I suspect every one of us thinks that we have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of our epics. Having been weaned on a healthy junk-food diet of Amar Chitra Katha, Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra, it’s quite normal to exude the cocky demeanour of a Kapil Sibal every time one is posed a question on Indian mythology.
But let me assure you, we
know precious little. I came face-to-face with my level of ignorance when a little one stumped me with an innocuous poser: why is Rama called ‘Rama’? After blathering my way out of the situation, I consulted a musty old Sanskrit dictionary. And I uneart
hed very many things that no one had told me before.
Rama, as it turns out, has many meanings. ‘Harbinger of happiness’ is the one many latch on to. But it also cues ‘dark complexioned’, which is probably why he is depicted blue in the comic strips. Incidentally, Krishna is also synonymous with ‘dusky’ skin. So all you ‘fair and lovely’ folks, it’s time you gave us sooty beauties more respect.
Sita is the ‘trench made in the land while ploughing’ and it seems she emerged from a furrow when her dad Janaka was tilling his farm. Some of you might have already known that. But I am not sure if you know how Surpanaka got her name. It seems her nails resembled the winnowing fan at birth. That’s how!
Turning to Mahabharata,
did you know Karna is literally the ‘ear’? The story goes that Kunti gave birth to her first son through her ear to avoid losing her virginity. Maybe that’s how we got the expression ‘playing it by the ear’. To just complete the dots in your head, Kumbhakarna, by the same logic, means ‘pot-eared’.
The ever-scheming Shakuni is curiously named after the hen sparrow. Now you can get your head around the bizarre band name ‘Shakuni & the Birds of Prey’. Continuing on skin tones, Arjuna is supposed to be ‘white and clear’ or as some say ‘silver’. And Pandu, ‘pale yellow’.
Talking of Pandavas, Yudishtra is ‘firm in battle’, Bheem is predictably ‘formidable’, Sahadeva is ‘like the gods’ and Nakula means ‘mongoose’ apart from the politically correct explanation ‘handsome in the lineage’.
By the way, the real zingers are Kamsa (‘cup’), Vyasa (‘diameter of a circle’), Ashvathama (‘horse power’), and Kubera (‘deformed one’). The most surprising interpretation I came across involved Kashyapa. It seems the word meant ‘black teeth’. That scrap of trivia made me want to brush up my folklore all over again.
– Anantha Narayan