Jayary Newsletter # 79
An Indian Socrates
Incest is a running theme in the old world. Pharaoh's married their siblings. Zeus and Hera are brother and sister. In both cases, who else would a god marry? Prajapati chases after his daughter. The divinity of these myths is an elemental divinity, far removed from the kindly old man ruling from up above.
Nevertheless, Agastya's combination of parenting and engineering design is unique in the history of family business. Let's start with Lopamudra's birth. Agastya assembles her out of grade-A parts, but he doesn't give birth to her; for that he has to find surrogate parents. The king and queen of Vidarbha are glad to receive Agastya's blessing and soon Lopamudra is born.
In this episode and elsewhere, Agastya comes across as an earthy Indian Socrates. I don't know if you remember, but Socrates was the son of a midwife, and in his questioning, he calls himself the midwife of wisdom. Like other aging midwives, Socrates is barren, but he has the gift of birthing wisdom in others. Another way of putting it: Socrates is drunk on the muses and receives transmission through them, but he doesn't have the manual power to bring those ideas to life on his own - he needs interlocutors. Just as the blind Homer was the composer of the Greek epics, the barren Socrates was the midwife of Greek philosophy.
Not that Socrates wasn't fleshy. The ancient sources say that Socrates was ugly, satyr like; snub nosed and squat. He was a fantastic soldier in his youth and could still drink his young lovers and friends under the table in his old age. Agastya is Socrates with his fleshy parts intact. For that reason alone, we might want to look closely at the rishi.
The Kshatriya-Brahmana tension runs throughout the Jaya and its universe. Kshatriyas depend on Brahmanas for knowledge, for access to divinity and for advice. Brahmanas need Kshatriyas for protection and influence. You would think that's a mutually beneficial relationship and it is on most occasions, but every once in a while it falls apart spectacularly. Like when the brahmin Parasurama kills twenty one generations of kshatriyas.
Agastya has a more cordial relationship with the kingly set but it's not stress free. The king of Vidarbha would have remained childless without Agastya's intervention, but he doesn't want his luminous daughter to be married to a vagabond rishi. How can a queen marry a hermit? But how's he going to say no without inviting curses? Vidarbha as a problem.
Fortunately for the king, Lopamudra is more than happy to be married to the great rishi. Who knows, she might prefer the freedom of the himalayan skies to the gilded cage of the royal palace. Lopamudra divests her royal finery and takes to barks and rags. Looks fetching too, which works out for everyone, especially Agastya.
Even a barkista has her limits: she is happy wearing rags, she's happy subsisting on fruits and herbs, but she isn't about to sleep with her husband on stony ground. Lopamudra wants a proper bed for their nighttime activities.
Now Agastya has a problem: where's he going to find a bed?
When Lopamudra asks Agastya to get her a proper bed, the rishi is flummoxed. Where's he going to get the money for a richly upholstered bed? Who's going to pay for the cushions and sheets?
Lopamudra: "Why don't you use your tapas to create a bed for us?" She didn't say it, but I can hear her think "if you can make a wife for yourself, the least you can do is make a home that goes along with it."
Yes, but making a wife is part of Agastya's debt to his ancestors. In repaying that debt, Agastya doesn't incur new obligations. The assembly of Lopamudra doesn't draw down his spiritual bank balance. But making a bed; that's a different matter, a frivolous waste of spiritual power.
I see a problem here: if Lopamudra was created to satisfy Agastya's desire to have children and her precondition for sleeping with him is a bed worth sleeping on, why does he rack up spiritual debts by fulfilling her desires? Lopamudra hints at that contradiction, when she says to the rishi: "Listen, I only come to you when I can become pregnant. It's that time of the month; if you want children, we need to get going pronto."
Makes me think that she wasn't pining away for her husband. Or is she? The epic says she was a devoted wife and he was a doting husband. They took good care of each other. But doting plus devoted do not equal desire. Love and lust don't obey the same rules.
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As we learnt, you can pay for a wife without incurring a debt but you can't clothe and feed her without doing so. It's a situation ripe for Marxist, Freudian and Postcolonial analyses, but we will let that slide. Let someone else write about the discursive dialectics of vedic wifemaking and get their book burned in Pune. Sometimes a wife is just a wife. Plus, Lopamudra is an exceptional wife and she's in heat: no way Agastya is going to let this opportunity go.
Then comes Agastya's Kisa Gotami moment.
If you remember, Gotami is the bereaved mother who brings her dead son to the Buddha and asks him to revive him. The Buddha says to her: "sure, I will do so as soon as you bring me a mustard seed from a house that hasn't lost a near and dear one." Gotami agrees, only to find out that every house has its secret sorrow. She returns seedless and asks to be accepted into the Buddhist order. Moral of the story:
Suffering is universal.
Children are no insurance against suffering.
Only the dharma offers protection.
Do I believe the Buddha's line? Not as much as he would like and not as little as his detractors would like. But we aren't talking about the Buddha, are we?
Agastya, like Kisa Gotami, runs from king to king asking for a gift-loan to buy himself a nice house and a nice bed. Everywhere he goes, the kings welcome him with great pomp only to reveal that their treasuries are broke; that even a small loan will pinch some family that doesn't have a great rishi or famous king in its lineage.
The only king running a surplus is the daitya king Ilvala, the brother of the infamous Vatapi. Agastya's daitya digesting is about to begin.