Vak & the Churning of the Ocean
6 December 2007:
To make ends meet, since late October, I, an older earthling, have been subbing in middle and high schools with younger earthlings. At my age, it seems appropriate to interact with these young ones, creating bridges -- even infusing, perhaps, an elder wisdom/magic into lives that are bound to be more difficult than those of earlier generations. These young ones will need all the critical thinking skills and creativity they can muster to counteract all the damage caused by unwise choices made by leaders from my generation and the boomers behind me.
When I am subbing, since I am not a Mrs and dislike the mosquito-hissing sound of Ms, I introduce myself as "Dr. Jenks," for that is who I am. It seems important, somehow, that these young earthlings should encounter, in their early years, a retired academic. Then I explain that my "Dr. Jenks" title means I know a lot of cool things about world religions, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, rituals, spirits, dragons, ghosts, witches, and grails.
Interestingly, out of that lineup, the first thing I am always asked is, "Do you believe in ghosts?" I explain that I've never seen one, am not psychic, can't "channel" them as the heroine/antique shop owner does on a current TV show, but I have many trustworthy friends who do see them, and so I accept that they exist. Often this results in the students sharing with me their own wonderful stories of relatives or friends who have seen ghosts.
Their next question is generally, "Do you believe in dragons?" (Questions about witches are a close runner-up.)
"Yes," I reply. "I believe that I can invoke the dragons of the four directions to protect my land -- I don't see them, but I believe they're near. They might be on the imaginal plane, the Mundus imaginalis, or world of imagination. I can't literally reach out and touch one, but they're there nevertheless. Way too many cultures from all over the world," I continue, "have powerful and deeply significant myths of dragons or huge serpents -- such myths have to be coming from somewhere we don't yet understand."
Well, yes, I know that's not a very good answer. These are 8th to 12th graders. I need to figure out a way to explain the Mundus imaginalis better. My former adult graduate students used to immediately understand what I was talking about but I don't have the language and metaphors yet for young earthlings. The best I can do is to say that dragons are "real" in the same way that Oz and Hogwarts are "real." Dragons are part of a continuum that can be accessed by the creative part in each of us that knows no boundaries.
In the meantime, I get a lot of blank looks. Well, that's okay. Eventually, I 'll unlock the right way to explain all this. Meanwhile, the students keep asking about ghosts, witches, Bigfoot, and other psychic phenomena.
In the midst of all this, one day last week in a drama class where everyone was running amuck (because they hated the DVD I was asked to play: On the Town), I turned off the DVD, tried to get the students to do a skit based on something that interested them, and when that failed, I asked if they'd like to hear how Hindu theatre began. "No," a young lady said, "we don't want any history."
"It's not history," I replied. "It's mythology. It's about Vak, the Voice-goddess of ancient India." They still weren't convinced and looked at me suspiciously. It was the last class of the day -- they didn't want to be tricked into a history lesson.
"Once upon a time," I began. No one starts a history lesson like that and some looked up with more interest as I continued, "there was a goddess living at the bottom of the ocean. Her name was Vak, which means 'Voice' and it's connected to words that refer to the humming of bees, the singing of birds, trickling streams, drumming --" But then the bell rang and the students scattered.
I happened to be subbing for other teachers in that same school over the next few days. When you sub and encounter perhaps 60-150 new students/day, it's impossible to remember names and faces so I had no idea that some of the following day's students had also been in the drama class the day before.
"Tell us about Vak," someone asked at the beginning of the first hour. But I had been given detailed lesson-sheets on Huckleberry Finn and there was no time to re-tell a Hindu myth. The same thing happened the following day -- there was no time.
On my last day at that particular highschool, I wrote my website's URL on the blackboard and explained that it had links to dragons, earth spirits, ghosts, death, and so forth. "I'm sure that I also have Vak's story," I smiled, "so those of you who are interested can read the myth there. Just do a search under her name."
Later that evening, however, I asked myself if I did indeed have a page on Vak. Ever since I learned about Vak in graduate school, hers has been a core myth for me, for revealing her is about uniting one's "demon"aspects with one's "devic" light and churning up one's own creative depths in a trusting, cooperative, non-judging manner. This is part of a crucial process that I deeply honor. But aside from mentioning Vak on several of my theatre/dance and workshop pages, had I actually ever re-told her myth? She is so important! How could I not have done so?
I googled my own site that same evening and, with a sinking feeling, discovered I had not.
So, now, long, long, long overdue, I have finally created this page about Vak. This one is for those Watervliet Highschool drama students <smile>.......
Vak holding the "grail" of amrita, or soma, the elixir of life.
A painting by Sandra Stanton from our forthcoming (in 2012) Green World Oracle
I am the one who says, by myself,
what gives joy to gods and men.
-Rig Veda 10.125.5 (Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, tr.)
Once upon a time there lived a goddess in the depths of India's primal sea. Her Sanskrit name was Vak, which means voice, sound, speech, especially the dramatic speech of India's sacred theatre. A noun related to her name is vacas, which refers to birdsongs and oracular utterances; vakya also refers to the singing of birds; vacasyasyate is used in the Rig Veda for the sound made by trickling soma; the feminine noun, vak, refers to the language of animals and humans as well as the sound of drumming; vaka refers to murmuring and humming. To this day, the root-sound of India's Vak continues to vibrate in such familiar English words as voice, vocal, vocabulary, evoke, convoke, vocalize, vocation; also Latin vox, French voix, and Spanish boca.
Yet Vak herself, for long eons, was silent. She lived in the watery depths, perfectly content never to speak. She, the essence of voice, felt no need to actualize, or manifest, her voice, her sound. She lived simply at the bottom of the ocean, among the roots of a primal tree, protecting a vessel filled with the life elixir known as soma or amrita. One is reminded of Thomas Merton, a contemplative Catholic monk, who wrote that silence is not broken by speech, but by the anxiety to be heard. Vak felt no anxiety to be heard. She was as comfortable in silence as in humming, trickling, or splashing. She embraced these opposites, these dualities, with an easy grace, blurring all distinctions, communicating as eloquently through silence as through speech -- or refraining from any form of communication whatsoever. It was all the same to her.
Living as she did in the primal depths, she probably paid little attention to what was going on up above her, on the surface. Thus, since she seems to have predated both groups, she may not have known until later about a war between younger Devas ("gods") and their older siblings, the Ashuras ("demons"). The so-called gods, identified by the names of their fathers, defeated the so-called demons, identified by the names of their mothers, which suggests that the war may have been primarily about the politics of gender.
After the gods defeated the demons, the gods learned there was an elixir of immortality hidden among the roots of a sacred tree at the bottom of the sea. The greedy gods longed to possess this precious treasure but they lacked the skills needed to bring it to the surface. There were too few of them. They needed help.
So they turned to their recently defeated older siblings, the "demons," promising them a generous share in the treasure if they were willing to help. The gods, behaving in a regrettably ungodly manner, were planning right from the start to cheat the demons out of their fair share, but the trusting Ashuras were unaware of this when they agreed to cooperate.
Ashuras (left) and Devas (right) churning the seas,
pulling back and forth on Vasuki, a living serpent "rope."
[Detail from an 18th century Hindu miniature. Museé Guimet.]
The two teams found an immense serpent, Vasuki, willing to wrap himself like a rope around a mountainous island, which would function as a "churning stick"; then they arranged themslves at either end of the serpent -- the gods at the tail, the "demons" at the head (which the gods assured them was the position of honor, forgetting to mention, of course, that the demons at that end would be closest to the serpent's frequent blasts of fire-breath). With all their might, the two teams then began pulling to and fro on the serpent, back and forth, endlessly, patiently, churning the heavy waters as long eons passed.
Slowly, very slowly, after what seemed an eternity, the depths far below the gods and demons began swirling, churning about, foaming like milk, whirling in great circles, until the pot of amrita was finally dislodged from the roots of the sacred tree. Neither team knew anything yet about the goddess Vak. They expected the pot to float upwards on its own (the gods, of course, were ready to snatch it up and vanish, cheating their siblings out of their promised reward for all those eons of hard work). Instead, to their amazement, Vak emerged, bearing the pot of life-elixir in her own hands.
In Sanskrit, this pot, or "grail," is called a patra, or "vessel." But patra also means an "actor" -- which suggests that amrita (or soma) is not so much a drinkable, physical elixir as the poetic, life-giving magic of language that spills itself out in sacred theatre. The implications are profound, for Vak's archetypal elixir-gift, churned up by a union of opposites, is not confined to India alone. Wherever sacred language murmurs, hums, sings, or flows, Vak is present, re-patterning human nerves and synapses to receive her transformative gift of bliss. As she says in the Rig Veda passage quoted above, "I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men."
Aftermath: since the ungodly gods had acted in bad faith, knowing they would cheat the demons out of their fair share of the elixir, the ocean-churning revealed not only the original, pure amrita but also its reversed pattern, or shadow -- kalakuta, a poison capable of inflicting great pain upon the gods as well as destroying all earthly life.
At this point, Shiva enters the story. Understanding the risks, he decides to swallow the kalakuta before it can destroy other lifeforms. He swallows the poison no further than his throat-chakra, holding it there for safe-keeping, not allowing it to touch the rest of his body. The virulent toxin turns his throat a deep peacock-blue, as if, according to one early text, a serpent had licked it. From this, Shiva is called Nilakantha, Blue-throated One. [For relevant texts and other sources, see Kramrisch pp. 145 flg, noted in "Further Readings" below].
There is a dramatic contrast here between Vak, the Voice-Chakra goddess who brings the full range of sacred language into play, and Shiva, who attends to the hidden "shadow" element of masculine betrayal and treachery by imprisoning an unnatural toxin in his own Voice-Chakra, lest it injure both the guilty and the innocent.
The myth shows the mature stage of the Divine Feminine as gracious and open-handed. But it also shows a younger "heroic" patriarchal stage within the Divine Masculine as incapable of acting without treachery. This flaw catalyzes an older, more isolated Divine Masculine stage exemplified by Shiva, an ancient dancer-god who lives in the remote Himalayas. Shiva acts to prevent further damage, accepting the burden of confining the contamination to his own throat chakra.
Regrettably, one hardly needs to point out that in our own times, we no longer have an older, wiser Shiva-stage of masculinity able or willing to neutralize the toxins engendered by the betrayals of our immature leaders. One can only hope that more and more Vaks will emerge to transform, or at least educate, these troublesome, treacherous, wrinkled puers ("little boys").
____________________________________________________________________________Postscript on the Origins of Theatre in Ancient India: After the war between the gods and demons, and the time when both sides cooperated to churn up the ocean, boredom set in. The petulant gods soon began complaining to the creator-god, Brahma, who decided to entertain them by writing the first drama. The gods wanted it to be about their shining defeat of their older siblings and Brahma agreed that the war would be a fitting topic for the first theatrical script. But the ashuras protested bitterly and vehemently, arguing that Brahma was showing bias in favor of the devas. "We too are your children" the poor demons cried. "Why would you want to show us in such a bad light?"
Brahma replied calmly that he was not showing any bias whatsoever and was taking no sides -- he was simply depicting what had actually happened, nothing more, nothing less. Neither side should take it personally. Thus, blind to the need for showing his defeated children any empathy, he completed the first drama and arranged for its immediate production.
The ashuras were furious. When the performance began, they began creating havoc, stealing props, setting fires, making loud noises, and causing the actors to stumble and fall off the stage. When the unfortunate actors still struggled on, the ashuras took the next logical step and erased all memory of the play's lines from the actors' minds. The unfinished performance halted in mid-sentence.
Brahma finally understood. He now began writing a replacement, this time a play about Vak and the Churning of the Ocean, because this play showed all his children in a relatively balanced manner. The ashuras were very pleased with this choice and, despite some initial muttering, the devas also agreed. Thus, the story of Vak's appearance, catalyzed by the cooperative efforts of opposing forces, became the origin myth of India's first completed performance.
With this, sacred theatre, or Natya, was born, performed first for the gods but later made available to all. Vak's long silence in the primal seas now shifted, opening out into new dimensions of wonder, providing a potent, yet kindly elixir for the healing, delight, and transformation of all mortals.
I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men.
The Rig Veda: An Anthology: selected, translated, and annotated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. Penguin Books, 1981.
Byrski, M. Christopher. Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1974.
Holdrege, Barbara A. Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture. State University of New York Press, 1996. [Note: it was in Dr. Holdrege's graduate seminar at UCSB that I first learned of the goddess Vak and was introduced to Kuiper's crucial research -- see below.]
Jenks, Kathleen Marie. The Feminine in Zygote and Syzygy: Gender Studies in Violence, Drama, and the Sacred. Unpublished dissertation, 1992 (available through University Microfilms International).
Kale, Pramod. The Theatric Universe: A Study of the Natyashastra. Bombay: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., 1974.
Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. University of California Press, 1986.
Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Shiva. Princeton University Press, 1981. [Note: see especially pp. 145-152 on swallowing the kalakuta poison.]
Kuiper, F.B.J. Varuna and Vidusaka: On the Origin of the Sanskrit Drama. Amsterdam, et al.: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1979.
Kuiper, F.B.J. "Cosmogony and Conception: A Query." History of Religions 10, no. 2 (November 1970): 91-138.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. University of California Press, 1976/1980.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. University of Chicago Press, 1980/1982.
Pintchman, Tracy. The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. State University of New York Press, 1994.
Also See Other Related Myth*ing Links pages:
Common Themes, East & West: Sacred Theatre & Dance
Geographical Regions India: Sacred Theatre & Dance
Asian Arts / Buddhism, General / China / India & South Asia /Japan /Korea/ Mongolia / Nepal /Southeast Asia /Tibet /Zen
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Text copyright © 2007 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
5 December 2007, wrote all night until 4:25am.
6 December 2007, revisions, more art, etc from 7-10:30pm.
7 December 2007: added biblio & more revisions, 6:30-9pm.
8 December 2007: ditto all afternoon; finally launched "officially" at 6pm.
19 December 2007: removed a name from intro when I never heard back from the person involved.
18 June 2011: added Watervliet H.S. and the 2012 publishing date for Green World.