In the course of writing my new book – a collection of fractured fairy tales from Indian mythology, I spent a lot of time researching various gods and goddesses, their origin stories, and what could be called their biographies.
Like all myths and legends, Indian mythology has its share of the bloodthirsty, the strange, and the straight-up terrifying. On more than one occasion, I was left staring at the computer screen with a blank look, a roaring emptiness in my mind.
Of course, as everyone knows, sharing is caring, so here, read and be traumatised too.
5 Facts from Indian Mythology That’ll Keep You Up at Night
1. Adultery can leave you with more body parts than you started out with
So you thought it was only the Greek gods who had amusing love lives, what with the lot of them turning into swans, bulls (don’t even get me started on the ‘golden shower’) and plants and everything in between in their pursuit of comely (mostly unwilling) women?
Presenting Indra, considered the king of the gods in Vedic times.
[Tweet “Indra and Zeus have a lot of similarities”]
Both are the king of the gods and rule heaven from their mountaintop kingdoms. Further, the weapon of choice for both is a thunderbolt.
They both also have a roving eye, much to the woe of their long-suffering wives.
The story goes that Brahma, the Creator god, created the most beautiful woman in the world, and named her Ahalya.
Notice Indra in the top right corner, on his winged horse, creepily spying on Ahalya.
Since Ahalya could be considered his daughter, Brahma married her off to Gautama, a great sage. Now, great sage is another word for ‘hermit’, and hermits don’t usually spend much time on their personal appearance. Plus, Gautama was much older than Ahalya.
Now, all this didn’t sit right with Indra, who felt that he should have been given Ahalya, like a prize, for his general awesomeness. Indra was determined to have her at any cost. So he disguised himself as Gautama, and waited until the sage left his home. Indra then appeared before Ahalya, and proceeded to sleep with her, like a porno-version of Face/Off.
Gautama returns and catches them in the act, and suffice to say, he is displeased. He curses Ahalya to turn into a stone (though she is blameless, in some accounts) and says she can only be freed from her curse by the touch of a pure soul – in this case, Rama.
And like something out of a David Cronenberg film, Gautama curses Indra with a thousand vaginas on his body, since he seemed to like vaginas so much.
Just think about that. A thousand vaginas covering every inch of someone’s body…
Legend says the curse was later mitigated to become a thousand eyes on Indra’s body, but really, that’s just as bad.
(Yeah, good luck sleeping without nightmares tonight.)
2. Krishna advocated human sacrifice
For all that Hinduism is considered the pacifist religion of Mahatma Gandhi, with perfect gods like Rama and Krishna who never do anything wrong, there are dark sides to the story.
Like the time Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, the preserver of life (now how’s that for irony) advocates a human sacrifice before the Kurukshetra war, to ensure that the Pandavas gain victory.
In some versions of the Mahabharata, Krishna comes to realise that a sacrifice is necessary to ensure victory for his side in the war. Krishna establishes that there are four candidates most suited to being offered as the victim of the sacrifice: Shalya, one of the enemy; Arjuna, the commander of the Pandavas; Aravan, Arjuna’s son; and Krishna himself.
Given that a member of the enemy is obviously unavailable, and Arjuna is his favourite, guess who Krishna chooses for the sacrifice. No, guess.
According to this legend, Aravan is beheaded, and gains a boon from Krishna for agreeing to give up his life for the greater good – Aravan asks that he enjoy the status of a married man, even if only for a day.
Krishna obligingly takes on the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, and marries Aravan, spending the night with him. When Aravan is sacrificed, Krishna-Mohini grieves for him as a wife would, giving rise to:
[Tweet “Aravan, the patron god of the transgender communities in India”]
Aravan’s disembodied head is worshipped in place of a full idol in many temples in South India, Indonesia, and Singapore.
So, essentially – Krishna sacrificed a young man, but made sure he at least had sex before he died.
3. Even gods can’t escape EMIs and mortgages
So you think it’s just the poor humans who need to worry about mundane things like a job, making ends meet, or craving that fabulously expensive but oh-so necessary luxury item that you can pay off only in small increments every month, don’t you?
How nice it must be to be a god, with godlike powers and dominion over everything and everyone, even pesky little loan collectors.
Well, not really.
The story goes that the goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, hah – you’ll see why this is funny later) quarrels with her husband, Vishnu, the Preserver, and goes off to the Earth to sulk in solitude.
Vishnu follows her in his human incarnation of Venkateshwara, but can’t find her. He decides to settle on Tirumala hills in the form of a goat herder and continue the search. In the meantime, Vishnu meets the beautiful princess Padmavati, daughter of the King of the seven hills in Tirumala. They both fall in love and decide to get married. Apparently, Padmavati is Lakshmi in disguise, so Vishnu is not an adulterer and forget-er of wives.
The king asks for a large dowry before he agrees to let his daughter marry a goat herder. Since this goat herder doesn’t know of buried treasure anywhere, Venkateshwara aka Vishnu does the smart human thing, and goes to a loan shark. (Okay, the smart human part is debatable.) Venky decides to take a large loan from Kubera, the treasurer of the wealth of the gods.
Like any loan shark, Kubera has his own condition – Vishnu cannot leave the earth and return to Vaikunta, his heavenly abode, without paying off the debt.
So now, the story goes, Vishnu still resides at the Tirumala temple as Tirupati Venkateswara -since he defaulted on the loan. To help him repay his debt, every year, thousands of human devotees donate large sums of wealth to the temple, and in return, Vishnu fulfills their prayers.
Funnily enough, an activist named Narasimha Murti filed a petition in court in 2014, seeking to know ‘how much Lord Venkateshwara had received from Lord Kubera and how many more years it would take for the devotees to clear this debt’. It’s thought to be a creative petition to make devotees think twice before donating at the temple – they need the money to pay off their own debts, of course.
4. Was Vishnu His Own Son?
Staying on the same topic, a cursory search of Indian mythology’s big three – the trinity of Brahma the creator of life, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer – will bring up mentions of Shiva’s two sons, and Brahma’s sons and daughter (hello, Ahalya!) – but there’s nothing about Vishnu.
‘Don’t mind me, I’m jus’ hanging around, chilling in the clouds…’
Some sources say that Manmatha – Indian mythology’s version of Cupid – is his son, while other sources say Manmatha, also called Kamadeva, is Vishnu. Alternatively, in some sources, Kamadeva is said to arise from the mind of the creator god, Brahma, and is thus his son.
So unless Vishnu is his own son, in a very ‘—All You Zombies—’ kind of way, Manmatha aka Kamadeva is not his son.
5. The gods saw nothing wrong with LGBT relationships
One of Vishnu’s ten avatars – or human incarnations – is as the beautiful woman Mohini, femme fatale to the demons, stealing the immortal nectar from them and handing it to the gods.
Something like this, only more mythological.
As an incarnation of Vishnu, Mohini was meant to be seductive, charming her targets into doing what she wanted – whether it was leading them to their own destruction, like she did with the demon Bhasmasur – or cheating them out of their hard won nectar, as she did to the demons, in the beginning of time.
The story goes that Shiva wanted to see this beautiful form of Vishnu that could charm anyone into doing anything, and requested Vishnu to take on Mohini’s form again.
(If that isn’t open to interpretation as cross-dressing, I don’t know what is.)
Shiva is overcome by lust when he sees Vishnu-Mohini, and who can blame him, really? Check out Mohini in the classic Bollywood heroine mode – swinging in nature in a white saree.
(Can’t you almost hear her singing some Aishwarya Rai song?)
Shiva and Vishnu-Mohini proceed to have sex, and consequently a child. (Yay, same sex parenting!)
Some versions of the legend have Vishnu enthusiastically complying with Shiva, and in others he is hesitant and resists Shiva, but the end result is the same in all the legends – Shiva and Vishnu have a son together.
Now try telling me that same sex relationships or same sex parenting is ‘unholy’. (I’m looking at you, Supreme Court of India.)
Caveat: like every other mythology, Indian myths and legends are open to many different interpretations, especially so because, unlike Egyptian, Greek or Roman gods, Indian mythology is still alive and flourishing today, and its symbology and meanings are fluid and can change with each scholar interpreting the legends the way they deem correct.
[music| Fireflies: Owl City]