It was the spring of 2005. I was enjoying a late-night stroll on the barren Ghats of the otherwise busy Har Ki Pauri. The nomadic waters of the river Ganga, shimmering in the neon lights of the sleepy temples, was flowing briskly, rubbing shoulders with its stone-hearted steps. Haridwar is a city that is paved with stories of Indian mythology. Every temple here tells a different tale, every alley narrates a new allegory.
I was walking under a new moon night, and the sky – gilded with a billion stars – was dazzling like a newly-wed bride. As I reached to the far end of the Ghat, I found a solitary sadhu sitting on the dimly lit stairs, his eyes glued to the gushing dark water. He was draped in a saffron dhoti and white uttariya (upper body clothing or scarf), with coiled locks spilling down his shoulders like a cascading waterfall. I have always been fascinated by wandering monks and their mystic lifestyle. No wonder, I found this to be the best time to strike a conversation and have him pour out a few stories that I could later share with my friends to impress them.
We bonded soon and talked about Indian spirituality and stories of Indian mythology at length. After some time, I asked him about his favourite Indian mythology story. To which, he extended his slender arm towards the sky and replied, “Why just tell when I can show you?”
I looked up at the starry night sky and found him pointing towards the scintillating Orion constellation. Kalpurush, as it is known in Hindu scriptures, represents the eternal man, the divine timekeeper.
The sadhu chucked a witty glance at me and continued with a grin “The sky is the biggest storybook on earth, my dear! Wherever you see, there is a story waiting to be read.”
With that started a captivating odyssey of Indian mythological stories, parables from the puranas that have long drowned under the waves of time, Here are 5 of such mesmerising stories that I heard from the sadhu that night.
1. The Story of Kalpurush
Slaying a demon is not a child’s play, but did you know that, the death of one of the most powerful rakshasas of all times, happened in the hands of a seven-year old kid?
The kid is none other than Skanda or Karttikeya, the firstborn son of Lord Shiva. An eternally young, divinely handsome, spear-wielding daredevil who was both the god of war and the General of the gods.
How To Spot:
If you happen to live above the equator, you can spot the Kalpurush or the Orion constellation during winters. Just look for 3 bright stars in a short, straight line that appears like a belt. According to Indian mythology, the seven-star cosmic entity represents Kalpurush, a seven-year old kid immortalised by time.
“We have all heard mythology stories for kids, when we were young. But this is one that stayed with me for ever,” said the sadhu.
Long ago, there was a wicked demon named Tarakasura. When he was born, the whole earth trembled. Storms rose, mountains shook, and wild animals started running in fear. He grew up to be a very powerful and formidable person and started wreaking havoc everywhere he went. His ultimate dream, however, was to conquer the heavens.
It was easier said than done. Challenging the gods was like skydiving without a parachute. He needed to be invincible and immortal. So, he began his tapasya (penance) by forsaking food and water and stood on the thumb of his foot for a thousand years. Finally, Lord Brahma appeared before him and asked him to request for a boon. When Tarakasura asked for immortality, Brahma said “You cannot ask for the impossible. Anyone born must die”.
Tarakasura, after a lot of contemplation said, “Then grant me the boon, that if I must die, my death should happen in the hands of a seven year old child.”
The demon thought that he had fooled the good old Lord Brahma. Little did he know that destiny had other plans for him.
Armed with his boon, Tarakasura went on a rampage. He attacked the heaven and defeated all the devas. Many gods were taken prisoners – a few who managed to escape, beseeched Lord Brahma to save them from the monstrosity.
Lord Brahma said “Only the son of Lord Shiva can slay Tarakasura. But Shiva is a recluse and lives a solitary life on Mount Kailasa. After the death of Sati, he was overwhelmed with grief and has entered into deep meditation. If you can get Parvati, the beautiful daughter of Himalaya, to marry him, all your problems will be over.”
Breaking the meditation of Shiva was not an easy task. The gods hatched plans for Parvati to meet Lord Shiva and after a lot of ardent attempts, finally managed to win his heart with the help of Kamadeva (Indian cupid).
At last, Shiva and Parvati got married, and Skanda was born. Both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu trained him in the art of warfare, and by the time he was seven, Karttikeya had mastered all the divine weapons, especially Shakti or the supreme spear.
It was now the moment of avenging the gods and win heaven back from the grasp of the invincible Tarakasura. Karttikeya led the army of gods and after a fierce battle, shoved his celestial spear into the heart of the demon. This impossible feat made Skanda a legend and owned him a place amongst the stars, literally.
2. The Story Of Garuda
Birds inspire us to spread the wings of our imagination. But did you know that the reason behind snakes having a forked tongue is also a bird?
The legend belongs to Garuda, the emerald-coloured, omnipotent eagle, who happens to be the king of all birds and the vahana (mount) of Lord Vishnu.
How To Spot:
If you look up at the Milky Way during summers, you can easily spot the Cygnus or the Swan Constellation on the north-eastern sky. It looks like a crooked bow with an arrow. Follow the line of the arrow further south, and you will land on a bright star on the head of a distorted plus sign. This is Altair, the star that forms the head of Constellation Aquila aka Garuda.
Long long time ago, in the picturesque valley of Kashmir, there lived a sage called Kashyapa. He was the mind-born son of Lord Brahma and one of the many authors of Rigveda. Rishi Kashyapa was married to the 13 daughters of Prajapati Daksha (father of Sati) – Aditi, Diti, Kala, Danayus, Danu, Simhika, Krodha, Pritha, Visva, Vinata, Kapila, Muni and Kadru.
Garuda was the son of Vinata, and brother of Aruna – the charioteer of Surya (Sun). Once Kadru tricked Vinata into losing a bet, and enslaved her. The poor Vinata had to endure orders of the arrogant and tyrant snakes – who didn’t have forked tongues at that time – and was losing her health because of their venomous breaths.
Garuda couldn’t stand the misery of his mother anymore. There has to be a solution. He approached Kadru and asked for the price of her mother’s freedom. Kadru, being a vicious lady, asked him to get Amrit (nectar of immortality) from the treasures of Lord Indra. This was clearly a preposterous demand as the chambers that held Amrit were heavily guarded by divine armies and supernatural beings.
Garuda, however, was determined to go to any extent to save her mother from the shackles of slavery. But to fly for such a long distance, he needed to eat a lot to gain strength. His father, Kashyapa, advised him to feed on a giant elephant and a colossal tortoise, who were engaged in an eternal battle near Mansarovar Lake. They were brothers in their previous life – Supratik and Vibhabasu – who had cursed each other and were now wrestling for life over property.
The battling brothers were no match to the strength of Garuda. He easily managed to overpower them, and after satiating his hunger, continued flying towards the heaven.
Upon reaching heaven, Garuda had to go through a fierce battle with the divine armies, but he was able to defeat them easily with his extraordinary might. Then he flew towards the alcoves of Amrit, where he found the nectar of immortality being surrounded by raging fires. Garuda went to the ocean and swallowed lots of water to put out the flames. Next, he had to cross a rotating gigantic wheel with sharp spokes, for which, he reduced his size and flew inside. The final challenge was to beat 2 monstrous animals guarding the vessel. Garuda flapped his wings swiftly to blew dust and blind them. Finally, he managed to get hold of Amrit.
As he was about to return, Indra urged him not to share the nectar of immortality with the snakes, as this will disrupt the balance of the universe. Garuda promised that he will protect the Amrit with his life.
Back home, the snakes were overwhelmed with joy watching Garuda bring Amrit from the heaven. They delivered Vinata from the bond of slavery at once, and jumped to drink the nectar of immortality. Garuda, however, stopped them and urged them to take a bath before enjoying such heavenly elixir. The snakes agreed and went to take a dip. Meanwhile, Garuda picked up the vessel with his talons and flew towards the heaven.
Unfortunately, a few snakes sensed the scam and tried to pull Garuda by his feet. As he kicked the snakes to free himself, a few drops of Amrit spilled on the ground. The snakes released Garuda and began to lick the ground madly. The insane act scratched and burnt their tongues, splitting them from the middle. This is the reason why snakes have forked tongues. It is also because of the few drops of Amrit that snakes are able to slough off their old skin and resume a new body.
3. The Story of Vashishtha & Arundhati
True love is eternal. The timeless love story of Vashishtha & Arundhati stands testimony to that.
Rishi Vashishtha is one of the oldest and most revered sages of ancient India. He was the chief author of Rigveda and several other Puranas and also the family priest of Raghuvangsha, the lineage of Lord Rama. Sati Arundhati, his wife, was the epitome of chastity, love and intelligence. She was a great scholar and enjoyed the same status of other Maharishis (great saints) of her age.
How To Spot:
The Big Dipper aka Saptarshi Mandal is perhaps the most recognisable constellation in the night sky, apart from the Orion. It looks like a huge ladle and comprises of seven bright stars – three on the handle and four on the head of the ladle. If you look closely at the middle star on the handle, you will find a faint star close to it. The bright one on the bend is Vashishtha and its fainter companion in the background is Arundhati. These 2 stars were the first binary stars (a pair of stars that orbit each other) ever discovered. On spring and summer evenings in the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper shines at its brightest in the evening sky.
Legend has it that Svaha, another daughter of Prajapati Daksha (father of Sati and Vinata), fell in love with the god of fire, Agni. She tried her best to woo him, but Agni was busy presiding over the sacrificial rituals of the Saptarshis (The seven sages of the Big Dipper) and paid little attention to her. Meanwhile, the fire god became besotted with the beautiful wives of the Saptarshis, who were busy helping their respective husbands with the rituals.
After the rituals were over, Agni felt embarrassed because of his longing for wives belonging to other men. He could not bear the guilt and went to the forest to perform penances. Svaha followed him, and realising his desire, took the form of the wives of the Saptarshis, to unite with Agni. She, however, was unable to impersonate Arundhati, because of her chastity and unflinching devotion towards her husband.
After Agni and Svaha had a child, the 6 maharishis separated themselves from their wives, doubting their immaculacy. The abandoned 6 women can be seen as the star cluster Krittika (Pleiades Constellation). They went on to became the foster mother of Skanda, who is also referred to as Karttikeya (one raised by the Krittikas).
4. The Story of Svana
Somebody who keeps your company is referred to as a companion. What would you call somebody who walks with you till eternity?
A lone dog who followed the footsteps of the mighty Pandavas and kept a constant company to Yudhishthira, as he walked towards the heaven.
How To Spot:
Svana or Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. At 6.8 light years, it is one of Earth’s closest neighbours. You can easily spot this bluish-white star in the winter night sky by using the belt of Orion as the pointer and moving your eyes southeast towards the horizon.
When it’s about stories of Indian mythology, one just cannot ignore the Mahabharata. Long after the legendary war of Mahabharata was over, the Pandavas decided to renounce their kingdom and take up the Mahaprasthana – the great departure. Their great-grandchildren had grown up and were ready to take charge. Besides, their friend and mentor Krishna had left for the heavenly abode a few years back.
They left Hastinapura and went for the Himalayas. The journey was long and arduous. Yudhishthira was leading the way. Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahdeva and Draupadi followed his footsteps. As they began scaling the snowy mountains, suddenly a mongrel appeared and started walking alongside Yudhishthira.
They walked for days and nights. Slowly and gradually, each of them succumbed to the strenuous journey. Only Yudhishthira and his canine ally kept walking. Draupadi was the first to give in.
As Bheema saw her drop, he asked Yudhishthira “Why did a virtuous and compassionate woman like Draupadi die, brother?
Yudhishthira replied “Although we were all her husbands, she was more fond of Arjuna. Her partiality was the reason for her fall.”
The next to slump was Sahdeva. Bheema wailed again.
“His pride in his intelligence took him down”, replied Yudhishthira.
After this, as they moved ahead, Nakula, Arjuna and finally Bheema collapsed, owing to one reason or the other. Nakula’s arrogance because of his divine looks, Arjuna’s overconfidence because of his might and Bheema’s vanity because of his incomparable strength, and not to mention, gluttony.
After a strenuous walk, Yudhishthira and the mongrel made it to the top of the mountain. There, in front of an ornamented chariot stood Indra, the king of the heaven. He was there to fetch Yudhishthira, the first man ever to enter heaven without leaving his mortal body.
As Indra opened the door of the chariot to welcome him, Yudhishthira said “The Svana (dog) must come with me.” The lord of the thunder shuddered “All cannot attain heaven, my king! It takes a great deal of virtue and births of good karma to step into the paradise. You must leave the dog.”
Yudhishthira replied “In that case, I do not seek heaven. When my brothers and even my beloved wife parted ways, it was this little tail-wagger who kept my company. It had walked with me until now because it didn’t have the weaknesses that my loved ones had. I cannot leave him even for the sake of heaven.”
As he turned back to walk away, the mongrel transformed into God of Dharma. He praised Yudhishthira for his selflessness and his unwavering commitment to follow the right path under all circumstances.
This was how the great elder Pandu putra (son of Pandu) entered the heaven.
5. The Story of Shukra
When you have unrivalled intelligence but still fall prey to nepotism; when your are stabbed on the back by none other than your protector; when you are banished for challenging the status quo, you either become the fallen angel, or an angel for the fallen,
This is the story of Shukracharya, the guru, disciplinarian and guide of all Asuras or demons. He was a peerless intellectual, a legendary astrologer, a staunch devotee of Shiva and the only mortal to have the knowledge of Mritasanjeevani or the art of bringing the dead back to life.
How To Spot:
Shukra aka Venus is the third brightest object in the night sky (after the sun and the moon). You can easily spot it in the eastern sky before sunrise and in the western sky after sunset.
Aeons ago, there lived a sage called Maharishi Bhrigu. He was the author of Bhrigu Samhita, the most comprehensive book on predictive astrology, ever written. He also holds his place amongst the seven saptarshis (Great Bear Constellation) of all times.
Bhrigu had an exceptionally brilliant yet headstrong son named Shukra. As he reached adolescence, Bhrigu sent him to Maharishi Angiras for knowledge and training. He began his education with Brihaspati, the son of Angiras. The intelligent Shukra soon realised his master’s favouritism towards his son, and dropped out of the school. Brihaspati later went on to become the guru and guide of the gods.
It was the time when the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (Demons) were engaged in a titanic clash. The whole world was shivering with the sounds of rolling thunder and lightening strikes. Cyclones stormed the land and the ocean waves rose to touch the sky. Unlike the gods, the demons didn’t have access to Amrit (elixir of life), and hence, they were getting slayed in millions every day.
Shukra wasn’t in favour of this lopsided battle, and invited the Asuras to stay with them at his father’s hermitage. But on one condition. They had to forsake their weapons and live a peaceful life.
The gods saw this as a superb opportunity to annihilate the demons for once and all. Without their weapons, the demons were as vulnerable as a turtle without its shell.
In absence of both Bhrigu and Shukra, the demons pleaded to his mother, Kavyamata, to come to their aid. Kavyamata was no ordinary women. She summoned her mystical powers and rendered Indra, the king of the devas, stupefied. But before the enraged mother could teach others a lesson, Vishnu yielded his Sudarshan Chakra (the divine discus) and beheaded Kavyamata.
Watching the decapitated body of his wife upon return, Bhrigu damned Vishnu for killing a woman, and cursed him with mortal life. The supreme preserver had to born on earth many times and go through the pain of birth and death in all those lives.
Rishi Bhrigu later revived his wife using his divine powers. But, Shukra was so deeply infuriated and full of vengeance, he decided not to spare Lord Vishnu. He went to the Himalayas and embarked on an arduous penance to please Lord Shiva. For a thousand years, he hung himself upside down from a branch and survived on nothing else, but the smoke of burnt leaves.
Appeased by his diligence and devotion, Shiva finally blessed him with the Mritasanjeevani mantra – the spell to bring back from the dead. Later, Shukra went on to become the guiding light of the Asuras, their guru. He helped them wage wars against the Devas and also win them, by bringing the dead demons back to life.
If you look up at the sky, you will find a million short mythological stories, gazing back at you on a dark moonless light. These are the stories that have been penned thousands of years ago, when there were no televisions, no mobiles and no iPads to arrest curious eyes. Although you will find several such interesting stories on shows like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, nothing beats the fun of flipping through the world’s biggest storybook with sparkling characters waiting to be read. You just need an imaginative brain that knows no bounds.
If you stumble upon more interesting stories of Indian mythology, please share it in the comments section below.