In Kerala folk versions of Mahabharata, there is one which has the story of ” shadow kill” or Nizhalkutthu. Duryodhan hires a hunter who dabbles with black magic and asks him to kill off the Pandavas by performing Nizhalkutthu. Literally, it means, stabbing the shadows dead- leading to the death of the living bodies. Something like a shadowy voodoo ritual. The hunter returns home victorious, with many gifts from the King, telling his wife that he killed off five fledglings of a bird using black magic. She understands that the Pandavas are dead; and is outraged by his evil. Then, to show him what it really means to lose an off spring, she kills their son in front of him.
The famed film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan made a movie by the same name, Nizhalkutthu, based on the story of the last hangman of Travancore. The symbolic meaning of the original story, was carried on in the film, about meaningless killings- whether done as part of duty or to teach a lesson.
In the original Nizhalkutthu Attakatha, based on which Kathakali is performed, Lord Krishna gives life to the dead Pandavas and also to the dead son of the hunter. All is well, and of course, innocents do not die in a meaningless manner. The viewer is happy and hopefully has reflected on the way, human talents are wasted in unethical ways for the sake of earning the King’s favours. Perhaps, he or she also reflected on the impulsiveness of human nature and how ‘an eye for an eye ‘ philosophy of the huntress, left everyone blind.
In Sundarakanda of Sri Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidasji, is the description of the Shadow-Catcher! She is a demon, who lives in the oceans and catches the shadows of everything that flies in the sky. She pulls the shadows that are reflected on the water . All which once flew in the sky, fall down into her clutches. She proceeds to eat them. Well, she meets her match in Hanumanji, whose shadow she catches.He sees through her evil, kills her and proceeds to Lanka.
” Nisichary ek sindhu mahu rahai/ Kari maya nabhu ke kha gahaye
Jeevi janthu je gaganchar udahy/ Jal biloki tinh hai parichahy
Gahai chah sak soh na udai/Ehi bidhi Saha gaganchar khayi
Soyi chal Hanuman kah kinha/ Tasu kapadu kapi turanthuhu chinha”
I am intrigued by the similiar tale from Mahabharatha of the South and Ramayana of the North. Shadow Catchers and Shadow Stabbers are so common in society. They specialise in destroying high spirited beings through manipulation and games behind their backs. Gossip, petty talk, conspiracy, plain evil lead to many deaths- symbolic and real.
Did the great writers, want us to ruminate on Soul Catchers and Soul Stabbers of the mortal kind? After all, to destroy one’s spirit is an equal form of murder.
Like Lord Krishna who gave life back to the innocent victims, it is time perhaps to wonder on whether we contribute to killing off spirits of people who are near us or whether we give life and energy to others through our words and efforts. And whether we have the spirit to call a shadow catcher in the sea/ rye/ nearby -by the name and stop his or her nefarious functioning like Hanumanji himself.