Mythology for the Millennial: Narada may be a trickster, but he deserved better than a life of illusions
While the Norsemen have Loki as their trickster, Hindu mythology has its very own Narada, not a god, but a sage hobnobbing with the who's who of the divine world.
Narada, the trickster in Hindu mythology, is a sage who's often found keeping divine company
Narada not only rejects a life of sensuality, he also revolts against his father Brahma, and commits himself to a life of devotion
What I know about the Avengers could probably go on one of those mini Post-its. They're superheroes who fight crime? They assemble, occasionally? The crime is usually some big, universe-altering hi-jinks?
I did watch a few of the movies so I could have conversations with people at parties, a good reason to watch anything, and I found myself full of questions about the whole Thor and Loki thing. They're gods, but not very godly gods, right? Like, anyone can take away Thor's hammer and he is useless. And also Loki doesn't seem to have any power. And are they immortal or are they not?
These might seem like very basic questions for someone who is a fan of the franchise, but remember, all my information about those two Norse brothers was coming straight from mythology, and they weren't those handsome creatures with a little magic power helped out by the Hulk and other randoms. They were actual gods, with godly concerns, and god-like mannerisms, and not inclined to be helpful or useful to humans unless it concerned them.
Loki especially has long been a favourite mythological figure of mine. Much like Hermes in Greek mythology (later, Mercury in Roman myth), he is a trickster, often playing elaborate jokes on the other gods just to get his own way in something. While Hermes, at least, has several roles — as a messenger, guider of souls into the Underworld and inventor of the lyre — Loki doesn't seem to have any other function apart from being a shapeshifter and a trickster, which he sometimes uses to the gods' advantage, I suppose, but he's always established as a fellow not to be trusted.
I tried to find an Indian god who would be a version of the two, but came up blank, much to my own surprise. You'd think Hindu mythology with its pantheism, so similar to Norse or Greek or Egyptian (Set, the god of chaos), would have some sort of god who was known mostly for his trickster ways, a god you couldn't trust. The closest I could get to mischief maker was Krishna, but Krishna was also known for his steady counsel and loyalty, flirting with the ladies notwithstanding.
Then I thought of Narada.
Narada is not a god, he's a sage. In this sense, he can be compared to trickster folk heroes from the past who are not godly either — like Reynard the Fox from medieval French and German fables, but there's not an exact equivalent to him to be found. He's not mentioned in the Vishnu Purana as one of the sons of Brahma, but he is meant to be one. His other name is Kalikaraka, or troublemaker — well deserved, apparently. He went and tattled to Kamsa, Krishna's evil uncle, that there would soon be born a child to kill him. He persuaded King Daksha's thousands of sons to not marry and have children and take up a life of sanyas instead.
He's kind of a jerk too — he curses his own dad, Brahma, when the latter asks him to get married, because that's what Indian fathers do, even if they are gods and the creator of all civilisation. Narada is all, “Nope, I'm going to be devoted to god and never have sex” and Brahma gets pissed at this diss and curses him to a life of sensuality. Narada gets double-pissed, and tells Brahma that no one will ever worship him again and also that Brahma's going to lust after someone who is not fit for him. (Spoiler: it's his daughter.) (And no, I haven't seen the last episode of Game of Thrones yet as I'm writing this.)
There's also an incident in the Uttara Kanda book of the Ramayana (widely regarded as a later addition to the text) where Rama's met by a weeping Brahmin whose kid has just died. Narada happens to be there, and he says the child has died because there's a Sudra somewhere who was being super presumptuous and assuming that self-mortification by worship applied to his caste as well, “guilty of seeking to secure a store of religious merit,” says WJ Wilkins in his Hindu Mythology (published 1900). Rama goes out and finds the Sudra and kills him, the Brahmin boy is brought back to life, and it's another example of how entrenched the idea of the roles of the upper castes, and their importance was to these epics. Who cares if Rama has to kill a man as long as a member of the caste that he is respectful of can live again?
There's one story about Narada that makes me kind of sad though.
He's hanging out with Krishna, who is also a playful god, full of wisecracks etc, and Narada says, “Can you give me an example of your power of maya?” (That is — illusion, but kind of like what the Matrix was to illusion. A virtual reality world controlled by god, if that makes any sense.) So Krishna's like, “Sure, but first can you fetch me a glass of water from that village?” And Narada goes off and the door he knocks at is opened by the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, so he asks her to marry him, and they have children and their life is happy, and Narada is a farmer, and his children grow up and have babies of their own, and Narada and his wife are grandparents, and his life is blissful. Until there's a massive storm and everyone dies, and Narada can't bear it and he calls out to Krishna to save them all, and then everything recedes and there's Krishna, like it was only two minutes ago, and he says, “Narada, where's the water you were going to fetch me?” And with that, Narada realises that his whole life, those kids, that wife, it was all part of the maya, and that story makes me sad. Poor guy.
I mean, the story had to happen, but imagine, just for a second, that you retired from everything, all your immortal ways, and your hanging out with the whos-who of the god world, and you put it all aside and married a human and had a human life and you were happy for the first time in your life. And then to be told it was all a dream created to give you a philosophical example.
No, I don't think he deserved it, even if he was a trickster.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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