USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Hinduism’
general
Myths

Birth of Ganesh

Informant KM is a sophomore studying Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is of Indian descent and moved to America at a very young age; however, she is very proud of her Indian heritage and considers herself to be very knowledgeable in regards to Indian mythology and religion. She is also fluent in two Indian languages, Hindi and Marathi. This piece of folklore is her recitation of a very common Indian folktale to me (AK).

KM: Shivji and Parvati are married. Shivji is the God of destruction and one of the top 3 gods of Hinduism. Parvati is a big goddess and she’s an embodiment of the Indian God Devi. Parvati is showering and she wanted to be protected while she was in the shower, so she used the dirt of her skin to make Ganesh. And Gan, these men, are like little minion kind of looking things that stand outside the door, so Ganesh was standing outside the door. Then Shivji came, and it’s not really sure why and Shivji got really pissed and out of anger he cut Ganesh’s head off. Parvati got pissed, and she threatened to — like tear the world apart if Shiv doesn’t fix the situation. So Shivji went and decided to cut the head off the first thing he saw which was an elephant, and he placed it on the Gan’s head.

For reference (Ganesh):

Ganesh

AK: Woah… that’s a crazy story, anything else you wanted to add?

KM: Yeah, actually what’s controversial about this story is that the idea of her taking the dirt off her skin was the product of adulteration, or it wasn’t Shiv’s child which was why he was so pissed.

AK: Cool, similar questions again, where did you hear this story from?

KM: I heard this from multiple people, my grandma, mom, dad, and I’ve read about it.

AK: What does it mean to you?

KM: I like this story because it shows people as flawed, even Gods.

I personally enjoyed this story because I was very well acquainted with the God Ganesh, but I never knew his creation myth. For this reason, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece because I learned something very relevant to my own life. Obviously, I could have just researched his creation on my own, but it was very nice to hear the story verbally.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Signs

Don’t Step on Books/Paper

The superstition: “If you step on a book or piece of paper, then you have to touch it to your forehead because otherwise it’s disrespectful. It’s because books are like instruments of learning which is next to God and practically sacred so to put it to your feet shows disrespect so you put it to your forehead, which is a sign of respect, to counteract that.”

The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it.The gesture of putting to your forehead to negate it seems similar to another Indian superstition, that people can’t step over you, and they have to reverse their step to negate it. Although the informant isn’t religious, she still follows this religious superstition, since she is still rooted in Indian culture. I imagine education is very important in India and in Hinduism, since learning instruments can be likened to God, and sacred. Both of the informant’s parents are doctors, and she herself is studying engineering and computer science, does a lot of research, and tutors children; so I think it’s fair to say that she takes education very seriously herself. This may also be another reason she follows this superstition.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Monk and the Mouse

The tale: “So this monk was sitting on the beach when a kite fly, which I don’t really know what that is, but he saw a kite fly carrying a mouse and the mouse fell on the monk. So the monk wrapped the mouse with a leaf and took it home and prayed that the mouse would turn into a girl. And the mouse turned into a really beautiful girl, and the monk and his wife adopted her, so she like grew up and um, when she was an adult the monk told her that she should get married. And he told her to choose a man to marry, and the girl said she wanted like the most powerful man in the entire world. The monk thought she meant that she wanted the sun, so he went to like look for the sun and he found the sun and asked him if he wanted to marry his daughter. But the sun was like there’s someone more powerful than me…it’s um this cloud that covers me up during the day. So the monk left the sun and went to the cloud but the cloud was like there’s someone more powerful than me too, it’s the…um…oh yeah, it’s the wind. Because it blows me around. So the monk went to find the wind but the wind was like there’s someone EVEN MORE POWERFUL THAN ME, it’s the mountain, because it doesn’t move when I try to move him. So the monk went to find the mountain and the mountain says that the rat is more powerful because he can dig holes in me. So the monk finally goes to the rat and asks him to marry his daughter, but the rat says that he can only marry a mouse, right? So then the monk prayed that his daughter would turn back into a mouse, which God answered, and the mouse and the rat lived happily ever after.”

 

The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. When I asked her where she heard this story, she said “The story is from The Panchthantra, which is an Indian book of myths and stories, and I used to have a comic book version growing up.” So the story is clearly a folktale that was transcribed into authored literature, which then became many different versions, one of which was a comic book. It follows traditional oral tradition, the most prominent of which is only two characters in a scene. The monk only speaks to one person at a time. I think the message of the story is to remain humble. The young girl wants the most powerful husband in the world, but it ends up being a simple rat. And even then she cannot marry him unless she is reduced to her original state; so regardless of her transformation into a beautiful woman, and her wish for a powerful husband, she herself is humbled by her transformation and her final choice of husband. I think another message is that power is not where we’ll expect it, and there are many different forms of power. This tale is probably a good one to tell to children who become to over-arrogant.

Folk Beliefs

Karma

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that’s an important part of her culture.

“We believe, or like, in general, not like I’m a crazy person…bad things happen to you because you’re paying for deeds that happened from your previous life/your previous birth. And so, shit happens now because you did something bad in a previous life. It’s also like karma.”

Q: Is karma related to reincarnation?

“Karma means you pay for every deed. So, this is a form of karma.”

Q: What would be an example of karma?

“Well, the way we interpreted it was when my dad got sick, it was because in a prior life or a prior form he had done something bad and this was… he was paying for it now.”

Q: How widespread is this belief?

“Pretty universal in Hinduism”

Q: Where did you first learn about karma?

“From my parents. It was one of those principles I grew up with. So, it was like, don’t be mean to people, because it’s going to come back and bite you. What goes around comes around. That’s how it started, because when you’re little you’re like ‘What is reincarnation, I don’t know’ And then when you learn about reincarnation…it’s applied on a larger scale

 

 

Customs
Festival
Humor
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Drowning Man’s Appeal

Item:

“A Hindu man is in a rowboat in a particularly stormy section of the river. All of a sudden, his boat rams into a boulder, and he goes flying into the icy water. The rapids are carrying him away, and so he holds onto a small fragment of the wooden boat, trying to stay afloat. This doesn’t help him for very long. Just as he’s about to drown, therefore, he has the brilliant idea to pray to Ganesha, the deity of overcoming challenges and obstacles. Ganesha appears before him, and asks him what he wants. The man tearfully begs the elephant-headed god to get him out of the water, to which Ganesha replies – ‘Hah! You drown me every year, without even asking me what I want, and then when you’re drowning, you expect me to help you out of the water? Yeah, right!'”

Context:

The informant, a devout Hindu and an avid joke-teller, related the history of this joke – “This is one of the most hilarious jokes I have ever heard. A lot of Hindus know the joke, and know the significance of the joke. It’s funny because it puts the festival and rituals of Ganesh Chaturti into the perspective of the god himself, turning the joke around on us and making us wonder what the gods actually think of what we do to them.”

Analysis:

This joke mocks the rituals of Ganesh Chaturti, a traditional Hindu festival in which earthen idols of Ganesha are immersed in the nearest holy river or lake, symbolizing his return to his mother, the goddess of the earth Bhumi Devi, amid a spectacular celebration. It personifies the idol of the young, elephant-headed god, and switches the positions of the drowner and the drownee, putting Ganesh in the position of power here. In addition to this, the god is portrayed hilariously immature and vindictive, diminishing his deified dignity and showing him to be actually disgruntled by the rituals of a festival which celebrates his birth and ascent to heaven, a situation which people don’t really consider when performing these grand and honorific traditions.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Wealth And Character

Item:

“If Wealth is lost, something is lost. If Character is lost, everything is lost.”

Context:

The interviewee was very open about her experience with this proverb – “My father used to tell me this all the time. He told me that an individual’s greatest asset is their character. And that if they lose everything else in life – their dignity, their money, their house, their family – as long as their morals, integrity, and humility are intact, nothing will shake them. He stressed the importance of being a good person over being a rich and materially successful person. And so I’ve tried to live by this philosophy.”

Analysis:

This is a Vedic proverb, which conveys a very Hindu ideal. The main purpose of the Hindu faith and its various scriptures, including the Vedas and the Bhagvadgita, is to teach people how to live a simple, honest, and fulfilling life. It accomplishes this through preaching moral values and highlighting the importance of a strong character (Dharma) over wealth (Dhana). In fact, one of the best ways to attain moksha, the ultimate state of being, where a person can be as close to the gods as possible, is by giving up all worldly attachments, including money, fame, and love, and focusing solely on living a simple, Spartan life that tests one’s willpower and devotion. Therefore, it would make sense for strength of character to take precedence over wealth in a society where such values form the backbone.

 
Myths
Narrative

Hindu Myth: How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head

Contextual Data: My family isn’t particularly religious, but my parents both grew up in India and they were raised in Hindu households, and so, over Spring Break, I asked my mother if there were any Hindu myths that she remembered particularly well—if there was one she wouldn’t mind recounting for me. The following is an exact transcript of a myth she told me about how Ganesh, the well-known elephant God, got his elephant head.

“So Shiva is the destroyer, right? So he was supposed to have a temper… or flare-ups or whatever. So Ganesh is Shiva’s son. So Shiva went away to the mountains—Shiva’s wife is called Parvati. So, and their son is Ganesh. The elephant god that everybody’s house you see in. So when Shiva went away to the forest for whatever — I don’t know what reason, but he was away for a while, and then when he came home, Ganesh was a little kid, so they — living in the mountains in the Himalayas or whatever. So Ganesh was playing at the entrance of the cave, and he didn’t recognize his father, because he must have gone away — he was a little kid and he must have gone away for a certain period of time or something. So when he came back, he wouldn’t let him enter the cave. He’s saying, ‘Who are you?’ And, you know, ‘You can’t come in,’ and that kind of thing. So apparently Shiva got angry at him. Like, ‘Who are you to tell me not to come into my own house?’ kind of… And in his anger he’s supposed to have chopped away the kid’s head [Mimes cutting across the throat]. And when the wife hears the commotion and comes out and says, ‘What have you done? This was our son.’ You know… So then to bring him back to life, he cuts a head off the nearest thing he finds, which is an elephant—cuts off his head and puts it on Ganesh’s he—this thing [Gestures to neck].”

- End Transcript – 

When I asked my informant about the significance of this, she said that it related to ideas of Ganesh as the “god of obstacles”—that he’s the figure in the Hindu religion that’s traditionally thought of as either introducing or removing obstacles from an individual’s life and from a family’s home. Many family’s hang up pictures of Ganesh as a way of honoring him and respecting these obstacles that he’ll either introduce or remove from the home. It also may speak to the perceived relationship of the son to the household—that when the father is away, he is meant to protect the household and act as a protector to his mother.

When I asked my informant where she first heard this story, she mentioned that it was just something she kind of grew up with—it was everywhere. In India, these types of myths were often rendered in comic books, so she may have first either encountered it in one of these books, or heard it from her parents. For the most part, she says there’s little, if any, variation in this story. In general though, the myth is one that people in India tend to know really well because Ganesh is so meaningful to them and because the Hinduism is an important part of the culture in many regions of the country.

Myths
Narrative

Sri Lankan respect for elders

My informant grew up in Irvine, California; his parents immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka. My informant learned this myth from his parents:

“Okay, my parents aren’t very religious, and I didn’t really grow up in a religious environment, but this is a story that like, all Sri Lankans tell their kids. And uh, they kinda tell a similar story to everybody. So a key part of Sri Lankan culture—and I’m sure many other cultures—is there’s a lot of importance placed on respecting your elders. So they tell this story about these two parents, Shiva and Pavarti, who have two children, one of which is Ganesha. He is the famous elephant god that like, represents Hinduism and everybody knows this elephant god. So he’s the son. Um, the two parents Shiva and Pavarti tell their children, ‘We will give our inheritance to the one who will walk around the world and come back to us first.’ So the daughter actually starts walking around the entire world, and it takes her like, five months to come back. But Ganesha walks around his parents and says, ‘You are my world, so I just walked around the world.’ And it’s just a story that my parents used to tell me to teach me to respect my elders and to respect them. And I think it was a story that kinda resonated because I loved the irony in it. And I was a little bit of a smartass growing up, so this little trickster… I don’t know, I related to him a little bit, and I thought it was funny.”

This story has religious origins, but my informant views it as more of a folk myth; he did not learn it in a religious context. It is a well-known story for Hindus, but like many stories from major religions, it has spread beyond the religion itself. This particular story has a cultural relevance that would appeal to people of all faiths; the “respect your elders” message is one that resonates with very diverse populations. My informant postulates that Sri Lankans place more emphasis on the importance of showing respect to one’s elders than Western cultures do. Despite the underlying lecture his parents are delivering when they tell him this story, my informant is aware of what makes it enjoyable for him. He likes the humor and the relatability of the main character. Even so, he is able to appreciate the deeper meaning and the lesson his parents were trying to teach him.

**For an audio recording of this story, listen to Ganesha Walks Around the World by Jai Uttal. It is a published version of this same story recorded in an audio version.

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