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Lakshmi's Purana

Devdutt PattanaikWe often assume that a Purana is a Sanskrit text that is known across India. That is not true. Take, for example, the Lakshmi Purana, which Balaram Das wrote in Oriya in the 15th century. It speaks of an event that took place in Puri, where the great temple complex of Jagannath (Krishna) stands.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

In the temple, Krishna grants audience to his devotees along with his sister, Subhadra, and his brother, Balabhadra, much to the annoyance of his wife, Lakshmi, who is no where to be seen in the main shrine. This temple is famous for its kitchen where vast amounts of food are cooked for the pleasure of the enshrined Krishna. Here he goes on annual chariot rides and boat rides along with his siblings. Here Krishna also performs many rituals, including shraadha in the month of Margashisha, during which he makes funeral offerings to his parents (Aditi-Kashyapa, Kaushalya-Dashrath, Yashoda-Nanda, Devaki-Vasudev). And every 12 or so years the deities ‘die’ (there is even a cremation ground for them) and are reborn.

Before going further into the story, it is important to remember, that traditional storytellers did not look upon deities as historical or supernatural beings; they were living beings who lived ordinary lives among ordinary people to communicate sublime, or shall we say, extraordinary, ideas.

One day, Balabhadra saw Lakshmi entering the house of a sweeper woman. He declared that she had been contaminated and ordered his younger brother not to let her into the house. Krishna obeyed and shut the door of the temple. In the days that followed, to the great alarm of the divine siblings, no food was offered to them. On enquiry, they discovered there was no food being cooked in the kitchen as all vegetables and fruits and cereals and pulses and spices had disappeared from the pantry and the market. There was not even a drop of water to drink. The siblings traced this catastrophe to their rejection of Lakshmi. Eventually Krishna apologised to his wife and begged her to return to the temple. The siblings had learned that notions of contamination and pollution make no sense to the goddess of wealth. Food will satisfy without discrimination the hunger of all, be it a sweeper, a king or a god. In other words, food is satya, truth independent of human opinion. Notions of contamination, which is the hallmark of the caste system, is mithya, dependent of human opinion.

This Puranic story is anything but Brahmanical or patriarchal. This does automatically not mean it is a Marxist, subaltern or feminist text as many academicians have suggested. It is certainly not a directive, instructive, prescriptive text, like the Bible or the Quran or the Declaration of Human Rights. It is reflective. It questions the relationship between social hierarchies and the distribution of food, widens our perspectives and draws attention to the divide between mithya and satya.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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