Mythology for the Millennial: What Vishnu's female avatar teaches us about women in ancient India

Mythology is just a way to see our world through stories. Science came along, and technology and with it, cool things like drones and electric toothbrushes and living beyond the age of 40. Then mythology became this quaint thing, fairy tales from the past. Some mythology is dead; like the Greeks, no one really believes in Zeus or Ares any more. But some is still vividly alive, like in Hinduism, where, while some gods may be dead — Indra, Vayu, Brahma and company — some are worshipped to this day.

But I'm not talking about Indian mythology as a way to interpret Hinduism. Instead, I plan to look at it as a way to connect with our past, and maybe see if it has any relevance for our present. What do old stories tell us, beyond the actual story? Is there any point in us still talking about this? What's with all the dudes doing exactly as they pleased with no consequences?

And suppose that dude was a woman some of the time?

I've watched a reasonable number of superhero films. Here we are in 2018, and someone has figured out that fun for the whole family means a movie where there's enough geek stuff for the original fans of the comic books to be appeased, some wisecracking, meet-cutes for the lovers of rom-coms, some fighting for the kids, and a happy ending slapped on top of everything.

For those movie makers, I have just one word: Mohini. Her name, according to the Baiga tribe of Central India, literally translates to 'erotic magic' or 'spell', so you see where my story is going. But Mohini's not just a woman, she's actually the female version of a man.

Mohini came from Vishnu, and while it's not entirely clear whether Vishnu himself turned into a woman or merely created the illusion of a woman like augmented reality, all agree that she was extremely beautiful and very skillful at achieving her one and only goal: getting the better of someone using her feminine wiles.

It's weird that the ultra-feminine, ultra-sex-pot Mohini came from a male god. Why weren't the stories told about Parvati, Shiva's wife, seducing someone for instance — a goddess so insistent on her privacy even after she got married that she literally created a child to keep her husband from disturbing her when she was bathing? Or Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife, goddess of fortune and a go-between for devotees wanting something from her husband, which makes her a pretty mean diplomat.

I think it was because they were married women and so couldn't be seen doing something as inappropriate as seducing someone else even if it was just to bring them down. Maybe the gods have to follow the same rigid rules of gender and propriety as human beings. Or maybe it was because so much of the Mohini myth is about humiliating men, and it would be far too embarrassing if the humiliator was a woman. Best to be bested by another man rather than lose face. On the other hand, the fact that a male god was so comfortable with his female side is also something to be applauded.

The first story we know about Mohini, the Mohini: Origins as it were, was of her using a honey-trap or rather, “amrit-trap”. The great ocean was being churned, back in the very beginning of Hindu mythology, where the gods and the demons got together and figured out what each race would receive. You might be familiar with the tale: a smorgasbord of things came out of the churning ocean, and the devas and asuras had to divide the lot between themselves.

The asuras got the holy nectar, amrit, so Vishnu turns into his Mohini form and tricks them with her seductive charms into giving it to the gods. Vishnu gets to hang on to his masculinity, stay a warrior and so on, while only turning to his feminine side when the gods are completely perplexed about how to deal with an enemy.

How hot was Mohini? So hot that she had an off-again, on-again thing with Shiva in several tales — not quite Ross and Rachel but definitely some Jamie and Claire from Outlander vibes, where Claire's husband left behind in present-day Scotland is Parvati. There are at least three different stories where Shiva either spots her or asks Vishnu as a very special favour to produce her. In most of these stories, he's so overcome that he ejaculates immediately and his semen falls on the ground. Sometimes this semen is turned into a child — Hanuman in the Shiva Purana, where the semen is collected and poured into Hanuman's mother's, er, ear, and Ayyappa, the Hindu god of growth, particularly popular in Kerala. Ayyappa's other name is Hariharaputra aka the son of Vishnu and Shiva. He had two daddies much before it became a thing.

In another Mohini story, there's an asura called Bhasmasura, who gets Shiva to give him the power to kill anyone by putting his palm on that person's head. Shiva, being short-sighted for all his three eyes is all, “Oh okay, here you go” and then Bhasmasura's like, “Cool, now let me try it out by killing you”. Which, okay. Given the history between the asuras and the devas, you'd think Shiva would have been slightly more cautious but then we wouldn't have this story, so let's not look too closely at it.

There's a chase — my Amar Chitra Katha version of this has Bhasmasura running behind Shiva, hand outstretched, a manic grin on his face, while Shiva looks petrified, darting glances behind him, his dreadlocks streaming in the wind. Mohini to the rescue! She appears, all curves and duck face, and Bhasmasura is distracted enough for Shiva to make a quick escape.

Meanwhile, Mohini tells Bhasmasura she'll marry him (and I assume “marry” stands for sex in all these ancient stories) if he can match her dance move for dance move. And just like in Step Up Revolution or any of those dance-off movies, there's moves, and music, and everything except, presumably, lycra, which wasn't yet invented. Finally, Mohini challenges him to the final pose, raised eyebrow and a hand on her own head, and fooled, poor besotted Bhasmasura places his own hand on his head and poof, turns to ashes instantly.

There's no proof that this story is what led to the dance form Mohiniyattam, but it's sort of fun to believe it is anyway. The Brits banned it, because it was just too sexy for their Victorian morality. I think that's a fitting tribute.

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


Updated Date: Jul 04, 2018 12:55 PM

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