What is an Avatar?

When James Cameron released his breakthrough film Avatar in 2009, the word “avatar” became a household name. But few people realize what this word actually means. Some argue that it conjures up images of some kind of remote-controlled weapon. Others think of it as a type of robot (as in the case of Andromeda, where the ship’s computer was represented in physical form by an android “avatar” played by Lexa Doig).

Avatar is a Sanskrit word for “incarnation,” and refers frequently in Hindu mythology to the physical incarnations of the gods (particularly Vishnu). In popular culture, an avatar is something that represents the controller in another form; for example, the appearance of Jake Sully as an “avatar” in Na’vi form on Pandora in the movie. Sully isn’t actually incarnated on Pandora. He’s in stasis elsewhere, controlling this avatar with his mind.

Examples appear all over the religious and mythic world, however. It could be said that the god Odin from Norse mythology was an avatar when he appeared as a wandering wizard or an old man on the road, although strictly in such stories he was merely in disguise. Some scholars may even argue that Jesus was an avatar of God, as by definition He was born in earthly form while still retaining his essence as God.

The Hindu god Vishnu appears in a number of avatars throughout history, including as Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and perhaps most importantly as the hero Krishna. He also appears several times as a beggar or washerman in the Ponnivala story, but here again these are better thought of as disguises than as avatars, because he is not born into these forms but merely assumes their appearance.


More On The Boar!

As we’ve been looking at the interesting similarities between the Calydonian Boar Hunt and King Komban in The Legend of Ponnivala, more and more symbolism about this remarkable creature has been coming to light. The boar has long been associated in many old-world cultures with strength and courage. Yet its habits–eating just about anything with a voracious appetite–have also made it a symbol of darkness and fear. A bull or a boar might kill a man, but a bull is unlikely to eat him…a boar just might.

In fortitude and courage the boar is unmatched, and it’s perhaps for this reason that Vishnu chose to take this form for his third avatar, Varaha, in order to battle and subdue the demon Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha had taken the earth to the bottom of the cosmic ocean. After battling the demon for a thousand years, Varaha was victorious, and carried the earth between his tusks to place it back in its proper place in the heavens.

In the Mahabharata, the warrior Arjuna is attacked by a boar while he meditates to gain the favour of Lord Shiva. When he and the hunter (Shiva in disguise) shoot the boar at the same time, a fight ensues. That fight turns out to be the blessing Arjuna needs to gain the favour of Lord Shiva and receive the boon he needs.

In episode 24 of The Legend of Ponnivala, the servant Chambuga tells the kings of Ponnivala that the boar Komban is “the god of death himself.” This suggests that the boar might actually be Lord Shiva, or at least a symbol of his destructive power.

But what of other instances where the boar has become a mainstay of traditional culture? Well, if we can consider that there is a parallel between Artemis, the huntress in the Meleager story, and Kali, the goddess who comes to the aid of the hunters by giving the boon of a giant boar/son to the little sow, the mythology becomes quite universal.

For instance, there is a direct correlation between Artemis in Greece and the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. To Artemis, the hart (deer) was a sacred animal, but twice she called on a boar to do her dirty work (once to kill Adonis for his infidelity, and again to punish the farmer king Oeneus for neglecting her in the harvest sacrifices).

Diana’s representative animal is the hart, but her precursor from Gaul is another story. The goddess of the Ardennes forest range (covering parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France) was a huntress named Arduinna. A true Celtic goddess, Arduinna’s love of the wildwood, her role as protector of hunters and of animals, and her association with purity and the moon, were all adopted into Gallo-Roman mythology and became Diana, under which name she continued to be worshipped by pagan Europeans for centuries. As Arduinna however, her favoured beast was the boar, which she rode on the hunt.

The Norse goddess Freya also kept a boar for company. Freya was the Norse goddess of fertility, love, war, and death (all aspects associated with the other goddesses mentioned above, including Kali). She also ruled over the afterlife field of Folkvangr, where half of those who died in battle were said to end up (the other half went to Valhalla with Odin). Her boar Hildisvini (literally “battle swine”) was a constant companion and a powerful ally in battle. It is also thought that Hildisvini was Freya’s mortal lover, Ottar, in disguise–a notion which prompted Loki to suggest that she was always behaving inappropriately by riding her lover everywhere she went! (This was also an insult to her husband, Óðr, comparing him to a pig.)

The Meleager Story and Ponnivala

In a recent post, we discussed the similarities between The Legend of Ponnivala and the Calydonian Boar Hunt from Greek mythology. In both stories, the giant boar was sent to ravage the farmers’ land in revenge for a great insult. And in both stories, twin warriors figure very prominently in the battle (in Ponnivala they’re the heroes, while in the Illiad they’re helpers on the hunt).

There is, however, another set of curious parallels that bears some interesting discussion. One of the reasons Artemis is so insulted by Oeneus’ neglect of a sacrifice is that she is the goddess of the hunt, while he is a farmer. Although in Greek mythology these castes are not always as opposed as they can be in Indian tradition, this parallels the basic reason for the fight between Komban and the kings of Ponnivala. They have stolen a parrot, which provokes the vengeance of the forest princess Viratangal. In the war between the farmers and the hunters, Komban is a major combatant on the side of the hunters.

A similar theme occurs where Atalanta the huntress joins Meleager’s hunt (it’s her arrow that kills the boar). Despite generally accepting her skill, the other farmer/warriors of Calydon don’t trust this forest dweller. In the Roman version it’s assumed it’s because she’s a woman; in the Greek version, hero females who follow Artemis are quite common, and the aversion appears to be because of her caste as hunter. Following the hunt Atalanta is awarded the boar’s hide, which is an insult to Meleager’s farmer uncles. In the ensuing fight the uncles are killed, and their sister, Meleager’s mother, curses him and he dies.

Meleager’s death causes his sisters (called the “Meleagrids”) to weep so profusely that Artemis takes pity on them and turns two of them (Eurymede and Melanippe) into birds. This isn’t a direct parallel, but in Ponnivala the two parrots who live in Tamarai’s nose while she meditates outside Lord Shiva’s chamber also represent an avian pair that has a great deal to do with the fate of the heroes. Their separation at the hands of Ponnar and Shankar is what incites violence between the forest kingdom and the young kings.

Are there other instances in folk tales or myths when differences in occupation or social caste is an underlying force in personal or political conflict? Share your thoughts below!

Twin Warriors vs. The Giant Boar

In The Legend of Ponnivala, the twin kings Ponnar and Shankar face off against a giant boar named Komban. Komban is the offspring of a little sow who was once brought to Ponnivala as one of the royal animals. When Kuunutaiya and Tamarai set out on their journey to the Gates of Heaven to resolve the matter of their childless state with Lord Shiva, all the barren animals ask them to request a boon of children from the god on their behalf.

The pig, however, falls asleep across their path. In her rush to get moving Tamarai kicks the pig to wake her up. Indignant, the pig curses Tamarai and swears that the son she has will grow into a huge black boar that will ravage the land and kill Tamarai’s sons.

After Tamarai’s sons, the heroes Ponnar and Shankar, have grown, the land is ravaged by the great boar Komban. Komban challenges the young kings, who have stolen a parrot from the neighbouring forest kingdom. Through pitched and very dangerous combat, Komban is killed and his remains divided between the men of Ponnivala and their allies.

A similar tale is read in Greek mythology in the story of Castor and Pollux. Oeneus of Calydon commits a great insult when he offers a harvest sacrifice to all of the gods except Artemis. Enraged, Artemis sends a giant boar to ravage the fields of Calydon. According to the Illiad, Oeneus calls on his son Meleager to organize a hunting party (which includes, interestingly, the twin warriors Castor and Pollux, Meleager’s cousins). The boar is killed and the meat divided. However, Meleager’s uncles are offended that he has given a greater portion to the huntress Atalanta, and after further combat Meleager kills them, which incites his own mother to curse him.

We’d love to hear your thoughts…can you think of another mythic example where a great beast (not necessarily a boar, though that would be cool) has been unleashed to exact revenge for an insult? Post your comments below.

Odin’s Ravens and Tamarai’s Parrots

In The Legend of Ponnivala, Queen Tamarai must do penance by sitting in meditation for twenty one years before being permitted to take counsel with Lord Shiva. During this protracted meditation, two parrots take up residence in her nose. Before Tamarai awakens the parrots are shooed away by Lord Vishnu, and seek refuge in a forest kingdom under the protection of Viratangal.

The idea of birds nesting in someone’s nose seems a bit strange to Western readers, but there’s some significance to this occurrence when Eastern alchemy is considered. It is believed that when one enters a deep state of meditation, the physical body actually becomes hollow, making a potentially suitable residence for something like a bird (if the meditation is long enough).

Birds often represent some aspect of the spirit or mind in various mythologies, and this is even more important when we realize that many species of parrots mate for life. So it is that the parrot couple, husband and wife, are symbolic of family and marital loyalty. When their bond is disrupted by the capture of the wife-bird by Tamarai’s sons, Ponnar and Shankar, a war results, bringing an end to the family dynasty.

In Norse mythology, Odin; father of the gods and ruler of Asgard; had a pair of ravens named Huginn and Muninn. Their job was to fly around the world during the day and return to Odin in the evening with news of what was happening on Earth (Midgard). Their names mean “thought” and “mind” (or “memory”) respectively, and it’s believed that they represented these aspects of Odin’s daily meditation. While the lord of gods meditated, his thought and mind ventured out to open his consciousness to the goings on of the world under his protection.

Huginn and Muninn also represent the ideas of the fylgia; a supernatural companion that takes animal form in order to accompany a person in relation to their fate or fortune; and hamingja; the personification of the good fortune of a person or family, often in shape-shifting animal form as well. This ties the connection together nicely, as the fortunes of the ruling family of Ponnivala, as well as their enemies, are intimately tied to the treatment and deeds of their close animal companions.

Are there other mythic examples of birds representing these aspects of the mind and spirit in meditation? What about other duties they may be assigned? Share your thoughts below.

An exceptional post on Ganesha’s broken tusk, that references the Mahabharata as well.

The Indian Mythology

Ganesha is called Ek-Daantay , the one with only one tusk.

1. GajjMukhaSur

Gajjmukha-Sur was a Detya (Demon) who was booned to be killed neither by Astra Nor Shastra (tool or Weapon). Priam-Mada the wife of Gajjmukha-Sur , was a devotee of Goddess Guri (Parvati) and she Keep Guri Vrat for the protection of her husband. Gajjmukha fought with Devtas (gods) , but none of them could kill him , because of the boon. Finally Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati , fought with him and Ganesha Broke his tusk ,which was neither Astra nor Shastra, and shot it towards Gajjmukh-Sur. Goddess Guri through her Bengal on the flying tusk in air and Stopped it . Ganesha asked Her Mother the reason , She replied that how could she the prayers and Vrats of Priam-Mada. While the mother and son was Arguing , Gajjmukha-Sur thought its the…

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What Is The Legend of Ponnivala?

The Legend of Ponnivala is a vast epic story, once widely celebrated in the Kongu region of South India. It is a gem of Tamil storytelling, and a tale normally sung by bards. The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada, in association with Soft Science, has produced a twenty-six episode animated DVD series with accompanying print and digital comic books and teaching guides.

The colours and character designs in these short graphic novels present the reader with a new style that is not Manga, not Disney, and not Bollywood. Instead, each page draws inspiration from authentic, traditional Indian folk art. Akin to a regional Mahabharata, this significant and hitherto largely unknown folk epic describes life in medieval South India. Because of the legend’s authenticity, depth, and extensive social significance, this story can be enjoyed at many levels. Building on 45 years of scholarship by Dr. Brenda Beck, it is anticipated that all 26 comic books will hold the interest of kids, families, and even attract academic scholars. In fact, one elementary school student from New Jersey wrote:

I read the entire set of books in 3 days.
The Legend Of Ponnivala was a very interesting, happy, and fascinating story.
I liked the book titled ‘The Book Of Fate’ the most.
My favorite character was Tamarai. Your stories are excellent.
Thank you for the books.
~ Janani S. (2nd grade), Metuchen, NJ

Locally the epic is known as the Annanmar Kathai, or “The Elder Brothers’ Story,” and is named for the principal characters of the third generation, the twin brothers Ponnar and Shankar. Like all good folk epics, Ponnivala takes place in the real world, with locations and landmarks that still exist today. Yet its great age (easily over 500 years old) provides a remarkable insight into the society and culture of medieval India, especially as played out in the Kongu region of Tamilnadu.

New releases planned for 2012 include Tamil, Hindi, and French language versions, and “Ponnivala Parcheesi,” an educational game intended to provide teachers with fresh comparative material, for use in the classroom or lecture theatre.

These comics (and their video counterparts) provide viewers with a fresh and informative folk perspective on South Asia’s pre-colonial history. The material also has great mythological and cultural appeal.