Change. It is a constant. But the rate of change is not. Nor is the direction of change. Sometimes things can change for the better. But when we talk of change, we often think of change for the worse. Change is often slow. Giving us time to cope, adapt and adjust. But sometimes, it swoops down with terrifying speed. Like a tsunami or a cyclone or an earthquake or a terrorist attack. There is no time to cope, to adapt, to adjust. How does one survive then?
In the Hindu mythology, the world is seen as fluid as water, sometimes a stagnant pond giving rise to the lotus, sometimes a turbulent river threatening to wash away the earth, sometimes a gentle stream nourishing its fertile banks, ultimately the sea–from where all things begin and where all things will end. Ancient texts such as the Taitriya Aranyaka and the Satapatha Brahmana describe how the divine boar Emusha lifted the earth from the sea and placed it on the back of Akupara, the giant turtle. For centuries, Hindus have revered the sea as Varuna, who rides a dolphin-like aquatic beast called makara and who carries a noose made of a sea-serpent. The makara is a symbol of life and fertility, the noose the symbol of death and destruction–that which the sea gives, it also takes away. In Vedic times, Varuna was the great father, keeper of moral order. With his thousand eyes, he saw the flight of every bird and knew what transpired between all men.
In post-Vedic times, he was the generous god, source of rain and rivers, who freely lets man harvest his wealth of water and salt and fish and pearls and coconuts asking nothing in return. Varuna is not capricious and demanding like his Greek counterpart, Poseidon, who on not receiving due respect caused Odysseus to wander away from home through tempests for 10 years. Nor is Varuna like the drunkard Aegir of the Vikings whose underground brewery fills the sea with froth and whose randy wife and mischievous daughters, the wave-maidens, sway seductively before sailors and drag the smitten under the sea. In the Hindu mythology, Varuna is the quiet, almost indifferent overseer of life on earth, constantly giving of his treasure, following the cycle of tides, until the time of Pralaya, the dissolution of the world, when he takes–sea waves rise and submerge all life. Nothing is spared. Not even Krishna’s Dwarka. Flowing water is a powerful symbol of change. “One never steps into the same river twice.”
Never has this been more evident than the tsunami of December 26, 2004 that marched inland on the shores of Thailand, Sri Lanka and India like the horseman of doom–relentless, merciless, gnawing all in its wake. Then withdrawing. Sucking into a watery grave hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods, leaving behind a desolate land, bereft of hopes and dreams. In humanity’s collective unconscious, the sea has always been feared as the ultimate killer. Ancient myths from every part of the world speak of a Great Flood when the sea rises and submerges life as we know it.
Varuna is the quiet, almost indifferent overseer of life on earth, constantly giving of his treasure, following the cycle of tides, until the time of Pralaya, the dissolution of the world, when he takes–sea waves rise and submerge all life.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.