Anuja Chandramouli’s name and fame speak for itself when you look at her profile on Amazon and through thousands of readers who have turned her mythological stories into bestsellers. We have read and reviewed some of her works on this blog ( Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son, Rani Padmavati – The Burning Queen & Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts) and when we were offered the chance to read her latest book, we grasped the book with a lot of enthusiasm.
Continuing the saga of the Shiva family (extended 🙂 ) is this new book published by Rupa, called: Ganga: The Constant Goddess. It can be seen as the next segment in wake of the following stories:
- Shakti: The Divine Feminine
- Yama’s Lieutenant
- Kamadeva: The God of Desire
- Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son
Firstly, the name itself is very intriguing and promises a good story. Before all creation, there was the Water and the World, and although renewed every season, water remains the one constant source of life. As far as the memories of the Indian subcontinent go, Ganga has come to represent everything that is holy in this life and a door to the afterlife at time of death. It has been the great mother of our culture and part of the very fabric of Indian civilisation along with its sisters…
|Book Title||:||Ganga: The Constant Goddess|
|Publishers||:||Rupa Publications; Published: (10 November 2018)|
|# of Pages||:||
271 (Paperback Edition)
5253 KB, 218 (Kindle EBook)
|# of Chapters||:||12|
Every devoted Hindu dreams of visiting Ganga at least once in their life and every dying person is given drops of Gangajal. There was a time when bathing wasn’t considered as complete without an invitation to Ganga and Yamuna through shlokas that live through our memories:
गंगे! च यमुने! चैव गोदावरी! सरस्वति! नर्मदे! सिंधु! कावेरि! जलेSस्मिन् सन्निधिं कुरु।।
Even scientists have been intrigued by the myths around the waters of Ganga that are believed to purify everything. There are lots of results and theories around as to why this river is special and different from all the other rivers in India.
But secondly, Ganga also retains an important place as a beautiful Goddess in our mythological stories. She resides in Shiva’s Jata, she is famed to have been borne from Vishnu’s feet, she came to Earth to give Mukti to sixty thousand sons of king Sagar after three generations of pleading, she married king Shantanu of Mahabharata and was the mother to Bhishma – to name only a few popular stories.
She has been portrayed as both holy of the holies and a capricious, wilful goddess at times, so we were quite interested to see what Anuja’s take was on her life and what stories she has decided to include in this new book.
There is a prologue with Vishnu’s musings at the end of his Vaman Avatara, as he contemplates the end of his work in this era and going back for rest to the constant Goddess.
The story starts as we meet young Ganga and her younger sister Parvati, residing in the snowy caps of Himavan and Mena’s abode. Brahma, Devas and all the sages of the world are frequently at their doorstep believing that Shiva’s lost Shakti has been reborn as Mena’s daughter – but no one is sure which daughter?
While Parvati finds Shiva and decides to devote her life towards winning his love, Ganga is called upon by Brahma and Devas to help them in the ongoing war with Soorpadma, Sinha, and Tarakasura. The sisters part ways here as Ganga leaves her parents and goes to Devaloka and then to Brahmaloka.
In Brahmaloka she forms an everlasting friendship with Saraswati. When Kamadeva is destroyed by Shiva, Ganga tries to console Rati and later finds love with Mahabhisa, Kama’s gift to Ganga in return. Eons go by and Ganga stands by her sister as Parvati marries Shiva and eventually plays her part in the birth of Kartikeya. She is the one who enjoys life as it comes and is not interested in forming a permanent attachment with Mahabhisa.
In due course of time, Kartikeya wins the battle against Taraka and Devas reign the three worlds again. In their arrogance and ongoing tyrannical ways of ruling, they imprison Yami for the crime of incest with her twin Yama. True to form, Ganga and Saraswati join forces to ensure Yami’s release from Deva’s prison to form the river Yamuna. The Devas kill Mahabhisa as retaliation to this and Ganga’s grief threatens to engulf all the worlds. On Parvati’s request, Shiva steps in and holds Ganga in the endless locks of his hair.
A new chapter begins in Ganga’s life as she promises to be the mother of Ashtavasus who have been cursed by Rishi Vashistha to be born as humans. Ganga finds Mahabhisa reborn as Shantanu and keeps her promises to Ashtavasu brothers by drowning seven of her children in her own waters, while the eighth and youngest boy survives to live on as Bhishma. Ganga bears witness and the world goes in flames in Kurukshetra and the way of life as they know it is lost forever, as the valour and heroic deeds of mortals fade into mediocrity…
As you can see above, this book is more like a collection of interwoven stories instead of a single story that goes from birth to death. And this is typical of all Indian mythological stories. They are like meandering currents of a river going in all directions before they meet at the end.
When you are telling an old tale, what matters is how you tell it. Anuja does an excellent job of building up the sequence of events and scenarios to give us a glimpse in the lives of these ancient characters and a plausible version of how things may have happened. As she says in the introduction:
A story with its plentiful permutations and multiple meanings can be an immersive, intensely personal experience that can be whatever you want it to be—deeply affecting, wildly entertaining, deliciously wicked or bloody annoying.
And later in the book:
Every time a story is narrated, you will discover that it holds a world of meanings that are similar but not entirely the same for you and the listeners. Everybody is convinced that their chosen story, which has resonated so deeply in their heart, is special and holds all the answers.
Like the previous books, there are ample descriptions of places, feelings, friendships, wars, etc. This book also connects to events described in other books including Deva – Asura war, Shiva Parvati wedding, Kamadeva’s death, Kartikeya’s birth, and life, etc., so it will sit nicely in that bouquet of works. Anuja’s strength in building up the scenarios and describing endless complexities of the three worlds is on full display here. Since the book is about the Constant Goddess, just look at the varying descriptions of her in different places and moods:
The constant goddess of the inconstant disposition stood on the summit, silent and still as stone, while the mountain shuddered and shook beneath her feet, rocked by the violent convulsions of war.
— — — — — —
The gracious goddess of the heavenly waters, whose fathomless depths carried the promise of hope and the gift of redemption. The one who had always refused to carry weapons, for she could not abide violence. The one who sought and found joy in the most abysmal of situations. A loving mother who accepted all her children—even the accursed ones among them, deemed irredeemable. In the silvery rush of her waters, she had always made room for the sinners and saints alike, for none were exempt from her embrace. Whose name even the gods breathed as a fervent prayer.
— — — — — —
Taking the shortest route had never been her way. There were many paths that awaited and she would explore them all in typical meandering fashion because they all took her where she needed to be in the end and made the journey so much more interesting.
— — — — — —
We liked the interpretation that the eternal Shakti is reborn as twin halves in Mena’s two daughters –Ganga and Parvati, thus making the trio of Shiva-Parvati- Ganga more natural. But the descent and grief of Ganga over death of Mahabhisa appears a bit lacking in motivation compared to the original version involving Bhagiratha.
The most notable theme of the book, however, is surprisingly, gender wars and inequalities. The dialogues between “Ganga and Saraswati” and “Ganga and Mahabhisa” argue both sides of the issue, i.e., whether women are oppressed by men or vice versa. For example:
For reasons unknown, the males of any species are most intent on controlling the lives of their ladies for the ostensible purpose of keeping them safe from all harm and shielding them against hurt. It is most foolish and impractical of them! One may as well expect to hold the wind in hand or water in place. In reality, they are little more than parasites.
The trouble with hopeless femininity is that you give toxic masculinity too much power by allowing them to dominate your heads and hearts. What is the point of obsessing over the injustice of their actions, agitating against them, or loving them to distraction, when all that energy and effort could be better expended towards the fulfilment of personal desire or ambition? I can’t abide women who whine and weep about not having been treated right, especially if they are responsible for their predicament, having been stupid enough to relinquish control over their lives to the opposite gender, driven thither by foolish dreams and overly optimistic expectations about finding love and security in another’s arms.
The following paragraph very accurately captures the patterns of behaviours toward women:
First, the feminine is revered as sacred and worshipped for the gifts of fertility, transformation, wisdom, prosperity and healing. But soon, adoration gives way to resentment on the heels of disappointment, over an inability to deliver on unnaturally high expectations. Respect is accorded on a more selective basis and reserved for those who belong to the trinity of maiden, mother or wise old woman. Those who don’t subscribe to these traditional roles are singled out for censure and prosecution. And then it is only a matter of time before even the feminine idols are dragged down from their pedestals for not being the pure, unblemished creatures that no one is capable of being in the first place and demonized in a bid to obliterate the power of the goddess.
— — — — — —
The tendency to prosecute the female of the species would never be eliminated for good. Still, that was hardly reason enough to stop fighting the good fight. Besides, the gender wars, like any other war, would always claim victims indiscriminately from both sides and even those who renounced or modified their sex.
But the author also makes the points to show that every coin has two sides:
Women are not always the victims. The fairer sex is also perfectly capable of displaying greed, envy, wrath, malice, conceit, sloth and the rest of the deadly sins. Throughout the history of time, males and females have always jostled for favourable and advantageous positions for themselves.
Reading these segments was quite thought-provoking and amongst other similar works, brought to mind Sadhna Shanker’s Ascendence which has the men-women conflict as one of the central themes of the plot.
The second prominent theme is pollution of our water sources and the current, piteous state of the mighty rivers of India. Highlighted in so many different ways in this book, this is going to be the burning problem of today and tomorrow. We are, surely and “not-so-slowly” running out of clean, pure water all around the world, and we’ll have to face the consequences of all the harm we have done to our waterways in near future.
As we have noted in other reviews, Anuja’s views on matrimony are quite real and accurate, and this book is no exception, where Ganga warns her sister to not set her expectations too high or it will only sour her relationships. And we see glimpses of family disputes not long after.
And although it feels like we have shared a lot above, there are some other gems in these stories as well:
Knowledge always brings with it an awareness of one’s limitations.
— — — — — —
When has abstinence or enforced faith in a higher power made anything at all better?
— — — — — —
Not everybody favours logic and rationale when confronted with catastrophes of their own making. They would rather look for someone to blame and punish in their quest for an easy solution.
— — — — — —
Unconditional love and trust are the rarest things in the three worlds because it is nearly impossible to cultivate both.
Tales from Indian mythology sometimes have anachronisms, and there is a serious one here as well. This book portrays Radha as one of the lives Ganga led prior to becoming Shantanu’s wife and Bhishma’s mother. Considering Krishna was only six months older than Arjuna, who wouldn’t be born until Bhishma was in his sixties, the sequence in the book is not plausible. Ganga also mentions Rukmini Swaymavara when talking to Bhishma regarding his actions at Amba Swayamvara, i.e, abdicating Amba and her sisters for Vichitravirya. This once again is the other way around as Krishna wasn’t born at the time of Amba’s Swayamvara.
There are a few typographical errors in the print, e.g., Ganga’s son was called Devvrata (or DevaVrata), but here its spelled as “Devratta”.
But apart from these little things, it is a short, swift, enjoyable read, especially if you liked the previous books in this series. It goes on to explore a lot more in the actions of so called wise men and sages, questions the virtues of Devas and vices of Asuras, debates the quality of forgiveness and pointlessness of victimisation, creates friendships that have lasted through ages and highlights the thought that:
“Everything that happens has happened before and will happen again.”
A mythology retelling, which is written in interesting manner having a few misses and many hits.
7 out of 10.
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