Magical meddlers and great gossips

Hindu Myths
December 12, 2003

Dallapiccola opens her book with a catalogue of the beings that constitute Hindu mythology: the main deities followed by "an unspecified number of semi-divine beings, all of whom happily meddle in human affairs". These figures might well be read as a trope for the average family. Beginning with the upholders of the law, Vishnu and Shiva, we move on to more familia

r family types - inquisitive minds, gossip-mongers and givers of advice.

So it is no surprise when Dallapiccola informs us: "Paradoxically, India... has no equivalent in any of its numerous languages for the word myth." That is because in India myths are life itself. When the national television network broadcast the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata , the nation came to a standstill, some flight schedules were rearranged, and the television became a shrine in many homes for that one hour, to be viewed only after a bath.

Given India's current political temper, Dallapiccola hits a nerve when she writes: "A particularly important byproduct of this literary genre are the numerous sthalapuranas , accounts of the mythical origins of a sacred site ( sthala ) where a deity would manifest itself or some mythological incident would occur." Raja Rao voiced this thought in his foreword to Kanthapura at the beginning of the 20th century: "There is no village in India, however mean, that has not a rich sthalapurana ... Some god or godlike hero has passed by the village - Rama might have rested under this pipal tree... or the Mahatma himself... might have slept in this hut, the low one, by the village gate. In this way, the past mingles with the present, and the gods mingle with men to make the repertory of your grandmother always bright." It is a few such sthalas that have today become the bone of contention between religious groups - the Ram temple at Ayodhya being the most famous of them.

This well-organised study, with plentiful illustrations, focuses on the Hindu concept of time as something cyclical. Creation is not the beginning and destruction not the end. It thereby provides a way out from the sticky bits in grandmother's repertory.

Dipli Saikia is on the staff of The THES .

Hindu Myths

Author - Anna L. Dallapiccola
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 80
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 7141 2408 7

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