Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

A delightful retelling of the Norse Mythology

Gaiman_Norse_Mythology
This is my fourth book by Neil Gaiman the earlier three being American Gods, Stardust and Neverwhere. Gaiman is one of those few authors who can keep me engaged with the material for more than an hour. His tasteful use of the language to craft surprisingly simple prose in order to narrate interesting stories while consistently maintains the required tension is what I admire the most about his writing. Given this and the fact that I am a sucker for Mythologies of all kinds, “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman was very difficult thing to resist.

In this book, Gaiman narrates the stories of the Norse Gods in his characteristic style. He narrates the events at the beginning of the time, of the creation of the Universe, of the principle characters. He tells us the story of how the primary gods got their weapons, how the Asgardians managed to build a wall for themselves while getting the Giants to pay for it (Trump’s inspiration perhaps!). He tells us about the apples of immortality whose theft resulted in Freyr’s father Njord getting a wife, of the time when Thor’s hammer went missing, and the incident where Thor and Loki were humbled. He also tells the story of how Odin managed to get the mead of poetry for the Gods and the one about a hole in Freyr’s heart which he was able to fill but at the cost of his powerful sword. These stories which narrated earlier in the book have an element of comedy in them and all of them have happy endings. Later on,Gaiman moves to narrate some of the darker stories, which is very much his forte. These include the stories of Balder’s death, of Loki’s imprisonment and finally of the impending Ragnarok which will see the death of several principle Gods and lay the foundations of a new beginning.

Is this book Norse Mythology reimagined ? Fortunately, the answer is No! Gaiman stays true to the source material the Prose and the Poetic Eddas. So it is a retelling of the Norse Mythology where the only liberties that Gaiman could afford to take were in the manner in which these stories were narrated.

I have often felt that when it comes to the literary works which are products of old culture, instead of trying to narrate them in a modern perspective, just retelling them using the modern narrative medium, be it in writing or the audio-visual medium, helps the reader in getting to know about those cultures far better than any re-imagination can.  Gaiman’s Norse Mythology  excels exactly in this aspect, which is why I would rate it 4.5/5
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Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra

A commentary on the Panchatantra that is free from alien ideological lenses.

Natural_Enemity

Before coming to the book itself, something about author and his previous work which led me to purchasing the book.

I was introduced to Ashay Naik’s writings earlier this year in the wake of Rajiv Malhotra’s “Battle for Sanskrit”. He beautifully summarized the differences between the respected Shatavadhanin R Ganesh and Rajiv Malhotra approach to the Pollock problem.  Subsequently I have been reading his other articles on Swarajya and Indiafacts, and more recently through his excellent blog .

Ashay is an excellent writer. He has a formal training in Philosophy, especially Indian Philosophy. Furthermore, his knowledge of Sanskrit ensures that he can delve into the primary material as opposed to the dispensing opinions based on secondary sources.
Ashay has been working on a book on Panchatantra, which is an offshoot of his thesis, if I am not mistaken.

Now coming to the book itself: In the introduction, the author draws our attention to how the approach sought by the characters in Panchatantra is different from the Revolutionary approach that is encouraged by the Western narrative, both on the left and the right, that seeks to conceive an ideal (or normative) goal and employs various strategies to achieve this. As the author points out, as per these approaches, the dominant narrative is that the world is a problem which needs to be fixed. The solution envisioned is typically a Utopian one which promises to get rid of the problem once and for all. As opposed to this, the alternate view is that the no matter which order is sought to be imposed, it is always susceptible to corruption, thereby resulting in oppressors and oppressed. And hence, wisdom lies in working with the world to ensure that one does not get oppressed. Thus, the politics in Panchatantra, is not based on ideology but on kinship. And hence, the hierarchy of family, community, jAti, etc become relevant in this kind of a setting.

The second important distinction that the author highlights in the introduction pertains to the dominant values. The Modern world holds equality, political liberty and economic independence. Thus reading the text using this lens leads to two kinds of faults : 1) Critics cherry-picking instances from the story to highlight how the text deviates from the aforementioned triad of values. 2) Apologists trying to force-fit the narratives in Panchatantra to justify the triad. Both approaches fail to reveal to us what the text has to say about the various issues it aims to tackle. The author identifies an alternate conservative triad of values that characterize the world of Panchatantra, namely , social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities.

The readers of Panchatantra should be familiar with the main story involving the the bull Sanjivaka, the jackal Damanaka and the Lion King Pingalaka. As the story goes forth, each character illustrates a nIti related point using an allegorical story. In this commentary, the author devotes the first half entirely to the main story arc and tackles the stories within the main story in the second half. I found this approach to be very useful since the context remains intact and helps us follow the author’s commentary better. The writing is smooth, and the author touches upon situations from day-to-day lives to explain a certain concept better.

The second half is devoted to the various stories that are told by the characters within the main story. Each of these stories can be independently read and there’s something to understand for the lay reader. One can read these portions in any order. Personally I liked the commentary on two stories “Gorabha and Dantila” and “The Ascetic, the Jackal and the Bawd”. Both these stories bring out a refreshing perspective with respect to the view of the Ancient texts on strI charitra. This is another instance where the author highlights the importance of approaching classics such as the Panchatantra bereft of various ideological lenses such as libertarianism, feminism etc that are in vogue today. Thus rather than be an apologist for the narratives, the author tackles these issue head-on in a bold and unabashed manner.

The book is not only about nIti, but also about illustrating the rasa that can be found in the Panchatantra. The narrative itself uses several allegorical stories, but it is abound with similes and metaphors, some of which have entered into our day-to-day speech in the form of aphorisms/gAde-mAtu/muhAvraas. The author does a good job of commenting upon these without spoiling it for the reader by over-dissecting them.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to understand Panchatantra for what it says rather that what we would like it to say.

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Communal Festivals and Rituals

Even today, I know several people born and brought up in my hometown Karkala, but currently working elsewhere, who will give anything to attend Karkala Karthikpunnav or Teru. These people plan their leaves for these occasions well in advance. One such person even threatened to resign from his post in the bank if he was not granted leave for these days. The rest of us, who cannot muster the gall to issue such threats end up becoming very distraught when we cannot attend these two festivals. Some of those who couldn’t attend these festivals in person claim that they could feel the sound of the temple bells ringing in their ears. This was particularly true of an uncle of mine who was serving in the army far away up north!

Why was there such a strong pull when it comes to these events ? What was so special about them ? Was it about meeting old friends ? Not really. One can meet them even otherwise. Was it about getting a glimpse of the devatAs? Perhaps not, since one can go to the temple anytime of the year and still find devatA there.

The key attraction in these festivals was the whole community in the town coming out and celebrating in unison. Taking part in elaborate rituals, chanting the Bahuparaaks, wearing the traditional clothes to serve the devAs and the bhaktAs, the fun and frolic that one has on the avabhRita day, singing and dancing while bringing our deva back to the temple from the avabhrita snAna – these are experiences one enjoys when performed communally. The feeling is hard to describe, for it involves transcending the mundane and experiencing the sublime. I am sure, this is the same feeling anyone who attends their Uru jAtre experiences.

Sadly, in the modern times, religion has been shoved into the private quarters. This is mostly a side effect of Reformation, which aggressively made religion a private affair. The modern secular capitalistic world that we live today is an ideological offspring of the Reformation. Hence there is not much surprise that in the modern world, there is a severe reduction (and in some places total elimination) of the traditional communal rituals which have been a part of every civilization so far.

It is not that rituals have died out. In fact rituals won’t die out since they have evolutionary aspect which has helped in the survival of humans in groups. The modern research show that even other primates such as the Chimps have rituals. So, the capacity and the need for rituals is not going away anytime soon. Instead we shall have modern rituals: After all, the flag-hoisting ceremony, the Parades are modern variants of ancient rituals. Except that they don’t seem to have the same kind of effect that the traditional ones, which evolved over centuries, have on the insiders belonging to the tradition.

Thus, to paraphrase a quote from Ashay Naik’s excellent blogpost on the theory of polytheism, the modern Hindu who quotes Tagore and derides rituals in favor of private worship is missing this crucial point that the heart of the primary religions such as Hinduism, Shintoism, Greek, Roman, Norse, Inca, Mayan, Native American Pagan   religions, lies not in theology or abstract philosophy, but in the performance of rituals. No amount of “belief” can replace the experience one gets through these rituals. By this, I do not mean to say that theology or abstract philosophy is not important to primary religions, but there is a hierarchy of importance, and in in that hierarchy, rituals have always occupied a higher position. The counter-religions based on Mosaic Distinction understand this extremely very well. This is why when Rome was taken over by the adherents of the counter-religion, i.e Christianity, the first thing these christian ruler  banned were the public rituals, including the famed Olympics.

It is in this light that one must view the recent bans passed by the secular government/courts on public events/rituals Jallikattu, Pashu Bali, and the restrictions imposed on public festivals such Dahi-Handi. This is the key reason why the secular government takes over the control of the temples. Let me be clear – I don’t think that the secular govt or the court is doing this out of any conscious hatred towards Hindus. However, since secularism is an offspring of reformation , the metaphysics and the ethics of the secularism will not exhibit any tolerance for public rituals. For a similar reason, this time due another variant of the reformation called cultural Marxism, we saw an agitation that wants to encroach into traditional religious spaces such as Sabarimala in the name of equality for all. Hence modernity’s indoctrination and the derision of rituals as primitive superstitions, or wasteful extravaganzas doesn’t come as a surprise.

The importance of public rituals was not lost on early Hindu nationalists such as the venerable BAlaga~NgAdhara tiLaka. The public Ganeshotsava celebrations which he instated played a crucial part in building communal unity.  In the mahArAStra country, this festival is celebrated with great pomp and show like it should be. Public rituals always involved an element of fun, extravagance and mirth in them. They were not sad mechanical affairs like that dreadful modern ritual called the “convocation ceremony” where even the statements uttered on the dias sound more artificial than anything that is made in China. Contrast this with the ancient samAvartana ceremony where the brahmachArins take a ritual bath, anoint their bodies with fragrant sandalwood paste, wear new robes, and pay a visit to a learned assembly in a chariot or an elephant where the brahmachArin is introduced to the vidvad-sabha as a full fledged scholar.

Even the modern people yearn for public rituals. This is the reason why Halloween, the Easter Day parade, the New Year’s Ball attract so many people. After all, the Kiss on the New-year’s eve as the Ball drops, is just another modern ritual.This is the reason why the uprooted modern youth in bhArata’s cities seek to transplant Valentine’s day, which itself is a Christian appropriation of an ancient Pagan Festival, into the Indian ethos.  Had we Hindus continued celebrating madanOtsava, there wouldn’t have existed any need for importing an alien festival. And while the modern Hindus mock the celebration of Holi with various reason (waste of water, color harms skin, color harms animals), the fact that they wanted to indulge in the la-tomatina festival shows how deep is the yearning for such public rituals. Their deracination has only resulted in hatred for the traditional rituals, but it hasn’t uprooted the yearning for rituals as such.

And there-in lies a very important lessons for all modern Hindus. By allowing others to encroach into our ritual space, either via legislation or via indoctrination, if we believe that we are helping to usher a superstition-free ritual-free society , we are mistaken. We would have only helped clear the space for some other rituals to take root, thereby voluntarily ceding space for another culture, another civilization. Nature abhors vacuum, and however much we want to imagine that humans are special and apart from the nature, we cannot escape the eternal truth about how embedded within nature humans are. Our elders knew this. Hence, the elders fought tooth and nail to preserve their way of life which is aligned with nature. We modern Hindus owe our existence and our prosperity to our ancestors way of life and their wisdom. And we might hate to admit it, but we do bear the burden of passing on their way of life to the future generation, for we are merely the custodians and not the consumer of the fruits of our elders’ wisdom. Hence, if anything we should be celebrating our festivals, our rituals with greater pomp and seek to please the devAs with more steadfastness instead of whining about extravagance.

Should we fail to understand this lesson and give up our rituals in the name of modernity, our fate and more importantly the fate of our future generations, as the 20th century sage DV Gundappa points out in his immortal words, will be like that of the blind and the lame whose old house is now demolished by modernity. We may not have a perfect vision about life, nor have gone places with these rituals, but at least the rituals provided us with comfort, and gave us the experience in which we could get a glimpse of something more sublime. These rituals made our lives more bearable. By snatching away the only thing which we have, with no suitable alternative to offer, what good does modernity promise to bestow upon us ?

ಹಳೆಯ ಭಕ್ತಿಶ್ರದ್ಧೆಯಳಿಸಿಹೋಗಿವೆ ಮಾಸಿ ।
ಸುಳಿದಿಲ್ಲವಾವ ಹೊಸ ದರ್ಶನದ ಹೊಳಪುಂ ।।
ಪಳಗಿದ್ದ ಮನೆಬಿದ್ದ ಕುಂಟ ಕುರುಡನ ತೆರದಿ ।
ತಳಮಳಿಸುತಿದೆ ಲೋಕ —— ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ ।।

Credits: Thanks to @kshetragnya and @orsoriggiante for enlightening me on the fact that Cultural Marxism and Secularism were extensions of the age old theme of Mosaic Distinction.

And thanks to this wonderful video from the School of life which triggered the thought chain leading to this blog-post.

 

Update 1 : Joseph Campbell on what happens when a civilization loses Mythology and Rituals ?

Update 2: Do read my friend Hariprasad N’s blog where he explains how festivals are the latches that open the door to Moksha

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Review: Ten Kings by Ashok Banker

tenkingsdasarajnamedium2013

A very fertile land ruled by an able righteous ruler attracts the envy of the other clans of his own tribe. These other clans plot the ruler’s downfall by forming some sort of a Mahagathbandan. The other clans in the tribe are 9 in number. The combined forces of 9 attack 1 and the 1 not only survives the attack but decimates the 9.

This is the famous story of the Dasharajna, or the battle of 10 kings that is recorded in the Rig Veda. The 9 bhArata clans comprising of Alina, Anu, Druhyu, Puru, Bhrigu,  Matsya, Bhalanas, Parsu and Pani guided by the Bharata preceptor Vishwamitra attack the Trtsu king Sudas who is guided by Vashistha. Mandala 7 of the Rigveda describes how the battle was won when Vashistha summons Indra and Varuna to Sudas’s aid, and how the 9 kings get defeated owing to the combined wrath of Indra and Varuna. This is the topic that Ashok Banker tries to recreate in his “Ten Kings”.

Ashok Banker is famous for his re-interpretation of the Ramayana. I had read half of the first book  of that series titled “The prince of Ayodhya” (TPOA) and found the writing to be aweful.  The plot was really lame. That was one of the few books that I gave up midway.  As an aside, I haven’t attempted to read Amish’s “Scion of Ikshvaku” primary because of being scarred by the TPOA experience. Anyway, given this rather bad prior experience, I approached “Ten Kings” with some hesitation. But since this was the only available fictional account of the Vedic age battle, I decided to give it a try and bought the book.

I found the writing to be much better than TPOA. The characters in this book were far more realistic than the earlier one. There were a few jarring notes in the form of anachronistic dialogue that were to be found here and there. For example, one wouldn’t expect a nurse to be called as “dai-ma” during the Vedic times especially when father and mother were being referred to as “pitr” and “matr” respectively. There were also a few characters who seemed slightly out of place (or time!). But apart from these minor inconveniences the book was rather good and was able to hold my attention such that I could read through the entire thing in half a day. I wasn’t really expecting to get a feel for the Vedic way of life in this book like I would have from an author like Devudu. So I wasn’t disappointed on that front.

Coming to the main theme of the book, Banker’s description of how Vashitha’s intellect coupled with Sudasa’s battle strategy won them the war is very believable. His rationalization of how Indra and Varuna came to the aid of Sudasa has a nice touch to it. The motivation for the 9 clans to unite against Sudasa has also been explained well. These are things that are missing from the Rig Veda narrative, so it was good to see Banker fill these gaps in a coherant manner.

The book looks to be the first in a series of books that talks about the Harappa and the Mohenjadaro civilization. So this book literally lays the foundation for the series.

I will rate the book at 3.5 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who would be interested in this fascinating story of the battle of 10 kings.

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Description of Read-Copy-Update by Steven Rostedt

From http://lwn.net/Articles/545752/

< system in single state : everyone sees cat == alive >

	insert_into_box(cat);

	< system in dual state : new calls see cat == dead, but
	  current calls see cat == alive >

	open_box();

	< system is back to single state: everyone sees cat = dead >

	funeral(cat);

Wondering if I can reuse this to describe “Eventual Consistency”. The challenge would be to succinctly describe the

 <system in multiple states>

part I guess.

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Happy New Year 2013

One more year goes by, a new one arrives. It might be just another day, when the sun rose  the same way, as it has on days that came before. But we humans love to play, the game of life so we say, “Happy New Year” to those we care for.

This year, some of us will be exploring newer paths, some others will be continuing their journey on the paths they’ve already chosen. The travellers of the past have said that the destination is not important, one has to enjoy the journey. Of course, there will be uncertainties and there will be surprises all along this journey. We will encounter unknown travellers and some of our old companions will choose to go separate ways. But when any of this will happen, with certainty none can say.

So, to keep you company in your journey here’s a nice bouquet of verses from one of the illustrious voices of romantic hindi poetry, Harivansh Rai Bachchan. It’s called “पथ की पहचान”.  Wish you all a very happy new year!!

पूर्व चलने के बटोही बाट की पहचान कर ले।

पुस्तकों में है नही
छापी गई इसकी कहानी
हाल इसका ज्ञात होता
है न औरों की ज़बानी

अनगिनत राही गए
इस राह से उनका पता क्या
पर गए कुछ लोग इस पर
छोड पैरौं की निशानी

यह निशानी मूक होकर
भी बहुत कुछ बोलती है
खोल इसका अर्थ पंथी
पंथ का अनुमान कर ले।

पूर्व चलने के बटोही बाट की पहचान कर ले।

यह बुरा है या कि अच्छा
व्यर्थ दिन इस पर बिताना
अब असंभव छोड़ यह पथ
दूसरे पर पग बढ़ाना

तू इसे अच्छा समझ
यात्रा सरल इससे बनेगी
सोंच मत केवल तुझे ही
यह पड़ा मन में बिठाना

हर सफल पंथी यही
विश्वास ले इस पर बढ़ा है
तू इसी पर आज अपने
चित का अवधान कर ले।

पूर्व चलने के बटोही बाट की पहचान करले।

है अनिश्चित किस जगह पर
सरित गिरि गहवर मिलेंगें
है अनिश्चित किस जगह पर
बाग बन सुंदर मिलेंगे।

किस जगह यात्रा खतम हो
जाएगी यह भी अनिश्चित
है अनिश्चित कब सुमन कब
कंटकों के शर मिलेंगे

कौन सहसा छूट जाएँगे
मिलेंगे कौन सहसा
आ पड़े कुछ भी रुकेगा
तू न ऐसी आन कर ले।

पूर्व चलने के बटोही बाट की पहचान कर ले।

 

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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