Jayary Newsletter #83

Cunning

We Indians have plenty of stereotypes for each other but none is more enduring than that of the cunning brahmin. There are other stories about brahmins of course: sometimes the brahmin is a stupid pauper, sometimes he's a dupe, and sometimes he's a wise man. But none of these have the same intensity as the stories of brahminical cunning, especially when the brahmin in question has been wronged or offended.

In these stories, the brahmin is revealed as a man - it's always a man - who gets what he wants and who is ruthless in how he goes about satisfying his desires even as he never wields weapons. These stories offer a glimpse of how society views a caste that's been in power everywhere without bearing arms.

You see that stereotype in play in the story about Kautilya and how he poured honey on a clump of kusa grass that had pricked him. You see that stereotype in the story of Agastya and the Vindhyas.

Here's what happens: Agastya walks up to the Vindhyas and despite their anger, the mountains bow before the great rishi. When the mountains bow, they lower themselves far enough to let sunlight through, which is what the gods want. But how do you keep them that way?

Agastya has a trick up his robe. The rishi blesses the Vindhyas and says: "why don't you wait until I am done with my southern journey? We can talk at leisure then." Of course, the rishi never come back - the mountain is left waiting for eternity. I guess Agastya gave up some of his freedom in doing so, but South India is a more pleasant place to live than the north anyway, right?

Swallowing the Ocean

We Indians have plenty of stereotypes for each other but none is more enduring than that of the cunning brahmin. There are other stories about brahmins of course: sometimes the brahmin is a stupid pauper, sometimes he's a dupe, and sometimes he's a wise man. But none of these have the same intensity as the stories of brahminical cunning, especially when the brahmin in question has been wronged or offended.

In these stories, the brahmin is revealed as a man - it's always a man - who gets what he wants and who is ruthless in how he goes about satisfying his desires even as he never wields weapons. These stories offer a glimpse of how society views a caste that's been in power everywhere without bearing arms.

You see that stereotype in play in the story about Kautilya and how he poured honey on a clump of kusa grass that had pricked him. You see that stereotype in the story of Agastya and the Vindhyas.

Here's what happens: Agastya walks up to the Vindhyas and despite their anger, the mountains bow before the great rishi. When the mountains bow, they lower themselves far enough to let sunlight through, which is what the gods want. But how do you keep them that way?

Agastya has a trick up his robe. The rishi blesses the Vindhyas and says: "why don't you wait until I am done with my southern journey? We can talk at leisure then." Of course, the rishi never come back - the mountain is left waiting for eternity. I guess Agastya gave up some of his freedom in doing so, but South India is a more pleasant place to live than the north anyway, right?

Ocean Dharma

Now that Agastya has swallowed and digested the ocean, the gods have a conundrum: how are they going to get the ocean back? I can imagine a UN commission on oceans pondering over a similar question: having overfished and trawled the life out of our oceans, how are we going to restore them?

Brahma has sobering advice for the repentant gods: "it's going to take a long time." I always wonder about that advice. Suppose humans vanished from the earth. How long will it take the earth to reach a new equilibrium? People have written books about the topic - they don't think it will take that long.

Which begs the question: did the gods leave the earth because they made such a mess that they couldn't live here anymore? Why should we assume the gods were protectors? When Elon Musk talks about taking millions of people to Mars, I am thinking he should be sending Indra an email.

It turns out that the dharma of ocean restoration will fall on Bhagiratha's shoulders. Who's Bhagiratha? Why is it his problem? If that question popped into your head while reading the previous sentence, you're in good company, for our perennial questioner, i.e., Yudhisthira, had the same question of Lomasha.

"Tell me all about Bhagiratha's destiny," says the Pandava king. He's got several more years to kill before the war comes knocking and what better way to spend those years than to peel one layer of time after another.

Divine Risk

I feel the god's pain. You would think life would be a continuous party being immortal and everything, but the reality is otherwise. When the daityas aren't killing them directly, they're killing them indirectly by shutting down the sacrifice. They're stuck with a massive bill after a rishi saves them from oblivion by drinking down the ocean - who's going to refill the ocean now?

Not Agastya, that's for sure. Agastya is the black hole of the ancient world: everything that passes the event horizon is gone for ever. The rishi's quite clear that the gods need to look elsewhere for their water supply.

What I don't fully understand is why the gods are concerned about the ocean at all. Is it their compassion for the earth? Do they have divine ecological sentiments that gnaw at their conscience? Or are they worried that a yet to be named ocean protector will be so angry with them that they're worried about the consequences?

Whatever the case may be, it's back to Brahma for the deities. Brahma doesn't comfort them one bit. Prajapati tells them it's going to take a long long time for the ocean to return. "You're going to have to wait until Bhagiratha takes birth."

Notice how mini-avatars are scattered throughout the epic: they're reliably incarnated every time reality suffers from an existential challenge. I want to know the divine perception of risk: how does the Ultimate decide which divinity should be incarnated? When is it OK for a minor god to take birth in human form and when does the world need a major avatar of Vishnu?