Devdutt Pattanaik Column: How many eyes do you have?

‘With a woman by your side, you are like the three-eyed Shiva. Without her, you are the one-eye Shukra, though you may look like the two-eyed Kama.’ Tenali Raman, the famous court, jester is supposed to have composed these lines. Are these words of praise or an insult to a one-eyed warrior or courtier? We can never be sure.

Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

In the Puranas, Shiva, the destroyer, is known to have three eyes while Shukra, the guru of the asuras, had only one eye. In the world of mythology, the one-eyed one is known to be creative and intuitive, but lacking the balance of rationality. The two-eyed one is balanced, while the three-eyed one has insight, able to see more than others, into the hearts and minds of other beings. How many eyes do we have: one, two or three?

Shukra lost his eye when he tried to stop Bali, an asura, from giving land to the dwarf Vaman. To give the land, Bali had to pour water from a pot onto Vaman’s palm. Shukra reduced himself in size, entered the pot and tried to block the water from flowing out of the spout. Vaman, an avatar of Vishnu, divined this and inserted a blade of grass into the spout and pierced Shukra’s one eye, leaving him blind in one eye.

Kubera, the treasurer of the gods, is also called one-eyed. He once boasted to Shiva that money can buy everything, so the Goddess plucked out one of his eyes and asked him to replace it. Kubera learned his lesson and replaced the lost eye with one made of gold. Hence he is called Pingalaksha, one with golden, or yellow, eye. In another story, he claimed his love for Shiva was greater than that of Shakti, causing her to pluck out his eye in a fit of rage.

When Shiva opens his third eye, but keeps his other eyes shut, he is dangerous and destroys Kama. But when the Goddess comes before him, he is so enchanted that he opens all three eyes. In some stories he pops four more heads so that he can see her with 10 eyes.

In the Vedas, Varuna is described as the thousand-eyed god who keeps an eye on the deeds of man and condemns those who breach their word. In the Puranas, Indra is hundred-eyed. The story goes that when he was caught in bed with Ahalya, the Rishi Gautama cursed him that his body would be covered with vulvas: which means he would bleed regularly from these orifices. Later, these vulvas were turned into eyes, a hundred eyes, a metaphor to be watchful of sensory desires.

In Greek mythology, the Cyclopes are one-eyed. They are the deformed children of Gaia and Uranus who are imprisoned by Titans in Tartarus until they are liberated by Zeus. In gratitude, they forge the thunderbolt for Zeus. In the Odyssey, the Cyclopes is a dangerous cannibal who is blinded by the hero Odysseus. Greeks also speak of the three grey witches who shared one eye between them: They told the hero Perseus how to find and defeat the dreaded Medusa. In Norse mythology, Odin gives up one of his eyes so that he can drink from Mimir’s Well of Knowledge. In Egyptian mythology, in the fight for the throne of Osiris, Set gouges out one of Horus’ eyes, and this becomes the famous Eye of Egypt, a talisman, associated with magical power, that removes the evil eye. One, two or three, there is more to the eye than we see.

The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at

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