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Witty, Wily, Whimsical: Trickster Archetypes In Indian Mythology

Trickster Archetypes Indian Mythology

What could mythology be without its archetypical tricksters? They are the ones who play the fool on others, often intentionally and play tricks to get their way. Appearing in the myths of many different cultures, the trickster is the most unconventional character who breaks rules and makes new ones, disrupting the social and natural order, artfully upsetting normal life and then re-establishing it on new principles.

The most vivid persona who comes close to this definition is Krishna, be it as the mischievous balkrishna and later who use his wit and wiles to steer the Pandavas to victory in the Kurukshetra, ingeniously achieving his ends through evasion and deceit. Even as a child, he openly questions and mocks authority, is fond of breaking rules, creating havoc, and playing tricks on both humans and even the gods, considering he is god incarnate himself.  Not pious as expected of him, it is his roguish charm which makes for Krishna’s distinctive character, endearing him immediately to all but his enemies whom he destroys through shrewd manipulations.

Not pious as expected of him, it is his roguish charm which makes for Krishna’s distinctive character, endearing him immediately to all but his enemies whom he destroys through shrewd manipulations.

The tricks Krishna plays on everyone – from his mother and the gopis as a kid to Jarasandha, Sishupala, Duryodhan, Karna and Dronacharya are unscrupulous by conventional standards, designed to cheat other people and gain advantages, not for himself, but for that higher good and the welfare of the world. Nevertheless, the epic’s narrative clearly takes Krishna’s side and the reader is invited to laugh and admire his ingenuity and wisdom which gets translated into the iconic Bhagwat Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. He is the mischief maker who saves the world.

Goddess of All Things

All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. Krishna fits in each of these definitions. As a toddler, he steals curd and butter, his favourite comfort food, earning him reprimands from one and all, including his adoring mother Yashoda.  As he grows up the tales get wilder, spawning folk tales where he as the swashbuckler and the culture hero are often combined. In his various shades and perspectives, he is thus portrayed as a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and as the universal supreme being.

Another very popular god, who can be seen in the same context is Hanuman especially in the early episodes of his shape shifting and teasing the sages as a child. He leaps at the Sun, thinking it to be ripe fruit to be gobbled up. The innocent playfulness is replaced by deliberate dare devilry when as an aggrandized adult, and with a swish of his mighty tail, he sets Lanka in flames. He is the proverbial trickster figure who exhibits form variability and is a master shape shifter, an impish naughtiness his charming trait.

He is the proverbial trickster figure who exhibits form variability and is a master shape shifter, an impish naughtiness his charming trait.

Mohini, is the only female avtaar of Vishnu, who exhibits gender variability, in one case even becoming pregnant. She is introduced into the narrative when she appears as a form of Vishnu and tricks the asuras to acquire the amrit – the elixir of immortality – and returns it to the devas. She is not a mere trickster, she is the divine femme fatale, an unstoppable force of sensuality with the power to take down entire kingdoms and destroy demonic forces that menaces even the gods, and she does it with quintessentially female powers that have no equal among her male heroic counterparts. Mohini is female and Vishnu becomes her when femininity is what is called for to trick the villains and solve a problem, to imply that the power of bewitchment is a feminine one. While macho heroes may win the day and wars through cleverness, persistence or strength of arms, they cannot compete with a woman in allure and manipulation; what differs is her weapon of choice.

She is not a mere trickster, she is the divine femme fatale, an unstoppable force of sensuality with the power to take down entire kingdoms and destroy demonic forces that menaces even the gods, and she does it with quintessentially female powers that have no equal among her male heroic counterparts.

A similar, though less nobler role is played by the bewitching apsaras who, often on the orders of Indra, the King of the devas, entice meditating seers and ambitious kings. Love, lust and seduction are their tricks to demolish, their weapons of destruction. Menaka seduces rishi Vishwamitra, Rambha tries to do so, Urvashi lures rishi Vibhandak and Tilottama through her beauty destroys the Asura brothers – Sunda and Upasunda.

This son of Brahma, is a scholar, a sage, a traveling musician and storyteller, who in the pretext of carrying news and enlightening wisdom, resorts to downright trouble-making.

Narad is, of course, the quintessential mischief maker, described as both wise and wily, his tales strongly humorous. This son of Brahma, is a scholar, a sage, a traveling musician and storyteller, who in the pretext of carrying news and enlightening wisdom, resorts to downright trouble-making. If he doesn’t lie blatantly, he prefers telling half-truths, a rule he employs on all and everyone. His anecdotes are always as delightful as him, where he triggers a series of dramatic events with just a gem of his invaluable advice!

Ranging from the simplest to the most complex, they are paradigms: witty, wily, whimsical or plain diabolical, but they best integrate the opposites, being above Good and Evil; something that best fits the idea of something unique and often holding a special and permanent appeal.

Also Read: Rediscovering 10 Intense Love Stories From Indian Mythology

Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views are author’s own.