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Volume 2, No. 10 - March 2003 << Back to formatted version

Lalita Pandit

In Sanskrit, the Moon has many names and epithets. It is called Chandra, the luminous, Indu, the drop of Soma, Nishakara, the maker of the night, Mriganka, marked by a deer, Shashin, marked by a hare; the list goes on. I prefer the name, Nishakara, the night maker. Even though birth stories of the Moon differ, what is constant in them is that the progenitor is either an ascetic, like Atri, or some non human agent, like the sea. In one of the Mahabharata stories, Nishakara, as Soma, springs forth from the sea as gods and demons churn the sea. In each account, there is an emphasis on the liquidity of the Moon, liquidity whose flow is arrested, gathered in a bowl. Contents of this cosmic bowl diminish and increase, signifying the waxing and waning of the Moon. In addition, the liquidity is associated with semen, the un-spent sacred semen of Atri, for example.

One version of the story goes like this. Atri is a great ascetic who wants a child. To achieve this goal, he does penance for a thousand celestial years. Narrative logic of his long penance to acquire offspring (by Atri) may underscore the importance given to birth and the connectedness of kinship structures in Indic culture. The physical universe is seen as being connected by ties of birth and kinship. Yet, the birth story of the moon relies on more than what is in nature. Due to Atri’s penance (to have offspring) his semen is drawn upward, and it becomes amritam (ambrosia), a celestial drink. In this type of transformation, what we come across repeatedly in such stories is not a denial of, but a persistent effort to transcend human limit by imagining and aspiring to something more permanent. Nowhere do we see a denial of the material as opposed to the ideal. Everywhere, an overpowering sense of what is finite, what is broken rather than whole, what is flawed, fraught with fear, anxiety, danger, gets inserted into the story threads whose narrative aim is to search for something that is a little more enduring, a little less mortal. In his Yoga, Immortality, and Freedom, Mircea Eliade claims that the concept of yoga grew in response to human suffering, much in the same way in which Greek Stoic Philosophy developed out of a tension between the limits of free will and the immensity of human aspiration.

To return to the story of Nishakara, when the reproductive body fluid of the ascetic Atri metamorphoses into celestial drink, it travels upwards and is shattered into ten parts. Upon this, the ten goddesses of the corners of space (which are illumined by this luminous thing) receive it in their wombs. However, their wombs cannot bear the strain. The embryos fall. The brahman (World Creator), or the pitamahah (the venerable grandfather), pieces together the fallen embryos. He gathers up this strange substance, the yet unformed moon, and he steps inside his aerial chariot. The chariot revolves thrice seven times round the earth, while the cosmic pitamaha is engaged in this rather unusual neo-natal care of a mis-carried cosmic child. Exact mention of the duration of this gyration may indicate an evolving sense of lunar cycles. Whatever the scientific meaning may be, we see that while this process of generation and protection of the fallen embryo is going on, some drops of the celestial fluid, Soma, fall upon the earth and become useful plants and herbs. In time, the moon embryo forms itself to completeness, becomes a child, is reared by the same fatherly-motherly Being: the World Creator. When Nishakara is old enough, he is given in marriage to the twenty seven daughters of Daksa (the deity of ritual skill and knowledge).

There seems to be some inter-textual connection between the story of the Moon and Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala, a story that is better known to us today. The parallels and inversions are such that it would be reasonable to conclude that in transforming the Mahabharata story of Shakuntala, which is very bland, Kalidasa uses elements of the story of the Moon. They would have appealed to him, and they serve his aesthetic ends.

It is interesting to note that like Nishakara, Shakuntala has a biological father and mother who have abandoned her. She finds a foster father in Kanva, who is an ascetic. Moreover, like Atri, her biological father is also an ascetic, with the difference that he can be seduced to break his vows. Unlike Atri, Vishwamitra engages in the sexual act, and does so only to satisfy his desire, not to have a child. The child is a burdensome byproduct that the fairy mother, Menaka, abandons with impunity. Atri, on the other hand, wants a child but does not want to have sex. Moon’s mother is not one seductive apsara, but he is mothered by ten spatial deities – though like Shakuntala, Nishakara also loses his mothers. Shakuntala rejoins her mother later, Nishakara does not. In these primeval stories, we can hear of fears and anxieties surrounding sexuality, reproduction and the structure of the family that face individuals in modern societies of all types. The conflation of man and nature, nature and astral bodies, societal norms and natural processes of life is to be found in many of these stories.

Kalidasa shows that in Kanva’s ashram, plants, trees, vines and flowers are like Shakuntala’s siblings. The forest fawn is like her child. In a similar way the moon is, as we have seen, fraternally linked to herbs and plants. Like the Nishakara, Shakuntala is identified with healing powers of nature. Moreover, Shakuntala falls in love with and marries a King of the lunar dynasty, and brings forth his child. One significant difference is that while Shakuntala marries of her own freewill, the Night-maker is married off to twenty seven daughters of Daksha. However, he too has a will of his own. He loves only one of the twenty seven daughters of Daksha. He loves Rohini. This marital misconduct displeases the father-in-law; he curses Nishakara.

It is important to note that Shakuntala is also seen as having, in part, transgressed normative behavior, and is, cursed by Durvasas. Even though in manifest terms the curse is for her absent mindedness that makes her neglect her duties towards a guest, in effect she is cursed by a wrathful father figure for being so ‘in love’ that she did not either see or hear the sage. The words Durvasas uses are interesting. He says, “he, whom you remember with such singlemindedness, will forget you in the manner of a drunk who forgets the story he told (when he was drunk).”

For Nishakara, the paternal curse results in physical damage; it says that Nishakara’s seed shall always be wasted; he shall be devoured by disease (consumption). Note that it takes the father-in-law some time, a fortnight, to know that Nishakara has neglected his wives and is partial to Rohini. Due to Rohini’s interventions on behalf of her loving spouse, the father softens the curse, just as Durvasas modifies the curse due to the intervention of Shakuntala’s friends. Nishakara’s father-in-law says the accursed will be devoured by disease and lose his limbs for fifteen days, and in another fifteen days the body will recover from disease, regain its full form. Cursed and blessed by a father figure, the Moon settles in among the planetary bodies, increasing and decreasing alternately (See, for example, Padma Purana, Mahabharata, Bhagwata Purana). What is of interest to us is that this natural process of the languishing and returning of the moon is seen in terms of transgression, curse/punishment, and partial forgiveness.

What is even more interesting in this variant of the story of the Moon is, as I mention above, that the Moon is attributed subjective consciousness, intention, motive, as are the other actors/agents. Natural processes are seen in human terms through this foregrounding of subjectivity. Moreover, there is an emphasis on struggle, conflict, transgression, punishment, falling out with a parental figure, reconciliation. Perhaps the most poetic and the most poignant biographical detail is of Nishakara’s ruptured symbiotic connection to the ten mothers. In so far as a planetary body is conceived of as a human agent, this birth trauma has its consequences. Nishakara is at first very good, law abiding, performs rituals as he is supposed to. Afterwards, more like the epic hero Gilgamesh, less like Shakuntala, Nishakara becomes prideful and licentious. He seduces and abducts Tara, Brahaspati’s wife, and refuses to send her back to her home. As a result of this act, battle lines are drawn between gods and demons. Indra and the other gods side with Brahaspati; the sage Usanas, and the anti-gods (daityas and danavas), side with the moon. The daityas defend Nishakara’s right to keep Tara.

A battle is fought and won, won by the gods, of course, and it is Shiva who, with his trident, cuts up the body of Soma in two. Brahman stops the fight at this point. The Moon, however, does not die. As a conciliatory gesture, Brahman asks Nishakara to send back Tara. To complicate things, she is reported pregnant and cannot be sent back to someone who is not the father. In this way, one more cosmic child is born; he is Mercury (Budha). In this version of the story, we see that Nishakara has become a father and has been torn up in the middle by the wrath of Shiva. We see that the tragic infant has become a tragic adult; he never fights or engages in violence, but his occasional rebellion makes him a scapegoat.

The power struggle between gods and demons figures prominently in all variants of the story of the Moon. A connected story involves a confrontation between the Moon and the daitya, Rahu. The encounter with Rahu lends the Moon protagonist a deepened tragic aspect, and some romantic/erotic grandeur. Rahu is seen in later literature to be in love with the Moon. One consistency in all the stories -- in the Rig Veda, the Brahamanas, the Atharva Veda – is that the Moon is associated with Soma, the celestial drink that is drunk by ancestors and gods from time to time. As a result of this universal thirst for immortality, the resource becomes depleted continually, and then, is filled up again. By all accounts, the Moon is all that is gentle. When Shiva, who is himself loved by and married to a daughter of the same Daksha, becomes one with the Moon, holding him in his hair--that aspect of Shiva is known as Chandrshekhara. That is a gentle aspect of Shiva. It is only by this type of association with Shiva that the Moon becomes a deity that is worshipped.

While the sun is an object or worship (in many world cultures), the Moon is in general not a deity that is formally worshipped. The Moon, as Soma, is the offering, the cosmic sacrifice. Due to his traumatic birth, Nishakara is a figure more like a tragic protagonist in a play or story, always longing for completeness, for return to a place of origin. Yet, he is the very substance and process through which one attains completeness, through which one gets a taste of eternity. Soma is the healing power in the herb, the seed of life. He is associated with nature and super-nature, not with death; Soma is the coveted drink of immortality and the gods, to quench their thirst, come to it again and again. Each day, the gods drink one of the sixteen digits of the Moon. Like the Brahman, the Moon is inexhaustible; the cup is emptied and filled again, and again. In Lalleshvari’s poetry, there are several references to the moon as a cup that is filled with nectar, emptied and refilled. She uses this metaphor in reference to the practice of shambava yoga, and regards the waxing and waning of the moon as a figure for the ‘coming into’ and ‘losing’ cosmic power (as the atman emerges into and receding from its potential Brahman nature).

An embedded meaning of the Moon being destroyed by Shiva’s trident associates the Moon with Kama, the god of love, who was destroyed by the fire of Shiva’s third eye. Soma is the sublimated essence of desire; he is made of the bones of Kama in this variant. The story of Rahu and the Moon further illustrates these meanings, and their underlying ambiguities. One day when gods are gathered together to drink from the goblet of immortality, Rahu arrives in disguise, to subversively partake in this drink to which only the gods have privileged access. It is very ironic that in his fight with Brahaspati, the gods are his antagonists, and the daityas and danavas are his allies, yet, when the Moon detects Rahu attempting to become equal to the gods, he remains loyal to the gods. This allows us to see Rahu, who, in the Chanddyogya Uppanishad, is a dragon, as a double of the Moon. In a close encounter between the self and the anti-self, the Moon becomes an informer; he reveals Rahu’s subversion to the gods. Predictably, a battle ensues. In the battle, Rahu is wounded. His body is cast off; the head remains. The injury causes him pain and suffering, and he becomes vengeful. When the moon is full, Rahu tries to devour it. Once in a while, Rahu succeeds in his revenge and there is an eclipse. Rahu swallows the Moon, and the Moon, once again, resilient and luminous as he is, releases itself from the mouth of Rahu.

In Chanddogya Uppanishad, a comparison is made between the Moon and the Soul born in time. Each birth is an instance of the infinite being swallowed by the finite and remaining trapped in the world of Limit through the laws of Karma, just as the Moon is trapped in the mouth of Rahu. In this sense, Rahu is Moha; Rahu is Time. Eventually, like the Moon, the soul too releases itself from the tentacles of Karma, and passes into the uncreated Brahman-world of Eternity. If we give credence to the theory about Rahu being in love with Nishachara, then, Rahu’s devouring of the Moon has erotic meanings. The origins of the Moon are pure, ascetic, but his life journey in the cosmos incriminates him in the ambivalence of the erotic. At the same time, Rahu is made immortal by his having tasted the celestial drink, Soma. Henceforth, his relation to the Moon is defined by an intimate contact via transgression, and by Nishakara’s subsequent betrayal.

What takes us by surprise is that the story of the Moon, in these textual variants, unfolds not only cosmological meanings, but sociological meanings as well. The Rahu and the Moon story introduces a taken for granted, seemingly unquestioned binary opposition between gods and demons, the devas and the danavas. One group is clearly the dominant group, and defines a profile of the power structure. The gods have unquestioned, privileged access to what the Moon, as Soma, has to offer. Only they have the privileged access, and they take for granted their right to deny others access to a rare substance that is desired by everyone. The Moon does not seem to have any control over to whom he wants to give, and whom he wants to withhold from. Gods own him, he exists in their terms, as their resource. As the source of immortality, he is their commodity; they consume him. However, even though Rahu is not a god, he can successfully disguise himself as one, and he can gain access to what is forbidden to him by some arbitrary law. Hierarchy is not an absolute and a rigid one; it can be subverted. Rahu does it, just as the Moon did before. They are doubles of each other.

The story of Rahu and the Moon cannot be complete without a reference to Rabindra Nath Tagore’s poem, “Rahur Prem.” Just as Kalidasa found the story of the moon useful for his romantic tragi-comedy, Shakuntala, so does Tagore make a poetic return to this haunting story. Tagore’s “Rahur Prem” is one of the poems in his Chhabi o Gan (Images and Songs). I quote a prose translation by Geeta Dutta and Andrew Robinson. Rahu speaks to the Moon, thus: “I am your companion from the beginning of time, for I am your own shadow. In your laughter, in your tears, you shall sense my dark self, hovering near you, now in front, now behind. At the dead of night, when you are lonely and dejected, you’ll be startled to find how near I am seated by you, gazing into your face.

Wherever you turn, I am there, my shadow sweeps over the sky and covers the earth, my piteous cry and my cruel laughter echo everywhere, for I am hunger never appeased, thirst never quenched. I am always there, a dagger in your breast, a poison in your mind, a disease in your body.

I shall chase you like a terror in the day, like a nightmare in the night. Like a living skeleton in a famine I shall stretch my hand before you and pester you to give and give and give. Like a thorn I shall prick you day and night, like a curse I shall haunt you, like fate I shall follow you – as night follows day, as fear follows hope. (Dutta and Robinson, 88).

Danie’lou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1991.
Dimmit, Cornelia, J. A. B. van Buitenen. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
Dutta, Krishna, Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. New York: St. Martins Press, 1996.
Kalidasa. Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection. Trans. Barbara Stoler Miller.
In World Masterpieces: Eds. Maynard Mack, et al. Vol I. Expanded Edition. New York: Norton, 1995

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