Authors: Ariel Glucklich
1001 Steps with a Storyteller and a Reluctant Pilgrim
For Jennifer Hansen
Like most travelers, I was struck by my first sight of Chamundi Hill, a lone-standing mountain rising to just over one thousand meters, three kilometers south of the city of Mysore in southwestern India. Mysore is an attractive city of roughly one million people in the southern state of Karnataka. It is an old city, mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit epic
as Mahishamati, a place the Pandava brother Sahadeva visited. Much later Mysore was the capital of old Mysore State, then a part of the Chola, Hoysala, and Vijayanagara kingdoms. These left the city and its area with magnificent monuments that, along with the city's royal palace of Shri Chamaraja Wodeyar, the yoga and Ayurvedic centers, and Chamundi Hill, draw many tourists each year.
The hill is renowned as the abode of Chamundi, one form of the Hindu goddess Kali, who is worshiped as Shiva's consort and who is the family deity of the maharajas of Mysore. According to the Puranas, the ancient sacred texts, the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura, along with his army of Asura demons, was terrorizing the gods. Unable to withstand his power, the gods united all of their powers and weapons to produce a powerful goddess. With these divine powers, the goddess slew the demon and is now pictured seated on a lion with a triton in her right hand piercing the body of the evil Mahishasura.
One thousand or so steps now lead up the northern face of Chamundi Hill for pilgrims visiting the sacred spot. Close to the top of the long flight of steps and facing the mountain is a huge sculpture of Nandi, the bull who is Shiva's vehicle. At the top, devotees from all over India and abroad worship at the ancient Mahabaleshwara temple of Shiva and next to it seek divine blessings at a twelfth-century temple that houses a golden statue of Chamundi, mother supreme and primordial force.
I first visited Mysore and climbed Chamundi Hill in 1982 while visiting from Pune in Maharashtra, where I was working on my doctoral dissertation. It was a tourist's visit; the mountain attracted me more for its physical beauty than for the temples or its sanctity to followers of the goddess. Since that time I have been drawn back to the city on a number of occasions, including a recuperative stay in 1993 at the charming old Metropole Hotel before it went out of business. It was then, under the influence of the beautiful city, that I began to plot a narrative about Chamundi Hill.
One afternoon I was wandering in the alleys of the city with a close friend when we stumbled into a tiny workshop where several members of a single family were chipping away at blocks of sandalwood. They were fashioning exquisite figures of Hindu gods and animals. Slivers of wood and discarded pieces covered the floor. Although this was not a retail shop, they invited us to sit and pulled out a couple of chairs. An older gentleman, who was not working, chatted with us about our nationality and halfheartedly tried to sell us a few expensive items. I found a broken image on the floor, abandoned in mid-sculpting. It looked like Krishna and Radha embracing, but the details had not been worked out yet. I asked how much the piece would cost, and everyone in the room broke into laughter.
The older man said five rupeesâa nominal figureâbut congratulated me for identifying the gods. He sent out for some tea, and we spent several hours there, until the alley turned dark.
The spirit of this old man, with his unrushed hospitality and his endless stream of anecdotes, lies behind my decision to write
Climbing Chamundi Hill.
Of course, our host, whose name I do not remember, is far from unique in India. I have met many others like him, especially in Varanasi. Visiting the homes of sorcerers, healers, guides, priests, or just neighborhood pandits, I became accustomed to men who communicate through narrative, illustrating abstract or ethical concepts by means of vivid tales.
Climbing Chamundi Hill
is not just a book of stories and a book about stories, it is a book about storytelling and storytellers.
India possesses long and diverse traditions of storytelling. They include folktales and myths, both as oral performance and written texts. In fact, the boundary between these ostensibly distinct genres is extremely fuzzy. Some of the oldest and most sacred literary sources in Indian history, the Brahmanas (eighth century
) and early Upanishads (sixth century BCE), contain stories or fragments of stories that employ universally known folk motifs. One of the stories in
Climbing Chamundi Hill,
“Father Sacrifices Son,” derives from the Brahmanas, where it is told to illustrate a point concerning one of the most prestigious rituals of the Vedic period. The ritualâRajasuyaâwas the elaborate coronation of a new king, which was a major rite of passage for the young prince.
Nonetheless, the theme of the storyâa god who demands the sacrifice of an elder sonâis prevalent around the world. It is a known folk motif in the Stith Thompson motif index.
From the very beginning of Indian literary history, stories, along with parables, riddles, and even jokes, were told in a variety of contexts for various purposes. The large corpus of ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature is rich with examples. The sages of the Upanishads illustrated philosophical insights with the aid of narrative and poetry. Buddhist narrators, including the Buddha himself, told stories to guide followers on the difficult path to
or to illustrate moral and spiritual virtues, as the
tales or Ashvaghosha's
(“Life of the Buddha”) demonstrate.
Some ancient collections of stories combine such religious purposes with more prosaic themes, including narratives about the lives of heroes, the rise and fall of dynasties, or the virtues or follies of gods and humans. The
) and the
) are two such vast collections, gathered and told over centuries. Considerably later collections, possessing a stronger religious ideology, are the Puranas, in which the gods themselves act as the characters in a story: Krishna in the
stands out as the foremost example.
The art of storytelling found a specialized niche in Indian literary history, and religious ideas were not necessarily at the forefront, not even when the stories served didactic purposes. The most renowned example of this genreâknown as
(story) literatureâis the
), a collection of stories and parables with animal actors. These stories successfully migrated westward by way of the Muslim world to Europe, and through Shakespeare and Boccaccio all the way to Hollywood. Scholars believe that these stories belonged in a
royal context and illustrated educational points about statecraft, cunning, and strategic thinking, Several centuries later, additional collections of stories became prominent, pointing perhaps to a huge and now lost corpus of narratives. These collections include Somadeva's
(perhaps eleventh to twelfth centuries
) and the
). These collections seem to delight in storytelling for its own sake, but they nicely illustrate the complexity of a life lived for pleasure and profit. The premise of the Shuka Saptati, for instance, is that the wife of an absent husband must be entertained to avoid adultery. The
is even dedicated to Kubera, the Vedic god of wealth. All of these books, and many others besides, are repositories of stories from a vast folkloristic and literary imagination that encompasses all areas of life and delights in the affairs of humans, gods, animals, ghosts, vampires, sprites, and godlings. Although these story books are not regarded as sacred, they are widely loved and may paint, in fact, a far more realistic picture of popular Hindu religious life than do the scriptures.
Several hundred years after the first appearance of religious literature in India, priestly authors began to sort out its goals and social implications. Books called Dharma Sutras, and later Dharma Shastras, fashioned a coherent synthesis out of the multiple norms that previously had guided the lives of Indians. India's now-famous unitary caste system was outlined from the
myriad of social and professional groups that proliferated in village and urban societies. The four main castes, or
of this new order were the Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (mercantile and professional groups), and Shudras (servants). The life of each individual male in the upper three castes was further divided into three, then four, chronological stages: the student stage, the householder, the “forest dweller” or religious retiree, and finally the renouncer (
). Implicit in these stages of life was the recognitionâperhaps formed in response to Buddhist monastic idealsâthat life can be shaped by a variety of values, all of them legitimate. The four primary values or goals explicitly promoted were the four
for the student, love (
); for the householder, wealth or means (
); for the forest dweller, morality (
); and for the
spiritual liberation (
). The scholars who authored these texts encouraged their readers to value the fullness of life and to seek release from spiritual bondage only as the final goal of maturity.
This social and ethical synthesis reflects a long-standing tension that runs throughout Indian religious history: should one live an active life guided by social concerns (
), or should one renounce such a life in pursuit of supreme Truth? At the same time that the
books created their graduated approach, the
India's best-known sacred book, also grappled with the question. The revolutionary answer of that revered text was devotion to God (Krishna) as the ultimate compromise between
But the question is still far from resolved, and many Hindus today do not regard the matter as simply theoretical.
Millions of Hindus who lead the lives of householders in modern India go on pilgrimages to sacred centers throughout
their vast country. The most powerful draw is to Varanasi, where the Ganges River is said to emerge from the locks of Shiva's hair, where it became ensnared as it fell from heaven to earth. A dip in the river, or cremation on its banks, permanently frees the soul from the cycles of death and rebirth. But there are hundreds of lesser pilgrimage sites (
) throughout the subcontinent, including Chamundi Hill. For most Hindus, it is the pilgrimage, with its discomforts and deprivations, that most resembles the life of a renouncer on a quest for liberation. In pilgrimage, both men and women become temporary
freed from the preoccupations of daily life in order to focus on God and on
And it is the pilgrimage too that provides a superb opportunity to listen to stories and to reflect on the subtle and paradoxical relationship between the life of
and the pursuit of liberation. Stories, even entertaining
stories, offer a rich and nuanced context for meditating on that fuzzy boundary between competing goals and on the mysteries of Hindu thought.