Published on 11th April, 2021, in Mid-day.
Once, an old man promised a fellow traveller, a young man, his daughter’s hand in marriage. Days later, when the young man actually showed up at the village, the old man refused saying he promised no such thing. Bring a witness, demanded the old man. The young man, remembering that there was a Krishna temple near where the old man promised him his daughter, goes to the temple and innocently asks Krishna to come and be his witness. Krishna agrees on one condition, “Don’t ever turn around to confirm, if I am following you or not. Just believe that I am behind you!” Then, exactly as one would expect, while they are walking, Krishna behind the young man, the anklets of Krishna stop making a noise because they were travelling through soft mud. The young man in fear turns around, and it is at that moment that Krishna turns to stone. This is the story of Sakshi Gopal (witness Krishna) temple of Odisha.
This “piche-mudkar-mat-dekho” is a very common trope In India. When we turn around, God stops moving and is fixed to the spot. Ashapura temple in Gujarat has a similar story, where the goddess promises to protect a trader, provided he does not turn around to check if she is following him. So does Danteshwari Mata temple in Chhattisgarh, where the goddess promises to protect a king provided, he does not turn around to check on her. In both cases, the devotee turns around because the anklets cannot be heard and the goddess turns into a rock.
This theme is not limited to India. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek mythology comes to mind. Orpheus was a great musician whose music could make rocks move and trees bloom. One day, his wife Eurydice dies, and in grief he goes to the land of the dead, to get her back, and convinces the god of death with his music to let her go back with him to the land of the living. He is told not to look back until he reaches the land of the living, but he does. And she returns to the land of the dead forever.
In Japanese mythology, the first man also gets permission to take his dead wife, the first woman, back to the land of the living, provided he does not turn around to see her face. But he does, and realises she is a horrific ghost now, and runs out and shuts the door, separating the land of the dead from the land of the living.
The Bible tells the story of Lot, who is told by angels, not to turn around when leaving the city of Sodom of Gomorrah that God plans to destroy with fire and brimstone. But Lot’s wife turns around and turns into a pillar of salt.
These stories are as much about trust as they are about looking back at the past and losing sight of the future. We live in a society where social justice warriors and politicians keep looking at the past and use that to rile up crowds and promise vengeance in the future. Life is thus burdened by the past and unable to move forward. We get fixed, like a rock or a pillar of salt, stuck to what happened before.