Friday, May 15, 2015

Yellamma vs. Renuka: Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa – III

The past couple of columns have dealt with a Dhangar myth around the birthing of Parashuram that is rather different from the standard Puranic story that we in Goa have come to accept as set in stone. This Dhangar myth links Parashuram to the goddess Yellamma, and suggests that both Parashuram and Yellamma established familial relations with the Shia heroes, the Imams Hassan and Hussein.

Those who are familiar with the popular myth of Parashuram will probably respond that there is nothing in the Dhangar myth that contradicts the accepted mythology around Parashuram. However, this is not true. The Dhangar myth crafts a radically different Parashuram than from the one we are used to.

In the Dhangar myth, or the fragment that I was able to access, both Yellamma and Parashuram are not the brahmanical figures that we are familiar with. To note the difference we will need to revisit the brahmanical myth that is often relied on. In the Puranic version, Parashuram is the youngest son of the sage, or rishi, Jamadagni, and Renuka. The story goes that suspecting Renuka of infidelity, Jamadagni commanded his elder sons to kill their mother. Sensibly, these young men refused to fulfil their father’s command, which only enraged him further. Turning to Parashuram, the youngest of his sons, he repeated his command, and Parashuram obediently took up his axe and beheaded his mother. 

Unfortunately, when he did so he also beheaded a lower-caste woman, who in various versions of the myth, was either Renuka’s attendant, or a kindly woman who sought to help the hapless wife of the sage. Jamadagni was delighted that he had one son who was obedient, and promised Parashuram anything he asked for.  Apparently as much a mama’s boy as he was daddy’s, Parashuram asked that his mother be brought to life. Jamadagni acquiesced, whereupon Parashuram quickly joined heads and bodies together, and stood aside for his father to work magic. On bringing the women back to life both men realised with horror that in his haste Parashuram had switched the heads, so that the upper-caste Renuka now had the body of a lower-caste woman Yellamma, and Yellamma’s head was on the body of the upper-caste Renuka. The situation was resolved by recognising the bodies as constitutive of identity. Given that Yellamma lower-caste body now had an upper-caste head, she was granted a divine status.

One can see that there are a number of embellishments in the brahmanical myth that are missing from the Dhangar myth. To begin with, there is no Jamadagni in it. Yellamma, is not married to anyone, and Parashuram is, perhaps like Christ, born of a virgin. Of course, one could argue that the Dhangar myth suggests Shiva as the paternal figure, but the fact remains that the myth makes no reference to a sexual act between Yellamma and Shiva.

However, despite the absence of patriarchal figures, I would not go so far as to read some kind of contemporary feminist statement into this myth. There is an element of transgression that is present in both myths, and in both of these myths, Yellamma is punished. While in the case of the brahmanical Renuka is punished for harbouring sexual thoughts about man who isn’t her husband, in the Dhagar myth, Yellamma is burdened with a child for plucking a ‘forbidden fruit’ in Mahadev’s sacred grove. If Reunka loses her head in the Puranic myth, Yellamma is cast out from the company of her virgin sisters as a result of her birthing of Parashuram.

Another significant difference between the two myths, is that the Dhangar myth has no reference to Renuka. The only mother Parashuram has is Yellamma. Nor is there any reference to Yellamma’s caste.  This is perhaps the wonderful feature of the Dhangar myth in that it seems to describe a world without caste.

A further observation that could be made is that with the absence of Vishnu, and given that Shiva is seen as a pre-Vedic, or non-Vedic deity, what we have is a complete absence of brahmanical deities. All we have is a myth that speaks of the relationship between non-brahmanical, and hence indigenous deities, i.e. Yellamma, her sisters, Mahadev, and the Shia Imams, Hassan and Hussein.

What can we make of these aspects of the myth? I would be loathe to suggest that because of the absence of brahmanical deities the Dhangar myth is the original version of the myth, and that the Puranic version is a latter interpolation by wicked Brahmins. While not averse to such a suggestion, it would be irresponsible to assert this claim without substantial research with the appropriate skills. What I would rather suggest is that given the Dhangar myth co-existed parallel to the brahmanical myth, at the very least it asserts the desire of the Dhangars to have a different world view. They imagine a world where people can eat together regardless of their faith practice and their caste location, and be as one family. The myth imagines a world where eating meat is not condemned. Yellamma insists that she and her son eat with the Shia Imams even though they are eating meat. Indeed, Yellamma’s adventure in the Dhangar myth begins when she and her sisters are out on a hunt, indicating that she and her sisters did eat meat. The Dhangar myth, therefore, is alive to the contradictions of the human condition; even though it involves the shedding of innocent blood, we hunt and eat meat, not merely for pleasure, but to sustain ourselves. Yellamma’s returning of the meat to life suggests the desire to return life to the animals we consume for food. Indeed, it is worth reflecting that while the Puranic version has Jamadagni bringing Renuka back to life, in the Dhangar myth it is Yellamma, as mother of the world, who has the power to bring innocents back to life.

With this interpretation before us, we can see that rather than the Puranic version which is filled with matricide, and intolerance, the Dhangar myth of Yellamma has more to offer Goans in terms of an origin myth that would add value to contemporary political life. 


(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 15 May 2015)

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