Translated from the Hindi by Amarkant
The discussion on scriptures that day with Khattar Kaka was amazing. Khattar Kaka was enjoying himself after a drink of badam thandai. I started: Khattar Kaka, the dictums of scriptures are impregnated with such profound meaning!
Khattar Kaka replied: I couldn’t tell if they are impregnated by meaning or by fathers-in-law! But listen to this pronouncement-
svagṛhe prāḳshirāḥ svapyāt śvāśure dakṣiṇāśirāḥ
That is, “when at your own place sleep with your head to the east, and at your in-laws’ place, to the south.” Now tell me, what is the logic here?
Finding me quiet, he smiled and said: If the daughters and sons-in-law of the village take this seriously, they’ll be in trouble. I asked: How so? Khattar Kaka explained: In the bedroom, the daughter’s pillow will be in the east and the son-in-law’s to the south. Will the son-in-law then practice uttana-padasana (raised-leg posture)?
I pushed: Then, are the scriptural words pointless?
Khattar Kaka: Aji, is there anything without a purpose in this world? Some pandit would have visited his in-laws during monsoon. The roof would have leaked at night. Finding the southern corner dry, he would have moved his cot there. People would have emulated this behaviour. This is how superstition spreads.
I: Isn’t it possible that there is a deeper significance in this verse?
Khattar Kaka: This is what is called as the tying-of-the-cat-logic. During some shraddha (following death) ritual a cat was encircling the curd pot; so, somebody tied the cat to a post. When this person died, during his shraddha his son asked the priest: Why isn’t the cat tied to the post this time? Panditji said: The ritual doesn’t speak of it. The son exclaimed: What do you even say! When grandfather’s shraddha had the cat tied up, how can we not do it for our father’s? Then a cat was found somewhere and with a rope around the neck tied to the post and the ritual was thus fulfilled. Since then the family followed the tying-of-the-cat tradition. The good sons think there must be some hidden significance in this. And likewise, so many such practices of ‘tying down’ flourished in this country!
I asked: Then how did such things come to be in the Smritis?
Khattar Kaka replied: Aji, these Shrutis and Smritis haven’t dropped from the skies now, have they? What was heard came to be called Shruti. What was remembered, as Smriti. What was said within which kind of context, was all forgotten; we are carrying the loads of these dictums with closed eyes.
I said: Khattar Kaka, it is possible that the scriptures have a scientific basis!
Khattar Kaka said: Scientific or not, there’s definitely a psychological basis there. Some acharya would have drifted away in a heavy current; so he would have decided that one should not bathe in a pool any deeper than one’s navel. So there came a verse-
nābherūdhavaraṃ haredāyuhu adhonābhe stapaha
kshayahanabheh samaṃ jalaṃ kṛṭvā snānkṛṭyaṃ samācaret
Which means, “One should bathe in a water body exactly as deep as the level of one’s navel.”
Likewise, some acharya would have gone for his bath and found that someone had already plucked his flowers. That would have been enough to lay down the rule that flowers should be plucked before bath-
snānaṃ kṛṭvā tu ye kechit puṣpaṃ chiṇvanti vai
dvijāhadevtāṣtnna gṛḥnananti puja bhavati niṣfalā
That is, “Flowers plucked after bath are not fit for offerings; it ruins the puja.”
Similarly, an acharya must have been walking with flowers in one hand and the water pot in the other, someone would have greeted him; and in response the acharya would have blessed them raising his hand, a few flowers would have fallen. That’s all! The declaration says that all greetings-and-blessings to be avoided when the hand is occupied with flowers and water-
puṣpahastaḥ payohastaḥ tailābḥyamga jāleaāsiḥ
kattaṛ namaṣkattaṛ bhavetāṃ pāpabhāginau
I said: But some people do a scientific interpretation of these assertions.
Khattar Kaka spoke with a sarcastic flair: Yes! Just like some people believe that a tuft of long hair sends better electric signals to the brain. I guess it is with these signals that they’re able to think so wild!
I remarked: But are such regulated and codified guidelines available to any other people?
Khattar Kaka spoke: Aji, as if other countries have such leisure! If Europe and America began functioning with our method on a daily basis, if they sat rooted with eyes shut and fingers moving over beads, then who would invent the railway, the telegram, the aeroplane, the radio, and television? In those days, our scholars had nothing better to do. They simply composed these verses and instructions- How long should the brush-stick (datwan) be? How many times to rinse the mouth? Which days to oil the hair? When to bathe after childbirth? Should fasting women take pumpkin or any other gourd?
I asked: Khattar Kaka, why were the scholars so troubled by these minor concerns?
Khattar Kaka: Aji, that’s the pitiable thing, isn’t it? Our scholars were caught up badly in the pumpkins and the gourds. They were ‘researching’ on the brush-stick! See, some acharya discovered-
dvadasangulvipranam kshatriyanam navamgulam
chaturangulamanen narinam vidhiruchyate
Which says, “A Brahmin’s brush-stick should measure twelve finger-widths, a Kshatriya’s nine, and a woman’s four.”
Khattar Kaka had a playful smile. He said: If they said this in this age of equal rights, women definitely would have filed a case of objection against them. But back then, the blacks and the whites were all under the scribe’s thumb. Whatever came to mind, they laid it down in writing.
Some acharya mandated that-
pratipaddyarshasasthisu navamyekadasi ravau
dantanam kasthasamyogo dahedasaptamam kulam
Meaning, “If someone’s teeth touch the brush on the days of Padva, no-moon day, sixth, ninth or eleventh day or on a Sunday, their seven generations would be scorched.” Aji, I ask you, if somebody at all brushes their own teeth on these days, then what calamity would befall the scholar, that he cursed seven generations?
I asked: Khattar Kaka, what was the need for them to interfere in these smallest matters?
Khatter Kaka: Only they could tell! One gentleman came, and just banned the bathing of women-
snanam kurvanti ya naryah chandre satabhisam
gatesapta janma bhaveyustah vidhva durbhaga dhruvam
That is, “If women bathe under the Shatabhisha constellation, they’ll be widowed in their next seven lives.”
Another man suggested-
navami putranasaya vinasaya trayodasitritiya
bharattrinasaya snane ta varjayedatah
Which means, “If a woman bathes during Navami her son dies, if during the Tritiya, the husband dies, and if she bathes during Trayodashi, she ruins herself.”
Aji, I ask, a woman may bathe whenever she pleases, what is it to these writers of the scriptures? But they don’t stop at bathing, they stick their noses even at child-birth. They want mantras to be recited even then. See, there’s a garbhadhan mantra-
garbham dhehi sinivali garbham dhehi saraswati
garbhamte asvinau devao va dhartta puskarastrja
I said: Unbelievable! Reciting mantras during child-birth! Isn’t that a bit too much?
Khattar Kaka responded: Aji, are these scriptures or a hoax?! One cannot pluck even a straw by their own will it seems. Manu commands- na chhindyat karajaistrinam! There are consequences even for sneezing and spitting. See, the old Shatatapa orders-
sarutva nisthevya vasastu paridhayachametbudhah
kuryadachamanam sparsham goprsthasyarkardarsanam
Meaning, “Upon sneezing and coughing one should change clothes, rinse oneself, touch a cow’s back, look up at the sun; only then the atonement would be complete.”
I asked: Khattar Kaka, why did such rules come into being?
Khattar Kaka replied: Aji, these days there’s a due process of law-making, there are debates and discussions, people vote their opinions, then a law is passed. Back in the day, these scribes had the pens in their hands; wrote a verse and it became the law! Firstly, in the god’s own language, Sanskrit, and secondly, the complex rules of grammar. One must! Now who could dare to ask why. Those who doubt are labelled as heretic. Who would question in such a situation? It seems that the society got trapped badly in this complex web of rituals and prohibitions.
A smile lingered on Khattar Kaka’s lips. He spoke: If today people started following Manu and Yajnyavalkya there would be a problem at every step!
I asked: How so, Khattar Kaka?
Khattar Kaka explained: See, Manu’s order says-
mutrocchar samutsargam diva kuryat udangamukhah
daksinabhimukho ratrau sandhyayoscha yatha diva
That is, “While using the lavatory face north during the day and south during the night.” Wouldn’t so many toilets need to be broken down and remade?
Even the barbers would suffer. Because-
napitasya grihe kshaoram silaprsthe tu chandanam
jalmadhye mukham drstva hanti punyam purakrtam
Means that, “All good deeds are nullified on visiting the barber’s house for a haircut.” Then who would go to a salon? And even the laundry shops would have to remain closed three days a week. Because the scripture says-
adityasauri dharani sutavasaresu
praksalanaya rajakasya na vastradanam
samsanti kerabhrigugarga parasaradyaha
punsam bhavanti vipadah sah putradaraeh
That is, “If someone gives their laundry for washing on Saturday, Sunday, or Tuesday, then they’ll land in troubles along with their families. Acharyas like Bhrgu, Garga, Parashara have spoken about this.” Then who would invite trouble in this case? And, housewives will be further afflicted!
I asked: How so, Khattar Kaka?
Khattar Kaka elaborated: They’ll have to make a long chart of the edibles and the non-edibles next to the calendar. The almanac would have to be consulted before cooking meals.
pratipatsuccha kusmandabhaknam arthanasanam
dvitiyayam patolam cha satruvriddhikaram param
tritiyayam chathurthyaryam cha mulakam dhanasakam
kalamkakaranam chaiva panchamyam bilvabhaksanam
tiryagyonim prapyettu sas sasthyam chanimbabhaksanam
rogavrdhikar chaiva saptamyam talabhaksanam
narikalaphalam bhaksaya asatamyam buddhinasakam
tumbi navanyam gomasam dasamyam cha kalambika
ekadasyam tatha simvi dvadasyam cha kalambika
trayodasyam ta varattaki bhaksanam putranasam
chaturdasyam masabhasam mahappakaram smrtam
panchadasyam tatha mansamabhaksyam grhinam matam
This means, “Pumpkin on the first day, parwal on the second, raddish on the third and the fourth, wood-apple on the fifth, neem on the sixth, palm fruit on the seventh, coconut on the eighth, gourd on the ninth, leafy saag on the tenth, flat beans on the eleventh, poi on the twelfth, brinjals on the thirteenth, Urad dal on the fourteenth day of the month and meat on the full-moon day: these are prohibited.” If somebody eats, then they have to pay a heavy price. For example, eggplant on the thirteenth day will kill your son; coconut on the eighth will crush your intellect. In these circumstances, which guest would accept a fritter or a sweet without looking at the day and date? The housewives will be condemned to consulting the calendar and making a daily menu. And, if mistakenly even an onion or garlic skin is found in the kitchen, that would be terrible! Because-
palandu lasuna sparshe snatva naktam samacharet
How many will be ruined because of these scriptural dictums!
I said: But Khattar Kaka, why did the scholars have to make such strict prohibitions even on something like daily meals?
Khattar Kaka said: Aji, so many restrictions have been made simply to keep the public in subordination. Almost like the cattle’s feet are tied up. There’s so much ‘control’ that there is nothing left for the governments. The government at least spares you a Sunday, but the scripture-writers have made the day more difficult. See, an acharya commanded thus-
matsyammasam masuram cha kamsyaptre cha bhojanam
aardrakam raktasakam cha ravau parivarjayet
Which means, “Fish, meat, masoor dal, ginger, and red saag are not to be consumed on a Sunday. Do not eat in a brass plate.”
Another acharya declared-
kshauram tailam jalam chosnamamisam nishi bhojanam
ratim snanam cha madhyahnam ravau sapta vivarjayet
Meaning, “On Sundays, no haircut, no bathing during afternoon, no non-vegetarian food, no dinner at all, and no sleeping with woman.”
A third acharya’s fatwa was-
annam panam cha tambulam maethuna, keshamarjanam
dyutakridaanrtam hasya mekadasyam vivarjayet
That is, “On an Ekadashi, not to eat food, not to drink water, no betel leaf, no combing of hair, no gambling, no lying, no sex, and no laughter and merry-making.”
Even laughter was put under control! Aji, how far do I speak? ‘Can’t speak more, cannot say enough.’
I added: Khattar Kaka, these are all codes of conduct.
Khattar Kaka spoke: But doesn’t an excess of it become tyrannical? This is exactly what has happened in our country. These scribes have imposed such absurd restrictions that a husband and wife couldn’t be together for years. Women are so badly controlled that it’s worse than roping the nostrils of buffaloes! That is why perhaps the queens were referred to as rajamahishi (a royal buffalo!). They used to be the asuryampashya (who never saw the sun). Only such women in purdah were considered to be faithful to the husband.
asuryampsaya ya naryah suddhastasacha pativratah
svachhandagamini ya sa svatantra shukari sama
Women who roamed freely have been likened to the female pig!
I asked: Khattar Kaka, why were the scripture writers so vigilant about the women?
Khattar Kaka: They believed that women remain immature throughout their lives, that is why they’ve said-
pita raksati kaumare bhartta raksati yauvane
putro raksati vardhakye na stri svatantryamarhati
That is, “A woman should live forever under the protection of father, husband, or son.” They were afraid that the breeze of freedom would blow away the chastity of a woman. That is why a woman was sealed up like a camphor tablet, with pepper corns of scriptures to prevent their sublimation!
Khattar Kaka spoke as he cracked the betel nut: See, there’s prohibition even on sitting at the doorstep, peeping through a window, and laughing and talking of women-
dvaropavesanam nityam gavaksanam niriksanam
astapratapo hasyam cha dusitam kulyositam
They were not even allowed to keep their heels uncovered. agulfad dharyed vasah. The curve of the breasts should not be visible. naksheta prakatastanim! If somebody saw a naked portion of the body they had to fast an entire day.
nagnam parstriyam drstva vratmekam samacharet
If such religious folks were around in this day, they would have to fast almost every day.
I asked: Those people were not in favour of women’s education either, right?
Khattar Kaka: How could they be? No sooner did a girl hit puberty than her schooling was stopped.
balam tu pathyet tavat yavannahi kuchodgamah
If such brilliant scholars came across young women playing volleyball in shorts they would faint in shock.
I asked: Why were they advocates of child-marriage?
Khattar Kaka: Aji, the moment a girl turned twelve, these people started anticipating her periods. Because if she started menstruating, then the forefathers would have to drink that blood every month!
prapte tu dvadashe varshe yah ana prayachhati
masi masi rajastasyaha pibranti pitronisham
Now the law mandates that marriage cannot be done before fourteen. If the scriptures are to be believed, then all the forefathers would have been doomed. It is a dictum that-
romakale tu samprapte somo bhumjeetha kanyakam
rajah kale tu gandharvo vahitastu kuchadarsane
The scholars were very concerned that if a teenager came to show signs of maturity, then it would be disastrous—the Soma god would want to consume, the Fire god would follow, and the flowers would attract the Gandharva gods. That is why the young woman would be handed to a husband at an early age. Now there is no one to stop those gods!
I asked: Khattar Kaka, how did these people manage to keep women under such strict rules for so long?
Khattar Kaka: With the rewards of heaven and the fears of hell. These are the two wheels on which the vehicle of scripture rolls. The heaven and the hell, both were under the thumb. And with these, the scribes continued exercising their authority. See!
supunye bharatevarse pati sevam karoti ya
vaekuntham svamina sardham sa yati brahmanam satam
This means, “In India/ Bharatavarsha (don’t know why only in India?) the woman who serves her husband will get a passport to the heaven along with her master.” And, if the wife flees away and goes off to serve somebody else, what happens? Listen to that as well-
svakantam vanchanam krtva param gacchati yadhama
kunbhipakam samayati yavacchandram divakara
usarpapramanah kitascha tikasanadanta sudarunah
dasanti punaschali tatra santatam tam divanisam
gurupanti hi yavantirna bhivandyeh padyoh
This says, “A woman who goes to another man will be sent to Kumbhipaka hell where she will be bitten night and day by sharp-teethed creatures like snakes for eternity.” We don’t know why there wasn’t a similar verse for the man who goes to another woman! Are the snakes of Kumbhipaka hell ‘For Ladies Only’?
Khattar Kaka pinched the scrapes of betel into his mouth and said: Aji, these scripture-makers were of such suspicious minds that they would not even let their students touch the feet of the teacher’s wife (if she were a young woman)!
gurupatni hi yuvatirnabhivandyeha padyoho
The old scribes wanted their young wives to be dedicated to them in body, in spirit, and in words. So that her own personality would never develop. That is why, such bizarre prescriptions from the texts!
Look at the audacity. Some acharya would have quarrelled with his wife, perhaps because she wasn’t present in his service the previous night. That was enough to blast a couplet-
rtusnata tu ya nari bharattaram naposarpati
sa mrta narakam yati vidhva cha punah punah
This means, “If a woman isn’t present in the service of her husband following a post-period bath, she moves to the hell upon death, and is repeatedly widowed.”
The pandit’s wife would have once eaten before the husband, there came a shloka-
siddhanam ya svayam bhuntake tyaktava devan patipitran
gatva sa narakam ghoran dukham prapnoti nischitam
Meaning, “The woman who dines before her husband suffers in the hell.”
Maybe a woman consumed a sweet and forgot to offer it to the husband; that brought a shower of abuses-
bharttaram ya anutsrjya mishtamashnati kevalam
sa grame shookari syadva gardabhi vat u vingbhuja
“Such a woman would be reborn as a swine or a donkey or an insect in the dung!”
These pandits couldn’t bear watching a woman eating; let alone the possibility of seating them alongside. See, it is very clearly said-
nashniyat bharyaya sardham nainamikshet chashnatim
A wife would have requested perhaps, ‘there’s no ghee in the house, please get some.’ That’s all! A verse was slapped to shut her up-
sarpirlavanatailadikshaye chapi pativrata
patim nastiti na bruyat aayasarthe na yojayet
Which says, “Even when there’s no ghee, oil, or salt in the house a good wife should not ask her husband to procure these.”
Perhaps the wife would have crossed, ‘it’s not in the house, how can I get it!’ Another shloka was fired-
ukta pratyuttaram dadyat naari ya krodhatatpara
sarama jayate grame shrgali cha mahavane
This means, “The one who answers back to her husband will be reborn as a bitch in the village or a she-wolf in the forest.”
The poor woman would have remained quiet thereafter. She would have taken to a corner with her anger. Even this wasn’t tolerable to the panditji. And quickly landed another shloka-
purushanyapi ya proktta drshta ya krodhatatpara
suprasannamukhi bharttuhu sa nari dharmabhagini
Means, “The one who doesn’t get angry even at the harshest of words, continues smiling, she partakes in the dharma.”
I asked: Khattar Kaka, women aren’t even allowed to get upset?!
Khattar Kaka: Aji, the scriptures don’t even allow them to cut a pumpkin! See-
kushmandachhedika nari deepanirvampakaha puman
vanshachhedmavapnoti khadyotaha saptajanmasu
This says, “If a woman slices a pumpkin, she’ll lose her progeny; if a man puts off the lamp he’ll be reborn as a glow-worm.”
I asked: Why so, Khattar Kaka?
Khattar Kaka: Aji, you can’t ask why in the scriptures, can you? See, there’s a dictum by Manu-
na divindrayudham drshtva kasyachit darshayet vudhah
This means, “On sighting a rainbow in the sky, don’t point it out to anybody else.” Now, you tell me, what sense could this possibly make?
I asked: Khattar Kaka, our country didn’t have scientists who would examine and research these matters?
Khattar Kaka: Aji, the climate of this country is not quite conducive to the sciences. The moment science begins to take shape, the poetry, astrology and theology overshadow it. See, a pronouncement of the scripture is-
shuchi sita dinakarvare karamule badhhapulikamulasya
Means, “If you tie the roots of Isargat to your wrist during the darker fortnight of Ashadha month, the snake will be repelled.” Poetry then added a metaphor of the eagle to it. Astrology put into it the day, month, and the lunar cycle. And theology put the constraint of atonement.
akrtva pulikairabandhanam prayashcitityate narah
chaturmasye vyatite tu muktistasya karad bhavet
Then, people started tying it to their wrist like a watch during the four months. If snakes are really repelled by it or not, nobody examined, nor found any need to do so! In such a collective behaviour, how can one examine the truth from its opposite?
Khattar Kaka pinched another mouthful and remarked: Aji, the scripture-makers have composed these many restrictions and tied down the people. Any space left by the theologians was taken over by the astrologers. Manu and Yajnyavalkya got us the handcuffs of dharma. Bhrgu and Parashara put the chains of kaala (time). The main reasons of bondage in this country are the Shrutis, Smritis, Jyotisha, and Puranas.
ekaika mapyanarthaya kimu yatra chatushtayam
The restriction of time, the constraint of direction, the bondage of planets and constellations, these rules and elaborate rituals! Everything is subjugated! Right from the moment of birth to the final breath. Who ever heard of such innumerable restrictions! That is why the people of this country have been so obsessed with the idea of liberation (moksha).
I asked: Khattar Kaka, you don’t miss a chance to make fun of the scriptures, do you?
Khattar Kaka said: Aji, these poetic verses of the scriptures are intended for humour. If not for this scriptural discussion, how could we have spent the time enjoying ourselves? That is why it has been said-
kavya-shastra-vinodena kalo gachhati dheematam!
That is, “the time of the wise passes by entertainment with arts and sciences.”
Harimohan Jha (1908–1984) was born in Vaishali, Bihar. He was a professor of Philosophy at Patna University. He published short stories and novels in Maithili and wrote works of philosophy, too. He was awarded by Sahitya Akademi, posthumously, in 1985. Khattar Kaka’k Tarang is a collection of short stories, in which the fictional character of Khattar Kaka dismantles the scriptures to show the absurdity of religious indoctrination. These stories were originally published in a Maithili periodical called Mithila Mihir. The stories published in this book caused hue and cry from various section of people of the Mithila region. These are basically satires on the ignorance of people about the actual principles of religion, religious texts and practices. The stories were written when the Brahmin domination was damaging the local culture of Mithila. Still, they were quite popular in the 1980s, when they were added into the matriculation syllabus of the Bihar School Examination Board.
Amarkant is a student of philosophy and co-editor of the magazine.