Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Hang on, life beckons

Grief makes way for relief and what is lost returns

Can love return? Can love once lost, be found again?

Recently, a much beloved aunt died. At her funeral I felt overwhelmed by a sense of loss for many things — my wonderful aunt, her sense of humour and her stories, her barrier-breaking life and mindset, and the connections and families and friends she brought together. I found myself wondering what would happen to our family — it felt like we would never be the same again.

How could this loss ever be compensated?

In Greek mythology, Demeter and Persephone deal with cyclical ideas of death and loss. Demeter loses her daughter Persephone, who is abducted by Hades, lord of death and the underworld. He wants to marry her. Demeter, goddess of agriculture, in her grief, lets the world go to waste. Nothing grows.

Finally, the gods pressure Hades to return Persephone to Demeter. But Persephone, because she has eaten a few pomegranate seeds when in the underworld, is forced to spend part of the year in the underworld, below ground — the months of winter, when nothing grows again, as Demeter grieves the absence of her daughter.

Leads to rage

In our mythology, one of the most descriptive myths of loss, describing how grief can give way to fury and destruction, is the story of Shiva and Sati, where Sati, disturbed by how her husband has been ignored by her father, jumps into a sacrificial fire and dies. Shiva’s grief leads to rage. Holding Sati’s body, in a frenzy of grief, He begins the tandava — the cosmic dance to end the universe.

But Sati has also lent her name to one of the most terrible practices — the system of Sati, suggesting that grief is ultimately destructive, that good wives should follow their husbands to the grave — that is how this story has been interpreted, by some.

But I think it is meant to offer us a different realisation, a more hopeful one — that, in time, love will return, grief — no matter how painful — will be healed, and the world will be made whole again.

The episode of Kama and Rati, also linked to the story of Shiva, Sati and Parvati, suggests this.

Shiva grieves, but in time Sati is reborn as Parvati, and the Gods are desperate for Shiva to fall in love with her, and for their union to result in a child who will slay the demon Taraka. To hasten things along, Kama and Rati are dispatched to make Shiva fall in love. But Shiva opens his third eye and burns Kama to ashes.

Rati, like Demeter, and like Shiva, is possessed by grief and is inconsolable. Yet, unlike all those women who have been persuaded to immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husband, Rati holds on. In some stories, she tries to, but the Gods stop her, for she must — she has to — live. She is promised that her husband will return, that he will be reborn. So she lives and waits.

And in time, like how each year Persephone reunites with Demeter, and how Shiva falls in love again, Rati too finds that her love returns. Some stories suggest that Shiva resurrects Kama; others that Rati, through the power of her penance, resurrects him; still others claim that he is reborn as Pradyumna, the son of Krishna and Rukmini.

But the ending is the same — what was once lost is now found again.

The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharatha - A Child’s View,’ ‘Sita’ s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:11:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/of-death-and-loss/article20477914.ece

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