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A Mythic Inheritance

Myth Theory 13 Comments

First Published in Crest, TOI, 17 Oct 2009

Recently a cartoon film was released on Hanuman. It was a hit. Then there was another film on Ganesha. Then on Ghatatokacha. On television there is a spate of serials on Krishna. What is the conclusion? Indians are finally rediscovering Indian mythology, filling a long hiatus since the publication of that still-adored Amar Chitra Katha. Yes, our scriptures are relevant even today. And parents want to ensure children are getting their dose of culture. Finally there is an answer to mass consumerism and Westernization. So it seems, at least superficially. But is it really so? I don’t think so.
Before we proceed further, we must understand what mythology is. For many people, especially those who veer towards the religious right, the word ‘mythology’ is anathema, a Western imposition to invalidate Indian beliefs. I am often asked, “Will you call the Bible mythology?” For a mythologist, like me, all beliefs are mythological as they are indifferent to rational thought. Hence they make room for fantastic ideas like ocean of milk, flying horses, and virgin births. Mythology must be distinguished from myth. Myth is subjective truth that defines a culture. Mythology is the body of stories, symbols and rituals that communicates that subjective truth. Different cultures have different subjective truths, hence different beliefs, different myths. For example, Christianity and Islam believe in one life followed by an eternity in Heaven or Hell. Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Buddhists believe in rebirth, one life followed by another, until one breaks free from the wheel of birth and death. Who is right? Believers think they are right; outsiders do not agree. To each his own. Unlike science, where the pursuit is for universal, de-contextual, objective knowledge that everyone has to agree with. Unless one appreciates what myth is, one will always be trapped in arguments on what is true and what is not, a path that ultimately leads to fundamentalist madness and even, unfortunately, violence.
Every time I watch the cartoons that apparently are informing the next generation of Indians about Indian culture, I am terrified. Each of them has a rather simple theme, or should I say a simplistic theme. Every film or episode has a good guy and a bad guy. Good guys are fair and beautiful. Bad guys are dark and ugly. The whole point of the narrative is to show how good guys kill the bad guys. Everybody smiles benignly as the villain is pounded to death. So the message for the children: kill bad people and you will be like a god. That seems to be the obvious message: Durga kills the buffalo-demon, Krishna kills Kamsa, Ram kills Ravan. So why not tell the children this? Kill, kill, kill for the sake of ‘happily ever after’.
I am often approached by producers both Indian and foreign for writing or editing or critiquing scripts. Each time I notice a presupposition: mythology is for simple-minded folk (children included) and speaks the ‘universal’ truth of the victory over good versus evil. Faced with such presupposition, one often feels helpless, and sometimes, angry. Is that the culture we want to create, a world of Bush-followers who believe in the ‘axis of evil’ and believe if we ‘nuke them’ the world will be a better place? I mean, apparently, Durga and Krishna and Ram seem to agree with George Bush. Don’t they?
The more I study mythology, especially Indian mythology, I am filled with jaw-dropping wonder at the depth of the subject. And despair, for the popular media discourse ignores it totally. This is not because of any bad intentions on the part of producers and writers and directors. This is simply because this knowledge is not easily accessible. And the desire to hunt for this is greatly lacking. For the past hundred years, no thanks to Imperial prejudice and Socialist apology, the study of mythology has not been encouraged in academic circles. So a vast body of knowledge lies locked, inaccessible to over two generations of Indians. Those who do understand the depth lack the ability to articulate it to a new generation. And those who are articulate are too conditioned by Western mores to appreciate, or revel in, traditional Indian thought. We have boxed tradition into Aastha channels and Sagar teleserials, both of which shy away from intellectual depth because ‘simple people will not understand it’ and ‘depth will affect TRP ratings and box-office earnings’.
Whether we like it or not, mythology is deep. Its source is the human desire to make life meaningful. It seeks to answer those timeless questions that haunted your grandparents, that haunt you and that will haunt your children: Who am I? Why am I? We often underestimate ourselves and our children when we reduce mythology to ‘mere entertainment’. Stories of gods killing demons are part of a very grand jig-saw-puzzle. As one delves into the cause of each event, we discover deeper truths that our forefathers wanted to share with us. Unfortunately, we cherry pick the pieces, and end up seeing tiny parts of the grand whole. We end up transmitting a rather immature and pedestrian subjective truth to our children. That, I feel, will end up becoming a profitable business venture for a few modern storytellers, but an inheritance of loss for an entire generation.

Recently a cartoon film was released on Hanuman. It was a hit. Then there was another film on Ganesha. Then on Ghatatokacha. On television there is a spate of serials on Krishna. What is the conclusion? Indians are finally rediscovering Indian mythology, filling a long hiatus since the publication of that still-adored Amar Chitra Katha. Yes, our scriptures are relevant even today. And parents want to ensure children are getting their dose of culture. Finally there is an answer to mass consumerism and Westernization. So it seems, at least superficially. But is it really so? I don’t think so.

Before we proceed further, we must understand what mythology is. For many people, especially those who veer towards the religious right, the word ‘mythology’ is anathema, a Western imposition to invalidate Indian beliefs. I am often asked, “Will you call the Bible mythology?” For a mythologist, like me, all beliefs are mythological as they are indifferent to rational thought. Hence they make room for fantastic ideas like the ocean of milk, flying horses, and virgin births. Mythology must be distinguished from myth. Myth is subjective truth that defines a culture. Mythology is the body of stories, symbols and rituals that communicates that subjective truth. Different cultures have different subjective truths, hence different beliefs, different myths. For example, Christianity and Islam believe in one life followed by an eternity in Heaven or Hell. Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Buddhists believe in rebirth, one life followed by another, until one breaks free from the wheel of birth and death. Who is right? Believers think they are right; outsiders do not agree. To each his own. Unlike science, where the pursuit is for universal, de-contextual, objective knowledge that everyone has to agree with. Unless one appreciates what myth is, one will always be trapped in arguments on what is true and what is not, a path that ultimately leads to fundamentalist madness and even, unfortunately, violence.

Every time I watch the cartoons that apparently are informing the next generation of Indians about Indian culture, I am terrified. Each of them has a rather simple theme, or should I say a simplistic theme. Every film or episode has a good guy and a bad guy. Good guys are fair and beautiful. Bad guys are dark and ugly. The whole point of the narrative is to show how good guys kill the bad guys. Everybody smiles benignly as the villain is pounded to death. So the message for the children: kill bad people and you will be like a god. That seems to be the obvious message: Durga kills the buffalo-demon, Krishna kills Kamsa, Ram kills Ravan. So why not tell the children this? Kill, kill, kill for the sake of ‘happily ever after’.

I am often approached by producers both Indian and foreign for writing or editing or critiquing scripts. Each time I notice a presupposition: mythology is for simple-minded folk (children included) and speaks the ‘universal’ truth of the victory over good versus evil. Faced with such presupposition, one often feels helpless, and sometimes, angry. Is that the culture we want to create, a world of Bush-followers who believe in the ‘axis of evil’ and believe if we ‘nuke them’ the world will be a better place? I mean, apparently, Durga and Krishna and Ram seem to agree with George Bush. Don’t they?

The more I study mythology, especially Indian mythology, I am filled with jaw-dropping wonder at the depth of the subject. And despair, for the popular media discourse ignores it totally. This is not because of any bad intentions on the part of producers and writers and directors. This is simply because this knowledge is not easily accessible. And the desire to hunt for this is greatly lacking. For the past hundred years, no thanks to Imperial prejudice and Socialist apology, the study of mythology has not been encouraged in academic circles. So a vast body of knowledge lies locked, inaccessible to over two generations of Indians. Those who do understand the depth lack the ability to articulate it to a new generation. And those who can articulate are too conditioned by Western mores to appreciate, or revel in, traditional Indian thought. We have boxed tradition into Aastha channels and Sagar teleserials, both of which shy away from intellectual depth because ‘simple people will not understand it’ and ‘depth will affect TRP ratings and box-office earnings’.

Whether we like it or not, mythology is deep. Its source is the human desire to make life meaningful. It seeks to answer those timeless questions that haunted your grandparents, that haunt you and that will haunt your children: Who am I? Why am I? We often underestimate ourselves and our children when we reduce mythology to ‘mere entertainment’. Stories of gods killing demons are part of a very grand jig-saw-puzzle. As one delves into the cause of each event, we discover deeper truths that our forefathers wanted to share with us. Unfortunately, we cherry pick the pieces, and end up seeing tiny parts of the grand whole. We end up transmitting a rather immature and pedestrian subjective truth to our children. That, I feel, will end up becoming a profitable business venture for a few modern storytellers, but an inheritance of loss for an entire generation.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt G.,

    It is good to see cartoon film on Hanuman, on Ganesha, on Ghatatokacha & on Krishna than to see power rangers & other fictional heros

    parents want to ensure children are getting their dose of culture

    an inheritance of loss for an entire generation

    You had given a impact report on a current problem that is orginating but with out giving solution?

    i suggest that our cartoon film on Hanuman, on Ganesha, on Ghatatokacha & on Krishna would be good if it ends up with a moral telling like the one in HE-MAN cartoon. At the end of each episode there will be a advice & explanation.

    Is that a good idea DEVDUTT JI

    It is George Bush who seems to agree with Durga and Krishna and Ram, But Iraq conflict has many economical reason behind it.

  • shwetha

    Wow,fantastic article.well said!!!!!!Keep going………

  • shivkumar

    Hi,
    the depth of your knowledge lets you critique the serials that are being made.It would be great if ppl like you can collaborate and make something for TV that is more holistic in nature in terms of the content and the answers to universal questions that get answered through these mythological stories. Am i making sense or is this just wishful thinking!!!

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    Very interesting article. But what I have heard about Buddhists that they dont believe
    in re-birth. It is written in book by Mr. Ambedkar. Can you please correct me if I am wrong

    • Jatakas describe the previous lives of the Buddha as Boddhisattva…..so i think Buddhists believe in rebirth….but unlike Hindus they do not believe in the immortality of the soul.

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    Just few days ago I came to know about your
    website and I have found it very interesting.
    I have a question which is bugging me since
    very long time. We hindus belivie in rebirth
    till we get salvation. But than whey there are
    so many stories of heaven and hell (swarg/narg). Where is the question of going
    to heaven or hell if we take new birth after
    death ?

    • There are many types of heavens…some are temporary and some permanent….only the latter, the permanent heaven, is for those who get moksha…..hell is always temporary

  • Sarabjot

    as you rightly said, it is all about TRP ratings and box office collections.
    another key issues is that most people do not know the full story thus they land up sharing only the half knowledge that they have. and everyone knows what is said about half knowledge.
    one of the key things that can make a difference is if mythology became a part of our education system. because the history books i read in school made mangal pandey out to be terrorist rather than a revolutionary.

  • Dharmik

    Hie

    I would be grateful if you can recommend me some books to start reading with to learn more about indian mythology in details.I am crazy about you after reading a couple of your articles and also your video talk at TED.Hats off to you.I would also like to know whether you give lectures for youth organizations.

    • Not lectures…but my books are available in bookshops….just check list in the book section

  • Sir,

    Read your 5-6 articles. I feel that you are holding back; not writing in full. Like on mythology, you have not provided answer to the problem. I humbly request you not to hold back. Our ancient ancestors did the same saying dont do this on this day – their explanation -it is not good.

    Raj

  • Ram

    Myth, Mythology is beautiful – it needs an open mind. Though, as a child I was introduced to the Indian Mythology by my grandma — stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata – but with so many side stories with the main theme intact, I have not seen them in Amar Chitra Katha then, now it is impossible.

    Regained my interest in Mythology after my chance encounter to a program on Nation Public Radio with Joseph Campbell – The Power of Myth. (recorded may be in late 60’s).

    Joesph Campbell – is my favorite. I love your interpretations. Like Campbell observes, may be we need new stories to reflect life of today. It is quite possible that today’s comics might become part of mythology collection in 50-100 years.

    We need Myths/Mythology – sadly, I am not sure how we bring this onto the screen.