If I were a true Hindu, I would worship many gods and goddesses, whose images I could find under trees, in beautifully carved granite temples, in huge caves, on the roadsides, and on pictures printed on calendars. Yet I would also believe that there is only one God, a Supreme Being who is formless, blameless, unparalleled, unemotional, devoid of attributes and hence cannot be photographed or painted.
Since such a God could be anything like an invisible and homogenous fluid, and hence indiscernible, He assumes attributes and takes the shape of a Trinity with well-defined personal traits and responsibilities. Of them, Brahma’s duty is to create, Vishnu to maintain (rather partisan) order and Shiva to destroy and recycle. Of the three who is more powerful is a foolish question because their realms are well defined and firmly set apart. If you ask a difficult question like if Brahma is the creator, and He created all including the rest of the Trinity, isn’t He like a Father Figure and hence superior? We will have to seek the answer in quantum physics. The fact is that, having created and found that the creations were worthwhile; Brahma withdrew to the background, remaining somewhat like a sleeping partner on the Board of Trinities. In a version that I find on calendars, Brahma emerges sitting on a lotus atop a long stiff stem that’s grown from Vishnu’s navel. That would mean that Vishnu predates the creator. It then becomes an egg-or-chicken-first riddle which has no solution. Perhaps Werner Heisenberg was inspired by this riddle to name his quantum riddle the Uncertainty Principle.
The Gods of the Trinity (Please, I do not mean the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost – in Hindu religion we do not think very highly of ghosts) have their favourite tribes among human, demon and demi-god devotees. Vishnu, for instance, is on the side of devas, the demi-gods who are obedient subjects of King Indra, the god who holds lightning for a sword. During the initial Vedic period, several aeons ago, Indra used to be the supreme God. As the universe expanded and the galaxies fell apart, Indra lost his powers as the Supreme Being. Since then he has had to run to Vishnu every now and then to seek protection from the tribe of the demons. Vishnu was a minor god during the period of Rigveda, but since then grew so large that he measured the entire universe with three steps. To save the world (mostly to save the deva tribe from their cousins of the demon tribe) he was constrained to take the lowly form of humans. I mustn’t forget to state that his first three incarnations were of a secular nature – as fish, turtle and pig – to save the universe (including both the contending cousins). The next two were a man-lion and a dwarf; the rest were fully developed humans. If you notice the chronology of those incarnations, you’d realize that the theory of evolution was known to our forefathers far before a Christian-turned-atheist named Darwin guessed it. At least that is what the godmen of India claim.
While Vishnu leaned heavily toward the Devas, Shiva favoured the contending tribe, the demons. Thus, most demon kings – including Ravana of the Ramayana fame, was a staunch devotee of Shiva. Banasura, or the Demon of arrows, was another ardent devotee. This story is about a third one who perished on account of his attempt at outsmarting God and gods. His name was Bhasmasura or Ash-demon.
The relationship between man/demon and God used to be (and still is) interactive. If a man or woman prayed, the God was required to answer the prayer. If god issued a command through one of his prophets called Brahmins, man had to obey it unflinchingly. If a demon or a human did austerities for twelve years and raised the temperature (tapas) in God’s abode to uncomfortable levels, there was no way for the Lord but to make an appearance and give him the boon he asked for, whatever that might be.
Though the Deva (demi-god) tribe could walk on the surface of the milky ocean to meet Vishnu to plead for his help and protection, humans and demons had to practise extreme austerities – not to forget celibacy and focused meditation – to meet Shiva, their favourite God. Austerities included endless fasting, standing on one leg or sitting without moving, or keeping a hand raised without ever bringing it down – and so on. Most demons knew this worked wonders, that Shiva had no way but to meet the practitioner sooner or later. Sometimes Saraswati, the goddess of speech, would sit on the tongue of a rogue demon and make him slip up and ask for a wrong boon. These days, Goddess Saraswati sits on the tongue of Smriti Irani, India’s Minister for Human (Under)Development, every time she stands in the Parliament and tries to speak about education, which is otherwise a strange subject for her.
Among the most determined demons was one called Bhasmasura, or Ash-Demon who loved to play deadly pranks on gods. His unflinching piety and obstinate austerities (apart from celibacy, which is normally unheard of among the demon tribes), raised the temperature in Mount Kailas, where Shiva resided with his wife and children. The heat became so unbearable that Shiva’s wife Parvathi demanded that the Lord meet post-haste the Ash-Demon who was causing the discomfiture. Do that, or else, she warned.
Accordingly, Lord Shiva, despite his premonition of impending danger, appeared before the demon who had his one hand (or one leg, I don’t remember which) raised, eyes closed, mouth chanting “Om Nama Shivaya” like actor Anupam Kher who chants it when he has to prove his patriotism through love for Hindu gods.
“Relax, and open your eyes,” said Shiva in his sweetest voice. “Devotee, I am here. Ask for your boon”.
Ash-Demon opened his eyes and, overjoyed, prostrated and touched his Lord’s feet.
“Now that you have appeared before me, what other boon can I ask?”
The Lord did not miss the ominous signs that were playing in the sky and all around him. But even the most powerful section of the Trinity could not break the laws of nature – just as no one can break the law of gravity. One of those irrefutable laws was that if God appeared before a devotee, He had to grant the latter any boon asked for.
“Don’t beat around the bush. Tell me what it is that you’ve been raising the temperature of my abode continually for the past twelve years.” Said the Lord.
“I ask for very little, my Lord,” said the Ash-Demon in humility which could well have been fake. “I am not asking for mountains of Gold, a huge palace, or the kingdom of the Devas. My need is much simpler.”
“Then spell it out. “
“It’s this, my Lord. My name is Ash-Demon, as you very well know. All that I ask is whomever I touch on top of his or her head, he or she should instantly turn to ash – irretrievably.”
Lord Shiva ignored the tingle he felt through his vertebral column.
“That’s a stupid request, but I’m not surprised that you demons are always out to cause destruction. So be it.” Shiva had a feeling it was a bad boon, but there was nothing he could do about it.
The demon jumped up and down, elated. “Thank you, Lord, but I need to test this boon before I let you go. Let me touch your head.”
There lay what came to be known as Lord Shiva’s conundrum.
Gods are indestructible. Among them, Shiva was one of the most powerful Trinity. He was the destroyer, who could not be destroyed.
But a boon by him was irreversible. If the demon touched his head, he had no way but to turn to ashes, irretrievably.
Not destructible, but will be destroyed. Cannot be destroyed, but no escape from destruction.
This was no Rubik cube. This was no Newton’s conundrum that arose when he propounded the law of gravity, which went like this : Stars are massive bodies that are stationery. By his own equation for two bodies of mass, the force is such that they should fall into each other, no matter what distance, at some point of time, and commit suicide like forlorn lovers.
Stars should fall into each other and destroy themselves. But stars don’t seem to fall into each other and destroy themselves.
That was the riddle Edison went to his deathbed with, having found no solution despite his phenomenal IQ.
Two hundred years later, a man named Edwin Hubble burst the bubble of that riddle. But that has no relevance here.
Being God, Lord Shiva knew there was no solution for his riddle, and he didn’t want to risk finding out one. So he took the next best step.
He ran. Ran faster than any Usain Bolt of his time.
Now the Ash-demon felt cheated when he was denied the most sacred ash of Lord Shiva. So he ran after him with his right hand stretched out to touch the Lord’s head at the first opportunity.
Lord Shiva could have just vanished, which was within the power of any God. But that would only make him a laughing stock in the eyes of the other two members of the Divine Board. Moreover, he was not sure if the demon knew the vanishing trick as well. As the dead can see the dead, the vanished cannot escape the sight of other vanished.
So he ran around the earth, around the moon, around the sun, around the three worlds that consisted of the Earth, Heaven and Patal, an underground world built by Yama, the demi-god of death, to house sinners and fierce beasts together.. Wherever He went, the demon kept right after Him.
Lord Shiva racked His divine head while flashing across the galaxies, but could not divine a solution to the riddle. Will he die although a God should not die? Will the boon fail although a God’s boon is not supposed to fail?
Thankfully, while running like lightning, He remembered his companion God, Lord Vishnu, who had a solution for every riddle, and who used to play with a Rubik cube when not playing with one of his many wives. Gods were far ahead of their times : They needed no visible instrument of communication. The divine telepathy was very powerful and had the speed of several Gigabits per second.
On that telepathy circuit Lord Shiva pleaded, without letting up on his speed, thus: “Brother Vishnu, Are you there? Please do something. I’m in deep cow dung. Help me.”
Lord Vishnu received the message in the divine language of Sanskrit. Vishnu, being the God of wisdom as well, knew right away what holy cow-dung his Brother God had fallen into. So he ttelepathed back: “ You’re indestructible. Why are you worried?”
“This is no time for unholy jokes. You know that my boon is irreversible and irreconcilable.”
“Oh, yes. Let’s not wait till the stars hit each other to find out what would happen. Here I come,” said Lord Vishnu, giving the much-needed solace to Lord Shiva.
Now there must have been a distance of some 2000 cubits between the running Lord and the chasing demon, and their rapid footsteps were resounding across the three worlds. Lord Shiva turned a corner and, for a few moments, was out of sight.
Not to worry, the demon soon came up and turned the corner.
What he saw was the prettiest woman a demon could have ever imagined.
Moon-like face. Kohl-lined Lotus-petal eyes. Cherry lips, teeth like a bead of pearls. Voluptuous breasts. Belly flat like a banyan-tree leaf. Wide hips. Smooth elephantine thighs. Carved calves. Just as Ravan complimented Sita in Valmiki Ramayana, Sarga 3. Aranya Kanda (Episodes in the Forest)
The demon stopped in his track. Lord Shiva ran and ran and disappeared over the edge of the Milky Way. Ash-demon did not notice the disappearance of his prey. He felt that the beauty hit him like a flash of light – he was delirious and drained as though he had just made love. His twelve-year-long abstinence looked like taking its toll.
There was no time for preliminaries. Because the urge to put his hand on Lord Shiva’s head was still in the back of his mind. Perhaps he was born in the subcontinent and did not believe in preliminaries.
“Please, oh please, you heavenly beauty, let me kiss you.”
“You look as though you need more than a kiss. You can make love to me if you promise to be faithful ever after,” said Mohini, for that was Vishnu’s trans-gendered name.
“I promise. This very moment.”
“Well, you know how we make a solemn promise. Put your palm of your right hand on top of your head and swear that you’d never be unfaithful.”
The demon placed his palm over his head and said : “I swear…”
Boom. There fell a heap of ash where the wily demon had been standing.
“Your riddle is solved; you’re safe,” called out Mohini over the divine telepathy.
“Thank you,” said Lord Shiva. “How did you manage to do that?”
“Come back and look,” said Lord Vishnu, wanting to impress his Trinity-partner with the feminine transformation.
Shiva walked back gingerly, still a bit riddled and hence cautious, till he saw the beautiful Mohini, fit to walk any heavenly ramp and gather any number of wolf whistles.
Now Gods are special. When they take the form of females, they don’t just take a close shave, put on a wig, coconut-shell breasts and wear lipstick. They become females all the way, I mean all the way, including the double-X chromosomes and the internal fittings that go with them.
Lord Shiva forgot his promise of fidelity to Parvathi.
Lord Vishnu, now Mohini, felt enamoured of the rough-and-tough macho look of Lord Shiva.
Sparks flew. As they show in Hindi films, two pigeons kissed while music played in the background.
That’s how South India’s favourite god Ayyappa was born as a solution to all riddles, fears and worries of the world.