What do the ancient mythological texts say about the significance of directions: north, south, east, and west?
The below excerpt is from The Stories We Tell: Mythology to Make Sense of Modern Times by Devdutt Pattanaik
We are able to identify the north through the help of the Pole Star or Dhruv Tara. The Pole Star can be found by using the Great Bear or the Big Dipper constellation that rotates around the Pole Star.
A famous story associated with the north is the genesis of Ganesha’s elephant head. In a rage, Shiva cuts off the head of a boy who blocks his passage into Parvati’s cave. Parvati, now angry with Shiva, asks him to bring the boy back to life, announcing that the boy is her son that she created on her own to give her company while Shiva was away meditating. Shiva asks his ganas to go northwards and bring him the head of the first animal they find. It happened to be an elephant, and, thus, Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is born.
If the north is associated with stability, then the south is associated with movement and flux. Dakshina Kali, a form of Parvati, makes the journey to Shiva from south to north. Dakshina Murthy, a form of Shiva, sits in the north, looking down south at Kali, who comes from south (Dakshin) and is also called Dakshinayani, daughter of Daksha. It can be said that in the case of Ganesha’s body, the lower or southern part, is created by Devi with clay, and the upper or northern part, the elephant head, is fixed by Shiva. Ganesha, thus, is seen as a composite of the two directions and two ideas, Shiva and Shakti.
Movement between these directions becomes significant in Indian mythology. The north-to-south trajectory is seen in the story of Agastya who travels south, taking with him the mountains and rivers. Therefore, southern rivers are called Dakshina Ganga and southern mountains are called Dakshina Kailash. Buddhism and Jainism also travel from north to south. Kartikeya, mad at his father, Shiva, is said to have moved southwards, which is why, even today, he is popularly revered in South India as Murugan.
But there are also inverse stories, with a south-to-north trajectory, like the story of Madurai Meenakshi. A queen in search of a husband, she goes north to find Shiva, and bring him back with her, to the south. Another such story is associated with Kanyakumari (which literally means ‘unmarried woman’), the southern tip of India. In olden times, unmarried women were known to be powerful. For this reason, the gods wanted Kanyakumari to remain unmarried, but she had her heart set on marrying Shiva and so they set a date for the marriage, and Shiva was told to get there before sunrise.
But on his way south, in the middle of the night, the gods made the sound of a cockerel that signals sunrise. Shiva thought this meant that the sun had already risen, and that he was late. Dejected, he cut short his journey and returned to where he had set out from. This angered Kanyakumari who emptied all the food prepared for the wedding into the ocean.
This is why, people say, the colour of the ocean in Kanyakumari, where the Bay of Bengal meets the Arabian Sea, is unique. The colourful sand there is also created from wasted wedding food. There are also other stories of people moving from south to north like Shankaracharya, who coined the term ‘Dravida’; Vallabhacharya, and Ramananda.
Moving west to east, like the Aryans moving from Indus to Ganga, becomes an important signifier of civilisation. When you face the east, you face the rising sun, and so the east represents growth. Does one want growth or permanence in life? The north-east corner of the household, between the Pole Star and the rising sun, is thus associated with continuous, sustained growth.
In the Satapatha Brahmana, there is the story of King Videha Madhava who charges east with fire, which basically means he burns the forests on his way. This was written around the time the Aryans were moving from the Indus in India’s north-west towards the Ganga, burning forests to make way for human settlements and farming.
Another story is of Dirghatama rishi, born blind. His wife, frustrated with him, tells their children to throw him into the Ganga which flows eastwards. Floating, not drowning, he reaches King Bali who, unable to procreate, asks if Dirghatama rishi will produce an heir with his wife, Sudeshna. She gives birth to three children, who established three kingdoms—Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, or Bihar, Bengal, and Odisha respectively.
In the Bhagavata Purana, when Jarasandha burns down Krishna’s house in Mathura, Krishna becomes a refugee and travels west to Dwarka. The west is associated with rishis like Bhrigu, Jamadagni, Parashurama. It is here, on the west coast, that Parashurama’s axe stained with the blood of greedy kings caused the oceans to retreat and reveal the Western coast.
But these notions of north-south-east-west are not just mythological or symbolic. Pre-Vedic Harappan cities have followed this north–south–east–west grid pattern perfectly in the construction of all their cities, as a sign of city planning, and, thus, civilisation.
Extracted with permission from The Stories We Tell: Mythology to Make Sense of Modern Times by Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Aleph Book Company.
The notions of north-south-east-west are not just mythological or symbolic. Pre-Vedic Harappan cities have followed this grid pattern perfectly in the construction of all their cities, as a sign of city planning, and, thus, civilisation.