Saiswaroopa Iyer. Abhaya: The Legend of Diwali. 2016
Reading Saiswarupa Iyer’s book Abhaya, one feels like this is not her debut book but a book from a seasoned author. After emerging from the author’s mind, the book is dropped at the right moment in the flow of space-time, into the minds of the readers ripe with the spiritual uprising happening in the current times, to effect the desired changes in them.
The story of Abhaya is carved out from the Itihasa-Purana cosmos which is the home and heaven of a Mahabharata-researcher like me.
At the outer level, the narrative of the book is based on the Narakasura Vadha episode, prominently mentioned in the Kalika Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana and Harivamsha but also found in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as fragments.
The protagonist Abhaya is the Manasa-putri (mental-construct) and the Mano-rupa (mental self-image) of the author, i.e. she is a fictional character who cannot be found in the source Samskrit texts. She is portrayed as the princess of a fictional city and kingdom named Anagha situated strategically at the crossroads of trade routes connecting Krishna Vasudeva’s Dwaraka (an island in the western shores of Gujarat) with the kingdom of Avanti (Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh) and Indraprastha (Indraprast, Delhi).
For the interest of the enthusiastic reader, I have made an analysis of the probable location of the city of Anagha based on the map provided by the author in the book. Based on this, the city can be placed on the eastern foothills of Arbuda Mountains (Mount Abu, Rajastan). Interestingly, Arbuda mountain foothills are mentioned as the place through which Subhadra eloped from Dwaraka by riding a chariot, taking Arjuna in it. Leaving Dwaraka and Anarta (Gujarat) she rode the chariot through the foothills of Arbuda Mountains, then passed through the territories of Nishadas (Bhilwara) and Salwas (northern Rajastan & south-west Haryana) and entered Devapatha (road through Saraswati-Dhrisadwati river basin) leading to Indraprastha. This was one among the many roads connecting Dwaraka with Indraprastha, another one being the route along the dried up Saraswati traversed by Balarama during his pilgrimage and yet another being the route along Sindhu, traversed by Nakula during his military campaign for Yudhisthira’s Rajasuya.
The book reveals to us that during the reign of Dharmasena and his daughter Abhaya, the famed city of Dwaraka of Krishna Vasudeva was an emerging center of trade, commerce and economy. Indraprastha was the center of political power with its king Yudhisthira poised to become the emperor of Bharatavarsha. Avanti, the eastern neighbor to Anagha and an ally of Dharmasena was a regional power which exerted political dominance over Abhaya’s dominion.
Not surprisingly, princess Abhaya found a good friend and ally in Krishna and it changed her life from being an unknown princess in a minor kingdom into taking up a great challenge which destiny has in store for her.
Krishna was already a mystery man with multifaceted characteristics and a playful mind whose inner depths nobody could decipher.
On one hand, Krishna was an amazing politician whose strategies and advices were helping king Yudhisthira to become an emperor. He had already proved his skill as a strategist by reestablishing the rule of old king Ugrasena at Mathura by overthrowing Kamsa, the tyrant son of Ugrasena. His war diplomacy became evident when he re-established his people viz. the Yadavas at Dwaraka, escaping from a war of attrition at Mathura instigated by Jarasandha of Magadha and his allies. In this process he happily accepted the title of Ranchod (a coward, who would quit battle). In Krishna’s own words, he did all of this with the leaders and would-be leaders of men, for the establishment of true Dharma as he understood that Dharma as known to the elders like Bhishma and Drona, the supposed custodians of Dharma were found to be off the mark, with enough rot in it.
One the other hand, Krishna was focused on problems women faced in a society where patriarchy and male-dominance deepened its hold. For example, he could see the rot that had happened in the institution of Swayamvara, where women were supposed to be marrying men of their choice without any pressure from their kin. But far from this ideal, many kings and princes chose to marry off their daughter or sister to their political friends to foster political alliances. Often the man chosen by the woman was not even invited to the Swayamvara.
Here Krishna shone as a reliable life-partner to many princesses like Rukmini and Mitravinda. They wrote love letters to Krishna and asked him to save them from these fake Swayamvaras and Krishna readily obliged. Krishna was already popular among the women and princesses of Bharatavarsha kingdoms, due to his early-life interactions with the Gopikas at Vrindavana, where he elevated them to a spiritual ascendant journey even if it meant providing them a sensual experience.
The narrative of the antagonist viz. Bhauma Narakasura, the lord of Kamarupa (Guwahati, Assam) and his pair viz. Dhatri are beautifully developed in another thread starting with the initial chapters of the book, passing through wonderful twists and turns and finally ending at an amazing climax. Dhatri is introduced in the beginning as a helpless woman who wanted to save her love-life, but was under attack by a conservative, orthodox society. Through her transformation into the chief Yogini of Kamarupa, the author reveals to the reader the Vamachara, Shaktha, Yogini-Tantra traditions of Hindu Dharma as well as the glory of the Great Goddess and her famed Kamakhya Temple at Kamarupa. This is a lost spiritual tradition which was prevalent worldwide and is now lost. It is described in literature as sacred-sex and grossly misunderstood by the denizens of 21st century. The idea that sexual experience offers a valid means to attain spiritual ascend is now lost to the modern world.
It is here that I see Saiswarupa’s book Abhaya as a ‘game changer’ even in this relatively new genre of Veda-Itihasa-Purana, for I don’t wish to call it as ‘mythology’ which is a misnomer, when used to describe Bharatiya Itihasas, Vedas and Puranas. The term ‘mythology’ ignores the historical content and factual narratives in our Vedas, Itihasas and Puranas. The author has boldly and positively narrated the Yogini-Tantra practices in her book.
The book has many hidden layers beneath the outer story. The most striking among these is the exposure of that dark force in the human society which consistently tries to control the human spirituality and the human quest for divinity, by creating exclusivist religions to achieve world domination, political imperialism and the subjugation of the human spirit. This is the biggest problem faced by 21st century. People are willing to accept knowledge emerging from the field of science. They can cope up with abrupt paradigm shifts occurring in the field of science and technology. Yet they find it impossible to shake off from the age old religious beliefs, however irrational it may be and how much violence is emerging out of their religious ignorance, causing endless pain to men, women and little children in different parts of the world.
You can also see how beautifully the author explains the philosophy of Krishna, his playfulness, the mystery behind the 16000 wives of Krishna, the mystery of the baby girl who replaced Krishna and faced the wrath of Kamsa.
The author gives enough hints in her book to indicate that the 16000 wives of Krishna were the women who were formerly imprisoned in the dungeons of Narakasura, and later given ‘Abhaya’ (protection) by Krishna. They were sure, freed from their painful life. But will the society accept them? Do these women have to endure the fate of Janaki Sita who was freed from the dungeon of Ravana? By giving them the status of the wives of Krishna they will be provided with protection and respectability in the society, while Krishna himself will take all the blame happily. Later narrators and thinkers would mock Krishna as a womanizer or someone who maintained a harem of many thousand women.
The author has hidden another woman in her narrative through the magic of words, viz. the Yoga Maaya the baby-girl who turned into goddess Durga in the prison-house of Mathura, when Kamsa tried to kill her. She is the female self of Krishna, an alternate ego or Mano-rupa (mental self-image) projected through the entangled consciousness conduits established with people connected with Krishna, such as his uncle Kamsa, parents Vasudeva & Devaki and princess Abhaya herself.
My review is not complete without a brief note about the character-set. The book has a rich set of characters. Besides, princess Abhaya, Krishna Vasudeva, Bhauma (Narakasura) and Dhatri, the chief Yogini of Kamarupa, we have others like Abhaya’s loving father Dharmasena, her beloved foster brother Vikramasena as well as Shyeni belonging to the Vainateya clan of the Garudas who was the lover of Vikramasena. Shyeni has a brother viz Vainateya who is also a friend of Krishna representing Krishna-Garuda relationship.
The city of Avanti had its prince Vinda and Anuvinda and their sister Mitravinda who was also Abhaya’s dear friend. The commander in chief of Bhauma viz. Mura is a wonderful character with his own emotions, flesh and blood. In the city of Anagha we see Katyayana the priest and his daughter Pingala. Krishna’s sister Subhadra plays a role in the narrative. Kadambari, the wandering Yogini and her preceptor Vamanatha too are interesting characters.
I personally was longing to see an interaction of the protagonist Abhaya with the Pandavas and Draupadi but only Sahadeva was mentioned strongly in relation to Abhaya.
The author has kept some punch lines to aim at some of the current political leaders. One interesting case is the response of Anuvinda to Abhaya: - “Boys will be boys, Abhaya”.
Some selected dialogues found in the book are listed down for the significance of the messages hidden in them. These jewels increases the value of this book:-
The basic principle of Shakta Yogini-Tantra tradition is revealed in this dialog: - "We the Shaktas, abhor abstinence. What is the use of denying pleasures and subjecting oneself to misery? Let yourself free. Own indulgence, shun abstinence and reach the pinnacle of pleasures. That is where you will find the ultimate state, the state of Shiva, transcending from the state of Shava, the corpse. Shakti, the unleased femininity is what makes a Shiva out of a Shava. You are that Shakti, you who can grant the ultimate state to those who worship you through the ritual of Maithuna. It makes you the Yogini. The embodiment of 'The Union'."
Krishna explains his philosophy of Karma Yoga to Vainateya: - “A burden is different from a cause Vainateya. We look forward to getting rid of what we feel as a burden. But when it turns into a cause, it becomes the very energy we need to bear it. Then, we can neither escape it nor shun it. We are no longer helpless bearers, but become willing champions of the cause."
In the following passage, we see a merger of the Karma Yoga philosophy with Shaktha philosophy: - “When a man and a woman unite for a cause, the cause binds them together. When the man, the woman and the purpose become one and the same, they are no different from the inseparable Shakthi and Shiva.”
Princess Abhaya explains her philosophy to her brother: - “But our home isn’t just Anagha. Our home is anywhere that civilization stands by Dharma”.
In the following dialogues, Guru Vamanatha speaks this to Kadambari: - “The fools get excited at the mere thought of pursuing a ‘superior’ religion. Practicing a religion is a personal Sadhana. We don’t choose a religion because of the stupid claims of superiority.” In another scene Kadambari reflects: - “Isn’t every woman a personification of Shakthi, the energy, the very Goddess? What is the need of a (particular) Mahadevi and how could (ONLY) she become the ONLY voice of the Supreme Mother?” Abhaya too reflects this: - “Control in the name of Goddess! In the name of a religion!” Finally Krishna says this to Dhatri: - “Truth is not bitter. Truth is truth. For those who strive towards it, it is the light. For those who revel in the predictions of doom, it is darkness.”
For all those new readers who are going to read Saiswarupa’s book Abhaya, I have to say that, this book will amaze you in multiple ways. Barring a few typographical errors and a few vaguely formed sentences, I find the book to be an interesting read. The flow and anticipation is maintained right from start to end and most of you won’t leave the book until it is finished, after turning the first page.