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 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.