Sphinx is a creature from Greek mythology — with the head of a human and the body of a lion. In Greek mythology, it has a woman’s head; she asks riddles and eats those who fail to answer. The most famous sphinx is of course found in Egypt guarding the great pyramids of Khufu.

The only Indian reference to a Sphinx comes from Tamil epics and is carved on Tamil temple walls. In fact, there are temple lamps used in traditional shrines with images of the sphinx, indicating the key role it played in local mythology.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

It is called the Purusha-mriga. Purusha means human and mriga means deer. But mriga can mean any four-legged creature, with hooves or claws. One can speculate that this creature may have been inspired by Romans who had extensive trade contacts with the southern half of India in ancient times. But we can never be sure.

Sometimes the Purusha-mriga is associated with Vyaghra-pada (meaning ‘tiger feet’), the devotee of Shiva known to have the feet of a tiger. There was a devotee of Shiva who liked to collect forest flowers for Shiva but refused to wear footwear while doing so, as he thought it would be inappropriate. So Shiva gave him the feet of a tiger to enable him to walk on the forest floor comfortably without footwear.

The only story of Purusha-mriga comes from the Tamil Mahabharata. When Yudhishtira was conducting the Rajasuya yagna, the priests told him the ritual would be completed only if Purusha-mriga participated in it. Now, Purusha-mriga lived in the middle of the forest and Bhima was told to fetch him. As he was leaving, Krishna gave him six Shiva-linga stones with the following advise, “If you drop these on the floor, the Purusha-mriga will stop to worship it.” Bhima did not know why Krishna gave him the stones or the advise but he took it as he trusted Krishna.

In the forest, after a long search, Bhima found the Indian Sphinx and invited him to the yagna. “I will come on one condition. You have to run and I will try to catch you. If I catch you in the forest, I will eat you. If you outrun me, then I will attend the yagna. Let me see how fast you are.”

Bhima realised why Krishna had given him the linga-stones. He ran and kept dropping the stones at regular intervals forcing the Purusha-mriga to stop and pray, thus increasing distance between him and his pursuer. Unfortunately, the Purusha-mriga was too fast and he caught Bhima just when one of his foot was in the city of Hastinapur and the other in the forest. Yudhishtira was called to judge if Purusha-mriga should eat or spare Bhima. Yudhishtira said, as one foot was still in the forest, that half of the body belonged to the Purusha-mriga and that Bhima should be cut in half, to satisfy the hungry beast.

This act of fairness so impressed the Indian Sphinx that he spared Bhima and agreed to attend the yagna. Since then he became the symbol of prosperity and protection.

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.