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When Earth Was Young Reading Sacred Indian Texts _________________________


Story of Rivers When they set in motion the first beginning of speech,giving names, their most pure and perfectly guarded secret was revealed through love The Rig Veda , 10.71 (translated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty)

Vastness of the sky expands his heart and clears the fear pooled in silence there; cradled alongside are doubts, hundred muted questions is fire born in water as lightning in a cloud ? is earth born in water as a golden embryo in deep ocean? is speech born out of thought as an action out of desire? between fire and water, between earth and ocean flows a river of stories, like love that marries word to thought.


Ashwamedha Each of the organisms that flies in the sky swims the water, walks the land is the sacrificial horse. The adhvaryu measures the sacrificial land, fills chants like breath into an inert body: thus an unremarkable clearing becomes centre of heavens and earth: what is the navel of the universe? what is the farthest end of the earth ? The sacrifice is the navel of the universe the altar is the farthest end of earth Temporary huts spring up, become little factories, a melee of activities: stakes built from felled trees, knobs fashioned with care to bind the stake; ropes made by firmly twisting durba grass, finely woven cloth to lay the sacrificial horse and shroud him with the chief queen, gold smelted in furnaces for the queens for the sacrificial horse on its return a year after -


all strung by chants, words coded in brain first to last last to first. He builds the altar eyes feverish, mind in vigilance. Every utterance, action unites the horse with Prajapati whose right eye fell down and swelled, became the white horse with dark patch stories that the hotยบ narrates, the sacrificer king listens while the horse roams, a year his thoughts follow the horse across the earth, the cloud of dust it leaves with a retinue of 400 people. (First, the poets created the world in metaphors: Drops of gold melted from the sun, the horse the whinnying white animal with wings of eagle gait of antelope, flashes across the sky; its russet mane like light dances on the floor of forests. This, coded as manual of rituals, mnemonic verses welded in memory notwithstanding obscurities where cognition crumbled.)


Prajapati desired the horse that he was, desired sacrifice; desire is heat that dispersed as gods to be propitiated a sacrificial animal victim for each of the gods, parts of the universe: the sky, grass, heavens. Bestow dark necked goat, a deep hued goat, a white one, black one, two with shaggy hind thighs. And the horse for Prajapati. Queens like the metre of poetry write on the horse, mark the path for the knife; adhvaryu carves the ribs dexterously, cleaving the limbs with love and without hurt, endearingly: you do not die, you are not harmed. one two three four… thirty-four, calling them out offers the first to Agni … the thirteenth to Yama… every muscle, every tendon to each of the organisms that flies in the sky, swims the water, walks the land.

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From the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Shatapatha Brahmana.


Yama and Yami Yama died, stepped across the divide of the pasture; there he sat on the cool grass, drank the fresh pressed Soma as he thought of his sister Yami he left behind: she was a lover he had denied, his twin of destiny /desire they lay together in their mother's womb man/woman. Her flesh he shared, her breath his, the hair that blew on his face as she bent to pick a flower, he had gathered into curls of order on her neck, the down on her neck he had seen bristle on cold evenings that they as children spent alone on the banks of the river. Their beautiful mother the dear daughter of Tvastr, the free spirit of the skies could not be made to yield to banalities of parenting: changing diapers, cleaning snot, spooning messy drools of porridge. She complained she had perpetual headache and that light swam behind her eyes. After bearing Yama Yami she refused to lie with her husband, Vivasvat the glorious Sun; he was too radiant, gave her a migraine. She darkened the chambers in her palace with thick curtains, desultorily spent the afternoons sipping cool chalices of Soma as her neglected children sat in the cold porch outside her room. Yama and Yami the inseparable twins were the only mortals in the world of gods blood and clay, sweat and desire that made and unmade them at birth. One day was like another as she baked bread and stirred soup for him she felt alone as life passed by, angry that he never touched her.


Eyes rheumy with age she sat in the dark kitchen not quite recognising the man her brother became shifting on his feet, looking into the blue depths of the sky beyond the radiance that their father shed on the earth. One day she brought him a kernel of pumpkin soup and found him dead, the breeze from the mountains on the skin that she knew so well. It had never happened beforeDeath. Gods didn't know what to do with a dead man. But Yama knew, lived for this death to step into a world that was left for him to create. No Viswakarma could do that convincingly: you should have lived to die, have the fire claw-singe your flesh, feel the body mix with the earth, eyes with the sun, breath with the wind. Death calls for compassion, to deliver the dead you must be compassionate like Yama. _________________________ Yama and Yami were twins, born to Saranyu and Vivasvat or Surya. Saranyu was the daughter of Tvastr or Hiranyagarbha, she was a wild and free spirit who could not be pinned to domesticity of marriage and child raising. Yama was the first mortal to experience death . This poem is drawn from the allusions to Yama and Yami in the Rig Veda (10.13, 10.14, 10.15)


Satyavati and Parashara He seeks her in the crevices under the arms smell of fish, the river bed, weeds that dance in the water;

she ferries him across the Ganga, dreams in her eyes like the distant moon, blue in a honeyed night.

In the velvety darkness through speeding currents in the folds of her misted skin he inhales

the smell of worms and algae that swim in the depths of her eyes; as the pool of passion

surges and stirs, he ingests fragrance of the musk under her breasts that roll down the waist like heads of

sleepy children. She is no longer a secret he carries in his loins, she has spilled into kingdoms far and in history.

_________________________ Satyavati was the beautiful daughter of a fisherman-chieftain. She ferried passengers across the Ganga. Sage Parashara, who halted for a night on the banks of the Ganga, was attracted to Satyavati who ferried him across the river . A love child was born to them - Vyasa, the author of the Itihasa ‘Mahabharata’.


Satyavati and Vyasa The man from the mountains ferreted out the fish girl; feet sore with calluses, he descended the hills like a mountain lion and sniffed her skin scaled in water. (He stepped out the river boat water at the bottom slurped, a hood over his head he disappeared beyond the copse to a path that took him again to the mountains.) Like a sprig of herb ruffled by breeze smelling of radiance, in the warmth between her legs she cradled silence. A word snarled in skeins of sounds swelled in her belly, looped into tales till the tangles stretched her uterus; her story got written in her womb where the Kuru dynasty swam: Vyasa birthed Satyavati and the Kuru clan, blurring who mothered whom.


This is the first of the three poems on Garuda from the purana ‘Srimad Baghavatham’.

Sisters That Bet The sisters moved away from the valley Kadru didn't want anything of the forests and hills marshes and darkness that left her depressed; they moved to a low cliff close to the sea, she sunned on the rocks waiting for her thousand eggs to hatch. Vinata collected stones and twigs, built a nest with wind-swept feathers, dry leaves, cradled her golden egg in cosyness of care, bordered the nest with a levee of sharp stones. Waited warily for the serpents her sister would birth. Kadru was fatigued cracking the eggs, reaching for her thousand serpent babies, throwing away the shells that built like a small hill of foam. The children looked through slits of glass eyes reached for the warm crevices of rocks. Not one given to parenting she fed her babies for a day or two rats and fledglings, then she went to her favourite rock lay there looking at the clouds above the sea that changed shapes ever so often. Kadru was disgruntled with her brood she had asked Kashyapa for a thousand sons, but Vinata as always outdid her, asked for one son to surpass Kadru's thousand. Jealousy stirred like a python when Kadru saw Vinata's golden egg as it lay on the rock to collect sunshine for five hundred years .


Vinata kept busy having the egg warm at night time protected it from the cold sheets of wind that blew from the sea she built a clay oven where she placed the egg ; through the day she watched the knotted coils of serpents as they moved on rocks, foraging for prey. Kadru annoyed with the clamour her hungry sons made, busyness of her sister clambering the rocks, moved close to the sea, walked on the cool strand of sand . She thought she saw an apparition in the horizon just a family of clouds gathering into a thunder storm? That is Indra's horse, Vinata pointed to the horizon. The seven headed white horse. Uchaishravas. Vinata's lips rounded around the name. Kadru scowled Not all white Kadru said, let's fly close to the horse, if it's not all white I become your mistress. The sisters flew like wisps of breath over the sea As their skirts tossed, like marble their thighs shone. Uchaishravas looked at the women skimming the ocean, unaware of serpents, the ugly sons of Kadru, on his tail black shot through silver - making him not all white.


Garuda From thousands of feet up, circling the brown waves of hills he scans pinheads of mountain peaks searching for his father; feathers bleached a deep indigo with sunrise, the large bird like a flying firmament squints into the caving sockets of hills.

The air gets pressed as Garuda plunges close to the earth, Kashyapa in deep meditation opens his eyes as flaps of wings stir breeze, sees his glorious son for the first time. Hardly hatched, but brimming with purpose that even as seed Kashyapa laid in Vinata's womb:

tapas of sixty thousand hermits mixed like rich cream as he took her that night and she cried with pleasure. She waited five hundred years for the egg to hatch as the thousand serpents hissed and tormented her.

The shell cracked and the tender down of the eaglet shone, his mother looked with sadness. Wind on the high mountain moaned, coils of serpents that sunned on the cold rock welcomed Garuda: his cousins that he will kill as prey for holding his mother in bondage.


Darbha Grass On the flattened darbha grass Garuda kept the pot of Soma ransom to free his mother from bondage. He asked the thousand serpents to take purificatory bath at the river. As they slithered towards the river Indra took away the celestial drink; the hissing serpents mad with anger pressed their bellies on the grass where the pot lay, licked the dharba sharp like razor, and thus acquired forked tongues.


Better Off Unborn Never make love at sunset when the gods take a ride in the skies, look down at you copulating skirt pulled up; the breeze from the jackfruit tree cooled the damp sweat, mapped the moist trail that her ascetic husband with dreadlocks left on her skin. He watched her emerge from the blue depths of desire muddied by wisps of sadness. The sky a mottled lilac skirt planted the two seeds of curse under, a gash that ached while the voyeuristic gods reclining on firm clouds sneered at the woman for lusting seeking her man. (My upbringing is impeccable, never leave behind my comb with strands of hair, never let my skirt balloon on the clothesline at night time, roll away my mat, sweep the floor. Twilight is dangerous my father had warned, open the doors, let gods see everything, that I am clean at dusk time between my legs.) Her womb swelled like the river in monsoon time, rashes of worry spread on the skin, pouches of dread hung under eyes, complexion the colour of lily curdled like stale cheese happens in pregnancy the women at the ashram told her. She stilled her breath, eclipsed time till it hung like a discarded plastic bag.


The poison inked her blood a deep purple, fetuses kept a hundred years in the womb turned blue; the glaciers inched and the earth shifted under her feet, her boys moved pushed tugged , stirred love and affection while she prayed they drown in the primeval water of creation. ___________________________ Story of Diti and Kashyapa from the purana ‘Srimad Bhagavatham’. When the universe was still young during the first Manvantara, Brahma created from parts of his body Prajapatis who would people the universe with their progeny. Daksha was created from Brahma's thumb and he birthed fifty sons and thirteen daughters, one being Diti and the other Sati the wife of Mahadeva. Marichi the other son of Brahma was one of the Sapta rishis. His son Kashyapa inherited from his father the right of creation. He married Daksha's daughter Diti. Meanwhile in a different world Vishnu's celestial gatekeepers were cursed by rishis. This could be annulled by their birth on earth. Diti makes love with Kashyapa in dusk, under the prying eyes of gods and gets cursed for her improper act with asuras for sons so that the accursed gatekeepers get a passage of life through her womb. She gives birth to the asuras Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashpu .


Savitri Savitri the beautiful princess shed her exuberant silk dropped her pearls and gems, the fragrant flowers that knit her hair. Clad in simple robes of rough cotton she assisted her husband perform sacrificial rites. The glowing daughter of the Sun carried a dark secret, remained anxious of shadows lurking near her conjugal nest. She sat in the evening under the banyan tree as birds settled high in the branches thickening with darkness, her mind clouded with fatigue, parched dry the tongue stuck at the roof of her mouth. Pools of sadness gathered in her eyes that drooped like wilted lotus. Satyavan emerged from the forest sweat on his sinewy arms that labored collecting wood for the sacrificial fire. The smoke of that day's oblation hung like a dark cloud, the hut barren like an ascetic's carried smell of fire that licked as the sun ascended the heavens. He spread himself like a panther on the kusa grass, she brought wild berries she collected near the clearing, the milk she pressed from the almonds that hung like sore nipples at the trees. Since she hadn't eaten for three days the smell of boiled wild rice nauseated her. He turned towards her inviting, the coarse cotton barely concealing his desire; as he ran his lips down her throat, saliva from his mouth froze like snow on the Himalayas and she saw the dark figure of Death penetrate her: lifeless wood inside her.


He looked into her dark eyes, seeing defiance in her compliance, inscrutable from the day of their marriage. He was aroused and disturbed at the thought of the silent lover lingering every night of their union. She refused to receive his seeds in her burning womb. It was his last day on earth, her mind feverish with prayers and mantras refused to descend in response to his touch; a trail of chillness, remoteness laced her caress, rejecting yet again his attempt to impregnate her. She had to remain an empty vessel to bargain for his life. As Yama resplendent in red stood before her the beautiful daughter of the Sun dared to brook his stare, poetry she read in the scented garden of her father's palace like a treasure offered words to praise the Lord of Death, dialogues with ascetics during her journey along the Ganga helped Savitri engage Yama in talks on metaphysics. Honeyed words like wild bees hummed in the forest, mesmerised by her intelligence and wisdom Yama granted her a boon. As a fruit for a year's austerity she asked for a hundred sons from her husband. For this Satyavan had to live, for this she allowed seeds waste away. The glorious lord of Death, the silent lover smiled at Savitri. ____________________ The story of Savitri and Satyavan is an upa-katha (a sub narrative) from the Itihasa 'Mahabharata'. This tale has stood out and acquired an existence of its own because of the strong protagonist Savitri who stands shoulder to shoulder with Sita and Draupadi , the two powerful women from 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata'.


________________________________________ Uma Gowrishankar


When Earth Was Young