How we read mythology

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Published on 29th June, 2014, in Mid-Day

It all started with the Harry Potter series. Suddenly magic became a cool world amongst children. And when Indian children started looking for magic in their own backyard, they rediscovered mythology, a world of fantastic beings who do fantastic things. But what is interesting is how these mythological stories are being interpreted nowadays. It reveals the power of European and American thought processes in the Indian mind.

I remember meeting an earnest dancer who told me rather confidently, how Ram was an Aryan invader who was there to destroy South Indian dark-skinned Rakshasa tribes, just as before him Devas lead by Indra destroyed the cities of North Indian, again dark-skinned, Asuras. This dancer now wanted me to explain the Ramayana within the boundaries that he had drawn, boundaries that he was convinced are objective and true.

I did not have the heart to tell him that this reading of mythology along racial lines was made popular in the early part of the 20th century by British Orientalists, who were struggling to understand India and Indians, who seemed relatively indifferent to their own history. They popularized this ‘racial’ and ‘invasion’ theory. It reaffirmed their faith in the superiority of white people. It also justified their rule of India, by declaring that the dominant communities of India, the Muslim rulers of various states, and their Brahmin ministers, were all descendants of earlier invaders. Was this a conscious strategy or a genuine theory, since then rejected? We will never know. Of course, we can argue over it relentlessly over a cup of tea.

Then, I received an email from an angry social activist who asked why Hindus worship a man who abandoned his pregnant wife in the forest. I realized since judgement had been pronounced, I was suddenly being asked to ‘defend’ Ram as I am a mythologist and a Hindu. The parameters of discussion were been defined by the email writer and thus he was unwilling to listen to anything that demanded the parameters be changed.

This reading of Indian epics like Ramayana using the lens of ‘fairness and justice’ has been popularized by American scholars. America prides itself as the first nation on earth to challenge feudalism and monarchy, and establishing a new governance model based on democracy. And so American scholars, willy-nilly, see red whenever they see a ‘model king’. Ram is thus activist fodder, easy to rip apart. So is Krishna, who bends and breaks rules to establish dharma, what Europeans deemed to mean ‘righteousness’, a mistranslation that continues to be upheld by Indian writers and even journalists. That this annoys the Right-wing fanatics, gives them further fuel. No sensible discussion is possible.

To appreciate Hindu mythology, we have to agree to Hindu assumptions. That is difficult since the modern world is firmly based on Western assumptions. The Hindu assumption is one of rebirth. Thus Ramayana and Mahabharata are being played out in a canvas where every event is a play of other events in past lives. So words like victims, villains, heroes cannot be applied easily. These words belong to finite linear worldviews like Greek mythology. Ram and Krishna are not heroes, or superheroes; they are avatars, which has a very specific meaning that makes no sense in the Western world. Such paradigm challenging conversation are rare because we have been conditioned to receive and digest only simple, or rather simplistic, explanations that simply reaffirm our firmly held assumptions.