Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

April 4, 2010

First published April 3, 2010

 in Sunday Midday

We did start the Fire

Published in Sunday Midday on 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”.

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