October 30, 2011

Folk Worship in India – Shani Mahatmya

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Indian folk tales related to worship and sacred rites reveal sexual freedom in pre-colonial era.

Shani-deva - Image source - anand-gupte.tripod.com. Click for image.

Shani-deva - Image source - anand-gupte.tripod.com. Click for image.

A folk layer

The extract below is fromShani-mahatmya – a folk tale that is recommended for narration, by brahmans and astrologers across India. This story displays sexual attitudes in India by women and society.

In this post, we start a little before halfway in the story, when

Vikramaditya reaches Tamlinda

As King Vikramaditya entered the city of Tamlinda, he met a very rich merchant name(d) Shripati who owned a local shop. Seeing the King, the merchant thought of him as a very fine gentleman and invited the King to his house with a scheme in mind.

Shripati, the merchant, asked the king to refresh himself by taking shower etc. And then, he made some formal inquiries. The king replied that he was a Kshatriya and came from a foreign land and was in transit. The merchant ordered six flavored meal (six course meal) for Vikramaditya and invited Vikramaditya to stay for the night and leave in the morning.

After the dinner the merchant asked for more details about the king very frankly as he had some other intentions about the king.

Prospective ‘groom’ for the daughter

It so happened that the merchant had a daughter of a marriageable age called Alolika. Alolika could not find a suitable match for herself, nor could the merchant find one for her.

So the merchant had an idea that this Kshatriya would be a good match for Alolika so he went to find her to tell her the good news. When he found Alolika he excitedly told her ‘I found a very good match for you. Please marry him without any hesitation.’

But Alolika said, ‘Let me talk to him and then I can judge from the way he talks whether this kshatriya is good match for me. You might have seen many good qualities in him, but still, let me judge him.’ So she asked her father to send the kshatriya to the guest room, which was a studio for a painter.

The ‘guest’ room

Shripati went back to Vikramaditya and told him that the studio was available if Vikramaditya wanted to sleep. Vikramaditya went to the guest room, (and) he saw that there were many good paintings of the birds such as swans, peacocks and of animals such as horses and elephants. The paintings were so realistic that one could feel that the birds and the animals were alive.

He sat on the bed, which was decorated with jewels and beautiful colours and flowers. He also noticed that there ware many lamps in every corner. On seeing this he was astonished and kept on marveling about the customs of that place. Then he thought about what to do and decided to face the next moments as they come.

Daughter decides to ‘check’ out the man

Unfortunately his mind was still at unease so he covered his head to try and get to sleep.
After a short while Alolika entered in the studio where the king was sleeping. She brought with her all the paraphernalia as per the custom of the time such as five oil lamps in a plate with flowers etc. to greet the king. She did beautiful make up and wore pearl necklaces and used very aromatic perfumes. She also wore anklets, which were making a very pleasant sound. She had diamond ornaments on her hands, which were shining very brightly. She was looking like a beautiful statue and stood in front of the Vikramaditya who was pretending to be asleep.

As Vikramaditya did not awaken, Alokika thought for a while and sprinkled some water from a sandal wood jug onto Vikramaditya. Still Vikramaditya did not wake..

Thus, about two hours passed so Alolika got tired and took off her pearl necklace and hung it on a peg (hook) on a nearby wall. Eventually she fell asleep worried and disappointed.

Vikramaditya loses his ‘manliness’

Then Vikramaditya uncovered his head and started to think. Who is this girl? and why is she sleeping next to me? Keen to not commit any (mistakes) Vikramaditya decided it would be best to control his desires and treat this girl like a daughter and talk to her in that (manner). Then he looked around and again saw the paintings.

Suddenly, as if (by) miracle, the swan from one of the paintings came to life approached Alolika’s pearl necklace and grabbed it with its mouth. The King was astonished to see this and thought that it would be wrong to snatch the pearl necklace from the swan’s mouth as it would hurt the swan and it would be against his principle of not hurting any living being. So (he) watched as the swan swallowed the entire necklace.Confused about what he witnessed Vikramaditya fell asleep.

Impotent thief

The next morning Alolika woke up and thought to herself ‘This person is the greatest fool of all. For the whole night I was sleeping near him he never awoke, clearly this kshtriya (is impotent)’. She was very angry and insulted that Vikramaditya was not attracted to her so she started to leave the room and looked for her necklace on the peg.

To her amazement the necklace was missing so she woke up Vikramaditya and accused him of stealing the necklace.She ordered him to return the necklace and get out the way he came. She also threatened to tell all the villages about what had happened and told Vikramaditya that he would face public humiliation and shame for his theft.

So the King said that he did not take the necklace, and just because he slept there he was being accused.

A Woman Scorned

So, Alolika became very angry and immediately told her father that the perfect match, he brought home was a mere professional thief who stole her necklace. Then she told her father to get the necklace from the guest and send him on his way (164)

Then, Shripati said to Vikramaditya , ‘I gave you a (nice) place to rest, gave you nice dinner and on top of that I was about to offer you to marry my daughter. But, in spite of this you stole her necklace. How foolishly you behaved! And that’s the way you are returning my favors! So, return the necklace immediately and go away back to where you came from. (via Shani Mahatmya.).

Shani-deva - Image source - anand-gupte.tripod.com. Click for image.

Shani-deva - Image source - anand-gupte.tripod.com. Click for image.

The story continues

Further in this cycle of misfortune (sade-saati), Vikramaditya, after a criminal conviction, becomes limbless. Inspite of Vikramaditya physical condition, Princess Padmasena, of Tamlinda, becomes infatuated with Vikramaditya’s rendition of various ragaas.

The common Marathi version mentions that Padmasena, without her father’s consent, decides to initiate a भर्तृ-like (similar to husband) relationship with the crippled Vikramaditya – without getting married. Padmasena and Vikramaditya spend many evening celebrating in ‘Diwali’ like manner.

What is so interesting

Finding a groom was Alolika’s choice and responsibility. Both Alolika and Padmasena initiate a physical relationship with Vikramaditya – with or without their father’s knowledge. They are secure that they have the right and freedom to do so.

This initiation is also done openly – and no furtive actions are even hinted at. Further, Alolika threatens Vikramaditya with public disclosure of their night together, if he does not return the allegedly stolen pearl necklace.

Egalitarianism is a constant in the story. Vikramaditya reconciling himself to the life of a commoner and a rich and eager Shripati willing to entrust his daughter to a kshatriya stranger, are two instances from the story.

Nala Damayanti is the other story which is associated with cyclical misfortunes - called saade-saati in Indian languages.  Image source and courtesy - greatertelugu.com. Click for source image.

Nala Damayanti is the other story which is associated with cyclical misfortunes - called saade-saati in Indian languages. Image source and courtesy - greatertelugu.com. Click for source image.

Online critical examination of this literature is absent – and original texts are not available online. TheGita Press has published a different series of Bhagwad Geetha mahatmya stories – which displays a liberal attitude towards courtesans and prostitutes.

Notes on extract. The translation by Anand Gupte while the most detailed; has been considerably ‘cleaned’ by the translator, to dilute the feminine sexual status; keeping in mind current ‘sensitivities’. Some parts have been excised from the translation for the sake of brevity and relevance.

Commonly this story is recommended for narration to short-circuit or dilute the effects for those who are going through sade-saati, cyclical misfortunes – a common Indian belief. This story is available in print at a nominal cost of Rs.10-20 – at relevant stores or practitioners. A 2ndlook Irregular drew my attention to this literature about 6 months ago.

Like the Santoshi-maa tradition, narration of this story is widely recommended across India – though this translation is from the text that is common in Gujarat, Maharashtra Goa, as per my knowledge. The Northern India tradition for this Shani-dev story is awaited. These Shani andBhagwad Geeta mahatmya stories are not from vedas, puranas, upanishads, or any vedic sankrit text

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