Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 5

This article is part 5 of 7 in the series Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels

'Nele’ and ‘Saakshi’ unveil the myths, rites, rituals, and customs related to death, funerals, the world after death, against the realistic backdrop the life in this world. These two works explore the roots of existence, ethics and emotions and lay bare the inner psyche of man, by fusing our realistic world, which is comprehensible through the senses, with the incomprehensible, surrealistic world of myths and mythological characters and situations. As in all works of Bhyrappa, the "myth of progress”  in modern life is contrasted with that of life as it existed in the past, and the fact of sinking positive values is driven home forcefully.

If Kalappa a globetrotter, reminds us of the medieval knights of England through his nobility and generosity, Parvathi, with her ideas of single parenthood, brings to mind the modern myth as well as the mythological Jabali, who dared to say to her son Satyakama that, in her life of servitude, she could not say who his father was, but could swear to his teacher that he was her, Jabali’s, son.

The mystical power of death and its overwhelming power over life, and its exultation are concretised in the image of the immense dark Garvin rock in Scotland. Here, too, there is a merging of natural phenomena and the myth and fact of death. Even in the dream of Kalappa, the darkness and the merciless, lifeless exultation of death are played out through the images of the ironsmith’s furnace, with the huge black bellows that rush to suck out life, etc. Another natural phenomena, the world of stars, works as a link to this world of feelings, emotions, passions, trivialities and the purposeless activities, and becomes a powerful elevator to lift the minds of people like Kalappa to the highest altitude of metaphysical thoughts, and offer a purpose and meaning to his life.

‘Saartha’ depicts the social, political, economic and religious life of India during the 8th century and explores the beliefs, traditions and customs of that period. The concept of Saartha (caravan) itself becomes a myth of many dimensions. Saartha is a gathering of people belonging to all sections of society, with various purposes, commerce being the main. This could well become the commercial myth of our times, and this saartha can also be considered as the forerunner of the modern myth of commercial malls. Meditation is another mystic concept, which has been exploited to the maximum limit in the novel. As a source of spiritual attainment, as an instrument of spiritual sadhana, a medium of probing the thoughts of another person or the political situation of the country, of receiving messages from the Guru, and as a novel technique of communication in the novel, the medium of meditation works perfectly. It is just like the modern scientific technique of wireless communication or telepathy.

‘Parakaya Pravesha’ is one of the myths of yogic achievement. This is concretised in the novel through Adi Shankara, who temporarily inhabits the dead body of the king Amaruka to gain the life experience that is necessary to answer the question of Bharatidevi, about the difference between experience of Bramhan and the experience of physical union with a beloved. This act of ‘Parakaya- Pravesha’ or the act of entering the body of another person in the form of a spirit is practised in yoga. In mythology, there are many references of this form of yoga. It is well known that Anjayneya entered into the body of Simhike, even while she was living, and came out of her body. The spirit of a yogi is believed to leave the body of five senses (Sthoolashareera), and come out through the ‘Bramharandhra’, - the opening at the top of the head (the region of the fontanella in infants), and enter the body – here, the body of any dead person, and start residing in that body. In this novel, Acharya Shankara enters the body of Amaruka, and goes through sensual experiences as a witness. This incident is described in many texts of the past as a true incident. This may be treated as a historical fact, yogic truth, a legend and a myth. Once the purpose of ‘Parakayapravesha’ is achieved, the spirit leaves the body and returns to its original body. The original body should be carefully preserved and protected until the the spirit returns. ln ‘Saartha’, the minister of the king Amaruka orders the soldiers to search for all dead bodies and burn them, for he guesses that a spirit, most likely that of a sanyasi, must have entered the body of the dead king Amaruka.

The depictions of Mandan Mishra’s Pathashala and of Nalanda University bring to light the rites and rituals followed in Vedic religion and in Buddhism, and the differences in the method of teaching, (173-174 pages of ‘Saartha’). In Nalanda too, as in Mahishmathi, worship was offered both in the morning and in the evening. But in Mahishmati, there was no image worship, for idol worship was not a Vedic tradition. At Mahishmati , the students, about a hundred in number, used to chant Vedic mantras soon after waking up and completing their morning ablutions. In the evening too, group chanting took place. Along with this, sandhyavandana used to be performed thrice a day by each individual. But at Nalanda, the emphasis was on group worship and image worship. Chaityavandana was a practice that prevailed from the beginning of Buddhism. Thousands of monks used to gather at the central grounds, organise themselves into several groups, and go to the various tanks and lakes around Nalanda to bathe. After the morning bath, the chief priest who was in charge of conducting the ceremonies would sound the gong. After the monks had reassembled, the idol of Buddha would be brought out in a procession and placed under a huge canopy, while several girls carried perfumed waters in vessels. The idols, made of gold, silver, copper or stone were bathed and dried with a clean white cloth, and taken back to the temple. After returning them to their places, they used to be decorated with a variety of flowers, and worshipped. This kind of worship used to be performed collectively and individually, every day, in the student quarters. An idol of Buddha used to be placed  in a niche and the teacher and students used to worship it daily , without a single day of neglect. To Nagabhatta, who was a Vedic scholar, this idol worship seemed strange. At the Pathashala of Mandana Mishra, only homa, havana and yajna used to be performed, wherein the deities were invoked through mantras. These provoke us to think about the creation” of so many gods and goddesses in the form of idols.

At Nalanda, the ritual of Chaityavandana used to be observed during late afternoon or during the twilight hours. All the monks used to come out of the main door of their Viharas, and circumambulate the stupa at the centre of the university, and then kneel down. Someone would sing in praise of the noble qualities of the guru. An officiating priest, sitting on a throne in the auditorium, would read out an aphorism. A hymn, written by the playwright Ashwaghosha, used to be recited. The first part of the hymn was usually a eulogy of "Threeratna", the second was a selection from Buddha’s teachings, and the third was a set of prayers for perfecting the conduct of each individual. ‘Subhashita’ used to be recited in chorus.

The rites and rituals that were being observed in Kumarila Bhatta’s Pathashala are described through Bharati Devi. In that house, the vedas used to be chanted continuously. Students came from many places to learn the Vedas and the scriptures. Bharati Devi says she was used to hear the chanting of Vedas even while she was in her mother’s womb. She could recite them faultlessly when she was just eight years old, although, she was not allowed to learn the Vedas directly from a guru, being a woman. This shows that, by the eighth century, women had lost most of their freedom and the opportunity to get educated as scholars, which used to be possible during the Vedic period. Yet, at least some women like Bharati Devi were fortunate enough to get a scholastic education. Bharati Devi says she married Mandana Mishra according to the ‘gruhasutras’ and she herself, though a bride, chanted the mantras, and no purohit was asked to conduct the wedding. This is a rare example of a ritualistic wedding. The Vedic system stressed on Gruhasthashrama, though it respected Sanyasashrama.

Many extracts from the upanishads throw light on the essence of ancient scriptures of India, and show how they can guide us even t this day. Chandrike quotes from the upanishads to drive home the necessity of self-control to Nagabhatta.

Tantric worship of Shakti is a ritualistic method in the path of spiritual achievement. As Nagabhatta becomes a tantric with the help of a tantric Yogi, he practises all the rites of tantric method. A Tantri sadhaka has to perform the rites and rituals of ‘yonipuja’ to acquire the desired results. He requests Chandrike to become his ‘Shakti’. With the purpose of saving Nagabhatta, Chandrike agrees to participate in this ritual. These tantric rites and rituals, are still performed at many places in India. Here is a brief description of the rituals:

An actress, a Kapalika, a prostitute, a barber’s daughter, or a flower vendor’s daughter are qualified to play the part of a Shakti. This ritual worship of the female genitals (yoni) should be performed on a new moon night, in a grave yard or other isolated place according to the prescribed rites. Coitus with the shakti - the female partner is a part of the ritual. But the Sadhaka should rise above the level of sensual pleasure and should see in that woman the primordial female principle. Shakti, or the female partner is made to sit on a stone slab. Sandalwood is ground into smooth paste with water. Bhang powder is liquified in an earthen pot. Turmeric and kumkum are mixed  separately. Fire is kindled with a piece of flint stone and dry wood and two oil lamps with cotton wicks are lit. The shaktri then has to take off her clothes and wear the clothes that have been dipped in the water mixed with haldi and kumkum. She is then asked to sit in the centre of the mandala. These mandalas are drawn with haldi, kumkum, rice floor etc. and are very important in these kinds of rituals. (Usually, these mandalas are mystic designs with geometrical shapes.) Half of the potion called ‘Vijaya’ that is prepared from bhang has to be drunk by the Sadhaka. The worship is then performed with the mantras from prescribed ritualistic texts. These sacred mantras state that Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the deities in charge of creation, preservation and destruction, manifest in the three corners of the female organ. Kalika takes position  at the side, Tripura sundari at the top, and Bhuvaneshwari along the circumference. Taking off the clothes of Shakti, the Sadhaka then smears Kumkum on her forehead, while the breasts and pubic hair is smeared with sandal wood paste. Pubic hair symbolises the sacred darbha grass. Explaining these to the Shakti, as it is stated in the slokas of the sacred tantric texts, the Sadhaka has to enter Shakti and indulge in a prolonged union. After this he has to perform other rituals, with the mantras. Chandrike, with her profound scholarship of Sanskrit and a thorough knowledge of philosophy convinces Nagabhatta of his mistake in following this tantric ritual of yonipuja (‘Saartha’, p. 125-126). Bhyrappa has provided Sanskrit excerpts from the texts related to the tantric tradition, and these descriptions are authentic. This tantric tradition is also followed by some Budhists. However, it is believed, that Sadhakas, often slip on this path, and lose their ‘Siddhi’.

The philosophical discourse between Mandana Mishra and Aacharya Shankara is a historical fact. Gradually this incident not only gained popularity as a legend, but also acquired a mythical aura through the centuries, owing to the great personality and scholarship of Shankara yati, who was believed to be an incarnation of Shiva.  Saartha places this incident in its historical perspective against the backdrop of the 8th century, yet offers it a mythical grandeur and legendary popularity.

Chandrike’s Guru is capable of casting off his mortal body at his own will. This reminds us of the myth of Bheeshma’s gift of ‘icchaamarana’ - a boon that allowed him to die when he chose. To Bheeshma this was a boon, to Chandrike’s guru it was the result of spiritual attainment. The Guru informs to Chandrike through the medium of meditation that he was going to cast off his mortal body the next full moon, near a particular guhamantapa. He was the Guru who had once informed Nagabhatta about the spiritual light of ‘Sahasrara’, which would be more bright and beautiful than the light that emerged from the chink of dark clouds. The Guru’s final departure follows the ritualistic pattern of many ‘sadhakas’, who breathe their last at their will. The Guru had been sitting in ‘Padmasana’, facing east. His skin, though full of wrinkles, shone like gold. There was not a trace of any scars or moles on the skin. He sat erect in Padmasana, holding his backbone absolutely straight, eyes closed. Within a couple of minutes he was in deep meditation one could not even notice the rising and falling of his breathing. He was about to reach the state of ‘Samadhi’ in a short while. His body was in the same position. The Junior ascetic said that it was over, the Guru had left  his body. The incident gives us a picture of the yogic process of casting off the body with ease and peace, as if entering noiselessly into another chamber. Even after his death, the Guru communicates with Chandrike and instructs her to marry Krishna, and own the child in her womb with proper samskaras. This throws light on the broad and generous outlook that is adopted in the ancient texts. This method of purification of the foetus that was conceived as a result of the molestation of a woman by mlecchas, it is said, is ordained in the ‘Devala Smriti’. (‘Devala Smriti’ does not fall under the tradition of the eighteen smritis. Though the complete text is not available, it is believed that Devala lived on the banks of the river Sindhu during 1200-1225. He did know the nature of mleccahs, and maintains a liberal view towards the women, who were victimised by mlecchas, and prescribes the rites of purification. "Historical importance of Devala Smriti" - Bhagyalatha Pataskar. This is taken by K.G. Nagarajappa’s article “Saartha - Ondu tatvika chintane". - "S.L. Bhyrappa avara Kritigala Vimarshe , Editor Dr. Sumateendra Nadiga).  Through the Guru’s instruction, Bhyrappa, shows the plasticity, elasticity and the adaptability of the rituals according to the needs and demands of a changing society.


(To be continued…)



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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