We did start the Fire

Myth Theory 10 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, 2 April 2010

In the 17th century reason entered the life of the European. It was a rediscovery of what the Greeks had propagated. This was the Renaissance. Rational thinking became the method to overpower the superstitions of the Church. This mindset came to be known as ‘modern’ thinking as it was based on rationality. They considered those who did not possess rational thinking to be ‘pre-modern’. For scientists, religious thinkers were pre-modern.

By the 18th century, following the Reformation of the Church, an uneasy peace was established between the believers of science and the believers of the religion. It was this mindset that the Europeans carried with them in the time they came to dominate the Indian subcontinent.

Both religious and rational thinking of Europe had one thing in common – a faith in rules and in the dogma of absolute truth and a belief in one life. Ideas of relativism discomforted them. In India, they found people ruled by Muslims (whom they hated) who had no one common belief or rule and who believed in rebirth! Both naturally concluded that India was pre-modern. To make India modern was the White man’s burden. That is why the Sahib introduced scientific thinking and English education in India.

In hindsight, one realizes that the 18th century European was not equipped with the intellectual wherewithal and the philosophical vocabulary to explain Indian thought. Limited by his language, unable to understand and appreciate Indian thought, he assumed Indians were irrational, hence inferior.

In the 19th century, Indians started getting educated in the western way and they saw how Indian thought was being perceived by English masters. This fuelled an inferiority complex. They argued passionately. Some becomes apologetic and others defensive. And all efforts were made to present the allegedly pre-modern as modern. This led to the Hindu Renaissasnce. While the good part was that it helped force Indians to question some practices that dehumanized fellow humans (like burning of widows, child marriage and untouchability), the tragic part was that it also led to greater focus on lofty ideals of Sanskrit Upanishads and a distancing from folk beliefs and customs.

Its an activity that still goes on in the 21st century as people go out of their way to logically explain the rules of religion. There is still a pressure to make everything from meditation to yoga scientific. What is rational is real goes the maxim, hence the disdain, even hostility, to the word ‘myth’ and ‘mythology’.

Unknown to most people, the 20th century saw academic circles challenge modern thought itself. They discovered rules were made with prejudice. Whose prejudice? The rule maker’s prejudice! The rule-maker was not objective. He could not be objective. He created rules to benefit him and his. A butcher would never make rules that promoted a vegetarian lifestyle. And a vegetarian would never make rules that would celebrate meat eating lifestyles. Right and wrong were matters of perception. All judgments thus depend on discourse – the stories that shape our mind. Those who argued this were the ‘post-modern’ thinkers.

Maybe Indian thought is neither pre-modern as the British thought it was. Nor is it modern as rationalists would like it to be. Maybe it is post-modern, subjective, relative and plural. Anything goes. That is why, perhaps, Indians worship animals and plants and humans. Some groups prefer one thought and others prefer another thought. All groups, with opposing thoughts, argue but coexist. This is tolerance. The acceptance of all sides and all points of view. Different rules for different people. Different rules depending on the context.

But this post-modern view of Indian thought has a problem. It can easily lead to the conclusion that Indians are opportunists, who change their mind as per will and convenience. Many academicians have taken the route of challenging traditional Indian thought using the post modern approach. Thus Ram, they claim, becomes God only because it was an imposition of patriarchal Brahmanical hegemony. They challenge the divinity of Krishna and say that the Bhagavad Gita with its line ‘focus on tasks not results’ is a creation of the ruling class to keep people oppressed. They argue one can read the Ramayana with Ravan as a hero and the Mahabharata with the Pandavas as the villains. It is just a point of view. And this leads artists to imagine Shiva with goggles and Ganesha with jeans and the Goddess holding a machine gun. In the post-modern world, nothing is sacred, everything can be profane. It is just about the chosen dominant discourse. One can twist and turn things at will. Mix and match becomes the name of the game.

And this becomes distasteful for those who have always celebrated Indian thought. They know it is not pre-modern – there is a logic in it. They know it is not modern – it defies the logic of rules and ethics and morality imposed by the West. And it is certainly not post-modern that turns it into a random and shape-shifting quilt of convenience. So what is it then?

Perhaps Indian thought is best seen in the post-post-modern light. It is a combination of contextual and a-contextual. Every idea needs to be located in a particular space or time (the contextual), otherwise they make no sense. Thus Ram belongs to Ramayana and Krishna belongs to Mahabharata; one cannot simply mix and match the two. Then is also a consistent pattern between the contexts (the a-contextual). This is the idea of dharma, the notion that humans can transcend animal instincts and overpower the law of the jungle. This theme is prevalent in both the epics. In the Ramayana, Ravan behaves like an alpha male while in Mahabharata, the Kauravas behave like alpha males, clinging to other people’s wives in one case and other people’s land in the other. Ram and Krishna are different from each other – one upholds rules and one breaks them. Yet, they are similar to each other – they uphold dharma. Thus there is a pattern beneath the apparent cacophony. It is this consistency of theme despite the apparent randomness that makes it “post-post-modern”.

  • I thoroughly agree with your views Devdutt.
    Indian mythology and writing do have a method in their randomness.
    Probably that’s why they render themselves to apparent randomness and shallowness of interpretation by the pseudo-enlightened in the guise of freedom of interpretation.
    Somehow I felt that ” sunday midday” not a right platform for such deep introspection.
    As usual , well done.

  • Nikhil Gokhale

    I agree with most of your article except I still feel Pandavas were wrong in what they did to draupadi

  • $ujay

    I have read views about Dharma earlier from some other sources. I also read about apparent contradiction or order beneath the randomness from various sources who use lot of reference to Bhagwatgita, Vedas and Upnishadas!

    But, your explanation “resonates” more than all other sources.


    Also, by any chance do you have any books/articles in Marathi?



  • Mohan Ramchandani

    Very interesting. Keep up the good work.

  • Rajib Gupta

    Hello Dr. Devdutt,
    any thought to my previous request to write a full article on Shaktipeeths (popularly known as “sati’s remains” in India and beyond ?

  • Vivek Nagaraj

    Really an interesting explanation Devdutt.
    Your concept of Contextual and a-Contextual really helps to correct our false perception.
    Gandhiji sounds irrational to me today. His non-violence theory really doesnt make sense in today’s who-is-the-strongest world. Whem maoists kill so many inncocent lives and are spreading terror in the country like never before, I don’t think we can approach it with non-violence theory. But having said that, can I rule out Gandhiji’s influence in getting India it’s Independence? Not really. Here, as you said, Gandhiiji can become the contextual.

  • Thank You for this article, clarified and simplified a lot of randomness :)
    This holds true for not just Indian Mythology but for The Simultaneous mythologies that were born around the world, as more often that not there is a common theme underying many of them.

    As a student of design I often face the dilemna of context, how narrowed down and how generic does it have to get…Keeping only the myopic vision creates further chaos in the world the context at hand is a part of, hence I agree with you on the concept of context and acontext, for both the micro and macro visions need to be a part of any solution..

  • I think myth is essential to meaning. People throughout the ages have expressed the objective reality that they experienced through myths, in order to put the diverse natural phenomena into an order and weave a story through them.

    We do it today in our modern times, we weave our own modern myths. All of this makes sense only when understood in the respective cultural and technological context. So understanding a myth is just like learning a foreign language, with a distinctive vocabulary and grammar. If you are not patient in learning, you would get no meaning whatsoever out of those symbols. We call them irrational, illogical and fantasy. But for people who built those myths, they were the very essence of rationality. They created this symbolic language through a lot of effort, trial and error.

    Often as technology advances, we see reality in a clearer manner. And the myths of past have no relevance today, except as exercises of creativity and source of entertainment. However, some myths do stand the test of time. And the message that is present in them is as relevant today as it is ages ago. It just has to be deciphered properly,with all the scientific seriousness that is present in deciphering an ancient lost language. It is easy to disparage the ancients by sitting on top of the technological pile of today, but the future generations will laugh at us in the very same way. What essentially doesn’t change over time is the human curiosity, entreprise and the urge to bring meaning out of this universe.

  • Harsha Muddu

    Excellently explained.