One of my 8th standard students, Pashmina, rode the same bus. One day she was reading a book about goddesses in different mythologies – an unusual topic for someone her age. We got talking about this. She was clearly very passionate about the topic.
She told me about Pachamama, an Incan Earth goddess in the Andes region of Perú. When Pachamama shivered, ripples went around in the form of earthquakes.
Myths are stories that can guide us as individuals and societies in order that we may become better. They are symbolic and should not be taken literally!
Look at a map of volcanic and earthquake-prone areas of the world. You will notice that the west coast of South America is part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. The Pachamama myth was the ancient Incans way of trying to make sense of the environment they lived in – prone to earthquakes.
Closer home, we have stories of how Ganga, Brahmaputra, Kaveri, and other rivers came to be. Likewise we have the view of Earth as a Mother Goddess, Bhūmī. Each is, at least in theory, revered as divine.
Ganga is said to originate at the feet of Vishnu in Vaikuntha, Vishnu’s abode. In answer to the prayers of the sage Bhagīratha. The story is complex and has many variations, but the point is that Ganga is believed to have sacred origins. Ganga’s waters, the route she takes, and the places she touches are all sacred also. Thus we have the most important city in the Hindu belief system: Varanasi (Benares; Kashi) on the bank of the Ganga. There are other holy places along that river, but Varanasi is considered the holiest.
In southern India, Kaveri is considered sacred. I traveled with a group of students a few years ago to Talakaveri, the origin of the Kaveri. At the temple in Bhagamandala, we heard the story of how Kaveri came to flow on Earth. At Talakaveri, the students conducted interviews with pilgrims and learned from them why the Kodavas consider the river as Kaveri amma.
The Kaveri has three islands along its course. Each of them considered sacred and hosting a temple to Ranganatha, the reclining form of Vishnu.
Consider the locations of sacred places in the Hindu religion. They are most often located on hills or mountains, on the banks of or close to rivers / lakes, and on the shores of or close to the sea. Why should this be?
One way of understanding this is to look at them from the point of view of our poetic ancestors. They saw the geographical landscape as symbols also, not just physical landscapes. A mountain / hill is old. It is witness to history and human life in general. It also is reaching towards the sky, the heavens. It becomes a symbol of human effort to achieve higher living, with noble principles and ethics. Therefore, the peak of the mountain is symbolic of a high point to be achieved in life. Before modern transportation technologies, you had to walk up the mountain to reach the peak. At the peak, they put a temple. The temple was the abode of the divine – in effect, a spiritual, noble, and ethical being. Humans were to aspire to becoming divine in that way. Therefore, the difficult climb up the mountain was symbolic of how we must be determined in life to become better.
Bodies of fresh water such as rivers and lakes also were important geographical points for sacredness. Rivers flow. As they flow, their waters keep purifying themselves. Bathing in a river removes not just the physical dirt but also the spiritual impurities from us, thus cleaning and cleansing us. A temple by a river became a symbol – the divine is seen when we are clean and cleansed.
A lake is also the home of lotus flowers. The lotus’s roots are in the mud at the bottom of the lake, but the flower rises above the water, reaching out to the sunlight. The water that falls on the lotus flower does not wet the flower. This becomes symbolic of how we should live in this world (the roots in the mud) but must raise ourselves above it and seek awakening, knowledge, wisdom, light (the sunshine). Even though the lotus is surrounded by water, it does not get wet. We must live in this world, be beautiful and fragrant, but should not let the world affect us. That is the symbolism. If we achieve that, we can become divine (the temple signifies that).
The sea/ocean is vast in area and in depth. It holds many secrets, many treasures, and many dangers. Our minds are like that, too. Bathing in the ocean should remind us of this depth and help us understand that we have all that in us, too. Also, the vastness of the ocean makes us feel very small and insignificant – makes us humble. When we bathe in the ocean, we become part of its grandeur (at least for a few minutes). When our minds (spirits) become vast and deep like the ocean, we can see the divine (the temple reminds us of that).
Such mythologies about our Earth tell us how many ancient cultures engaged with Earth and its processes. Were the ancient people fools? After all, they did not know science! In recent centuries we have gained a different understanding of the physical laws of the universe and through that, we see Earth differently – we have a “scientific” view of Earth.
In schools, should we be learning about the mythological view of Earth along with the scientific view of Earth – mythological geography and scientific geography? Why or why not? Let me know your thoughts at email@example.com
Things you can do:
- Visit this link and look at the location of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Then using your atlas, make a list of the countries that are directly connected to the rim of this Ring of Fire.
- Find out the mythological story of how Kaveri came to flow on Earth.
- See if you can find any Kodavas (Coorgis) in your school or neighborhood. If you can, talk to the elders in that family and ask them about how and why they call the river Kaveri as “Kaveri amma.”
- Identify the three islands along the Kaveri and name them. Which of them lie in Karnataka? Which of them lie in another state? Which other state?
- On a map of India that shows water bodies and coastlines (available at stationery shops), locate places of pilgrimage that are on mountains and near different types of water bodies.
(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 28 August 2014.)