Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Profound World of Mythology and What its Loss Means to Indian Culture

सन्ति सिद्धरसप्रख्या ये च रामायणादयः ।
कथाश्रया न तैर्योज्या स्वेच्छा रसविरोधिनी ॥
The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other classics of their calibre provide us all the material we need to deliver Rasa (emotion, feeling, enjoyment). Anyone who takes sveccha or licentiousness in art stands in opposition to Rasa.

That was Ananda Vardhana, the 9th century aesthetician and scholar who authored the timeless and enduring work on aesthetics, Dhvanyaloka. What he means by that is that Rasa is the ultimate arbiter and yardstick of enjoyment in the sense that there is no conflict or mental agitation in good art but only enjoyment. The term “art” is meant in an all-embracing sense: painting, literature, music, dance, sculpture, and so on.

And nowhere does this dictum hold truer than in what is called mythology. It’s quite tragic that in the post-industrial world…our present world, generally speaking, has perhaps lost the ability to create mythology. We seem to have lost a sense of wonderment, a sense of awe, and we have forgotten to experience what I call immersive imagination which is the bedrock of mythology: both on the part of those who create mythology and those who savour it.

Which is perhaps why we continue to use the mythology created by our ancestors hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. This also shows the one of its defining features: endurance and a quality of timelessness. No matter how much you mine them, they always have something new to offer to the seeker: of truth, beauty, experience, human nature, and the interplay of various forces that guide us and even push us towards misery, suffering and destruction. The power and appeal of mythology also lies in its universality: it is one genre that has no age bar and no geographical bar.

Needless, when we say mythology, we invariably turn to India, Greece and Rome and to an extent, to the Norse mythology because these have continued to remain relevant. But even here, there’s a key difference: Indian mythology remains intact—it is a living tradition found in the lives, families, lifestyles, and in the very breaths of millions of Indians whether they consciously realize it or no. Even today, the names parents give to their children has some connection to our mythology and divinity. Perhaps in no other world languages do we find the stunning wealth of idioms and proverbs derived directly from mythology as that in India.  

But what has faded away is the tradition of learning our mythology on the lap of our grandmothers, mothers, and in some cases, even great-grandmothers. This is learning in a very fundamental sense in that it almost had no method or structure to it. It was completely transmitted in the oral tradition. Even in the realm of form, it occurred through narrative stories, titbits of poetry which was mostly sung, and in some cases, even enacted while performing mundane tasks like cooking, cutting vegetables, drawing water, etc. Reading and writing were essentially external aids that came handy to the child to fill in the blanks, in a manner of speaking. The near-total destruction of the backbone of Hindu Samaj and its foundation, the Grihastashrama, put an end to this ancient tradition. In recent times, perhaps it is only Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha that have done yeoman service to this grand tradition.     

Technically, speaking, in our tradition, Ramayana and Mahabharata are called Itihasa (history) and mythology is known as Purana. I won’t indulge in hair splitting about terminology but suffice to say that this lore fits the definition of mythology in the sense in which I’m using it in this essay.

While Mythology is derived from nature, it also transcends it, soars above it, questions and challenges it using the full power of human imagination and creativity. So the creator or writer creates and props up something unbelievable, incredible, and fantastic and then uses it as a base to build upon it, and delivers timeless values and enjoyment in a powerful manner.

For example, instead of describing Ravana as merely a hulk of a demon, the poet gives him ten heads and twenty arms, gives him a boon that almost makes him deathless, and portrays him as one of the fiercest devotees of Shiva. Then you have an “ordinary” hero like Rama, a mere human being who destroys him. Ravana’s death at the hands of Rama isn’t merely an act of a military victory; Ravana has actually died long ago through the sheer dint of Rama’s will and his unshakeable confidence in Dharma. This among others, is the extraordinary impact of mythology…think of the journey of Rama towards this climax, think of the artistic and imaginative possibilities, and real-life values it gives us…thisis the true value of mythology.

Then we also have the compelling story of Ashtavakra who was cursed to be (literally) deformed at eight parts in his body while he was still in the womb. He went on to become a learned Vedic scholar and defeated the best of scholars in debate in Janaka’s royal assembly. Think of the numerous artistic possibilities his story opens up.

Indian mythology is so powerful that Kavikulaguru Kalidasa took slices from different Puranas and refashioned them to give us his immortal classics. Be it Abhijnana Shakuntala, Raghuvamsa or Kumarasambhava, Kalidasa’s highly gifted pen was so influential that they nearly eclipsed the originals in popular imagination. From Kalidasa in the sixth century to Kumaravyasa in early fifteen century in Karnataka renowned for his Karnatabharatakathamanjari or Gadugina Bharata. His fantastic narration of the marriage of Arjuna as a fake sanyasi with Subhadra is a case in point: this episode is Kumaravyasa’s own creation but in popular imagination, people in South India think that this episode actually exists in Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata. It has been used in numerous Kannada and Telugu movies as well. The other extraordinary motif in mythology is the recurring theme of Asuras (demons) getting boons from either Shiva or Brahma, which inevitably destroys them. This merits a separate essay in itself.  

These Puranic traits are applicable in varying degrees to Greek and Roman mythology, where mythological episodes and names have become words in dictionaries and idioms in real life. “Herculean effort,” “the 2014 election was the Achilles Heel of the Congress,” “Oedipal complex,” “Hippocratic oath,” “Trojan horse,” “Nike,” (a Greek Goddess of victory, not a shoe brand), “Oracle…” the list is nearly endless.

Just as how our Puranas have left a lasting impact, influence and inspiration, the tale of say, Medusa has inspired a vast array of artists and writers including Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, etc. Equally, Mary Shelley’s acclaimed classic Frankenstein is based on the Greek legend of Prometheus. Then, the compelling and powerful legend of Pygmalion has inspired artists right from Goethe, Shakespeare, John Dryden, George Bernard Shaw, and so on.

The beauty and appeal of mythology lies in not just creating a fictional and completely unbelievable world but to create it as soaring and as wide as the wings supplied by the imagination allow us to. What the writer does here is that he or she completely frees the reader from the concerns of hard realism…of getting the dates and names of places correctly…through this, the writer can create real-world characters in this unreal world, and invites the reader to explore it, to get a taste of it. In an insightful analysis of the Mahabharata, Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy says this about the work:

Countless generations throughout the centuries have revered the Mahabharata not merely for its story. Indeed, almost everyone has heard and read its story innumerable times. In spite of this, they want to listen to this familiar story repeatedly with the anticipation of finding some new message, insight or light—from the prior experience of having seen something new each time they have heard it anew. The work has the innate capacity of giving different experiences at different stages of life: in childhood, youth, middle age and dotage. The work remains the same; the person grasping it varies. [Emphasis added]

The greatest gift that mythology has given us is the infinite symbolism that lies in its innards. These have become proverbs, epigrams (which is an entire literary genre in itself), and idioms to every nation and society. “Midas touch,” for example. In India, Tyagaraja’s Kritis would have become poorer but for mythology, some of our major festivals wouldn’t exist without it, our dance forms, art, sculpture…imagine an Ellora or Hampi or Badami minus our mythology.   

In closing, I will dare to proclaim that if you can’t enjoy mythology it means that you can’t let go of your obsession with yourself.

Writer, author, and translator. Author of the bestselling "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." English translator of Dr. S L Bhyrappa's blockbuster Kannada novel, "Aavarana".

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