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Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 7

This article is part 7 of 12 in the series Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels


Mythological stories and their function

‘Daatu’ explores the multiple dimensions of myths, legends, stories and incidents from mythology, legends, folklore, historical and anthropological myths are used very effectively in the novel to elucidate the picture of the contemporary society and the degenerate state of man’s mind, at present. The novel begins with the narration of the historical legend about the village of Tirumalapura. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Sreenivasa, situated on the outskirts of the village. Tirumala is another name of this god, hence the name of the village is Tirumalapura. The reason the temple is situated on the outskirts, we are told, is the dispute between the śaivas and the vaiṣṇavas. Along with these details of disputes, the mythical concept of Viṣṇu as the creator and protector, and Śiva as the destroyer is mentioned. According to this concept, a temple dedicated to Śiva’s must be on the outskirts of the town and that of Viṣṇu must be well within the town. But that is not the case here. This altered place of God himself shows the power of internal strife. Another myth is that the famous sculptor Jakkanachari himself had built this temple. Along with the historical legends, the caste system and the particular rituals that are observed in the castes, the changes that are brought about by the passage of time are unveiled.

Bhyrappa utilises mythological stories, folklores, and the legends that are twisted according to the wishes of the people. Nature myths are very scarcely used in Daatu. Though the floods at the end of the novel are compared to the mythical deluge, these floods in ‘Daatu’ are not natural. They are caused by the destructive activities of men like Mohanadasa. This scarce use, the absence of the nature myth in ‘Daatu’, poignantly reveals the sordid and complex world that is torn by petty politics, casteism, selfishness and hypocrisies. In such a situation, nature myths lose their freshness and meaning. Here, man is averse to nature, is turned away from nature, has lost his sensitivity and is immersed totally in achieving his own ends. As such, Sreenivasa becomes insane, Meera commits suicide, even the brahmin priest Venktaramanayya fails to achieve his spiritual integrity, becomes insane and also commits suicide. The young rebel Mohanadasa becomes a prey to his own acts of violence. What works here is the archetypal myth of conflict between too principles of this world, the negative and positive forces.

The delineation of Patel Tirumalegowda’s character, presents the changing phases of the original concept of the caste myth. (page 24-27-28). Tirumalegowda turns towards a brahminic lifestyle  in his old age. He imitates their ways of arranging the pooja room, worshipping, etc. He sits on a deerskin, counts the rosary, though he has not been initiated formally into these rituals. He refuses to eat sweets and other dishes that Venkatesha, the priest of the Tirumala temple, brings to his house. Gowda’s words ‘Who are the brāhmrus’ (brāhmaṇas)? They are merely priests. Even though food has been prepared by them, it gains sanctity as it is the prasāda of God. If not it is impure….’. Though these words irk, they reveal the changing trend in the age-old myth of the superiority of the brāhmaṇas (brahmins). Tirumalegowda unveils another face of this changing concept. Though the Thakur family, the landlords from Kashi, belongs to Gowda’s category, used to cook for themselves and refused to eat what the brahmins had prepared. That Thakur had said that the brahmin lives only to worship. The other part of the myth runs like this: it is not the brahmins who created the Vedas and the Vedānta. In the beginning, the Kṣatriyas, like king Janaka, used to be great scholars in the Vedas. Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, whom we worship as gods, are they not Kṣatriyas? In fact, it is claimed, that it is the Kṣatriyas who taught the ‘brahma-vidyā’ to brahmins. Even God wanted to incarnate on this earth as a Kṣatriya “. When Venkatesha asks, ‘Is not Parashurama a brahmin? Are the incarnations of Varaha and Matsya Kṣatriya?” Thirumalegowda retorts, “Who worships Parashurama? Who would worship a pig or a fish? Only the Kṣatriya’s merit is worshipped and it is the profession of a brāhmaṇa to worship. Thus, along with the change of ideas in society, the original caste myth changes and a new myth takes birth. Brahminisation continues to prevail among other castes as well, but without the sacred thread. At the same time, brāhmaṇa and brahminism in general are being demystified and divested of the mythical power, superiority and holiness associated with them. People like Thirumalegowda, try to become the greater brahmins rather than brahmins by caste, by bathing three times a day, worshipping three times a day and strictly observing the rules of purity, impurity, etc. Along with these changes the process of deleting the surnames that indicate the caste also starts during this period. Thirumalegowda becomes Sreenivasa, changing his name and leaving out the ‘gowda’ part. We many notice that at present, retaining surnames that indicate caste has become an issue of ‘prestige’. Gowda, Bhatta, Hegde, Kumbara and sometimes the names of gotras are also tagged at the end of the person’s name.

The Vedic myth of Vasishta and Arundhati that is used in ‘Daatu’ powerfully brings out the degeneration that has begun to take place in the spiritual and sexual life of brahmins like Venkataramanayya, the priest of the temple, and provokes us to think about the values of Satayuga and Kaliyuga. Vasistha and Arundhati’s story has become a legend and is sung in regional languages as folklore. It is a song of Vedic folklore. Vasistha, one of the seven Maharshis, goes in search of a suitable wife for him, but does not find one anywhere. Finally he finds a girl called Matangi in a colony of outcastes, marries her, brings to his āśrama, makes her his spiritual companion, the mother of his children and the Guru-mātā of the Āśrama. Finally Arundhati becomes the shining star in the sky, next to Vasistha. Even to this day people observe the ritual of showing the star of Arundhati to the bride during the marriage ceremony. This myth is used in connection with Venkataramanayya in the novel.

After the death of his wife, Venkataramanayya does not marry, though he was only twenty nine. He did not want his children to grow up under a stepmother. When physical desire troubles him, he thinks that the only solution would be to have  a concubine. One day, he satisfies his lust through Matangi, an untouchable woman, in his garden. Matangi was a widow. In this incident, the myth of the purity of castes is explored. The paradoxes that lie behind this mask of purity are exposed. As he had touched an untouchable woman, the priest bathes in the pond to purify himself. When his daughter, the seven year old Satya asks him why he is bathing at an unusual hour, he tells a lie that a distant relative had died. But the clever girl asks why he is not changing the sacred thread. Then the priest changes the sacred thread too. The sensual pleasure he had enjoyed takes Venkataramanyya again and again to Matangi. Before touching her, he would take off his shirt and dhoti, and wind a towel around himself. After Matangi leaves, he would bathe in the pond, wetting the towel. The children at home would not notice the wet towel. But how could he replace the sacred thread daily? A plan occurs to him. It is believed that silk does not become impure through anybody’s touch. So, while uniting with Matangi, our priest would remove the sacred thread, wind it around his waist and cover it with a silk cloth. The silk cloth did not need washing. However, he used to bathe before going home. This is how the hypocrisy associated with the purity of caste is mercilessly exposed.

One day, Matangi asks, ‘Ayya, you worship in the temple, will nothing happen to me?’ How does the priest provide solace to the illiterate woman? ‘Have I not worn this silk towel? After that am I not going to bathe in the pond?’ Yet, the priest feels a shiver while performing Maṅgalārati with the five wicks in the big maṅgalārati tray. He thought, what do we do after we happen to come in contact with a dog? We take a bath. From that day onwards, he completely stopped looking at the face of the idol. Thus, Venkataramanayya’s every action compels us to compare it with the actions of Vasistha in the Vedic myth, and show us the abysmal depths to which this brahmin has degenerated.

The degeneration does not stop there. When Matangi becomes pregnant, he suggests that she should abort the foetus by using some herbal concoctions. When this fails,  he thinks of providing money to have it aborted at the hospital in Tumkur. Finally he asks Matangi to say any other man’s name in her ‘hatti’. But that loyal woman had no desire for another man. To protect the honour of the priest, she leaves the place, and marries a widower of her own caste. When Matangi returns with her child, the retribution for this deed starts. Venkataramanayya begins to find it difficult to control his physical desire. One day, he calls Matangi to his garden. But Matangi does not allow him to touch her, for Bettayya, the Gandhian of their caste, has awakened in her a sense of reform and self-respect. When Matangi asks, “If so, am I your mistress?”, Venkataramanayya begins to think about the nature of their relation. Although Matangi has a child from him, she cannot become Venkatramanayya’s wife. Marriage, sexual relationships, children – are these not interconnected? If not, what is the meaning of the rituals? What is the status in society of children born out of wedlock?

When Satya, Venkataramanayya’s daughter, decides to marry Sreenivasa Gowda, the father beats Satya with his chappals in uncontrollable anger, till she starts to bleed. After this incidents he starts to live alone in his garden, forsaking worship at the temple, and becomes insane. He teaches his daughter how to perform ‘havana’ and imparts the ‘Gayatri-mantra’ and Brahmopadesha to her. The myth of Vasistha and Arundhati haunts his mind. He begins to imagine that he is Vasistha himself, and Matangi is Arundhati. He starts to rave about Satyayuga, Indraloka, Vasiastha, Arundhati, and his actions and speech imitate that of the Vasistha of the mythical age. He talks of Indra, who has gone to Bhooloka to receive the ‘havis’ that is offered in yagnas, etc. In this insane state of mind, he thinks of purifying Matangi, as Vasistha had done in the Satyayuga.

The only link here with the original myth is that of a brahmin priest in a physical relation with a woman called Matangi. The myth of Vasistha is used so subtly and artistically, that the spiritual degeneration and moral decadence that have set foot in the present age are pictured for us even without narrating the original myth, or depicting the original situation, simply through the speeches and illusions of the lunatic. Venkataramayya can think of the high ideal of Vasistha and Arundhati only in his lunatic stage, but he cannot come anywhere close to that ideal, even in his state of delusion.

Whereas  the function of the myth of Vasistha and Arundhati in ‘Daatu’ is to show the spiritually degenerate, morally decadent psyche of Venkataramanyya and how it pushes him to madness and suicide, in ‘Tantu’, the myth of the astonishing and magical power of Chandramathi’s māṅgalya functions at two levels. Venkataramanyya of Daatu  recalls the myth of Vasistha  in a state of delusion. Even in that lunatic stage he curses Sreenivasa’s wife, and fails to rise to the spiritual heights and attain the elevation and expansion of mind. But Honnatti of ‘Tantu’, by remembering the story of Chandramati and Harishchandra, the power of the māṅgalya of Chandramati, her chastity and her husband’s truthfulness, comes out of his guilt and consciousness of sin, repents, and confesses his sin before Havindra. The myth of Chandramati’s shining māṅgalya, and its power of being invisible to anyone other than her husband, stimulates in Honnatti an intense yearning to confess his guilt.

Furthermore, the original myth compels us to contrast it with the present situation.Whereas Chandramati’s tali was invisible to everyone except her husband, Kanti’s māṅgalya was not only visible to “one is not her husband” but it had also left a mark on his naked chest on the first day of their physical union. The mythological story of King Harishchandra and Queen Chandramati, his truthfulness and her chastity complementing each other, haunt Honnatti’s mind and cause ethical turmoil in him. Now, the third function of the myth, which is to regenerate the mind, body and soul of Honnatti begins. The power of that small shining mangala-sutra, like the power of a big crane, elevates the soul of Honnatti from the abyss of his own sense of sin and guilt to the summit of truthfulness and repentance, and purifies him. The regenerative power of the myth is depicted beautifully here. After this experience, all cemeteries appear to be Harischandra-ghats to him, and the banks of all rivers seem like the banks of the Ganga. Wherever he sits he remembers Harischandra and Chandramati, and now the process of regeneration is complete. He moves away from Kanti, and repays whatever money she had spent on him. He confesses to Ravindra, and gets involved in social work. Perhaps this regeneration was possible in his case because of his sensitive nature as an artist.

Through the conversation of Honnatti and the Ācārya, who conducts the rites and rituals of the funeral, the myth of God Kṛṣṇa and his sixteen thousand wives is elucidated from the ethical, sociological and historical point of view. Ācārya says that, given the background of Muslim invasions and their harems of many wives, this story of Kṛṣṇa and sixteen thousand wives could well have been the reaction of the Hindus (591-594). The emperor Akbar’s manner of playing chess, using girls as pawns, and the harems full of women might have triggered the imagination of Hindu devotees who narrated the legends of Kṛṣṇa, and they might have challenged the illiterate Muslims with the power of Kṛṣṇa who could satisfy 16,000 women, being with all of them at the same time. Thus, the original myth, acquires new forms with social change  and the passage of time.

According to the  Ācārya, the character of Rādhā has been developed as representative of all Gopis. But as per the norms of the Hindu tradition, having a physical relation with a woman who is older than the man is a taboo. The Ācārya says that the episodes of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa completely distort the character of Kṛṣṇa. In this context, the literary allusion to Oedipus is used and Ācārya says that this kind of incident could never happen in India (p. 594). The poet Jayadeva, too, influenced by this alien culture, had attributed many of their character to Kṛṣṇa and made him the husband of 16,000 women.

To be continued …

Series Navigation << Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 6Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 8 >>
Prof. L V Shantakumari bhyrappa Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 7 lvs

Prof. L V Shantakumari

Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.
Prof. L V Shantakumari bhyrappa Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 7 lvs