Mythology for the Millennial: On the origins of Kali Yuga and the vindictive gandharva who led us into a dark age

Some of the trademarks of the Kali Yuga are that rulers will become a danger to the world, humans will be angry with each other and that there will be climate change. Kali, the cause of this age of darkness, pops up every now and then and causes trouble by possessing someone or the other. He's the colour of soot and has a long tongue

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan January 14, 2020 10:04:25 IST
Mythology for the Millennial: On the origins of Kali Yuga and the vindictive gandharva who led us into a dark age
  • Some of the trademarks of the Kali Yuga are that rulers will become a danger to the world, humans will be angry with each other and that there will be climate change.

  • Kali, the cause of this age of darkness, pops up every now and then and causes trouble by possessing someone or the other.

  • In the Kalki Purana, he's just a demon, fond of gambling and prostitution and gold like certain other world leaders I could mention.

If you have noticed my absence from this column, I think it's fair to use a mythological excuse. There's no Greek Muse (the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne — who is memory personified) for column writing, so I'm just going to pick Thalia — the comic Muse — and also Clio, the Muse for history, and tell you that those two, usually on my side, holding my bag while I conquer the world etc, have been on a long vacation and so inspiration has been hard to find.

Notice I picked “history” there, as one of the things I write about. Strictly speaking, mythology isn't history at all. None of this really happened, in a way that you and I would call real, at any rate. But to quote Albus Dumbledore, who will surely become a mythological figure in his own right several centuries from now: “Of course it's happening inside your own head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” If you believe something, you can usually see it, and feel it. Like love. Or hate. Or anger. Sometimes there's the crushing sense of disappointment, you — who have lived so long on this beautiful planet — should see the world implode, humans fighting humans, humans fighting animals. What happened to ages when we just invented new gods and composed epic poetry?

I'll tell you what happened: it's the Kali Yuga.

You've probably heard of the Kali Yuga before. It's what uncles in your colony parks sigh about as they sit in the winter sun, playing cards or generally passing time. “My kids don't spend time with me,” says one, and the other tells everyone about how his neighbour's daughter goes out at all hours wearing short skirts and tight tops. “It's truly the Kali Yuga,” they all agree, while secretly wishing they too had a neighbour who left the house barely clad at all hours. But apart from uncles (and some aunties) imagining the wrath of the gods is basically young people being young people, Kali Yuga has its root in various epics, most notably the Mahabharata.

Here are some of the trademarks of Kali Yuga that I thought were significant:

a) Rulers — it says kings, but I'm going to go ahead and say elected officials also — will become a danger to the world.
b) Humans will be angry with each other.
c) Lust and sex will be totally okay with everyone. (Not seeing the downside here, but we have to take the bad with the good.)
d) Humans will think of themselves as gods or directly connected to gods and make that their business. (Social media influencers, I'm looking at you.)
e) Climate change. (No, really, it's a thing.)

Mythology for the Millennial On the origins of Kali Yuga and the vindictive gandharva who led us into a dark age

'The Cow with 84 deities' by Raja Ravi Varma. The demon with the sword says, "O human beings, watch the meat eaters in Kali yuga". Wikimedia Commons

Kali, to rhyme with 'gully', is not to be confused with the goddess Kali. He is a vindictive gandharva, one of Hinduism's heavenly beings, sort of like a nymph or a dryad, not a full god himself. First he got pissed at a princess called Damayanti who picked a mere mortal, the prince Nala, over him, so he caused a series of misadventures to befall Nala, including causing him to gamble and lose his whole kingdom. Sound familiar? That's because it was a common theme with Kali. In later years, he was reborn as Duryodhana, Evil Prince, cousin to the Pandavas who entered the world braying like a donkey, a very bad omen. (Although, I mean, if you've never heard a baby cry, you could be forgiven for thinking this was bad.) It's easy to blame Duryodhana's divisive ways on a malevolent being possessing his body, but as everything these days has extra significance for me: mythology is just stories that have been polished enough to make for good listening; a lot of it was also Duryodhana's own fault.

Kali is described as dark-skinned on his Wikipedia page , but not the sexy dark skin of Ram or Krishna, who were so dark they were almost blue. No, he's the colour of soot instead, which proves Ancient India was as obsessed with Fair & Lovely as Modern India is today. He has a long tongue and definite body odour. In the Kalki Purana, he's just a demon, fond of gambling and prostitution and gold like certain other world leaders I could mention. In the Bhagwat Purana, however, they turn his awfulness into a caste thing, describing him as a sudra wearing king's clothes with a canine face and green hair. He's got a lot of back story, which I won't go into in detail for the sake of brevity, but basically, he pops up every now and then and causes trouble by possessing someone or the other. He appears in our age, our current “Iron Age” or Kali Yuga, as soon as Krishna dies, and infected the world with his terrible ways.

A Google search for 'Kali Yuga' throws up hopeful questions on Quora. “How many years are left in Kalyug?” asks one user, while another website promises that we'll be done with this age by 2025, just another five years to go! (If we don't destroy the planet — and ourselves — first.) Some spiritual gurus believe that Kali Yuga is already over, and we're in a weird middle place, waiting for the next age to happen.

Wherever we are — the Age of Aquarius, Kali Yuga, Purgatory — it's soothing to think that this too shall pass, that we'll be back to a golden age eventually. After all, time is a circle, and we go round and round on it, even if we think we're travelling in a straight line.

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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