Splainer

Wednesday, November 3 2021


Dive In

 

If you want it romantic and dim, you can make it romantic and dim. When in your life have you been able to change the sun? In this dorm, you can.

That’s billionaire Charlie Munger touting his design for a college dorm at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sounds nice except many folks are horrified by the design—which houses students in small, windowless bedrooms. They will have to rely instead on artificial LED lights—and a knob to turn up or down to mimic daytime or evening. Critics are calling it a “grotesque, sick joke.” One unhappy student pointed out a basic design flaw: “Young people do not always smell good. Fresh air is UNBELIEVABLY important for college students.” 

 

Going, going, almost gone: Our Diwali sale ends November 7. So this is the time to gift an annual splainer sub to friends and family or add twelve months to your own subscription—both at a big Rs 500 discount. You can also offer the same discount or a free month of splainer by sharing your referral link (located in the daily email/your account page). And if you’re feeling exceptionally kind: You can support splainer by becoming a founding member:)


A quick heads up: It’s going to be a short publishing week—Monday through Wednesday—for us thanks to Diwali. We will be eating laddus and lighting diyas on Thursday. So there will be no daily splainer on Friday either. Yes, we will miss you too!

 
Big Story

The myths of Diwali: Beyond Ram, Sita and Ravana

Editor’s note: In the place of our usual explainer, here is a wonderful essay by Samhita Arni—an author whose resume spans everything from the fabulously illustrated ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ to the mystery thriller ‘The Missing Queen’ and her latest piece of mythological fiction ‘The Prince’. 

 

On this day, aeons ago, the devas and asuras gathered together, to churn the primordial ocean. The serpent Vasuki, obligingly, wrapped his coils around Mount Mandara, and the Devas picked up his tail, and the asuras held on to his head. Mount Mandara itself was balanced on Vishnu, in his avatar as a turtle. The devas and the asuras began to heave and turn, and the ocean was churned. Many beautiful, surprising gifts emerged from its depths. The apsaras emerged, Varuni emerged, and then there was the goddess Lakshmi, deity of wealth, abundance, fertility and prosperity—who chose Vishnu as her husband. This then marks what we call Diwali… according to one story we tell ourselves. 

 

Of course, there’s the other more popular version. Diwali is also the day of Ram’s triumphant return to Ayodhya, after fourteen years of exile, with Lakshman and a newly-rescued Sita in tow. But these are not the only myths that feature and celebrate this occasion—and it is not always about what we call Diwali or even Deepavali. 

 

Naraka Chaturdashi

One of my favourite stories is the one that explains the origin of Naraka Chaturdashi, the day before Diwali. This story features another form of Lakshmi—Lakshmi as Bhudevi, the earth, the material world. Bhudevi is also the mother of Sita in the Ramayana, but in this story she is the mother of a far more menacing figure—the evil King Narakasura. 

 

Narakasura was a tyrant, who abused his power and ruled over the kingdom of Pragjyotthisya, in Assam. Like all megalomaniac mythic tyrants, Narakasura was the recipient of a boon, which made him invincible and allowed him to defeat all challenges to his authority and hoard power. Brahma had assured him that he could be killed only if his mother was the instrument of his death. In other versions of this story Bhudevi herself—wishing to make her son invincible and immortal—had asked for a similar boon from Vishnu: the only way her son could die was if she wished for it. 

 

And so Narakasura’s excesses carried on unabated. He was a tyrant, a molester, a criminal. He defeated Indra, and forcibly kidnapped 16,000 women. The myths state that he ‘imprisoned’ them—a modern day reteller might interpret this as rape. In his rampage through Indra’s kingdom, Naraksura committed another crime: he stole a pair of earrings that belonged to Aditi, the mother of the devas.

 

It was this theft—a seemingly small sin compared to his other excesses—that caused his downfall. Aditi, wishing to get her earrings back, approached Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama, for assistance. Satyabhama—the incarnation of Bhudevi—was furious at Narkasura’s crimes. She appealed to her husband, wishing for Narakasura’s death. Krishna set off, accompanied by his wife as his charioteer (much like Dasarath and Kaikeyi) to do battle with Narakasura. As Satyabhama was an avatar of Bhudevi, and wished for her son’s death—this met the criterion for Vishnu’s and Brahma’s boon and the demon was killed. In many retellings, it is Krishna who battles Narakasura, kills him and frees the 16,000 women (who then all marry him).

 

But in another retelling, Krishna is unable to defeat Narakasura. In battle, he swoons. Satyabhama, seeing her husband unconscious, is furious. When her husband regains consciousness, he realises that he is unable to defeat the tyrant—and suggests that his wife switches places with him. Krishna takes the reins—like he does for Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra—and becomes his wife’s charioteer. She takes on the role of warrior, wears his armour and wields his weapons. After a lengthy battle, Satyabhama is triumphant. She kills and defeats Narakasura.

 

As he dies, Narakasura begs this incarnation of his mother for a boon: that his death be celebrated. And so this is the day on which we celebrate his death, and the triumph of Bhudevi, or Lakshmi, in the form of Satyabhama. 

 

A footnote: In Bengal and Assam, this is a day to celebrate not Lakshmi, but the goddess Kali. After killing a pair of demons that were plaguing the world, Kali, triumphant, begins to dance. The earth quivers and shakes beneath her feet. Her wild, frenetic energy turns destructive. The gods beseech Shiva to calm her down, and Shiva does so by lying down, in front of Kali. When Kali steps on him, she suddenly comes to herself, lets her tongue hang out and calms down. 

 

Bhai Dhuj

 

 
Headlines that matter

Ready for your Covid patch?

A new study unveiled a novel approach to delivering Covid vaccines: a skin patch with 5,000 tiny needle-like projections that deposit the vaccine in the skin’s dermal layers—as opposed to the muscle. The benefits: no syringes or refrigeration required—and there is no blood or pain. And it may even trigger higher levels of antibodies. (Smithsonian Magazine)


A big cryptocurrency scam

The hot new currency named ‘SQUID’ after the popular Netflix show has turned out to be a big con. The currency launched last month, and its value soon began to soar. Then this happened:

 

“Alas, early this morning, as the crypto peaked at more than $2,800, the anonymous creators of the cryptocurrency decided to cash in. They sold off their holdings, shut the project's website down, and made off with millions. Because the founders held the vast majority of SQUID, their sell-off tanked the value of the coin, rendering it worthless.”


In other crypto-related news: Amitabh Bachchan’s experiment with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is proving wildly successful. His first auction has already attracted bids upwards of $520,000. The most popular item: the “Madhushala” collection—which is his late father Harivansh Rai’s poem collection recorded in Big B’s voice. Have no clue what NFTs or crypto is about? Check out our handy explainer. (Quartz)

 

Toilets break in space

Four astronauts headed home on the SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule have a familiar problem: The toilet is broken: “a tube used to funnel urine into a storage tank became unglued, and was causing a leaky mess hidden beneath the capsule’s floor.” The solution: They will have to wear “undergarments” on their flight. Eww?  (CNN)

 
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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • Mick Jagger vs Spot the Boston Robotics dogs. Hmm, who danced it better?

 

Weekend Advisory 

  • Good stuff to watch this weekend
  • A list of good reads
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