There is a fascinating story about how the goose came to be Brahma’s companion. Its ability to separate milk from water stood as a metaphor for being able to distinguish fact from fiction, and truth from falsehood. As a creator, Brahma needed clarity, and thus the goose seemed like a good friend to have. It is such tales from India’s rich myths and legends that run across Devdutt Pattanaik’s latest book, Vahana. Published by Rupa Publications India, with colour rendering by Sasi Edavarad, this is the latest in the author's endeavour to make mythology more relevant to modern times.
The read-and-colour children’s book talks about the various animal companions of gods and goddesses, and how these companions came to be their vahanas. “Many children kept asking me about what is the purpose of a vahana and of gods travelling on animals,” says Pattanaik about the trigger for writing this book.
In Hindu mythology, the vahanas are just as significant as the respective deities they carry, be it Nandi, Airavat or Ganapati’s mooshak. However, while most kids have grown up on stories about them, what they, perhaps, are unaware of is the symbolism underlying these tales. “We must distinguish between a symbol and a sign. A sign has only one meaning while a symbol has many, explains Pattanaik. To understand meaning thus becomes a complex idea. “How do you communicate with the ecosystem? All gods are associated with an animal, a plant and a mineral, which shows eco-sensitivity in Hinduism. You see this even in Buddhism and Jainism, where all Tirthankaras have a plant or an animal associated with them,” he adds. The book is an effort towards making children more aware of this need to be eco-sensitive.
With children being exposed to an endless stream of digital content, one is noticing reduced attention spans. In such a scenario, how difficult does it become to write a book, which captures their imagination? Pattanaik asserts that Vahana attempts to address subjects in a way that can’t be done digitally. For instance, it is also a colouring book. By colouring the gods and their animal companions, children become aware of the hues associated with them. “Vishnu is blue, the colour of peacock, pigeons and the colour of the parrot. So you refer to the illustrations and colour, compare and contrast. This is more of an activity book that hopes to get children interested,” he adds.
There are a lot of stories within the book, which are not well known. For one, there is the tale of how vahanas came into being. Pattanaik writes that a long time ago, gods couldn’t travel much as they couldn’t get too far by walking. Saraswati offered a solution, that Brahma must create animals, birds and fish, who could then become friends of the gods and take them wherever they wanted to go. The gods in turn ensured that the animals were protected and never went hungry. And that is how the heron came to be associated with Saraswati, owl with Lakshmi, the eagle with Vishnu, and the dog with Bhairava.
“If you look carefully, there are not more than 33-34 main gods in Hinduism. Kuber is so rich that he does not need to travel on an animal, he travels on a human,” says Pattanaik. While Chamunda travels on a ghost, Sashti, who writes the fortune of children on their forehead, is associated with a cat. “A cat takes care of babies, which means Sashti is the goddess of childbirth, an idea which is more popular in Bengal. People don't know that Rati is associated with pigeons and Kamadeva is associated with a parrot. Shiva is associated with Nandi but is also associated with dogs in his Bhairava form. What do animals represent symbolically? All these questions find answers in the book,” he adds.