Published in Sunday Midday on 6 Dec 2009
If one travels across rural Tamil Nadu, one will find gigantic images of warrior-gods with thick black moustaches, weapons in hand, riding horses or elephants or even oxen, and accompanied by dogs. These are the images of Aiyanar, the warrior-god. He is sometimes accompanied by other warriors, like Veeran, the brave one. These are open shrines usually under trees or next to ponds and invariably at the frontier of the village. They face outwards, protecting the village from malevolent forces.
Aiyanar belongs to the folk tradition. And like Aiyanar, there are hundreds of folk gods and goddesses in every village of India – rustic, potent, adored and feared. They are very different from the rather benign and august deities of the mainstream religion. This phenomena is universal. All over the world, every human settlement had its local mythology replete with gods, heroes, monsters and demons. Every settlement from ancient Egypt to ancient China had its very particular notion of the divine.
Tradition can be broken into the great tradition and the little tradition. Great traditions always come from the seat of power, usually cities and the court of kings. In India, it includes Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, and today, it also includes Islam and Christianity. The little traditions are born in the soil of the village. Great traditions tend to organize themselves and spread; little traditions remain unorganized and rooted in the village.
The two traditions interact in very interesting ways. The little traditions try hard to align with the ideologies of the great traditions to legitimize themselves. As they tend to be more ritualistic and emotional rather than intellectual, there is often a sense of inadequacy. So local gods end up becoming manifestations of Shiva or Vishnu or Devi or followers of some Vedic sage. In Kerala, the Ayyappa shrine is now associated with Shiva and Vishnu as well as with Buddhists and even has a close relationship with Islam through Ayyappa’s Muslim companion, Vavar. This connection ensures survival of local traditions. In Tibet, the local Bon deities became manifestations of the Buddha and the Boddhisattva. Similar assimilation with great tradition is seen in Europe where the cult of the Black Madonna, believed to be a local deity, has defied extinction by becoming associated with Mother Mary of the Catholic faith.
Little traditions also influence the great tradition. Scholars are of the opinion that tales such as Ramayana and Mahabharata have roots in folk tradition and were appropriated by Brahmins and made part of the mainstream. There is one theory that even though the Buddhism established by the Buddha was highly intellectual and contemplative, it is the need of the common man to worship plants and rocks and tangible artifacts that forced the building of Stupas that became objects of adoration. If one travels to south America, one will find that many of the churches use the skull as a sacred motif in designs. This is not seen in any other part of the world and has its roots in local pre-Christian South American civilizations such as Aztec, Inca and Maya where human sacrifice was widely prevalent. In Islam, all forms of idol worship and creation of images were prohibited perhaps to ensure that the little traditions of various tribes and communities do not contaminate the purity of the revelation communicated by the prophet.
Some use the word ‘pagan’ for the little traditions and the word is used rather pejoratively as it is often without ideology or a very structured religious foundation. The word pagan itself means that which is rural and rustic. And if one observes pagan traditions throughout the world, one is able to appreciate what is fundamental to the human condition.
At a very basic level, every human needs two things – nourishment and security. The village deities embody this need. Nourishment is usually embodied in female form. The village goddess is a fertility goddess – she is the earth who feeds the village. She can be the field or the garden where food is grown, or the forest or the pond where food resides in the form of birds, animals or fish. Security is usually embodied in the male form, such as Aiyanar. The village god is the guardian god – who protects the village by riding around on a horse or an elephant or an ox or a buffalo, brandishing weapons, in the company of dogs. Over time, these simple ideas become more complex, satisfying not just physical needs but also emotional and intellectual needs. The fertility goddess becomes the source of all things – not just food. And the guardian god becomes the keeper of order and discipline. Together they give meaning to life in the village.