Mythology For The Millennial: On the elaborate adventures of Indian Cupid Kamadeva, and his enterprising wife, Rati
Since we are so conveniently placed between Valentine's Day and Holi, it would be a good time to talk about Kamadeva, the Indian Cupid, god of love and desire, or his enterprising wife, the goddess Rati, who also rules over sex and sexy feelings, but like many happy marriages, her story is entangled deeply with his.
Kama, the Indian Cupid, is an odd sort of god, as in, he's not an Ancient Old God, like the ones who ruled elements and planets, but he's not a new god either.
His enterprising wife, the goddess Rati, also rules over sex and sexy feelings, but like many happy marriages, her story is entangled deeply with his.
There aren't many modern day temples to Kamadeva, perhaps worshipping the god of love has fallen out of fashion now, with his gentle weapons and his adoring wife. It's a shame: we need more love, now more than ever.
Since we are so conveniently placed between Valentine's Day and Holi, since spring has finally come to Delhi, driving away an extremely harsh winter, and since the sound of birdsong is in the air, accompanying the endless whine and drone of buildings under construction, I thought it was a good time to talk about Kamadeva, the Indian Cupid, god of love and desire. But actually, I'd far rather talk about his enterprising wife, the goddess Rati, who also rules over sex and sexy feelings, but like many happy marriages, her story is entangled deeply with his.
You all know Kama, I assume. He's an odd sort of god, as in, he's not an Ancient Old God, like the ones who ruled elements and planets, but he's not a new god either, like Ganesha, who came into popularity just when humans decided to settle down and stay in one place and needed an obstacle remover. Originally, from the Vedic period, Kama just emerged — some say he was born from Brahma, others that he evolved from the universe in its first breaths — and was supposed to be symbolic of not just romance and sex and all that but also as a higher power of general good vs evil stuff.
After that, he took the form of the god you might know, who also lent his name to the Kamasutra, that document that will make people who don't know very much about India wiggle their eyebrows at you salaciously when you mention which country you're from. Kamadeva had flower arrows, a bow made of sugarcane, all the better to sweeten the sting, and a bowstring made of bees, which sounds like an accurate description of how I felt when I had my first real crush.
Anyway, this was only the original Kama, wandering about with his arrows and his wife who he was devoted to, the aforementioned Rati. Rati was born because her husband was experimenting with his arrows, and he shot at Brahma and his sons; sages who were all attracted to their sister and Brahma's daughter, Sandhya. Shiva's just wandering by at this point, and he finds this incest-lust hilarious, and because his mocking is so nerve-wracking, the sages begin to sweat. One of the sages, a guy called Daksha, had been told to produce a wife for Kama, and Rati is formed from one of his beads of sweat, and turned out to be beautiful despite it. Meanwhile, Brahma is super pissed that Kama's messed around with his kids, so he curses him to be burnt to death by Shiva one day.
Which he does, because there's a demon called Taraka who the gods badly want dead and the only person who can kill him is a child of Shiva, and Shiva at this point is deeply into his celibacy and yoga and meditation and so not interested in making a baby. So Kama is deputed to force Shiva to fall in love with Parvati, but as soon as Kama shoots him, Shiva opens his third eye and burns him to death, which is very harsh. Rati meanwhile begs and pleads for her husband to be brought back to life, and now comes the slightly odd part of this story, as if it hasn't been strange enough already.
So, Kama is reborn as Krishna and Rukmini's son, Pradyumna. And Rati goes down to earth as a maid called Mayavati in the household of the demon Sambara (some say she was his wife, but he couldn't touch her because she kept herself holy, some other references say she created a fake self to seduce Sambara so she could stay pure, so you can take from this what you will, just remember, she was the goddess of love and sex herself). Sambara knows that Pradyumna is fated to be his destroyer, so he steals the baby — we don't know how, presumably Krishna and Rukmini were rather lax in their security — and throws him into a river. A convenient baby-swallowing fish swims by, this is always happening in Hindu mythology, deus ex machina is more deus ex piscine in these stories. The fish is sold to Sambara's household, and cut open by Mayavati who discovers and raises the baby. As he grows up, he notices that this woman who has raised him from babyhood — his foster mother in fact — is regarding him with less-than-motherly eyes, there's definitely some passion in there, which is gross, he thinks, until she explains he's not really her kid. Literally quoting from the Vishnu Purana, the poor boy says, “Why do you indulge in feelings so unbecoming to the character of a mother?” Holy inappropriateness, Batman. Anyway, you might be glad to know that once Pradyumna kills the evil demon, he goes back to Krishna and Rukmini with a woman at least fifteen years older than himself and they live happily ever after, because they are really Kamadeva and Rati, reincarnated. Hey, if Demi Moore could do it.
There aren't many modern day temples to Kamadeva, perhaps worshipping the god of love has fallen out of fashion now, with his gentle weapons and his adoring wife. It's a shame: we need more love, now more than ever. On the other hand, maybe Rati and Kama are enjoying a nice retirement, no one is actively calling them, so they can frolic on heavenly slopes, hand in hand under the trees, while the world slowly falls apart.
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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