, it shows  that the eclipse is not the sole cause of these.

Consequences of eclipse: Though a natural phenomenon such as the eclipse is believed to have a mythological origin, the people of Himavathi blame the eclipse for the sexual union of the Swamiji and Dr. Sarojamma. They think that the eclipse has made the Swamiji mad, for it was a very severe eclipse and Swamiji was gazing intently at its image in water. This is the version of Shastri and other characters in the novel. People of Himavathi do not want to blame Swamiji. They refuse to allow for the fact that Swamiji, as a human being, can have his own weaknesses, sentiments and his own way of thinking. People do not want to believe the scientific fact about pseudo-pregnancy. From this angle, it seems that this natural phenomenon, like the mythical demon, had really eclipsed the reasoning power of the people, and that they did want the status quo of superstition, selfish attitudes and a hypocrisy of sorts to continue. This hypocrisy, even among educated people like the Principal who wants to speak the truth but is prevented from doing so by the ‘orthodox’ people around him, is witnessed everywhere. They do want to announce that the child was still born, but they do not want to announce the pseudo-pregnancy publicly. Thus, the natural phenomenon of the solar eclipse, as a recurring myth, works at many levels in the novel, and though it is just the eclipse, it shows people in their true colours.

Torrential rains is another myth used in ‘Grahana’. There are two instances of torrential rains in ‘Grahana’; one is when the previous Swamiji leaves the ashram for the Himalayas to do penance. The other happens after the physical union of the Swamiji and Dr. Saroja. The heavy rains in Bhyrappa’s novels symbolise the sexual power and plenty of the male, his capacity to satisfy the woman and make her fruitful. The sky and the earth are pictured as two primordial male and female principles - the earth, thirsty and waiting to rejuvenate herself, yearning to make herself fertile, and the sky pouring rain to quench her thirst and make her fertile is the concept that emerges from the rain myth used in Bhyrappa’s novels. Another aspect of this rain is rain as the preserver and destroyer. This aspect of rain as a destroyer of everything, both good and bad, is depicted in the rains and the floods in ‘Parva’ and ‘Datu’. Another aspect of rain as a phenomenon is its power to stimulate the senses. The description of the beautiful, powerful rains on the Himalayas by the Swamiji evokes the majesty and magnanimity of nature.

The flood in the last part of ‘Daatu’, though not caused by nature, but by the dynamite exploded by Mohanadasa, reminds us of the waters of the mythical deluge that destroys everything. But here Satya survives and her thesis is saved, and the words ‘Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat’ clearly emerge from the depths of her mind, pointing to the future that is bright, hopeful and spiritually regenerated.

‘Jalapaata’ chiefly uses nature myths like the sea, the dashing waves of the sea, green forests and the mighty and beautiful cataracts, and maps these to human emotions, passions, sexual desires and their gratification. The depiction of the beauty, power and force of waterfalls of joy, concretises the sexual relationship between the male and female. Here, too, the myth of fertility, the myth of the sky and the earth being united, is evoked. The roaring waters falling from the heights to the ground deep below, into the womb of the earth, is the factor connecting the sky and the earth.

Along with this, new myths of mega cities like Mumbai, the myth of industrial progress and urbanisation are used here to show how these have destroyed the virtues and values of simple living and friendship, and have paved the way for commercialisation. Dr. Nadagowda’s idea - a new myth indeed - of directing birth, brings to mind the ‘niyoga’ myth of  the Mahabharatha, and the technique of  hybrid species in agriculture. (74~75 - Jalapatha’). Where as niyoga of "Mahabharatha" was accepted socially and religiously at that time (‘Parva’ records that hostile opinions about this custom existed even at that time), Nadagowda’s idea of getting a healthy child by union with a healthy man’s sperm seems unethical and disgusting to a woman like Sudha Bai. However, the couples commit suicide one after another, and Nadagowda’s new myth on genetics fails.

Kamatipura, and the slaughter house, the offshoots of the myth of progress, reveal the death of old myths and the values they represented, and present to us the modern way of life. Here, it is not possible to find a person here like Sreepathi’s uncle.

The tradition of ‘rangoli’, especially in South lndia, is a tradition, that has been observed since ages. ’Rangoli’ is the powder of white soil, or powdered white quartz stone. Making floral, geometrical designs in front of the house  by joining symmetrically placed dots or creating these with simple lines is a ritual in Hindu religion.

It is believed that evil spirits can be warded off by washing the threshold and the courtyard and decorating it with rangoli. This is used in tantric worships, religious ceremonies, in writing chakras and mandalas, and in the rituals of exorcists. In religious and tantric contexts, rice flour, haldi, kumkum and other colours are used. Even in daily use of rangoli  mystical design like the pentacle are common. Sreepathi of Ulapatha remembers how he had learnt the first lessons of this art from his mother, who used to compose the picture of many gods and goddesses, Airavatha the elephant, the chariot of Indra, using rangoli, simply by placing dots and joining them. This simple rangoli art of women includes some easy techniques too. As festivals and worship were a part of daily life, there was ample opportunity at home and in society for t this art to flourish. Temples, too, helped in the development of this art. The tradition of rangoli, which is still being continued and developed in many ways, has found a place in this novel as a daily ritual. Just as all myths, rituals, and descriptions of nature are depicted as an integral part of the story, which are essential for bringing out a particular character of the story, the tradition of rangoli is also mentioned.


(To be continued…)

Thanks to Gowtham Srihari for keying in the article



Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.

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