By Devdutt Pattanaik
Yes, we love looking at ourselves. But we always have. From Vishnu to Narcissus, from Zeenat Aman to Edward Cullen, our writer takes a celestial tour of heavenly bodies and their slippery reflections.
If we were animals, we wouldn’t click selfies. Of course we would, shouts my animal-loving friend. I don’t argue with him – I walk away as one must walk away from a territorial alpha. But I know we wouldn’t. Because as animals, we would not be interested in our reflections. For that, we had to become humans.
Our obsession with the selfie began on the day we saw ourselves in our reflection – on the water’s surface, when, as Narcissus, we bent down to quench our thirst. We were so enchanted by our looks that we refused to look up, or even drink that water, fearful that the ripples would take our image away. No, the water had to be still. We had to be still. We had to gaze upon ourselves, admire ourselves. Because we existed. We mattered – at least to ourselves. The mirror told us that we were the fairest one. We were the only one. We transformed into the darpan sundaris, the mirror-bearing damsels we find on temple walls, without whom the temples are incomplete and ugly.
In Jewish tradition, when a person dies, mirrors are kept covered so that his/her spirit does not get trapped as a reflection in the mirror. Perhaps, in the future, it will be important to hide the deceased’s cell phone or destroy it, lest their ghosts return for one last picture.
The mirror demands that we sit in front of it to see ourselves. And portraits were a natural outcome of this, helped along by market forces. Hours were spent sitting in front of the artist while he created our image on his canvas. Then we could see ourselves permanently, young and beautiful. Was the Mona Lisa a selfie from pre-camera days? Was the picture of Dorian Grey a cruel selfie that revealed us on an unwashed day?
We love seeing ourselves. We believe even gods love to see themselves too. And so, after the adornment (shringara) of Vishnu is completed in the various Vaishnava shrines across India, the priest takes a mirror and shows the deity his entire attire so that he can admire himself and appreciate the devotee who dressed him.
Long before ‘silvered’ glass mirrors were created, Indians were famous for the art of creating mirrors by polishing metal. The Aranmula kannadi (metal mirror from Aranmula) from Kerala, made using a metal alloy and special polish, is bought even today and placed in the puja room to be worshipped as a deity – the deity who enables us to see ourselves.
Mirrors are part of the offering made to the Goddess, along with cosmetics and flowers and perfumes. Thus adorned, the Wild One within all of us became demure, domestic, maternal and manageable. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she was not content with what she saw. Unlike a plant or an animal, she wanted to look better, more desirable than others around her who also preened before their mirrors, determined to transform Chandika Tripura Bhairavi (the most fearsome one in the three worlds) into Lalita Tripura Sundari (the most graceful and attractive one in the three worlds). Indeed, the mirror tamed humanity, forced us to bedeck ourselves with beads and paints and flowers.
In Japan, the mirror was the gift of the sun-goddess Amaterasu to humans, so that they would civilize themselves. The mirror was invented to enchant and draw Amaterasu out of her cave where she had hidden herself after a fight with her brother, the storm-god Susanowo. Today, the mirror of Yata (Yata no kagami) gifted by the Goddess is one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan.
To see one’s beautiful self is not just a sign of humanity, it is the mark of civilization. Male birds make themselves beautiful, as peacocks do, only to get the mate. But humans make themselves beautiful to socialize themselves, be accepted in a group, to reveal their vulnerability (“please like me”) and their willingness to please. It’s not enough to see your selfie – it is important to see other people’s selfies and share yours too, commenting appropriately so that everyone feels significant, relevant, and validated. That is why selfies are useless without the Internet and media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which enable the sharing of images. Our heart leaps with joy as the ‘like’ score goes up. It reveals everyone’s desire to be seen by others as they see themselves. It exposes the snobs: those who refuse to share their images, those who refuse to like our images, those who never admit to taking selfies, those who feel it is beneath them to look at their own digital faces. Eventually, they too shall succumb.
When the Goddess married Shiva, the ascetic, he did not care for his looks. He smeared his face with ash, insisting that the whole world was a delusion and ephemeral. She did not argue. She simply pulled out a mirror and placed it in front of him so that he could see himself, admire his own beauty, and realize the profound impact it had on others. She had spent lifetimes chasing him, and now he knew why.
The ascetic withdraws from society and himself. He does not care for his looks. That is unacceptable, for God needs to engage with society. Through the mirror, the Goddess makes the seed of divinity (ishwara) bloom in all its splendor (aishwarya); Shiva transforms from Bhairava (he who is frightening) to Somasundara (he who is as gorgeous as the romantic moon). Did not Zeenat Aman/ Lata Mangeshkar tell us, “Satya hi Shiva hai, Shiva hi Sundar hai!” (Truth is Divinity is Beauty)? Beauty does not exist unless reflected back to us through mirrors, the eyes of lovers, and, of course, selfies. Today, the Goddess would have gifted Shiva a mobile phone and insisted he take his selfie, preferably after merging with her and transforming into Ardha-nari – he who is incomplete without his wife. That would have been the perfect selfie acknowledgment of love.
In many tribal communities, people get upset when their photographs are taken, for cameras are seen as stealing one’s spirit self. Until recently, cameras were not allowed into Hindu temples, for it would steal the deity’s aura. This is an extension of beliefs related to the mirror, where the mirror was seen as revealing our spirit self along with the reflection. Sacred bronze mirrors were also used as early as the Han period in China, as a part of Buddhist and Taoist rituals. They were decorated with images of guardian spirits who ensured the protection of our spirit self that we cannot see, but is often revealed in reflection. Many Hollywood films (Omen, Insidious are good examples) use the idea of the camera revealing connections between the physical and astral realms to spice up their plot. Today, in a world that is too scientific or stupid to believe in spirits and spirit worlds; where images of temple deities are streamed through websites; where all that matters is the flesh and its reflection, we don’t mind capturing and sharing our spirit selves over the Internet. Could this be the evil plot of a crafty sorcerer planning to bottle the spirit selves of all Narcissists in the World Wide Web? Scriptwriters, please take note.
The greatest tragedy in the world is not to be able to see oneself. In Greek mythology, that was the fate of the monster Medusa, one so beautiful that she dared compare herself with a goddess who cursed her with such a hideous face that when she finally saw her reflection, she turned into stone and was thus destroyed. That was one fatal selfie.
In Victorian times, Dracula emerged as a tragic figure because the mirror would not reflect his image. We may find him sexy, and we may want his fangs in our necks drinking our blood, but the folklore on which his tale was based revealed that vampires, being soulless, were denied having a reflection in a mirror. But that’s not a problem faced by 21st century vampires like Edward Cullen of the Twilight saga. The author knew that Bella would want to take a selfie, and so would Edward. How else can we have a love story? The days of staring into each other’s eyes are gone. When in love, it is time to stare at the camera, click and upload.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian mythologist and writer known for his work on ancient Indian scriptures.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius