A Jewel-Spewing Mongoose, eh?

by John Holbo on June 1, 2011

My daughters got interested in the Ramayana because we’ve been to Bali and seen some shadow puppets and golden deer dancing. (For the foreseeable future, the golden deer crown I helped Zoe make, for this thing she did at school, is going to be my signal achievement in the ‘damned fiddly art projects you help the kids with for school’ category.) We also watched Sita Sings The Blues, which they thought was great. They insisted on fast-forwarding through the ‘boring’ bits about Nina and her long-distance relationship, but they loved the bits in which the unreliable shadow puppet narrators offer inarticulate commentary and mis-assembled chat about Hindu religion, Indian literary history, so forth. The girls asked me to fill in the blanks.

I know my Greek mythology. (Norse? Of course!) Hindu religion and Sanskrit literature? Fortunately, I found a couple beautiful books suitable for kids of all ages, by animator/artist Sanjay Patel. The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow; and, even better, Ramayana: Divine Loophole [amazon links].

You can see numerous page scans from the books here and here. Lovely pictures.

I’ve had a chance to test them on the 7-year old, who gives the thumbs up. Big sister is on a school trip, but I’ve been training her well in Silver Age literary appreciation. Also, we already worked out a bedtime story version of the Ramayana in which, due to an explosion, Sita and Sue Storm trade places, and everyone learns an important lesson about feminism. So I’m confident that, upon her return, it will seem totally logical that, when Hanuman can’t figure out which plant on the Himalayan peak he is supposed to pick, he picks up the whole mountain and flies with it to Lanka. That’s how Superman would have handled it.

The Hindu deities book is very basic but still packs in a lot of fun detail. About Kubera – a.k.a. Kuber – for example.

These days, Kubera uses his knowledge of jewelry heists and bank robberies to guard the earth’s treasures. Kubera is depicted with a fat belly, a clear sign of his greedy appetite for wealth. He carries a water jug and a money pouch, and he is never far from Nakula, his pet mongoose, known to spew out jewels – but only into the hands of his master.

That’s why God made Jack Kirby, I presume. For situations like jewel-spewing semi-divine mongooses.



Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.11 at 2:03 pm

I suspect L. Frank Baum got the idea of winged monkeys for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the Ramayana (the vanaras led by Hanuman). Baum’s wife, Maud, was the daughter of the remarkable Matilda Joslyn Gage, a Theosophist, many if not most of whom had some familiarity with “Hindu” literature in translation (both its epics and the more explicitly religio-philosophical material). Baum and his wife became Theosophists as well in 1897.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.11 at 2:14 pm

A couple more items: For a nice introduction to Hinduism generally (for adults), I recommend Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). For a recent translation of the Ramayana, the edition published in the Clay Sanskrit Library series is indispensable (with a Foreword by Amartya Sen!) and a remarkable scholarly endeavor: http://www.claysanskritlibrary.org/

They are also publishing the Mahabharata in toto.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.11 at 2:15 pm

Forgive my fondness for the adjective “remarkable.”


Gene O'Grady 06.01.11 at 2:41 pm

My understanding is that the Clay Sanskrit Library has been discontinued (I believe the currently published titles will remain available for a while but none of the forthcoming ones will appear).

Anyone know anything else about this? I’ll miss it.


ben w 06.01.11 at 3:07 pm

They insisted on fast-forwarding through the ‘boring’ bits about Nina and her long-distance relationship, but they loved the bits in which the unreliable shadow puppet narrators offer inarticulate commentary and mis-assembled chat about Hindu religion, Indian literary history, so forth.

If I could likewise have fast-forwarded when I saw the movie projected in a theater, I probably would have liked it a lot more. The shadow puppet narrators are by far the best part.


John Holbo 06.01.11 at 3:09 pm

“The shadow puppet narrators are by far the best part.”

Mystery Sanskrit Theater 300 B.C.!


John Holbo 06.01.11 at 3:10 pm

I don’t think they actually are the best part, but they’re great. The best part is the scene in which Rama is shooting all the rakshasas while Sita sings.


nolo 06.01.11 at 3:41 pm

What lucky girls you have!! I fell in love with the Thai version (the Ramakien) when I was 8 or 9 and my dad’s work had taken us to Bangkok.


Ted Lemon 06.01.11 at 3:54 pm

It’s really weird to see this as a headline on Crooked Timber. I’ve heard the same phrase, translated the same way, in a Buddhist text. Imagine the scene: you’re in a temple, with thirty fellow Buddhists, one of them your wife. You’re reciting this prayer, even though you’re a bit skeptical about saying prayers. Your Lama is sick, and they asked you to come recite, and you figured, why not?

So you’ve been sitting there reciting this text for a half hour, and you find yourself reciting across the phrase “jewel-spewing mongoose.” You look at your wife. She looks at you. The two of you try desperately not to start laughing. The best you can do is to choke back the laughter so that it’s not too obvious, and pick the recitation back up a few verses later.

Needless to say, this is a treasured memory, and the phrase “jewel-spewing mongoose” is now part of our common lexicon.


Nancy Lebovitz 06.01.11 at 4:43 pm

My favorite bit in Sita is the solar system.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.11 at 5:04 pm

In Tibetan Buddhist art (a thangka): http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/90728.html

after you click on the image you can enlarge it to view the “jewel-spewing mongoose”


Cosma Shalizi 06.01.11 at 5:23 pm

I haven’t thought of them in years, but as a boy I loved the comic-book renditions of Hindu mythology published by Amar Chitra Katha; God only knows if they were really any good. A little googling suggests the company still exists and is still printing them, and there seem to be stores selling them in Singapore.


Metatone 06.01.11 at 5:30 pm

Anyone have any updates on the progress of Grant Morrison’s 18 DAYS: THE MAHBHARATA RETOLD (the animation, rather than the comic book)… ?

It’s looking like a pretty amazing set of visuals – although the teaser looks to have all the philosophical subtlety of 300…


Metatone 06.01.11 at 5:32 pm


I have fond memories of ACK too… I think I still have some in the attic somewhere.


Western Dave 06.01.11 at 6:05 pm

Just make sure the next time you are visiting someone for Diwali not to ask whether Hinduism is polytheistic or monotheistic. Makes the time I ruined Christmas by asking my wife’s Lutheran family about whether communion was purely symbolic or not. (None of them knew the term consubstantiation, much less the concept and there was much yelling and gnashing of teeth – in other words, I managed to turn Christmas into a typical Jewish Thanksgiving with less jokes and moister turkey). FWIW the answer as near as I can figure is both or neither or it depends who you ask.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.01.11 at 6:26 pm

Vedic Hinduism was polytheistic (many impersonal devas and devis, some, like Indra and Agni, more popular than others). Post-Vedic Hinduism has many (personal) “gods” but they’re said to be different forms or images of the “one God” (things are a bit more complicated in Advaita Vedanta philosophy, owing to the fact that ‘nirguna Brahman’ is perhaps best defined as ‘Ultimate Reality,’ as it is not considered ‘God’). The tri-murti, namely, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, is defined as the three forms of the one God, (and Vishnu, in turn, has many avataras or incarnations, notably Rama and Krishna). If monotheism is thought of as defined in the Semitic religions of Abraham, then Hinduism is closest to Christianity with its Trinity doctrine, wherein 1 = 3/3 = 1 (by analogy, think of water as liquid, solid and vapor) but insists that God, while three “persons,” is one in “substance.”


Dr. Hilarius 06.01.11 at 7:06 pm

Or 3-in-1 oil.


Bill Benzon 06.01.11 at 8:05 pm

“The girls asked me to fill in the blanks.”

Ah, yes. The nice thing is that there are so many ways to fill in the blanks, and all of them have precedent in this or that version.


Bill Benzon 06.01.11 at 8:06 pm

Oh, a John, have you told that girls about the insanity that is copyright and the role that played in the (almost un)making of SSTB?


dilbert dogbert 06.01.11 at 8:17 pm

Who did the art work? Looks like some of Charlie Harper’s stuff.


Nakul 06.01.11 at 8:41 pm

Book XIV of the Mahabharata has another splendid mongoose myth, a blue-eyed half-golden one this time. (And since no one’s mentioned it, Peter Brook’s famous Mahabharata — available on DVD — is always worth a watch.)


Nakul 06.01.11 at 8:42 pm

A translation of the said myth: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m14/m14090.htm


joel hanes 06.01.11 at 10:08 pm

I quite like Roger Zelazny’s re-imagining of the Hindu epics, Lord of Light.

It won the Hugo in 1968 after being a Nebula nominee the preceding year.


John Holbo 06.01.11 at 11:23 pm

“Who did the art work? Looks like some of Charlie Harper’s stuff.”

Patel, the author, did the artwork. He’s an animator for Pixar. Yes, it looks a lot like Harper. Meets Cartoon Modern. Or rather, Cartoon Network Modern (Powerpuff, Samurai Jack). He gives that flat style the the elegant Harper treatment. It suits the source material well, particular since so much ancient Ramayana art is ‘flat’. Everyone looks like an awesome shadow puppet in color.


McSmack 06.02.11 at 1:23 am

Thank you for this.

They have all sorts of Hindu comics in English. My daughter loves them. The names are tough to pronounce. We also have a tape of stories about Hanuman, which has fabulous music. I am sure there is much more like this out there


Belle Waring 06.02.11 at 6:48 am

Shadow puppet narrators FTW!! I can still remember this discussion with my mom in a hired car in Bali in 2001. Bali has some really silly-looking Hindu-syncretist-whatever giant statuary holding its traffic circles down. We passed one that was obviously Arjuna listening to advice, with an Proto I.E. four-horse chariot etc., and my mom asks what’s up (and why aren’t there scythe-blades on the wheels, because that would be wicked cool!!). Me (visibly embarrassed since I studied Sanskrit in school and am thus meant to know the barest rudiments of this sort of thing) “aw, crap. This guy, he’s a Pandava, and they’re fighting with all their other cousins, but I can’t remember what about, but his charioteer is secretly an avatar of, fuck, I’ll just say Vishnu, anyway, so there’s this huge battle, but it pauses for about a million years so the avatar can tell him all this stuff, and that’s where we got the Bhagavad-Gita!” The driver turned around with this astonished look on his face and asked how I knew so much about Balinese culture. It was the greatest reception of the most half-assed explanation since Greenspan last soiled himself in the green room when a Senator was in there.


fs 06.02.11 at 4:21 pm

Just an anecdote. Living in Delhi in 1981/84, in Hotel Asoka I passed a sign for a showing of the film of Billie Holiday’s life, which was appropriately named, Lady Singh the Blues.


Sumana Harihareswara 06.02.11 at 4:40 pm

The Mahabharata is just so much better than the Ramayana that for the longest time I couldn’t tell why anyone would bother with the Ramayana.


Belle Waring 06.03.11 at 12:29 am

The Mahabharata is just so much better than the Ramayana that for the longest time I couldn’t tell why anyone would bother with the Ramayana.
Buh…really? Is there an army of flying monkeys? Then again, Rama is such a jerk…


dilbert dogbert 06.04.11 at 12:54 am

Thanks for the info. I have a book of Charlie’s art given to me by a co-worker who knew Charlie. Us engineers, of the old school, who were draftsmen in our youth appreciate Tee Square Art.


Poicephalus 06.04.11 at 1:35 am



Vance Maverick 06.04.11 at 3:14 am

Thanks for these recommendations. I’ve just gotten Patel’s Little Book from the library, and my daughter (now 7) is fascinated. From my point of view, the drawings are lacking in character, but that’s a minor issue in this context, and I think imperceptible to her.


Danny Yee 06.04.11 at 3:07 pm

I second the recommendation for Zelazny’s Lord of Light (the link is to my review).


Danny Yee 06.04.11 at 3:10 pm

Earlier this month I went to a seminar by James Hegarty in which the “truculent mongoose” was the central case study. Not much use for your daughters, but his book or other publications may be interesting if anyone is intrigued by this episode (though I haven’t read them myself).


John Holbo 06.04.11 at 3:22 pm


“A Gaggle of Mongeese” would be the title for a great Saki story, admittedly. Sort of a Sredni Vashtar meets Chronicles of Clovis affair, I’ll wager.

“I’ve just gotten Patel’s Little Book from the library, and my daughter (now 7) is fascinated. From my point of view, the drawings are lacking in character, but that’s a minor issue in this context, and I think imperceptible to her.”

The art for his Ramayana volume is much much better than the chibi-esque illustrations for the Deities book. (I do love chibi Kali, however.) The Ramayana volume is visually fantastic as the Deities book is not. Probably should have made that clearer in the post, but you can check out his site and see the difference for yourself. Glad your daughter likes the Deities book anyway. My older one just got to see it today, as well as the Ramayana one, and she’s totally taken with both.


John Holbo 06.04.11 at 3:30 pm

Thanks for that note, Danny. I didn’t really make clear in the post that there is an interesting possibility of conflating charity and ritual sacrifice. Giving to the alumni fund bears a suspicious resemblance to the latter.


Anand Manikutty 06.06.11 at 2:08 am

@ Cosma Shalizi @ 12 : There is a fair bit of bowdlerization in the Amar Chitra Katha books. References to sexualism and sexuality have been removed in many places. For instance, Kalidasa’s poetry (an example is linked above) has a sensual element in it that I expect would not have been covered in the ACK books.


Anand Manikutty 06.06.11 at 2:13 am

@ Patrick S. O’Donnell @ 2 : Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” is hardly a good reference. Its treatment of many historical events mangles them beyond recognition. I would instead recommend Amartya Sen’s grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen’s book entitled “Hinduism” (Amartya Sen has written the foreword for it). IIRC, it was a good reference on Hinduism even if some of the material in the book is a bit dated.

@ Patrick S. O’Donnell @ 13 : there is no single post-Vedic Hinduism, in my opinion. There are various traditions. Plus, you can create your own. Like Linux.

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