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Updated: Jun 14, 2021

An Illustration to the Mahabharata: The Pandava and Kaurava armies face each other, circa 1700, Mewar, India; courtesy of Wikimedia.

To begin, this is an introduction for beginners by a western, three-time reader of the Mahabharata. It is meant to quiet the fears I had when I sought to read the great Indian epic for the first time. The good news is that the Mahabharata is very readable, very enjoyable, and importantly, will not stump a reader who lacks knowledge of Indian literature, religion or culture. The trickiest part of the Mahabharata is the number of characters, but this can be overcome. I was a little confused my first time through until the narrative settled on the main characters. At that point I had moments of confusion when some of the other characters appeared, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. And that would be my message to the reader: just truck on through. The story is good and the messages meaningful to the first-time reader. Like any other work of literature, multiple readings will add to what you get out of it, but I say give it the one chance for now. It’s worth it.

The hardest part of getting to the basic story of the Mahabharata was reading through the lineages of the main characters. The Mahabharata is generational in scope, but the great majority of it deals with a set of brothers in conflict with their cousins (another set of brothers.) And these sets of brothers aren’t hard to keep straight. The protagonists are a superhero team including Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Captain America (without powers) and two younger brothers who sort of have special powers, but just sort of go along. (I think one of them is handsome and the other maybe can foretell the future but will be punished if he ever reveals anything; this never comes into play.) The other set of brothers is basically Loki with ninety-nine red-shirt brothers. That’s probably not too intimidating. (And Marvel Studios should definitely get on this!)

The tricky bit is keeping the uncles and grandsires and gods and gurus straight. Reading with a family tree print-out sitting next to the text is too distracting for me, but if you are the sort of person who can brook no uncertainty about a character’s identity, this might be good for you. I’m not providing graphics or family trees here because I’m not a graphic designer and there are plenty of family trees out there. I’m just providing the moral support that you can handle this -- and should!

If you are like me the first-time reading Mahabharata, you can really wait until the Pandava brothers show up to devote energy to remembering names. They are the main story. Yes, there are other significant characters, but for my brain, the Pandavas were the hook. They are the superhero team and are basically the protagonists. And the stories that come before the Pandavas take over the narrative are not a loss even if there are so many new names you have trouble holding them all. They are good folklore stories: The king has forsworn society and locked himself in his castle; The goddess feels unappreciated by her husband and wishes to run off with another god; The father asks his son to make a great sacrifice. I’m interested in rereading these now and I still can’t recount the names of the characters!

To further entice you to try this foundational epic, let me tell you about the new set of mythological creatures and characters you get to learn about. The savage Rakshasas, the wise Nagas, the sylph-like Apsaras, the musical Gandharvas, to say nothing of a European-style pantheon of gods interacting with various incarnations of a tripartite capital-g God and his human avatar. I don’t know if a Hindu would agree with this analogy, but to me, the Hinduism of the Mahabharata looks like what would have happened if the various polytheistic European cults accepted Christianity, but made no effort to obscure their earlier beliefs. Imagine Zeus or Odin (and all of the various members of those pantheons) interacting with the three figures of the Christian trinity and no one finding that odd. This is exciting stuff if you like mythology and these elements are woven throughout the text.

And in case you feel you’ve read enough mythology to think you’ve seen it all, gender fluidity and female agency are two elements of the Mahabharata that one can find in small doses in Greek and Norse stories, but seem much more prominent and at home here. Krishna becomes female and marries a hero so he doesn’t die a virgin. A king raises his daughter as a male because an oracle tells him that she is destined to become a male; a nature spirit lends her his penis on her wedding night. The great hero Arjuna spurns the advances of a nature spirit and is forced to live as a eunuch for a year, giving dancing instructions to princesses. Women also seem to have more agency in these stories than in European mythology. A forum is held to hear a goddess’s complaints against her husband, and she is only forced to stay with him because the universe will come unraveled if she leaves. One has to compare this to Greek goddesses having to take special care not to be forced to marry whomever Zeus chooses. The main heroes of the story share a wife, which sounds bad, but she has five husbands. There may be examples of polyandry in European mythic tales, but they are so little known that I can’t think of any. As with gender fluidity, which does exist in Greek and Norse myths, it may be that these are the tales that did not make it past Victorian censors and have never really caught on because mythology has been the province of children’s literature.

My final pitch is that the Mahabharata is essentially about promoting dharma, or pro-social behavior. That means that might does not make right. Even the gods are held to this standard. The plot revolves around what happens when one doesn’t live up to one’s vows. And though this sounds very western, and it is fairly easy to recognize and root for heroes in the story, there is an ambivalence about whether there are good guys. The Pandavas are not perfect. The bad guys are not all bad. The capital-G incarnations of God are prey to the laws of right and wrong.

I hope you are excited to dive into the Mahabharata. My personal introductory edition was Devdutt Pattanaik’s illustrated Jaya. I have also read P Lal’s condensed Mahabharata, which I loved, but it was very hard to get a decent hard copy of. I haven’t seen an electronic version of it either, but I prefer reading physical books. Lal’s language is exciting and worth it if you fall in love with the text. I have read parts of DK’s 5.7 pound The Illustrated Mahabharata, but I found that the many lovely images and informative sidebars were too much for a first time reading, and it’s just unwieldy. There is a long tradition of regional Mahabharatas and every edition will be abridged in some way. This means there is not one correct edition for a newcomer. Find one you like and get reading!

The year 2020 will be remembered for other things by most, but for me, among other obviously more prominent things, it has been a year of reading and studying the Mahabharata and being challenged, intrigued and enamored enough to move on to the Ramayana and supporting literature to these masterpieces. I hope I’ve eased your fears at jumping into one of the oldest works of literature. It deserves a place in western study and will bring you fulfillment.

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Updated: May 23, 2021

Portland protester, photographed by Dave Killen, and a Sheela-na-Gig (Lavey, Cavan) found in a churchyard in 1842 and housed in the Cavan County Museum, photo courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland.

When an anonymous nude woman, wearing only a mask and hat, confronted scores of equally anonymous, but armed and armor-clad federal agents in Portland this summer, she carried with her the power of the medieval Irish kings. The protester, a woman in her thirties, said in an interview in a Portland podcast she felt provoked in a “feminine place,” when she saw the line of men, who bore the label police, but had donned the look of soldiers in a war zone. She withdrew to a closed shop entrance, doffed her clothes and before long was photographed from behind sitting on the pavement with her legs spread wide in the attitude of sheela-na-gig, a medieval religious warning that the kings of Ireland co-opted as a sign that they ruled by right of the Irish mother goddess and no one had better cross them.

A sheela-na-gig is a medieval figural carving of a woman with an exaggerated vulva. Such carvings have been found in churches across Europe, but the Irish name has stuck. Sheela-na-gig is a relatively modern term for the figures, not making its way into print before 1840. It is not known what the carvings were originally called. The name has been translated various ways: Sheela of the beasts, Sheela on her hunkers, but Sheela of the vagina seems nost straightforward to me.

I first reposted the image of the nude protester in Portland facing off against federal agents in July and suggested that the image and attitude fell within the sheela-na-gig tradition, but I wanted to find an expert to respond to the image and give an educated opinion. Last week I reached out to Dr. Eamonn P Kelly, author of Sheela-na-Gigs; Origins and Functions (Town House and Country House, 1997) and retired Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, and he graciously responded to my request for an interview.

Dr. Kelly was delighted by the protester’s decision to defy police with her nakedness and saw the similarity I saw in the viral photo. “Comparisons with sheela-na-gig certainly seem apt,” said Kelly. In good Irish fashion, Kelly also supported an underdog able to stand up against the power of a state. Kelly said that female sexuality has remained a powerful symbol and he could only imagine what the Federal officers thought when faced by the woman’s nudity: “It must have been intimidating as hell for them. Good luck to her and well done! If only all riots could be ended this way.”

It turns out that the image of sheela-na-gig, at least in Ireland, has always been wedded to power, but its message has changed over the ages. Kelly said the carvings of exhibitionist females arrived in Ireland with the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century, who used the image to warn against the dangers of lust. If this strikes you as a particularly misogynistic message, wait for the Irish response. Kelly described Irish attitudes towards sexuality as traditionally, “more laid back” than the English and they had a different attitude to women and power. By the 14th century, areas of Ireland affected by Anglo-Norman rule had returned to their Irish roots and the English Christian message of sheela-na-gig, against sex and women, almost flipped on its head, with the figure representing a reverence for the female divine and pride in her exposed body. At this time, “The figures begin to be associated with the goddess of sovereignty,” said Kelly.

This Irish mother goddess played a role in the secular power structures of pre-Christian Ireland, with kings of Irish kingdoms wedding or sexually consummating a relationship with the land itself as a representation of the mother goddess. As native leaders established more control, sheela-na-gigs began to appear on fortified tower houses, non-religious native structures with symbolism that saw feminine sexual power as a part of a kingdom’s power, rather than a danger to the human soul. Kelly said that this attitude held until the 17th century when Cromwell reconquered Ireland.

If the Irish kings used the image of exaggerated female genitalia as a symbol to project the physical power of the mother goddess then this protester-used the same symbol for a very similar purpose. Interviewed on the Unrefined Sophisticates podcast, she said she saw the armored soldiers, whom she described as adopting a warrior stance: heads up, chests out, legs apart. “At that moment I was provoked. This really feminine place within myself felt provoked and fired up.” She had already been struck in the foot with a pepper ball fired by an officer and saw the line of men she confronted being reinforced by vehicles meant to detain the protesters when she made the decision to bare herself even more completely: “I got down on the pavement and I spread my legs and put my elbows on my knees and my hands up, facing my palms upward, and it was like, shoot this. I mean, look at this. You really can’t say I have a weapon now. Other than this yoni.” (Quotations courtesy Unrefined Sophisticates).

While the protester did not acknowledge a desire to reference sheela-na-gig, she clearly meant to confront the show of violent masculine force with a display of feminine sexual power. In using her genitalia as a projection of power she seems to have shared the intention of people who used sheela-na-gigs to confront. To my mind though, her display most aligns with the Irish kings and an Irish goddess who was unafraid to reveal herself in human terms.

As a New Englander with ancestors tracing back to the Irish diaspora, I was surprised to learn that the Irish who remained have an altogether calmer response to sexuality and the female nude. The Anglo-Normans tried and failed to colonize the religious sensibility of Irish culture, which Kelly said only took on a Victorian English prudishness and devotion to attending church during the Irish Potato Famine, when competing religious authorities took advantage of a starving population. Kelly said modern Ireland has returned more to its relaxed attitudes toward religion. I told him that my family still retains that puritan streak toward sexuality, and I wouldn’t dare share the image of sheela-na-gig with my mother. This made him laugh. “The (American Irish) are conservative as be-damned. They think we’re a bunch of heathens!” Kelly told me that his family had a more skeptical view of the clergy (and other traditional figures of authority, including the police.) We laughed at the irony that the oft-colonized Irish took over the local governments and power structures of several American cities, including my local Boston.

I told Kelly I’d read about sheela-na-gigs being defaced and seeming altogether to be in danger in modern Ireland and assumed prudishness led to attacks on the figures. Kelly surprised me by telling me that they were more in danger of being looted from Irish shores. He was actually once approached by the FBI in an investigation of the theft of an Irish sheela-na-gig by organized crime in Boston. Its intended destination? The very Irish Catholic Boston College!

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Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Today is the midway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox and perhaps, like me, you feel a sudden desire to stop time and hold onto the summer. That means we are in the Celtic holiday of Lughnasadh (Loo-na-sa), which according to the calendar began on August 1st, but according to the passage of light, occurs some time today (and was likely a multi-day festival anyway). I don’t think of myself as a pagan, but I think there is a great usefulness to the solar holidays, particularly in New England, where the days get so short and I find myself missing the light. Paying attention to these way stones might help us remember where we are and where we are headed.

In truth, this week I see my friends celebrating Lughnasadh without knowing it, if I understand its essence. People are fleeing to the beaches and the lakes. It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day yesterday, but not so hot we couldn’t leave our windows open. The night was chilly and the smell of wood fire was in the air. I know we have more miserable, humid days ahead, but the sun is beginning to dial back to its manageable autumn setting, the loveliest season in New England.

Lughnasa is named for Lugh (pronounced today simply as Lu) a Celtic, or Irish god. The story about Lugh I enjoy most stresses his many talents, rather than the passage of summer to autumn you might expect. In a story that poses him more as a wanderer seeking a patron king than a god, Lugh approaches a castle gate and wishes to join Nuada, king of the Tuatha de Danann’s pantheon. But Nuada’s gatekeeper won’t let Lugh in unless he has a marketable trade, and each trade Lugh professes to practice, Nuada’s gatekeeper tells Lugh that they already have someone who does that. It’s a funny dialogue that puts in my mind the Monty Python cheese shop sketch with option after option listed and shot down: smith, wright, harpist, sorcerer, poet, craftsman, and many more. Leave it to the Irish to have so much more humor in their myths than the other European mythologies! When all of his trades are rejected, Lugh asks, "but does the king have one man who can do all of these trades?" and with this cleverness, he is let in.

How Lugh became associated with an early harvest festival is up for debate, but it seems that he fits into the cycle of fertility and growth, that he played some role in releasing the harvest from the earth, which puts him in the position of sky gods who conquer rain-stealing enemies that are often serpent-like monsters. Zeus and Apollo vanquish such monsters, and also Thor and Indra. Instead of a dragon, Lugh defeats the one-eyed giant Balor, whose eye was capable of a destructive ray and is thought to have represented the power of the sun, perhaps parching the landscape. As a sky god with power over rain, Lugh would stand in opposition to Balor, but Lugh is a god of many shades. Perhaps Julius Caesar described him as a Celtic Mercury because Lugh was clever and enterprising. He is thought of as the father of crafts and trades, and also the inventor of many games, which perhaps were played and enjoyed during this festival, when the crops were just starting to come in.

If my explanations seem to equivocate, I apologize, as I’m a relative newcomer to Irish mythos. And if the Celtic myths aren’t harder to follow than their Norse and Greek counterparts, I’d like someone to explain them to me better than I understand them. I wish it were simpler, but stopping to observe Lughnasadh is a part of learning.

What matters today is that summer is a-flying and we have to celebrate it before it slips away. I will make an effort during these next weeks to try to take a moment each day to notice the fall of the sun into the early evening and dusk. It is time to try to do more outside when the weather cooperates. Lugh is ushering in the harvest, which means autumn and the end of the solar year are around the corner. Happy Lughnasadh!

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