'Through his conversation with Yama, Nachiketa helped society grapple with a bunch of knotty issues, just as many of the ongoing conflicts could do today,' says Arundhuti Dasgupta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The first month of the year was singed by protests. In Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra. mobs vandalised the streets over caste and a 200-year-old battle.
Then, the revolt by four Supreme Court judges against the Chief Justice of India rattled many.
Protests are the hallmark of a democracy and every society and age has had to grapple with its own set of revolts.
In India, the story of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad is about a son revolting (respectfully, of course) against his father, the sage Vajashrivas.
Known for his generosity, the sage had promised to donate his prized possessions to the gods in the hope of accumulating enough good deeds to grant him release from the cycle of life and death.
At the time of the sacrifice, however, Nachiketa noticed that his father was giving away just the weak, feeble and maimed cows in his possession.
Intrigued, then barely in his teens, he questioned the logic of such generosity and dared his father to give him away.
After all, he, too, was a prized possession.
Angered, Vajashrivas declared that he would send his son to Yama (death) and therein began the teachings of the Katha Upanishad that are presented as a dialogue between death and a young boy looking for the meaning of life, after-life, the nature of man and his soul.
Nachiketa was not just challenging his father, he was taking on authority, just as many are doing today.
In the process, through his confrontation and conversation with Yama, he helped society grapple with a bunch of knotty issues, just as many of the ongoing conflicts could do today.
Like the Nachiketa-Vajashrivas tale, several ancient stories talk about revolt from within.
While outsiders do initiate change and establish new ideas and social change, the status quo is usually rattled by kith and kin or rank and file.
Kings of the ancient world knew that well and that is what led them often to nip their rivals in the cradle.
Be it King Acrisius of the Greeks who imprisoned his daughter Danae because her son Perseus would bring him down as the Oracle had predicted or King Kamsa who killed every newborn in his kingdom as he hunted for Krishna, his sister's son, who was prophesied to bring his end.
Or consider Asura King Hiranyakashipu. He had the boon of near-immortality from Brahma because he could not be defeated by man or woman, neither inside nor outside his palace and neither during the day nor during the night.
His son Prahlad, a devout follower of Vishnu, was instrumental in bringing about his end as the god descended as Narasimha (in his half man-half lion avatar) to kill Hiranyakashipu.
Among the common beliefs that power such stories are that every dynasty sows the seeds of its own destruction and that evil generates its own end.
An Irish myth about King Balor of the evil eye is particularly explicit. The gods had said that Balor would be killed by his grandson, so he imprisoned his daughter in a cave.
Circumstances led her to be seduced by an outsider who ventured in to the cave to retrieve the cow of plenty that Balor had stolen.
Three sons were born of the union and when Balor found out, he drowned them all. Only one survived, Lugh, who went to battle against him when he came of age.
Lugh knew about his grandfather's evil eye. Legend was that the eye held a venomous gaze and when opened, it could decimate any army.
On the battlefield, Lugh waited for his grandfather to raise his eyelid and the moment he did that, he aimed a sling stone at it. The eye was carried through the back of Balor's head and turned its fatal glance on his own army, which was subsequently destroyed.
In most of these stories, there is another belief that runs through -- that no one, man, god or beast, is infallible.
The Mayan myths about the hero twins and their tryst with the gods is an example.
The twins were proficient in magic and played a ball game that none could match. But they played incessantly and this angered the gods of the underworld.
The twins were challenged to a game and the gods placed numerous hurdles in their path, but they found a way out of every difficulty.
Finally, they defeated the gods, dismembered them and left them literally in pieces.
The twins have been reborn as the sun and the moon and their story carried forward the Mayan belief that all rulers ought to be prepared to confront and outwit the gods.
Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of their book.