In her third work of mythological fiction titled Shakti: The Divine Feminine, Anuja Chandramouli treads the tricky territory of Devi mythology. Reading and understanding Devi mythology from original scriptures is no mean feat. Trying to fictionalise and rewrite it is Herculean. I applaud Chandramouli for even attempting it.
Devi mythology is tricky because it has its roots in pre-Vedic society. It has come down to us over the centuries through a complex network of stories, especially the Puranas. These stories are an amalgamation of the tales of ancient tribal Mother Goddesses and Vedic lore.
With the rise of the Shakta cult, the repository of these myths grew rich and vast, leaving us with a bulk of Brahmanic and Tantric literature. Hundreds of Tantras and texts such as the Devi Bhagvatam, Devi Upanishad, Devi Mahatmya (in the Markandeya Purana), and Lalita Sahasranama expound the many forms and merits of the goddess.
But unlike the fairly linear evolution of the characters of Vedic male gods, the divine feminine developed in a flux. As more and more fringe female deities merged with mainstream religion, they all got identified with Shakti.
Shakti had many manifestations and the stories of these manifestations are scattered loosely and often in contradiction with each other, over the landscape of Hindu religious thought. The author artfully ties many of these mythological tales together, making a cohesive whole. She does a fine job of picking some of the best stories from a mind-boggling array and streamlining them into one narrative.
The story starts with a myth of creation, where Brahma’s incestuous intents for his own ‘daughter’ sets a chain of actions in motion. The story of Usas follows, in which the goddess of dawn is ravaged by the creator, ‘slut-shamed’ by her fellow celestials and attacked and banished by Indra.
Chandramouli fuses two myths here, the Saraswati-Brahma story from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Indra-Usas story from the Rig Veda. In the first original tale, Brahma intends to unite with Saraswati, his most beautiful creation and has his fifth head lopped off by Bhairava for his transgressions. In the second, Indra smashes Usas’ chariot in a bid to establish his supremacy. The author concludes the episode saying that Usas reinvents herself as Durga.
Another creation myth is employed in the plot (Ch 4. Another Beginning), where the ‘friendship’ of Padmanabha Vishnu and Shakti is played up. Since traditional Shakta mythology is centred around the Shiva and Shakti equation, this camaraderie between the two comes across as rather odd in the beginning.
But the author develops it rather beautifully as an example of platonic love between a man and a woman throughout the plot. The last chapter manages to aesthetically portray the passionate man-woman relationship between Shiva and Shakti. Speaking of beauty, one of my favourite passages in the book occurs in this chapter. The Brahmastuti is rendered imaginatively in the section where Brahma seeks the goddess’ favour to help defeat the demons, Madhu and Kaitabha.
The author uses the popular Shakti myth of Durga as Mahishasuramardini in the plot. As the story goes, the gods once pray to Durga to kill the dangerous buffalo demon, Mahisha. The warrior goddess with her many arms and weapons obliges them and heads off to a battle with the asura.
So far, so good as the author follows the traditional tale. But what she does with the episode’s ending is something I’d like to leave for the reader to discover. All I will say is that I am still shocked. Another shocker comes by way of her characterization of the demon, Vritra.
Instead of the terrible serpentine demon we know him to be, she paints him like a Tantric prophet, who is a great devotee of the goddess. It leads to the plot completely downplaying the Indra-Vritra duel, which is one of the most glorified Vedic myths.
In fact, the author seems to have a bone to pick with Indra and constantly paints him in poor light. It is, of course, a feminist take on the patriarchal Vedic system with Indra at its helm. The king of the gods is a constant in this plot and along with his scheming wife, Sachi, an agent of mischief and a mouthpiece of misogyny. She blames them for the plight of women and a skewed gender equation in society. And as an act of poetic retribution, fashions a sadistic end for the first couple of heaven.
Chandramouli takes many such liberties through the book, twisting the original narratives and changing entire characters to unify her narrative. I’m not a purist, and I might even go as far as to say that I love these fictional retellings as a casual reader. They help realign ancient wisdom and make them relevant to the present.
However, as a serious student of mythology, I also find it imperative to remind new mythology enthusiasts that these versions can be seriously confusing. One ought to also know the originals before forming an opinion about our gods and goddesses who represent our religion and culture.
This book had me both delighted and confused. Delighted, because in the realm of mythological fiction Anuja Chandramouli displays great skill. She could, however, do away with the ostentatious language that she resorts to very often. One must commend her for the research and sprinklings of social commentary that give one food for thought.
Confused, because its agenda doesn’t seem very clear. Right from the author’s note which tells its readers to “not bother your head too much about it”, to the style, to the message. I cannot help but call this work ‘moody’ given that it swings so often from the sublime to the violent, from the lofty to the crass.
When she assumes her beauteous stance, the author’s words sound mellifluous and poetic. But when she gets into her blood-and-gore mode, her language gets crass and the graphic details could put an Eli Roth movie to shame. Sometimes, when she tries to wield the feminist cudgels, she ends up sounding misogynistic. But that’s probably because the subject of the book is such. Hard as it is to understand a mortal woman, gauging the divine variety seems well nigh impossible.
This book is worth reading because it is the tale of a goddess who is also every woman.
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