Know Your Mythology
My employer, IBM, is currently running a “Drive Safe” campaign here in India. Driving and being a pedestrian here are both very dangerous. India has the highest collision rate in the world; and that is only for reported accidents. In 2009 more people died on the road in India than in any other country. Improvement is happening, but you do not have to be here long to understand the danger. Traffic lights are rare and those that do exist are at best only partially heeded by drivers. There are no crosswalks or other accommodations for pedestrians. And between four-wheelers, two-wheelers, auto-rickshaws, lorries, bicycles and the occasional bullock cart, all moving at different speeds, it takes a steely eye and extreme fortitude to walk across a busy roadway.
Back to the picture. The “Drive Safe” program encourages employees to share tips about safe driving on white-boards spread about our campus. Seeing this one, I wondered how many Westerners would understand it. It’s safe to say people who know a bit about India know Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and promotes wisdom and wealth. But what’s all this about a replacement?
That is a story I did not learn till coming here. Ganesh was originally a normal-headed boy, though with divine powers. He was created by Parvati, wife of Shiva, god of destruction. Parvati wanted someone to guard her home while she was bathing, especially since Shiva apparently had a habit of, well, disturbing her. Parvati, who is reckoned to be the source of all life-energy, created the little boy, called him her son, and set him to guarding the house.
Of course Shiva comes home, tries to barge in, but Ganesha stops him. Shiva ordered his army to destroy Ganesha, but the boy defeated the whole army. Shiva – apparently not the most level-headed god in the pantheon – doesn’t stop to think that, hey, maybe this kid is special, but instead in a burst of destructive fury severs Ganesha’s head.
Finally emerging from her bath, Parvati is not too pleased – in fact she is on the point of withholding life-energy from all creation when Brahma steps in to mediate. Brahma declares that Ganesha can be brought back to life, but a new head is needed; so Shiva ordered his servants to take the first animal they found facing north, sacrifice it and return with its head. The animal they found was an elephant, so when they returned Shiva took the elephant head, placed it on Ganesha’s body and infused new life into him.
Kids here in India see this story in cartoons, like this one:
The story is engaging as mythology, and has numerous psychological and spiritual interpretations. In this case it struck me as a small thing that is part of the implicit context for all Indians, the way expressions like “One if by land, two if by sea”, “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country”, and “What’s up, doc?” as part of the context for (most) Americans.