The battle of Mahabharata is regarded as the greatest war. The strategies that were adopted to win the war changed the way they were fought forever. One of these indigenous battle strategies was the ‘Chakrayvuha’. This was a wheel-shaped labyrinth designed in such a complex way that only one with knowledge of the formation could break in and break out of it. On the thirteenth day of battle, Drona, as the commander, called for the formation of the Chakravyuha.
The only ones with the knowledge of penetrating the formation were Krishna, Arjuna, Pradyumna and Abhimanyu. With Arjuna and Krishna away responding to a challenge to combat, and Pradyumna not participating in the war, Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son, was the only one present in the Pandava camp who could enter the Chakravyuha. However, he only knew how to penetrate the formation and not how to find a way out. Having no choice, Yudhishthira promised Abhimanyu that the bravest Pandava warriors would follow his lead and break in with him, and would ensure his safe exit.
Convinced, Abhimanyu entered the Chakravyuha and tried to lead the Pandavas through it. But that day, Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu, invoked a boon he had received from Lord Shiva. This boon gave him the power to oppose the Pandavas in warfare, thus he was able to hold them off from entering the Chakravyuha. Meanwhile, Abhimanyu was trapped inside the Chakravyuha and with no backup, he was killed after fighting the unfair attack from all sides.
Arjuna was devastated when he learnt of his son’s death. He blamed Jayadratha for this and vowed that he would kill him before the next day’s sunset. If he failed to do so, he vowed to give up his life by jumping into a burning pyre. However, when Jayadratha was born, a sage had approached his father, King Vriddhakshatra. The sage had predicted that Jayadratha would be killed in a great war. Saddened by hearing this, Vriddhakshatra uttered a curse saying,
“Whoever is responsible for my son’s head to touch the ground, will instantly be blown to pieces.”
The next day, after learning Arjuna’s intentions, Dronacharya had three military formations in place to protect Jayadratha from Arjuna. But Bheema and Arjuna annihilated all three military formations. They seemed to be on a demonic rampage, driven completely by revenge. However, when dusk was nearing, the warriors stationed to protect Jaydratha had still not been defeated. To get Jaydratha exposed from their protection, Krishna used his yogic powers to create an illusion that the sun was about to set. Immediately, the Kauravas started to rejoice, knowing Arjuna’s oath. Just then, Jayadratha came out of hiding, and upon seeing him, Krishna dispelled the illusion. The sun rays again fell on the battlefield and Krishna pointed at Jayadratha. Rage took over Arjuna as he furiously readied his arrow, but Krishna advised Arjuna.
“Severe his head and make it land on his father’s lap.”
Arjuna nodded and took aim. He left an arrow that went whirling towards Jayadratha at lightning speed.
Vriddhakshatra was meditating and offering his evening prayers in the woods nearby when suddenly his son’s head came shooting from the sky and fell on his lap. Unaware of this, when he got up after his prayers, the head fell from his lap and onto the ground. In that instant, Vriddhakshatra was blown to pieces, as he fell victim to his own curse.
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With misty eyes, Kunti saw her firstborn son float away. She stood there, feet dug into the ground as she watched her child flow away with the mighty Ganga. Meanwhile, a charioteer and carpenter named Adiratha saw a tiny basket being carried by the waves. Curious, he went near the basket and to his shock, found a small child in it. He looked around frantically, hoping to find the child’s parents. However, no one came to claim the child. He decided to take the child home. He showed the child to his wife, Radha, who lovingly took the child in her embrace. Once he explained the situation to Radha, they decided to adopt the child. They named the child Karna.
On Karna’s sixteenth birthday, Adiratha offered him a new chariot and a horse. Karna saw the chariot and smiled. However, Karna was not very happy. Adhiratha noticed this and asked his son what was bothering him. Karna stared at the ground and said,
“Father, it feels like I was never meant to be a charioteer. I do not feel any desire to drive a chariot. My only desire in life is to hold a bow and arrow. I cannot think of anything else.”
Karna didn’t dare to look at his father, afraid that he had offended him. Suddenly, Karna felt a warm hand fall gently on his shoulder. Karna looked up and was shocked to see his father smiling.
“Karna, your mother and I have something we need to tell you. We knew this day would come, we are prepared.”
Adhiratha called out to his wife and told her what had just happened. Together, they explained to Karna about his past and how they had found him. Karna was in disbelief. Things were slowly starting to explain themselves. Karna found a new desire, a desire to find out who he really was.
“Mother, father, I would like to learn archery in the great city of Hastinapura. For this, I request your permission.”
His parents agreed and blessed him on his journey.
Karna’s goal was to learn archery and find out his true identity. He approached the famed teacher, Dronacharya. But Dronacharya was reluctant to teach a son of a charioteer. Dejected, Karna decided to find another master. He approached the great master, Parashurama. However this time, he decided that he would not return empty-handed. As Karna approached Parashurama’s hut, he saw a man who was chiselled by the gods, whose eyes burned with the flame of intensity. Awe-struck, Karna fell to his feet and pleaded with him to be his teacher. The great Parashurama only asked Karna one question:
“Are you a Kshatriya?”
With a straight face, Karna lied to Parashurama and told him that he was a Brahmin.
Hearing this, Parashurama took Karna in. Karna was a brilliant student, and he seemed to have an inborn talent for archery. Parashurama was extremely pleased with Karna and taught him everything he knew, including how to use the devastating Brahmastra.
One afternoon, Parashurama was laying on the ground. He asked Karna to get him some deerskin to use as a pillow. To this, Karna replied,
“ My lord, please use my lap as a pillow”.
Parashurama put his head on Karna’s lap and fell into a deep sleep. Just then, Karna saw a scorpion approach them. However, Karna did not move as he didn’t want to wake his teacher up. He didn’t even flinch when the scorpion stung him. Karna did not move an inch.
When Parashurama woke up, he noticed Karna’s leg was covered in blood. He immediately asked Karna what happened. Karna told him how a scorpion had stung him while Parashurama was sleeping on his lap. He looked at Karna and asked him,
“Are you telling me that you could sit through the pain of the scorpion sting?”
To this Karna replied, “It hurt initially, but I could not dream of waking you up.”
Suspiciously, Parashurama looked at Karna.
“You are telling me you, a brahmin, was able to withstand a scorpion bite without saying a word.”
Karna began to stutter but Parashurama’s eyes began to fill up with rage.
“Who are you? Only a Kshatriya can stand the pain of a scorpion!”
Parashurama’s anger knew no bounds and he accused Karna of being a liar.
Karna fell to Parashurama’s feet and began weeping,
“I have lied to you, my lord. I am neither a Brahmin nor am I Kshatriya. I am the son of the charioteer, Adhiratha. I only lied to you because I really wanted to be your student.”
But Parashurama was furious, and in his extreme rage, he uttered a curse.
“Just like you have betrayed my trust, when you would be in desperate need of an astra, your memory will betray you.”
Parashurama then left and went back to his ashrama, leaving Karna in tears.
Read the story of Karna in our title Karna on the ACK Comics App and Kindle. It is also available on Amazon, Flipkart and other major e-tailers.
A deity with fiery eyes, dark skin, and a huge moustache. The description involuntarily creates the image of the god of death in the minds of most readers. Yama, also referred to as Kala, is the guardian of the south, which is the region of death. Although he has a frightening appearance now, he wasn’t always like this. The Vedas describe him as a cheerful and handsome deity, but the Puranas show him as a fearsome god riding a buffalo and carrying a mace and a noose. There is an interesting legend behind Yama’s makeover.
In the beginning, Yama had very attractive physical features. He was so handsome that even the apsaras contended for his attention. He was too proud of his good looks and admired himself all day.He was responsible to free the souls from mortal bodies and escort them to heaven or hell. Haughty Yama got too busy idolising himself and ignored his duties as the god of death.
The people on earth were overjoyed when they realised that they could live happily for eternity. But soon, things started getting difficult. People grew in number and the basic resources started depleting. There was not enough food and water for all. The burden on mother earth increased, causing havoc and chaos. The situation troubled Shiva as he was responsible for the cycle of life. Enraged with Yama’s arrogance and disregard for his work, Shiva decided to teach him a lesson.
Shiva summoned Yama to his icy abode, Kailash. When Yama reached Kailash, Shiva smiled and gave him a warm welcome, quite opposite to Yama’s expectations. Yama got suspicious but Shiva asked him to take a seat. After exchanging greetings with him, Shiva requested,
“Yama, could you please get me some water from the nearby pond?”
Yama obliged. As he bent over the pond to fetch water in a pot, he was startled. He saw a demon-like creature in the pond. Terrified of the demon’s appearance, he started trembling. He quickly ran towards Shiva.
“Mahadeva, there is a daunting demon in the pond! It has fearsome red eyes, an unusually huge moustache and two large, curved horns on his head.”
Smiling at Yama’s dismay, Shiva said,
“Touch your head, Yama. What you saw in the pond was your own reflection.”
Yama immediately touched his head and panicked.
“No, this cannot happen!” he thought to himself.
He pleaded with Shiva to fix his appearance. In response, Shiva closed his eyes and went back to his meditative state.
Yama realised that Shiva was in no mood for mercy. He turned to Brahma for help but when he reached Brahma’s abode, Brahmaloka, he found the lord engrossed in scripting a manuscript. Disheartened, Yama now headed to seek aid from Vishnu and Lakshmi. The celestial couple were in a deep discussion about some cosmic issue and Yama could not talk to them. Giving up all hope, Yama decided to do severe penance to please Vishnu and get his attention.
After years, his prayers were finally answered when Vishnu appeared in front of him and asked,
“What do you wish for, Yama?”
Bowing before Vishnu, Yama said,
“O Lord, please make me as handsome as I was.”
Vishnu shook his head and replied,
“I cannot do that, Yama. You would become lax and futile once again.”
Yama begged for forgiveness. Vishnu took pity,
“I can remove your horns and transfer them to an animal who will serve you as your vehicle.”
Realising that Vishnu was right, Yama accepted his fate.
Yama looked glumly at the buffalo, his new vehicle, standing right next to him. Shiva had finally made him look like the fearsome god of death.
Before Yama left, he requested Vishnu to reside beside him at Azhagar Kovil near Tiruchirappalli so that people would appease him. Vishnu willingly resided there. Later, Lakshmi came in search of Vishnu and Yama appealed to her to stay with Vishnu. Lakshmi agreed. The place where the divine deities reside is known as the Kallazhagar temple. As Vishnu is considered to be very beautiful he is also called Sunderraja Perumal. It is believed that every year Yama visits this temple to offer prayers to the beloved deity.
Our Puranas are filled with some of the most intriguing gods and goddesses. Many know the stories of popular gods and goddesses such as Krishna, Ganesha, Durga, and others. However, there are many goddesses who have fascinating stories but are not known by many. Let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known goddesses of Indian mythology.
Ushas, the goddess of dawn, brings life and light into the world every day. She is praised for driving away oppressive darkness and evil demons. As dawn breaks Ushas. representing the cosmic order, dispels darkness and chaos each morning.
Ratri, Ushas’ sister, is the goddess of night. Some praise her for her countless stars, which provide light in the dark, and for protecting people from the dangers of the night. However, she is sometimes associated with those very dangers which nighttime brings.
The goddess of speech, Vac, makes creation possible by naming things. She is essential in the ritual mantras of priests and the insightful vision of the sages. Vac is also the reason that people can see and recognise friends, and communicate with each other.
When goddess Karni asked Yama. the god of death, to bring a woman’s son back to life, Yama refused. Karni then vowed that her devotees would never die, but would instead be reborn as mice in her temple in Rajasthan. The mice would again be reborn as her devotees.
Kotravai is the goddess of war and victory. She is a fierce, wild and vicious goddess who haunts battlefields, granting victory to her favourites. She is worshipped in South India.
Mariamman is a very popular village goddess of Tamil Nadu. She is the goddess of rain to whom the people pray every year for a good monsoon. Her devotees like keeping her happy. as her anger was thought to cause epidemics like smallpox.
Alakshmi is the goddess of misfortune and the inauspicious. She is the sister of Lakshmi and also her opposite. She can never be in the same place as Lakshmi, who represents harmony and abundance. This is why people first pray to Alakshmi to go away from their homes, taking all the negativity with her.
Aranyani is the goddess of the forest. She cannot be seen but can be heard in the sounds of the forest, like the shout of a man calling his cattle, or the sound of a tree in a storm, or a screech of an owl in the night. She stays away from villages but is usually kind and offers nuts and berries to those who come close to her.
Manasa, the goddess of snakes, protects her devotees from snake bites. She also provides them with prosperity and fertility. She is mainly worshipped in Bengal, especially in the rainy season which is when the snakes come out.
Sarama is an attendant goddess known as the mother of all dogs. She is the messenger of Indra and protects his herds. Sarama once punished the minor deify Panis for stealing some cows.
Read stories of other Indian goddesses in our title Shakti. Now available on the ACK Comics App, Kindle, Amazon, Flipkart, and other major e-tailers.
Shakti is the universal mother goddess who is the source of energy for everything; living and nonliving, divine and non-divine. She manifests in numerous forms like Parvati, Kali, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. She is loving, caring, nourishing, yet at the same time can be ferocious, menacing and destructive. Just like how energy has the potential to either create or destroy.
Durga is one such ferocious form of the mother goddess who is renowned for her battle prowess. The half buffalo and half asura, Mahishasura who was the king of asuras, easily defeated the devas due to a boon from Brahma. The boon granted the asura partial immortality as only a woman could slay the asura. The defeated devas asked the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva for help. The three supreme Gods, with their combined powers, summoned a pillar of brilliant light from which Shakti, in the form of Durga, the ten-armed Goddess of war, appeared. The ten arms symbolise how the Goddess protects her devotees in all 10 directions; the 4 cardinal directions, the 4 ordinal directions and also above and below the living realm. The gods who witnessed the creation of Durga, offered their powerful weapons and adorned the ten arms of the divine mother with the power to destroy the tyrant asura.
Shiva, the God of Destruction, gifted Durga with his trishul or trident. The three prongs of the weapon symbolize multiple important trinities in the Hindu myth and philosophy. The most common interpretations being the three Gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas), Time periods (past, present and future) and the universal cycles (creation, preservation and destruction) and the wielder of the Trishul is considered to be the master of all such trinities. During the battle, the Goddess used the weapon to land the finishing blow on Mahishasura.
Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra
The God of preservation, Vishnu, offered his divine discus, the Sudarshan chakra, to the Goddess. The discus, with more than a million sharp spikes, has the power to decapitate the enemy beyond resurrection. According to Linga Purana, Vishnu obtained the chakra from Shiva and since then has used this weapon to defeat countless asuras and rakshasas in his various avatars. The imagery of the disc spinning around Durga’s finger is a symbolic representation of how the energy provided by the goddess sets the universe in motion.
Brahma, as the God of creation, does not carry any weapons. Instead, he offered his Kamandala, a water pot, to the Goddess. The pot containing holy water symbolises purity, wisdom and life and Brahma uses it to create various life forms by chanting different mantras. Durga’s possession of the Kamandala, which plays a crucial role in the creation of the universe, explains the importance of the existence of Shakti in the universe.
Vajra, the thunderbolt, is Indra’s signature weapon and he offered this mighty weapon to Durga. The weapon was specifically made by Vishwakarma out of Sage Dadichi’s bones so that Indra could defeat Vritra, an asura who is an embodiment of droughts in the Rig Veda. The Vajra is used to punish sinners. In Sanskrit, the word vajra also means a diamond, which is the hardest material found in nature, to symbolise the weapon’s strength and indestructibility.
Vayu’s Bow and Quiver of Infinite Arrows
The god of wind, Vayu provided the Goddess with a bow and a quiver with unlimited arrows. The weapon set is a great representation of how Goddess Shakti exists as different forms of energy. The bow and the arrow represent potential and kinetic energy respectively. Before the arrow is launched from the bow, it contains potential energy, but the moment it gets launched towards the target, the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. And thus, the goddess being an adept archer is a symbolism of how the universe functions due to the conversion of one form of energy to the other.
Varuna, befitting his role as the god of water bodies and marine life, offered his auspicious conch to the Goddess. When blown inside a conch, it produces the sound of ‘Aum’, which in Hinduism is the primordial sound of creation. Water and creation have close ties with each other, as according to modern science, life on Earth started in the oceans. The conch was also used as a trumpet during the start of a war or to declare victory at the end, which is appropriate for Durga as she is the Goddess of war.
Agni’s Burning Spear
Agni, the god of fire and a deity associated with sacred yagnas, offered his spear with a burning head to Durga. The projectile weapon with a sharp-pointed head and enveloped in scorching flames, can impale the target with complete accuracy when launched. The weapon is a symbol of power, valour and courage. The burning flames of the spear signify the role of Shakti as the ultimate source of energy.
Yama, the god of death and justice, gave his sword to the warrior goddess. The sword is an embodiment of both aspects of death and justice. The weapon is utilized by the god to punish the sinners and bring justice to the world. A sword symbolizes bravery, authority and power.
Brahma’s son, Vishwakarma, who was the engineer and carpenter of gods, was responsible for constructing numerous divine weapons. He gifted the goddess an axe, which symbolizes the creative and destructive aspects of energy. An axe used to bring down a tree represents destruction, but using the same axe to chop wood to construct a house represents creation. Thus, symbolizing the dual nature of Shakti in the universe.
The radiant Surya, the celestial Sun God and the ruler of the Navgraha, bestowed his blinding sun rays to the goddess. The blinding radiance of the goddess signifies her duty as the goddess of war to banish evil and darkness in all ten directions. Since every living creature is dependent on sunlight for survival, the light emanating from Durga can also be a representation of her nurturing and nourishing nature as a mother goddess. It also symbolises her role as the universal source of energy.
After obtaining offerings in the form of divine weapons and other divine objects from the Trimurti and the devas, the king of mountains, Himavan offered Durga a vahana, the lion. With her ten arms equipped with the power offered by different gods, Durga, who was, as radiant as the sun, rode on her lion and arrived on the battlefield. She challenged the buffalo asura and after a fierce battle that lasted for nine days, Durga defeated Mahishasura, restoring peace in all three realms.
Read the full story of the goddess of war in the title Tales of Durga. It is now available on the ACK Comics app, Kindle, Flipkart, Amazon, and other major e-tailers.
Samudra Manthan or the churning of the ocean is one unique occasion when the Devas and their arch-nemesis, the Asuras, unite for an important reason. The churning of the ocean was a result of a curse by Sage Durvasa. Once, he offered a garland to Indra, the king of Devas. Indra accepted the garland and showed his happiness, putting the garland on his elephant, Airavata, as an ornament. Airavata, irritated by the scent of the garland, picked it with his trunk and threw it on the ground. Durvasa was furious and cursed Indra and the devas to lose their kingdom, power, and glory.
As a result, Indra’s mighty vahana instantly went into oblivion. Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, could no longer stay in the same realm as the Devas, and parted ways with her consort, Vishnu. She made the depths of Kshir Sagar her new home. Due to Lakshmi’s absence in Devlok, the devas lost all their riches. The luminous Chandra, adorning Shiva’s matted hair, disappeared too. Robbed of their power, the devas were soon defeated by the asuras in battle. The defeated devas approached Lord Vishnu for a solution, who advised them to churn Kshir Sagar, to obtain Amrit. Amrit or the elixir of immortality would help the devas regain their powers. The Asuras willingly offered to assist their half-brothers since they too wanted immortality and invincible powers by consuming Amrit.
Mount Mandara was used to churn the ocean, which was kept afloat in the ocean by Kurma, Vishnu’s turtle avatar. The Naga king, Vasuki, who Shiva wears as a garland, became the churning rope. Several precious items, ratnas, emerged from the cosmic ocean which were distributed amongst the Devas, the Asuras and the Sages.
The Halahala was a deadly poison that had the potential to destroy all beings in the three realms. None amongst the armies of asuras and devas stepped in to stop the poison from spreading into the universe as they feared the poison would destroy them too. Lord Shiva descended from Mount Kailash to consume the poison. Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s consort, used her powers to stop the Halahal in Shiva’s throat, and as a result, his throat turned blue. Thus he came to be called Neelkanth.
Airavata, the king of elephants, was a white coloured winged being with six trunks and six pairs of tusks. He said to dig his trunk deep into the ground and reach water which is inaccessible to humans. He uses his trunk to spray the water in the form of monsoon showers. After appearing from the cosmic ocean, Airavata chose to serve his master Indra, who was delighted to reunite with his loyal vahana.
Often considered as the king of the horses, the seven-headed, snow-white horse, was one of the three animals that appeared during the Samudra Manthan. The magnificent steed was taken by Indra. Eventually, Uchhaisravas came into the hands of King Mahabali, the asura king, who ruled over the three worlds.
Once Goddess Lakshmi was spellbound by the beauty of Uchhaisravas and forgot to pay attention to her consort, Vishnu. This infuriated him and he cursed Lakshmi to be born as a mare.
The colour of Uchhaisravas’ tail once became a topic of debate for two sisters, Kadru and Vinata. The sisters studied the horse from a distance and Vinata declared that the horse’s tail was white, while Kadru insisted that the tail was black. The sisters decided to come back and see the horse the next day. Whoever of the two had guessed the wrong colour, would have to become the slave of the other. Kadru won the bet by treachery as she commanded her sons, the Nagas, to cover the tail of the horse. Thus Vinata ended up becoming Kadru’s slave.
Kamdhenu was one of the precious ratnas obtained from the cosmic ocean and is considered to be the mother of all cattle. Kamdhenu is depicted with the face of a woman, the body of a cow with a pair of wings and the tail of a peacock. She was given to the Saptrishis as she provided them with ample milk. The milk was used to prepare curd and ghee which were regularly required for their sacred rituals. According to the Mahabharata, Kamdhenu was in the possession of one of the Saptrishis, Jamadagni. The sage invited King Kartavirya Arjuna to a feast. The greedy king learnt about the resourcefulness of Kamdhenu and forcefully took Kamdhenu and her calf away from the sage. The sage’s son, Parshurama, the sixth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, single-handedly defeated the king and his army, successfully retrieving the sacred cow and her calf.
Apsaras are female heavenly spirits of Devaloka or the home of the gods. They are associated with music and dance. After appearing from the cosmic ocean, they chose Gandharvas as their companions. The Gandharvas served as musicians in Indra’s court. Indra, who was constantly insecure about his throne, often commanded the enchanting apsaras to distract sages or asuras from their tapasya to achieve his own ends.
From the depths of the ocean, sprung a divine flowering tree called the Parijat. The flowers of the tree were white, with a tinge of orange at the stalk. Indra decided to keep the beautiful flowering tree with the enchanting fragrance for himself and planted the tree in his garden in Devaloka. Yugas later, Krishna and Indra duelled over the tree as Krishna wanted to bring the tree bearing the scented flowers to Prithvilok for his wives Satyabhama and Rukmini. Eventually, Krishna defeated Indra, and took the tree. The tree has a special significance in Hinduism, as it is forbidden to pluck its flowers and only the fallen flowers can be used to worship deities.
Vishnu’s Sharanga bow, Panchajanya Conch, and Kaustubh Mani
The Sharanga bow was one of the two divine bows crafted by Vishwakarma, the architect of the gods. Vishnu used the bow in his Parshurama, Rama and Krishna avatars. Before returning back to his holy abode, Vishnu, in the form of Krishna, left the bow in the possession of Varuna, the god of oceans.
In ancient times the sound of the conch signified the beginning of a war. Vishnu’s conch, Panchajanya is a symbolic way of portraying his role as the preserver of the universe. God steps into battlefields again and again, in different avatars to save humanity.
Kaustubh Mani is a sacred precious gemstone that is embedded in the necklace worn by Vishnu. The gemstone is said to be as beautiful as an exotic lotus and as radiant as the sun.
The moon God Chandra appeared as one of the precious ratnas and took refuge in the matted hair of Shiva. His father-in-law, Prajapati Daksha once cursed him for not being a good husband to his daughters. Due to the curse, Chandra lost his powers and his body started withering. After extensive prayers, Shiva came to the deity’s rescue and wore him as an ornament in his hair to neutralize the curse. However, Chandra still waxes and wanes as a result of that curse.
Lakshmi and Alakshmi
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, prosperity and fortune. She is one of the three supreme goddesses, with Saraswati and Parvati. She emerged from the cosmic ocean draped in her red and gold saree while seated on a grand lotus with smaller lotuses in her hands. After a long time of separation, the goddess was finally reunited with her consort, Lord Vishnu. Her return brought back the riches of the devas, giving Devaloka its earlier splendour.
The arrival of Lakshmi was followed by her counterpart and elder sister, Alakshmi, who had unkempt hair and was draped in a single white cloth. She is the goddess of misfortune, poverty and misery and is said to visit houses filled with ego, pride, selfishness, and envy. Unlike her sister Lakshmi, who likes sweet food, Alakshmi has an appetite for hot, sour and pungent food. So, many Hindu households often hang lemon and chillies at their doorstep to satisfy the appetite of the goddess of misfortune.
Dhanvantri, the physician of the gods, appeared from the turbulent ocean carrying the pot of Amrita. Dhanvantri was responsible for teaching the ancient knowledge of medical science, Ayurveda, to mortals. Brahma created Ayurveda, before he created mankind, but the vast knowledge of medical science was difficult for mortals to understand. So, Dhanvantri split the original text into eight divisions and taught his disciples.
As soon as Dhanvantri appeared with the pot of Amrit, the Asuras snatched the pot and planned to consume the entire pot of elixir. Vishnu devised a plan and took the form of an enchanting woman, Mohini. Mohini used her charm to lure the asuras out of hiding and used the opportunity to take the pot back to the Devas. While the devas were consuming the elixir to regain their divine strength back, one of the asuras, Rahuketu disguised himself as a deva to taste the Amrit. However, he was discovered just as he was pouring the liquid into his mouth. Vishnu instantly hurled the Sudarshan Chakra and beheaded Rahuketu but the amrita had already reached the asura’s throat. Rahuketu’s head and body were flung on opposite sides of the universe and became Rahu and Ketu.
Rudraksha means the tears of Rudra. For once, it is all in the name! From an evergreen tree found in the Himalayas and a few other mountains, these wrinkled brown seeds are said to have grown from the tears of Shiva himself.
Why did Shiva weep?
Some say that Shiva shed tears of ecstasy during meditation and these tears sprouted into the rudraksha trees when they touched the ground. Others believe that Shiva opened his eyes after several years of mediation and saw humanity suffering. Tears of compassion welled up in the divine eyes and wherever these tears fell, there budded the Rudraksha trees. Still, others maintain that these are tears of unimaginable grief, shed when Sati, Shiva’s beloved consort, was consumed in the ceremonial fire.
Another story links the tears of Shiva to the intense meditation he undertook to destroy three demons, the Tripurasuras. These demons lived in three floating Purams or cities and were protected by a boon from Brahma. They could only be destroyed when their cities came into a single axis, which happened once in a thousand years. Shiva destroyed the demons and liberated them with a single arrow. Maybe it was the intense concentration with which he focussed as he readied himself to aim at the cities that his half-closed eyes (Ardha Nimeelita neetra) watered and that created the rudraksha.
Ecstasy, compassion, grief or destruction for liberation, whatever be the cause of those tears, the rudraksha is considered to be imbued with energies that are physically curative and spiritually uplifting. It has a special place in Indian mythology. People wear it as a necklace, a bracelet, as earrings, use it like a rosary or japamala to count their prayers or just treasure the fact that they own one.
The magic of this bead
Once, a merchant named Kikata loaded his donkey with a bag of Rudraksha beads while returning from Badhrachala. The poor beast died on the way home. Its spirit at once merged with Shiva, just because he was carrying this bead at his hour of death.
According to Devi Bhagavatam, Gunanidhi, though a son of a learned scholar, lived a debauched life and committed many unspeakable sins. Shunned by society, he lived on the fringes as an outcast. As fate would have it, one day he lay down under a rudraksha tree and passed away. The messengers of Yama, the yamadutas, were instantly there to carry him to the darkest realms of Naraka. There could be no doubt as to where this one was headed to work out his karma. But lo and behold, the warriors of Shiva, the Shivaganas were already escorting Gunanidhi to Shivaloka, the realm of wisdom and peace! It was the magic of the rudraksha.
Brahma, Saraswati, Kartikeya, Dattatreya, all the learned Rishis and Shiva adorn themselves with these mystical beads.
A bead for everyone
While each bead from the Rudraksha tree is held sacred, all beads are not equal. Structurally each seed may have one to twenty-one lines. Hence a rudraksha may be ekmukhi (with just one line), dwimukhi (with two lines) and so on, depending on the number of lines it possesses. It is said that in ancient times one could find seeds with up to a hundred and eight lines. These lines correspond to the number of compartments within the seed. There are other special types of beads like the Gauri Shankar which has two beads naturally fused together.
The scientific name of rudraksha is Elaeocarpus ganitrus (Roxb). The evergreen tree which likes to grow in narrow places starts to bear fruits from the age of 3 or 4 years. The fruits are covered with a blue outer husk when fully ripened. This colour is not from a pigment, but due to the structure. The seed or rudraksha vary in colour from white, blood red, black to yellow, and has a natural hole running through its length. It is a rich source of Vitamin C. Some scientific research shows that the bead has electromagnetic properties and a dynamic polarity, which is why it can exert subtle corrective influence on the blood flow in a living being.
Who knows what secrets these gnarled, wizened old beads have to still share with humanity?
The hilly state of Tripura, located in the North-eastern corner of India is home to a centuries-old Shaivite pilgrimage site, Unakoti. About 178 kilometres from the capital city of Agartala, this ‘Lost Hill of Faces’ or ‘Hall of Faces’ has India’s largest bas-relief sculptures tucked away in a dense forest.
The word ‘Unakoti’ means one less than a ‘koti’ or crore (ten million). Unakoti denotes the supposed number of these statutes that are scattered in this area, known as Raghunandan hills.
As yet it has not been established who sculpted these massive statues or even exactly when the work began. However, there are many legends that exist about Unakoti and its creation. Here are some interesting ones:
Once one koti (or one crore) gods and goddesses including Lord Shiva were travelling from Kailash to Kashi. They stopped in this very place to rest for the night. It was decided that the next day, at the break of dawn they would all leave for Kashi. Shiva awoke much before sunrise and was ready at the appointed hour. However, much to his chagrin the other gods and goddesses had not moved at all and were fast asleep. Angered with this, Shiva cursed them to stay as still as stones and rocks and he left. And so they, the Unakoti, (one less than a koti or 99,99,999) remain there to this age.
The dawn of the dark age
As the darkest age of creation, Kaliyuga ascended, the gods and goddesses decided to leave earth as the conditions here would be too painful for them to endure. Shiva led them to the Raghunandan hills in Tripura, from where they departed to their heavenly abodes. While leaving, they left behind their imprints in the form of rock carvings and figures for those who live in this dark age to draw solace from. Shiva himself moved to Kailash after all the 99,99,999 immortals left for svargaloka.
An artist’s dream
Yet another legend links Unakoti to a talented sculptor named Kalu Kamar. Kalu wanted to make the place where he lived as holy as Kashi, the holiest of Shaiva pilgrimage cities. It was revealed to him in a dream that this could come true if he shaped one crore statues of gods and goddesses in one night. So Kalu set to work and tirelessly sculpted all of 99,99,999 statues. He then decided that he would make his own image as the last sculpture. That was his undoing. Since he had depicted one less than a koti or crore divine beings (not having himself reached a divine stature yet), his dream was shattered as dawn broke. Somewhere, there was a fine line between conceit and self-assurance which he crossed by depicting himself beside the gods as an equal. So Unakoti remained hidden in the dense forests and is only now coming to light for its artistic excellence.
Some others say that Unakoti is a site of Buddhist tantric practitioners. The almond-shaped eyes of the statues and the long ear lobes are reminiscent of Buddhist sculptures.
Whatever be the time and circumstances of the carving of these sculptures, the fact remains that these are unique both in execution and design. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there may be more such sculptures awaiting discovery. Maybe one of those carvings will provide the historical inputs we lack about this mysterious place. Till then, we continue to look at this blend of folklore, religion and nature in wonder.
Many gods are worshipped through their symbols as well as through their image or murtis. Symbols are always connected to a particular idea about the god. A shalagram (fossilized shell) is a symbol of Vishnu, as he is supposed to restart the universe from the cosmic ocean. Krishna is often worshipped as a kadamba tree, as in the story of Krishna’s boyhood, he would always play his flute under the kadamba tree. Similarly, the Bodhi tree is also a sign of the Buddha, as that is where he gained enlightenment.
The symbol of Shiva and Parvati are the lingam and the yoni, which are the male and female regenerative organs. They symbolise the life force of the universe. When they are together, there is cosmic balance and harmony in nature.
The idea that the universe, or rather existence itself, is a result of the union of male and female energies is as much a scientific fad as it is a philosophical truth. It has found expression in many religions across the world, like the Chinese and the Egyptian civilizations.
It is interesting to decode mythology. Shiva by himself is seen as pure consciousness or mental energy. He is the dormant, detached male power. He cannot sustain life and creation on his own and needs the dynamism of the Goddess to create life. In a very simple sense, it is the meeting of the fertile earth and its waters, with the light and energy of the sky. The core of the Shiva Purana is the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, which is essential to save the world from turning into a wasteland, or from being destroyed by demons.
Read more stories of Shiva in our Mahadeva series. Now available on the ACK Comics App and Kindle.
Ancient Indian scholars extensively studied the stars and other celestial bodies in the never-ending spatial sky. This thorough study of astronomy and astrology eventually created the Jyotish Shastra which explained how the Navagraha, literally meaning the nine planets, influence the lives of the earth dwellers. Though not all members of the Navagraha are planets; Surya, the sun is a star; Chandra, the moon is the natural satellite of Earth; Rahu and Ketu are lunar nodes that are responsible for eclipses of the sun and moon.
Surya, the God of the Sun is considered to be the leader amongst the Navagraha. Rightly so, as the other members of the celestial group revolve around Surya. The son of sage Kashyapa and Aditi is a prominent figure in Hinduism and is often considered on the same level as Indra in the hierarchy of the Devas. The God is often represented with four arms, out of which two hold lotuses, one holds a staff and another one has a chakra. The sun god is depicted seated on a chariot pulled by 7 horses, which is a symbolic way of representing the splitting of white sunlight into seven colours of the VIBGYOR spectrum. The day designated to Surya is Sunday, called Ravivaar in Hindiwhich literally translates to ‘Sun’s day’. The colour associated with the sun god is orange and gold, and to evoke the blessings of Surya one is asked to pray to the god by offering water to the deity by pouring it from a vessel. Surya as a Navagraha embodies qualities such as leadership, ego, strength, authority and vitality of a person.
Chandra is the moon god, and since Hinduism follows a Lunar Calendar, Chandra has always remained an important deity in the religion. The son of sage Atri and Anusuya was married to twenty-seven daughters of Prajapati Daksha who are all named after constellations. Chandra was biased towards Rohini and did not spend equal time with his other consorts and so the displeased women complained about their husband’s unfair treatment to their father, Daksha. The furious father, cursed his son-in-law, that he would lose his powers and his body would slowly wither away. The dying deity prayed to Lord Shiva who blessed the moon god with a boon which in a way balanced the effects of the curse. This established the waxing and waning of the moon, according to which, the moon waxes for 15 days, where it decreases in size and completely vanishes on the new moon day, and it wanes for the next 15 days, where it increases in size and regains its full powers on the full moon day. The lunar deity is never depicted with a full body, symbolising his waxing and waning and his chariot is said to be pulled by antelopes. Monday is the day associated with Chandra, and one must offer white or silver coloured articles and wear white to please the celestial god. The moon is said to embody thinking, stability and fertility.
Mangal, is the astrological ruler of the red planet, Mars. The theme of colour red is reflected in Mangal’s iconography, as he is often depicted to have red skin. Just like Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war, Mangal is also affiliated with war, battlefield and weaponry which is reflected in his visual depictions as he is shown armed with multiple weapons like a sword, a mace and a spear. The red-hued deity was said to be born when Lord Vishnu, in his Varaha avatar rescued Goddess Bhoomi, the personification of Earth, after asura Hiranyaksha had submerged the planet in the cosmic ocean. But in some stories the deity’s father is Shiva. One of the stories in Shiva Purana describes Mangal to be born from the sacred surface of the Earth, which had absorbed divine drops of sweat of Shiva. Mangal’s vahana is a ram and the deity is said to have an astrological influence on skills of hands, handling of equipment, anger and strength. Articles like wheat, red cloth, red flowers, copper and sandalwood are offered to the deity during prayers. Tuesday or Mangalvaar is the day associated with the celestial deity.
Budh, is the Navagraha deity that rules the planet which is closest to the sun in the solar system, Mercury. The Navgraha member’s mother, Tara was married to Brihaspati, but the biological father of Budh is Chandra. Learning about the parentage of Budh, a humiliated and angry Brihaspati cursed the unborn child to be neither a male nor female. And hence Budh was born as a gender-neutral person. Budh’s iconography often depicts the deity with green skin and holding a mace, a shield and a sword in three of his four arms. The ambiguous gender identity of the green-skinned deity, is also in a way reflected in their choice of vahana. Budh rides a Yaali, which is a chimera like beast composed out of the parts of an elephant, lion, horse and sometimes a bird. The theme of fluidity and ambiguity is also maintained with Budh’s consort, Ila, a gender-fluid goddess, who transitioned into a man from a woman and vice-a-versa after every month. Together, they had a son called Pururavas, who came to be known as the first king of Chandravanshis, the lunar dynasty of kings. Budh, as a Navagraha, influences intellect, communication, humour and reasoning, and Wednesday, or Budhwar is the day allocated to the deity. One is advised to offer articles like, green cloth and moong lentils to please the astrological deity.
The sage Brihaspati is the Navagraha deity representing the giant planet Jupiter. He is a wise god who is considered to be the lord of sacred speech. Due to his immense wisdom, he was appointed as the mentor of all the devas and thus he is also known as Guru Brihaspati. Hence Thursday is called both Brihaspativaar and Guruvaar which is the day associated with the deity. Indra, the king of devas, had once disrespected Guru Brihaspati, and the teacher abandoned his title as the mentor of the devas, which was then temporarily taken by the sage Vishwaroopa, but eventually, Indra ended up beheading his new guru in a fit of rage. The son of sage Angiras is often depicted with a glorious golden complexion with four arms, carrying a lotus, kamandalu, and rosary. The celestial god is said to embody qualities like spirituality, wisdom, dignity, morality, and luck. The golden complexioned god is offered articles that are yellow in colour, like gram pulse or flour, yellow flowers and turmeric.
Shukra or Shukracharya, is the deity of the planet Venus. The learned Navagraha member, plays the similar role of a mentor, like his fellow Navagraha, Brihaspati, the teacher of Devas, but unlike him, Shukracharya serves as a mentor to the asuras, the arch-nemesis of the devas. The celestial deity was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, and performed harsh penance to please the god of destruction. Shiva appeared before Shukracharya and rewarded him with the Mrita Sanjeevani Vidya mantra which allowed Shukracharya to revive anyone from the dead. This boon gave an upper hand to the asuras, as Brihaspati, the teacher of devas lacked the knowledge of Mrita Sanjeevani Vidya, and thus the asuras were able to defeat devas. Mahabali, an asura, and the grandchild of Prahalad was able to take over the three worlds under the guidance of his teacher, Shukra. The scholarly sage is depicted with four arms, carrying a staff, rosary, and a golden pot. Friday or Shukravaar is the planetary day of the deity, and the colour white is associated with him. Articles like rice, ghee, camphor, curd, sugar are offered to the deity. Shukra embodies qualities like, material desires, relationships, creativity, aesthetics and healing.
Shani, is the Hindu god of justice and the ruler of the planet Saturn. The powerful god keeps a record of karmic deeds of humans and passes his judgements upon them during their lifetime, unlike his brother, Yama, who makes his judgement only after the human has passed away. Due to his mother Chhaya’s intense penance and his father, Surya’s harsh sunlight, Shani was born with a charcoal black complexion. Upon seeing the newborn, Surya, who was bright and radiant, was bewildered as the pitch black child had no resemblance to him. The newborn Shani sensed his father’s doubt and cast an evil eye on his father, which caused Surya to go under eclipse. This evil eye is known as Shani Drishti, which brings bad luck to anyone who falls under his direct vision. Due to this, the devotees must not offer their prayers by standing directly in front of Shani’s idol. His idols are often depicted with four arms in which he carries, a mace, a trident, a bow and an arrow. The deity is said to have a crow or a vulture as his mode of aerial transportation. Saturday or Shanivaar is the day associated with the celestial god of judgement. One is advised to offer black iron nails, black lentils and black clothes to Shani. Devotees of Lord Hanuman are also protected from Shani’s evil eye as Shani had given this boon to Hanuman when he released Shani from the captivity of Ravana.
Rahu and Ketu unlike other Navagraha members do not rule upon a physical planet. They are chhaya graha, which means shadow planets, and hence are responsible for eclipses of the sun and moon. The two shadow planets were once a single entity. Svarbhanu, an asura, who aspired to become invincible, disguised himself as a deva to consume the nectar of immortality. Surya and Chandra due to their celestial light were able to identify the imposter among them and informed Mohini, the female form of Lord Vishnu. By the time Mohini used her Sudarshan Chakra to behead the asura, Svarbhanu had already consumed the nectar, thus making him immortal. Due to this the decapitated head and the body came to be known as two different entities called Rahu and Ketu, respectively.
Rahu is the decapitated head of the asura, Svarbhanu, and it represents the northern lunar node. Rahu is responsible for the eclipse of the sun, which was once interrupted by a young Hanuman, who wanted to consume the sun, thinking the bright flaming ball was a giant fruit. The Navagraha is depicted without a body, mounted on his vahana, a black lion. Since the deity lacks a body people believe that the influence of this deity causes undue harm. People donate mustard, saffron, sesame, lead and coal to appease Rahu.
Ketu is the headless body of the asura, Svarbhanu, and it represents the southern lunar node. Ketu is responsible for the eclipse of the moon, where the deity is said to completely swallow the lunar celestial body. The Navagraha is depicted without a head, with fours arms and a serpent’s tail instead of legs, mounted on his vahana, a vulture. His name ‘Ketu’, means a comet, and his serpent tail is a symbolic representation of a comet’s tail. People believe Ketu represents amorality, violence, detachment, confusion, mindlessness, and impulsivity. To avoid the ill effects of the celestial god people donate saffron, sesame, lead and sugar and offer food to a black and white coloured dog.