When Shiva told a story

Articles, Myth Theory 9 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, July 08, 2012


One day Parvati got bored and begged Shiva to entertain her. So he told her a story, the world’s first story. This story was told in a secret cave somewhere in the middle of the Himalayas. The plot would have been lost in the snow but for a tiny bird that survived in that cold desolate landscape. This bird shared the story with a fish. The fish shared it with a Gandharva who shared it with the Yaksha. Much may have been lost in translation for, by the time the story reached humanity, it was not one but hundreds of stories with myriad plots and characters, with amazing twists and turns. It was called the Brhadkatha, or the vast story. Later it was called the Katha-sarit-sagar, the ocean of stories. There were stories within stories, like whirpools of thought, sucking everyone in and then spitting them out.

Imagine life without stories. We would have no hero or villain, no comedy or tragedy, no adventure, no heaven or hell, perhaps not even God. Stories are such an integral part of our lives that we forget how critical it is to defining our humanity.

Animals do not tell stories. They do not have the wherewithal one needs to tell a story. They do not have the neo-frontal cortex, the most recently developed part of the brain, located just behind our forehead that allows us to imagine. From imagination come stories.

Animals do not need stories. When hungry, they eat. When thirsty, they drink. Having eaten and drank, they rest or play. But not humans. We want to know why we are hungry and why we are thirsty. It bothers us. We seek explanations. We need a story for that. And there are many stories.

Someone said that hunger and thirst were God’s punishment because humans did not listen to him. God? Who is that? What is that? Was it an idea that came from stories? Or did stories articulate this idea for us? We can argue endlessly. We can even ask if heroes exist in the world before stories, or did the idea of a hero come to us from stories?

Of course, science came along and rejected everything that stories told us. Today scientists tell us there is no God. And historians will tell you that notions of heroes and villains are not true either. There is no objective criteria, no checklist, for defining a hero.  What is hero for one, is villain for another. It all comes from our imagination. We just have to switch on the television and pick up a newspaper to realize this. They reveal how storytellers construct the world for us, twist and turn events to make the same thing look comic and tragic. And we wonder what truth is. Is there a truth out there?

Perhaps , it is to provoke this question that Shiva told Parvati the first story.

  • dr_idli

    Didn’t the tiny bird share the story ? Didn’t the fish share the story ? Aren’t they animals ? i agree that stories are an integral part of humanity , but animals were there before humanity and will certainly be there after and no use to belittle animals :)

  • Atit

    Sir can you please suggest some good book on Brhadkatha?

  • shekhar

    Story telling is ancient business. However, most stories take us farther away from truth but sometimes they tell us truth about ourselves.

  • veerendra

    But what stories did he tell to parvati ,

  • Seea

    So true…The universe is made up of stories, not atoms!

  • mohini

    We all love stories and not history. Stories romanticise heroism and we like heroism, mystery, the magic of winning and adventures. Indians like to spin tales around the kings and their various deeds of valor. All the places in Ramayana and Mahabharat exist even today. It must be possible even the events also occured but it is dramatised that we believe it to be a part of epic.

  • pdurejachd

    Respected Devdutt Ji,

    What exactly Shiva & Parvti represents ? These symbolic representation carries deep meaning and context of the above story has been changed where actually it represents origin of life on earth! Does not it !

  • Abishek raman S R

    My brain thinks.. stories are not only reflective of the subjective truths but time and again insist that Every truth is a subjective story arising out of a brain which is capable of combinig imagination & Logic! thus what’s logic to west is imagination to east and vice-versa (pardon the generalization). Perhaps this is the truth that Shiva conveys.. through a Quinesstential ‘Story’ :)

  • saurabh shekatkar

    Yes, science came along and told us that we are wrong about
    our stories. Science says the atom comprises of electrons which we cannot see,
    only infer from data, that too with uncertainty. science says that within
    the 3 elementary particles, there are in excess of 30 ‘fundamental particles’.
    It says, the fundamental theory works in ‘11 dimensions’ and those, in turn,
    work in ‘imaginary time’. Also, we need a new kind of maths to work even the
    basic atomic interactions based on the fundamental theory. All mythology is an
    attempt to explain the nature, which is ever elusive. So a respect for all ‘stories’
    is what needs to be propogated.