Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 18, 2005

First published November 17, 2005

 in First City magazine

Waves of Varuna

Published in First City magazine, Delhi, February, 2005.

Change. It is a constant. But the rate of change is not. Nor is the direction of change. Sometimes things can change for the better. But when we talk of change we often think of change for the worse. Change is often slow. Giving us time to cope, adapt, adjust. But sometimes, it swoops down with a terrifying speed. Like a tsunami. Or a cyclone. Or an earthquake or a terrorist attack. There is no time to cope, to adapt, to adjust. How does one survive then?

In Hindu mythology, the world is seen as fluid as water: sometimes a stagnant pond giving rise to the lotus, sometimes a turbulent river threatening to wash away the earth, sometimes a gentle stream nourishing its fertile banks, ultimately the sea — from where all things begin and where all things will end. Ancient texts such as the Taitriya Aranyaka and the Satapatha Brahmana describe how the divine boar Emusha lifted the earth from the sea and placed it on the back of Akupara, the giant turtle. For centuries, Hindus have revered the sea as Varuna who rides a dolphin-like aquatic beast called makara and who carries a noose made of a sea-serpent. The makara is a symbol of life and fertility, the noose the symbol of death and destruction — that which the sea gives, it also takes away. In Vedic times, Varuna was the great father, keeper of moral order. With his thousand eyes, he saw the flight of every bird and knew what transpired between all men.

In post-Vedic times, he was the generous god, source of rain and rivers, who freely lets man harvest his wealth of water and salt and fish and pearls and coconuts asking nothing in return. Varuna is not capricious and demanding like his Greek counterpart, Poseidon, who on not receiving due respect caused Odysseus to wander away from home through tempests for 10 years. Nor is Varuna like the drunkard Aegir of the Vikings whose underground brewery fills the sea with froth and whose randy wife and mischievous daughters, the wave-maidens, sway seductively before sailors and drag the smitten under the sea. In Hindu mythology Varuna is the quiet almost indifferent overseer of life on earth, constantly giving of his treasure, following the cycle of tides, until the time of Pralaya, the dissolution of the world, when he takes — the sea waves rise and submerge all life. Nothing is spared. Not even Krishna’s Dwarka. Flowing water is a powerful symbol of change. “One never steps into the same river twice.”

Never has this been more evident than the tsunami of 26 Dec 2004 that marched inland on the shores of Thailand, Sri Lanka and India like the horseman of doom, relentless, merciless, gnawing all in its wake. Then withdrawing. Sucking into a watery grave hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods, leaving behind a desolate land bereft of hopes and dreams.  In humanity’s collective unconscious, the sea has always been feared as the ultimate killer. Ancient myths from every part of the world speak of a Great Flood when the sea rises and submerges life as we know it.

The Bible informs us that God, upset at mankind’s wickedness, resolved to destroy it. God told Noah to build an ark. Noah did so, and took aboard his family and pairs of all kinds of animals. For 40 days and nights, floodwaters came from the heavens and from the deeps, until the highest mountains were covered. The waters flooded the earth for 150 days; then God sent a wind and the waters receded, and the ark came to rest in Ararat. In Greek mythology, Zeus, king of the gods, sent a flood to destroy the men of the Bronze Age. Only the righteous Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survived after floating in the chest for nine days and nights. When the rains ceased, they sacrificed to Zeus at whose bidding they threw stones over their head. The stones which Deucalion threw became men, and the stones which Pyrrha threw became women.

According to Mesopotamian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, distressed by the disturbance from human overpopulation, the gods on Enlil’s advice decided to wipe out humanity with a flood, but Enki had Ut Naphishtim build an ark and so escape. Also on the boat were cattle, wild animals and birds, and Ut Naphishtim’s family. When the storm came, Ut Naphishtim sealed the door with bitumen and cut the boat’s rope. The storm god Adad raged, turning the day black. After the seven-day flood, the gods regretted their action. Ut Naphishtim made an offering to them, at which the gods gathered like flies, and Enki established barren women and stillbirth to avoid the problem in the future.

As a girl was grinding flour, a goat came to lick it, says a tale from Cameroon in Africa. She first drove it away, but when it came back, she allowed it to lick as much as it could. In return for the kindness, the goat told her there will be a flood that day and advised her and her brother to run elsewhere immediately. They escaped with a few belongings and looked back to see water covering their village. After the flood, they lived on their own for many years, unable to find mates. The goat reappeared and said they could marry themselves. Mongolians tell the story of Hailibu, a kind and generous hunter, who saved a white snake from a crane which attacked it. Next day, he met the same snake with a retinue of other snakes. The snake told him that she was the Dragon King’s daughter, and the Dragon King wished to reward him. She advised Hailibu to ask for the precious stone that the Dragon King keeps in his mouth. With that stone, she told him, he could understand the language of animals, but he would turn to stone if he ever divulged its secret to anyone else. Hailibu went to the Dragon King, turned down his many other treasures, and was given the stone. Years later, Hailibu heard some birds saying that the next day the mountains would erupt and flood the land. He went back home to warn his neighbors, but they didn’t believe him. To convince them, he told them how he had learned of the coming flood and told them the full story of the precious stone. When he finished his story, he turned to stone. The villagers, seeing this happen, fled. It rained all the next night, and the mountains erupted, belching forth a great flood of water. When the people returned, they found the stone which Hailibu had turned into and placed it at the top of the mountain. For generations, they have offered sacrifices to the stone in honor of Hailibu’s sacrifice.

The Great Flood is never an end. It is always followed by spiritual and material renewal. The Bhagavat Purana informs us that the sage Markandeya was once granted a vision of Pralaya. He saw the waters rise and sweep in on everything, submerging all the hills and plateaus and valleys and islands. It was terrifying. Then he saw a banyan leaf cradled by the waves. On it, was a little baby, with a divine face and eyes twinkling with mischief. It held its right foot in its hands and was sucking away at the big toe. It looked up at Markandeya and smiled. Markandeya realized that the child was a symbol of renewal, floating on the banyan leaf, symbol of permanence, riding the waves of relentless change.

There was a message there. Everything dies, eventually. Yet life regenerates itself. It is difficult to explain why the tsunami happened. Why did people have to suffer? It is like trying to understand why change happens, why loved ones die? Nature which gives also takes. It is a time to remind ourselves that human civilization has been built by taming, sometimes rather forcefully, the might of Nature. We may believe that we have conquered. Then Nature shrugs. Volcano, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis. A time to shed human arrogance and cultural chauvinism. A time to remind ourselves that when the gods churned the sea for Amrita, the nectar of immortality, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, they also churned out Halahala, the venom of obliteration.

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