The Yaksha’s potbelly

Indian Mythology, Modern Mythmaking 20 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 03, 2011

We live in times when men and women dream of having a body without fat.  Female models in fashion shows become famous when they look thin and starved.  Male models and Bollywood heroes become famous because of musculature, especially a six-pack abdomen. A far cry from the traditional notions of beauty.

To be fat, in ancient and medieval times, was a sign of affluence, that one had enough to eat. Musculature was associated with being a laborer, thinness with poverty.  Hermits could be thin, servants could have muscles, but the beautiful had to have soft rounded bodies and the rich had to have potbellies.

The modern notions of male beauty have its roots in Greek sculpture where heroes were shown with well-toned bodies, each muscle depicting artistic precision. These have spread via media to our homes. Bollywood heroes today therefore emulate Greek gods.  Even modern poster paintings of Hanuman and Ram and Shiva show them with musculature befitting a body builder, very different from the soft delicate features that Raja Ravi Verma painted.

In sacred songs, Hindu goddesses are described as having ‘deep navels’, ‘full breasts’ and multiple ‘love-handles’ on either side. To have a bony frame was the sign of an old witch and associated with fearsome Tantrik goddesses like Chandi and Dhumvati. Temple images show goddesses as being of ample proportions, full but not fat. Modern notions of feminine beauty, is also influenced by Western ideas, where softness has been replaced by firmness, as the feminist movement saw the former as a sign of weakness.

Kubera, treasurer of the gods, is visualized as a potbellied deity. His protruding stomach embodies a bag that is bursting with money. In traditional India, to have a potbelly was seen as a sign of prosperity. Men and women who did not become fat after marriage were seen as belonging to a loveless or unsuccessful marriage where there was not enough food to feed. Today, a potbelly is seen as a sign of disease, the accumulation of abdominal fat that leads to heart disease.

This medicalization of the potbelly has hurt Ganesha the most. Ganesha, the most popular Hindu deity of the 21st century, is lambodara, the one with a huge belly. It is the container of wealth. He is the god who removes all scarcity and provides food for all. He is associated with vegetation and wealth. His favorite sweet, the modaka, is shaped like a moneybag. His belly represents a warehouse of a farmer that is full of grain. Around the belly is the snake that stops rats from stealing the grain.

Increasingly, artists are visualizing him with muscles and a flat abdomen, in keeping with modern notions of beauty. It is ironical, that symbols associated with poverty in traditional India are becoming images of health and beauty in modern times. Softness and roundness is acceptable only in comedians and villains, while heroes and heroines tend to be more firm and sharp. Perhaps this shift indicates a shift towards a culture that is less gentle and more aggressive – celebrating the gym more than the dining table, muscle more than fat, protein more than sweets.

  • I think the absolute reason for this is that we inspire ourselves from the West Nowadays…We feel proud of speaking fluent english and wearing a suit and travelling in our own car…

    We should not blame the West for it but our Parents and GrandParents…who after Independence kept on telling us to study more Science…invented by the Westerners and Forget the Science taught by our 5000 yr old civilisation…They told us to measure success with the amount of money we can earn…They told us to compete with our neighbours kids and make sure we get a better Degree and Earn more from them…

    We are the Writers of our own Dark Destiny and God can only Laugh at us and be amused to see us forget His Teachings !!!!

    • Vinayak Iyer

      Very true! Like Devduttji says, if Ganga is found maily, check the origin, Gangotri.

  • Interesting observations!

  • Sriharsh

    We depend a lot on monsoon. The fat that accumulates around the waist helps during famine. We still prefer rounded people but would not like to admit it.

  • Your conclusion about our dark destiny and Indian gods laughing because of following westwern thoughts in maintaining a slim and trim body is totally ridiculous. Has god created only India and indians?.Who has created, if you believe in Hindu mythology, the rest of the world?. Another God?or a devil?. India is created by a special god?. Please let us not think like a child.The human beings are evolving every second. How can people remain stagnant and live like those in vedic times or stone age?.Let us be pragmatic.

  • Rashmi

    Amusing…..but never had agreed with the western concepts of beauty!!

    • optyagi

      whether u r slim or fat, in my view it should not interfere wih ur routine. if u r energetic enough to perform ur work it is OK. there is nothing wrong if u maintain ur body as per norms.

  • Infact i do remember one of my uncle (died of cardiac arrest), who used to be a wealthy personality in our village. He was proud of his potbelly, and also boasts that he has diabetes and cholesterol, which used to be a rich men’s status symbol that time.

    Now of course, his children are potbellied, but the logic of “wealthy” does not apply, as they are no way near to their dad. They have been advised to reduce their fats or end up having the same fate as their dad.

    • Niranjana nagpal

      I guess whether one is fat or slim, all have to die one day. Fat people may die due to cardiac arrest or diabetes. Slim people will die of nothing.

  • Darshan

    Personally felf happy after reading this… and yes we keep hearing from the old, “having a belly/pot belly is a sign of prosperity”

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    Our Idea’s and notions change with the change of times.

    Before economic reforms started, people had difficult time in managing 2 square meals. In those times pot belly was supposed to be good.

    Now, after liberalization, with availability of food, the thought has changed. Those eating excess food have developed pot bellies and are now lagging behind.

    Even a study in USA showed that during periods of economic prosperity, men preferred skinny models but during periods of economic downturn they preferred plump models.

    The best idea is to lead a balanced life.

    • narendra kumar modi

      sure , as well , in other view .it can be said that thin body is symbol of activeness and alertness of happenings in the neighborhood and society while potbelly symbolizes less activity and sitting posture . So can it be said thinness is our requirement more than the symbols?

  • Pramod

    If only I was born in ancients times I would have been the most coveted man…but one this is I can now claim to have divine looks..lol

  • Yes, the rural pot-belly is a sign of ‘abundance – many family members, neighbours, who shared joys and sorrows – in homes, villages amidst natural surroundings and with natural inputs- and also outputs !Eat simple food at home and excrete wastes outside in the fields after a good walk.Kamrey ( rooms) aur Kamar ( waist)badey they !The Urban pot-belly is the exact opposite – in nuclear families that may not eat together – in artificial homes that debar the elements from peeping in. Complex multi-regional meals eaten outside in expensive restaurants – but the wastes are excreted in expensive (and expansive) toilets inside the home !Ab Kamrey ( rooms) chhotey aur Kamar( waist) badey hain !
    The Battle of the Bulge ! ?

  • optyagi

    eating too much is wastage of foodgrains , which is already in short supply. if we r rich we should think of persons leaving below pooverty lines. who think like that they r the real rich.

  • Sanjana

    This made for a very interesting read….
    I am exploring the changing notions of beauty in Indian society and the craze for thinness and the kind of things people are willing to do to their bodies to attain “the perfect figure” are unbelievable!
    A lot of it has to do with new age consumption of the media, its messages and the forces of the market that are at play all around us 24*7.

  • I am not sure if it is a shift or as much it is the social value of demand and supply.

    Every generation worships the scarce and the rare things of those contemporary times. In the times where food is scarce and hence everyone thin, fat and bulky is the other side of the norm – that which is rare and hence given value. And now when pot bellies are a given, 6 pack is a rarity and hence of higher value.

    If for example in a country like US where pale skin is the norm, a tan is looked at the epitome of beauty. In India, we look at fair skin as a premium asset.

    Is it not?

    • Prabhat

      I fully agree with you.

      Whatever pot bellies signified in those days, it is unhealthy as it leads to dieseases.If a shift is happening for all good reasons, it should be welcomed.

      And we should celebrate both gym and dining table.

  • Kishore

    You are as usual good in comparing or connecting the never imaginable things. As Ujwal said, very interesting observations.
    But I would like to echo with GV Shankara Rao in one aspect – we cannot remain stagnant. The reason people are trying to get rid of the fat in the pot belly is purely because of medical reasons. Ok, forget about film heroes, they are totally different from layman. They have a reason to so many things they do.

  • Aarya Haritejam

    krishna balrama, arjuna even tamil king makaradwaja pandya who took part in mahabharat yuddham are stated as wrestler built . guess you forgot to read that