Monday, February 7, 2011

The myth of Panthoibi

A myth is the dream of a culture. Just as what lies hidden beneath the surface of conscious experience reveals itself in dreams, the unmanifest content of a culture’s psyche finds expression in a myth. My Professor gave us the myth of Panthoibi. At first glance it is simple enough and hardly seems to require any interpretation. However, a second reading shows much scope for excavating rich psychic content.
It’s a Manipuri myth. The myth has many versions with some variations woven around the same central theme.Panthoibi is an astoundingly beautiful princess. She rejects a suitor before finally accepting one from Kangla clan. After her marriage into the Kangla clan, she sees the young man Nangpok, who is also from some royal clan, and falls hopelessly in love with him. Her husband’s family gets a scent. Panthoibi decides to elope with Nangpok. Nangpok comes dressed up in his traditional Tangkhul tribal attire. The fleeing lovers are chased, hunted down and killed by the husband’s clan. However, soon after their death, it is realized that they were divine and the clan committed a sin by murdering them. They are deified and actively worshipped. Panthoibi becomes a goddess and Nangpok a minor diety.
In Roy’s version, the first meeting of Panthoibi and Nongpok is emphasized. Here, Panthoibi meets Nongpok while still unmarried. Panthoibi is working in a rice field when she sees Nongpok who is out hunting. She is completely overtaken by Nongpok’s sheer vitality and loses her consiousness due to the intensity of her passion. Somebody finds her unconscious and goes to call out her father. When the father comes, Nongpok transforms himself into a tiger to escape being identified. The father takes Panthoibi home and she remains sick for a while. Soon afterwards, she is married into the Kangla clan and then the story proceeds as before. Parrot & Parrot adds the obvious detail that when the two of them meet (before marriage; in line with Roy’s version), no words are exchanged. I talked about this myth with my Manipuri friends and they gave me yet another version. In this version, Nongpok is a commoner and has no blue blood. It so happens that the kingdom is terrorized by a man-eater. The king promises the hand of Panthoibi to the man who kills the tiger. Nongpok hunts down the tiger but the king has other ideas and refuses to let a commoner tie the knot with his daughter. My friend was clueless about the intervening details but was in perfect agreement with the earlier versions in two significant details; that both the lovers were murdered and that they were later worshipped as gods. It wouldn’t be difficult to find detailed versions of the myth online. However my purpose here is not to study the variations of the myth but to interpret the skeleton I already have and give it psychological flesh and blood.
I am, at some level a cultural being, though my depth transcends my cultural moorings. Much of my internal psychic structure is unknown to me and the mist of transience obfuscates the little glimpses I have. If Panthoibi has to speak to my anima, I must internalize Nongpok.
Panthoibi is a princess, though not of any major principality, or else she won’t be cutting rice in a field. The archetype of the royal family invariably stands for the unapproachable. A shade of divinity is inherent in royalty. The belief in divine origin of kingship is a sine quo non for almost every theory of monarchy. The royal lineage of Panthoibi would signify those aspects of my anima which are too lofty to be approached. My preferred fantasy woman is invariably a goddess or a princess. In that sense, I can relate to Panthoibi. However, a deeper analysis of the myth at a more global level would lend scope to a personalised association.
Following Roy’s version, a princess falls in love with a hunter while she is cutting rice. According to one version, Nongpok is a commoner rather than a prince. Following this thread, a princess of royal blood faints on being overpowered with love for a wild hunter. That she is working in a rice field while this interesting incident occurs is significant. It points to the captivating charm that the free wild holds for the constrained agricultural society. Societal stratification and even the family as a necessary unit with its restricted and formalized behavioural pattern and especially mores curtailing the free expression of sexuality begin, in effect, with the village , and the village, of course appears with the replacement of hunting and food-gathering with settled agriculture. Thus, agriculture restricts freedom while ensuring safety from the wild and a secure food supply that follows a seasonal pattern. That the wild hunter is a metaphor for the id while the agricultural society is the rational ego constrained by the societal mores or superego restrictions is easy enough to make out. The latent desire of the norm-conscious society to recede or merge back into the norm-free wild days is portrayed through the rice-cutting Panthoibi encountering the hunter and losing her heart in a torrent of passion. Overwhelming emotions cause her to faint . This is ego’s last defence against a complete takeover of the conscious psychic structure by the id.
Taking a different layer of analysis, why should the murdered lovers be accorded divinity? Must myth glorify and deify what the society considers taboo but the individual cherishes unconsciously? Is the myth a message from the collective unconscious beyond societal mores and does that underlie its grip on the human psyche?
Is it a shared archetypical pattern which makes me , an alien to Manipuri culture, find so much meaning in this myth? Are myths common to all humanity like sighs, tears and laughter? It seems the deeper layers of our own unconscious are given an expression in myths. We attribute divinity to our own unconscious fantasies by exalting the taboo in the myth. The images within our unconscious which invite our awe and are yet at odds with the societal superstructure are accorded mythical divinity. The taboo of incest is allowed space in the myth of Brahma falling in love with his own daughter and producing one head in each cardinal direction to keep savouring her as she tries to flee her father’s unwanted affections. Polyandry is accepted through the pandavas collectively marrying Draupadi and the hermaphrodite is accorded divinity through the ‘Ardhanarishwara’ and Arjuna’s one year of lost manhood. Tragic lovers, of course, are the staple of myths all over and they frequently attain the hue of divinity. In the Old Testament ‘Song of Songs’, the lovers symbolize the soul and God. The Sufis find the communion of soul and God in the conversation of lovers( ghazal literally means ‘conversation with beloved’). Laila-Majnun and Heer-Ranjha have all been interpreted along similar lines as symbolizing the soul and the Godhead.
The mystical interpretation of love that brooks no societal restriction follows a familiar idiom. The married woman is a metaphor for the soul entrapped in or married with ‘matetial causality’. The soul is almost always seen as feminine. This marriage between soul and nature is an unwanted yet an almost inexorable union. It is interpreted as the natural order which constraints the soul and also the societal mores which curtail the freedom of the individual. The wild lover is a metaphor for the unencumbered Godhead which is above all causality. The elopement is merger of the soul with Godhead and it results in breaking down of all societal restrictions and unfettering of the constraints of causality. The murder of the lovers, on the one hand liberates them from human limitations while on the other puts the onus of guilt on the punishing society. All lovers must die young and tragic deaths to be accepted as mythical figures. No legends are born out of a couple dying of lung cancer in their seventies. Death in youth is a triumph - a crushing defeat inflicted on the debilitating old age.
Panthoibi becomes divine by being a martyr for reclaimig her inherent freedom. She stands for am expression of sexuality free from the binding constraints of marriage. Panthoibi is the ego which breaks free from her marriage to the superego and elopes with the wild id.
Now that I have given the myth a general interpretation, deriving a personal meaning out of it would require a creative ‘free association’. Panthoibi is my wilder part, my Eros, a stream of uninhibited pleasure seeking. However, it is also my truer part, my freer and more natural part. It is my transcendental dimension, the force which seeks to ascend beyond the confines of my ‘constrained’ conscious structure. While my rational-pragmatic structure limits my transcending drive through a ‘marriage of convenience’, the strong desire to seek unlimited and unconstrained bliss is paramount.
Panthoibi is a princess. Her being a princess touches two chords. She is unapproachable to ordinary mortals due to her lofty stature and she is at once free and restricted- free to indulge in luxury and restricted through mores and protocol. This image speaks to that structure of my psyche which is in a commanding position and is yet denied free expression or is too artificial. It is the bedrock of my internal concept of identity – expressed in action and felt in heart. Whatever I take myself to be at a given point in my life both defines and limits me. If, while doing my Master’s in Psychology from the University of Delhi, I come to internalize my role of a post-graduate student in a premier University, my self-concept would be ‘commanded’ by such a role. I would become proactive in raising my voice against practices that damage the environment or are exploitative if I link such an activism with my image of a university student. However I may be less able to roam around in loose kurta-pyjamas (an ethnic Indian dress) or play cards under a tree if I see such activities as unbecoming of a University student. Such notions about role-appropriate behavior are of course an internalization of societal conventions. Thus the ‘commanding’ or ‘royal’ core within me simultaneously facilitates and restricts. It facilitates whatever is in agreement with the perceived role and restricts whatever follows a different, and especially, subversive idiom. Thus, while being a scholar, I can be an art connoisseur but not a pan-chewing kite-runner.
Diving deeper on the same line of thought, that aspect of the psyche is ‘royal’ which reigns over the conscious sphere of experience. That which becomes the conscious occupies a commanding position for it defines ‘me’. It also restricts me because by being somebody in particular, I am estranged from the infinity of pure being. If I am a human being, I can not be the universe at large; if I am a man, I can not know, in any depth, what it means to be a woman. Thus the solidified known bars the expression of the liquid unknown. The virginity of Panthoibi suggests a ‘conscious’ which is still liquid or which is yet to internalize an archetypical idiom.
The marriage of Panthoibi restricts her ‘unconscious freedom’ while solidifying a particular idiom of being. Here, I am using these terms in a broad sense. While the unconscious can be individual, it is also collective and existential. The individual unconscious is the psychic flow that condenses to make my being possible and manifests as the conscious after undergoing a creative metamorphosis. The collective unconscious is the repository of archetypical images and structures shared by a species or life at large. Existential unconscious is the perceived ‘non-being’ which is the ‘Shunya’ or void from which all existence blossoms and into which it finally evaporates.
The manifest illuminates and thus reigns over the conscious and yet is restrictive for it bars the infinity of the unmanifest. Two illustrations from modern literature struck me which explore the relation of the perceiver conscious and the unconscious space which it reflects.

In ‘My Name Is Red’, Orhan Pamuk quotes Haydar Duglat’s views on miniature painting , “A miniaturist united with the vision and landscape of Allah’s immortal Time can never return to the manuscript pages meant for ordinary mortals. Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of a blank page.”

In ‘Disgrace’, J.M. Coetzee writes, “The clouds cleared, says Wordsworth, the peak was unveiled. And we grieved to see it. A strange response, for a traveler to the Alps. Why grieve? Because, he says, a soulless image, a mere image on the retina, has encroached upon what has hitherto been a living thought.”
“Usurpation is one of the deeper themes of the Alps sequence. The great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images.”

Coming back to our myth, what does the marriage signify? It is the filling up of the conscious space by a particular idiom of the archetypical images. A successful ‘marriage’ leads to individuation – identification with a personality which is a creative yet stable manifestation of a substratum of archetypical patterns governing that life. Such a marriage opens up a space for self-growth and safe exploration. What happens, however, if the marriage is born of necessity or fails to live up to its romantic and human ideal? A bad marriage is the restriction of unconscious freedom through the usurpation of the conscious space by inhibitory societal or superego mores and regulations. I see the tragedy of Panthoibi in the light of her marriage in the restrictive Kangla clan as a rendition of a conscious space suffocate by denial to unconscious inspiration due to punishing and curtailing societal and biological limitations and their psychic internalization.
Who is the hunter who so captivates our princess that she faints? The early Christians used two intersecting curved lines as their symbol, which resembled a fish. It derived from Icthius, a reference to Jesus which meant the fish in Greek. The cross replaced the fish only after a few centuries. The apostles of Jesus were ‘fishing’ for men. The hunter is hunting prey – in both instances, a rendering of a powerful manifestation of the unconscious which liberates from restrictive laws and brings with it the freshness of ecstasy is portrayed as a human predator. I see the wild and irresistible hunter as a messenger from beyond the conscious who calls for liberation from all conditionings the ‘conscious’ has been sullied with while entrapped in the exigencies of a socio-cultural milieu. He is the wild liberator: wild because he is unencumbered. The entrapped ‘conscious’ cannot resist the liberator. The murder of the lovers signifies extinction of the ‘conscious’ and its merger into the beyond from which it had originally individuated.
Using the myth to look within, I have undergone a protracted tussle between my ‘mystical’ and ‘worldly’ dimensions. While I have a strong passion for absorption into mystic raptures, I also feel the pull of mammon. At times I just want to enjoy the pure bliss of being while at others I crave for material comforts and dream of exotic holidays in Europe. Such desires created a momentum which led me to study management and even when I shifted to Psychology, my past inclinations almost forced me to take OB as my specialization. However, at a deeper level, I never ‘chose’ to have these material cravings. Rather, they are ingrained in the socio-cultural milieu in which I exist. MBA was like a monster which was gulping all graduates when I passed out of college. The sheer propaganda and media blitz and resultant cultural climate forced me to study management to earn fast bucks while facilitating the sale of meaningless things which I myself would never purchase. This forced marriage became suffocating and increasingly unbearable. Thus I was like Panthoibi who was married because of overarching societal compulsions. However, soon I experienced the irresistible pull of a mystical search and broke free form the marriage. I quit my MBA midway and searched for a glimpse of mystical rapture with a now spontaneous, now dwindling passion. I had found my Nongpok. And I was my Nongpok.
However materialism did take its revenge just as the Kangla clan butchered the fleeing lovers. After quitting my MBA, I explored mysticism for two years or at least tried to explore it. In these two years, I was neither pursuing any degree nor working on any regular basis. Societal and family expectations and my own superego didn’t let me ‘idle away’ like this for long and I came to Delhi University to pursue my Master’s in Psychology. While I found clinical classes meaningful and more in keeping with my inherent inclinations, I compromised by formally taking OB (and unofficially attending clinical classes) to put my family (and myself?) at ease. This murdered a certain spontaneous passion inside me which wanted nothing but to break all conventions and live on its own terms.
The world and the times I live in are circumscribed by a neurotic compulsion to engage in a mad race to quantify achievement and even self-worth in terms of salaries and jobs; jobs which have no higher end than promoting conspicuous consumption, always at heavy costs to the natural environment and macro level human well-being. Such a cursed marriage of pseudo-aspirations and ‘talent at demand’ suffocates and spells doom for the flowering of the human within us. The higher and natural desires of spontaneous living and contemplation on being human are stifled in such an atmosphere. The only recourse is to elope with the sublime in us; the truly meaningful in us; to reject material accumulation and the trap of corporate nonsense and live for poetry, for the pure joy of learning, for the celebration of life and an inquiry into being human.
This is what this ancient myth has to tell us- we, the youth of twenty first century. Break the marriage with socio-cultural and pseudo-economic conventions and compulsions. Elope with your intrinsic nature! And breathe freely at last! Breathe freely!