Busting Indian mythology

Be it feminism, untouchability or social justice, we find invaluable discussions of these themes in Indian mythology.


Be it feminism, untouchability or social justice, we find invaluable discussions of these themes in Indian mythology.

The word ‘myth’ is often employed in casual conversation to describe a false belief. Additionally, a myth is a false belief perpetuated and sustained over a period of time.

For example, we might say, “It is a myth that people in state ‘A’ vote in elections on the basis of caste.” This is a statement that suggests there is not enough empirical evidence to support the idea that people’s electoral choices are based on caste politics. Over time though, we may be able to gather evidence to prove/ disprove this idea. And then it is no longer a myth.

The Game of Dice in the Mahabharata, a Kathakali performance, Bhoomi at ml.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Now, would we say the same of the idea of Rama? Is Rama a myth? The fact he is believed to have lived in an age we do not have records for, certainly may be a factor in making any empirical quest a difficult one. And in the absence of historical records and evidence, would not a typically rational mind refuse to accord authenticity to this idea?

It is not quite so simple though. The idea of Rama defies history and logic, much as any pantheon of mythological heroes. The ‘truth’ of a mythological hero’s life is not a historical fact. It is a philosophical and cultural reality. We begin to believe in the idea of their existence because of the power of the stories told of them and not the converse.

Rama & Sita marriage procession, by Unknown, Manaku, Bahur Artists via Wikimedia Commons

Mythology in a civilisation is not merely a collection of sacred narratives. It is a defining force that holds people together and enables the search for identity, both individual and collective. It also best reflects the power of culture to transcend the sometimes divisive tendencies of religion. Subscribing to Krishna’s ideology on the battlefield, for instance, does not require a belief in Krishna as a literal truth.

The centrality of mythology to all forms of expression is not difficult to comprehend. Artists look for stories to tell and consider it a significant part of their expression that they communicate ideas exhorting people to transcend the ‘here’ and ‘now’. Inevitably, stories of a glorious past are invoked to achieve this purpose. If the stories that go up to make the rich body of mythology were set in an unreal world, they might not have endured. Their relevance owes in large measure to the fact their heroes battled an imperfect world with their imperfect selves.

Arjuna is confused on the battlefield as he feels the pull in different directions, when Krishna counsels him. Rama is as human as the term can get, when he suspects Sita’s chastity. In essence, the worlds these stories portray are real and their heroes are more men than Gods. In that sense, they are models to emulate, establishing codes of behaviour we can aspire to.

The universality of the ideas and values underpinning mythological tales also plays a significant role in bridging distances between people and cultures. It may be difficult to believe, even for a Hindu, that the Devas and the Asuras together churned the milky ocean in order to obtain Amrita – the nectar of immortality.

The significance however, of warring factions working together to achieve a larger goal has a universal appeal and resonates across religions and cultures. Much of Indian mythology, like this powerful story, is made up of the symbolic and the metaphorical.

Beyond the very useful role that Indian mythology plays in helping us realise higher ideals, is its greatest power – its ability to create a shared consciousness. Be it the rich tapestry of folklore woven around the Ramayana in different parts of the country or Valmiki’s version presented in classical form, there is a strong unifying factor.

This is not merely because different versions of the same story and characters form the essence of varied cultural expression. It is the sense of ownership and belonging that each artiste (and his/her audience) feels in telling and receiving these stories.

A challenge that any art constantly faces is to speak with an authentic voice. ‘Who does art speak for?’ and ‘To whom does it speak?’, are questions that test its continuing relevance. While the boundaries of who we are culturally are fluid and keep getting redefined, the fact that epics and other ancient tales have endured for centuries speaks to their representation of us. Something about them defines us.

Mythology as a collective of thought and expression is also a rich repository of political, social and cultural values. Be it feminism, untouchability or social justice, we find invaluable discussions of these themes in those texts. One of the important reasons for this is the oral tradition.

While a written text can limit the evolution of ideas with its focus on original intent, oral narratives have helped sustain the growth of mythology as a living cultural force. Interpreted and re-assessed continuously by people in different times and contexts, a universal dialogue thrives across time and space. It also becomes an integral part of people’s lives and helps define the idea of intellectual discourses beyond academia and classrooms.

There are many examples which are representative of the influence of Indian mythology on culture but one which deserves specific mention is the Ramlila. An enactment of Rama’s life that runs over ten days and culminates in his vanquishing Ravana, the Ramlila has created vibrant communal spaces.

In several towns in North India, it is said the Ramlila is funded and performed by the local population. Dance, song, verse and theatre combine to create this spectacle year after year, producing a unique art form that is greater than the individual forms it combines.

Different regions in the country have also evolved their own, diverse styles of presentation. The Ramlila captures the essence of culture as we have come to understand the term. It is a community experience, a vehicle for sustaining diverse forms of art and a path to spiritual realisation for many.

Like the Ramlila, mythology continues to impact lives in intangible but profound ways. It is a living, breathing force that defies conventional ideas of preservation. To preserve it is to let it flourish, and infuse it with fresh life continuously.

Published by arrangement with Aalaap, a Chennai-based initiative in the performing arts. This article appears in Aalaap’s 5th bi-monthly print magazine on culture.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Preeti Mohan is a practising lawyer in the courts in Tamilnadu. She is deeply interested in socio-legal issues and their impact on the evolution of the law, and juxtaposes academic analysis with the real-life experiences of court practice. She is interested in the study and analysis of the Indian constitution, its values and norms and has published papers on the same. Preeti is drawn naturally to ... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Preeti Mohan is a practising lawyer in the courts in Tamilnadu. She is deeply interested in socio-legal issues and their impact on the evolution of the law, and juxtaposes academic analysis with the real-life experiences of court practice. She is interested in the study and analysis of the Indian constitution, its values and norms and has published papers on the same. Preeti is drawn naturally to ... more

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