Epic Voyage of Rediscovery

Arshia Sattar 1

Arshia Sattar analyses the growing need to turn to our myths and legends to tackle modern day dilemmas

Hindu gods appear around every corner in our lives in India. I am not talking about the carefully placed tiles that  prevent the committing of “public nuisance”. The gods and their inevitable counterparts, the demons, appear renamed and revisioned, located in narrative trilogies and multi-volume sagas of blood and violence that are peppered with odd moments of philosophical introspection. They appear in comic books and graphic novels, animated and live-action serials, as children and as adults; they are remade as men of flesh and blood who stride across silver screens, inhabiting larger than life political metaphors. However far we might place ourselves from television and the movies and popular literature, we cannot fail to notice that we are living in a time of mythological abundance. And all of this at a time when we are fighting to regain our secular footing as the juggernaut of exclusionary politics thunders towards the national elections in 2014.

In the April edition of The Hindu Literary Review, there were at least five book reviews that connect themselves to ancient stories. Overt retellings are such offerings as Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: The Churning of the Ocean and Rajiv G. Menon’s Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra, which promises to be only the first in “the Vedic Trilog” (whatever that may be—perhaps it’s an elaborate pun on “trilok”, the three worlds of gods, men and others). Manil Suri’s The City of Devi features a local goddess increasingly disgruntled; Appupen’s “silent” graphic novel about the imaginary world of Halahala evokes Shiva’s poison; and even a first-time short story writer tells his tales on two planes: one real and the other mythological. In the same week, another newspaper’s bestseller list had four mythology-based books on it—three were by Amish Tripathi, which is his entire oeuvre. In the near distance, the works of such indefatigable writers as Ashok Banker and Devdutt Pattanaik cast their long shadows upon the Johnnies-come-lately to myth-town. Banker’s Ramayana series, which first appeared in 2003, already has eight volumes. He is working on a Krishna sequence and a Mahabharata series, and declares that he plans an eventual 70 volumes in his “epic India library”. Pattanaik, alone, has 17 published volumes on gods and goddesses to his credit.

These mythological books are flying off the shelves, catering to an apparently insatiable hunger we have for more and more stories about good and evil, filled with characters who have extraordinary physical and psychic powers. Even though the recent remakes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata have not been as successful as the original serials were, somebody somewhere is watching Bal Hanuman, Bal Krishna and Chhota Bheem on television. Mainstream films like Raajneeti and Raavan rake in the bucks at the box office. What explains, in these early years of the 21st century, the popularity of this genre that mixes myth, fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction with such élan?

Are we living in times unlike any other before? Are we reacting to the strains and tensions of globalisation and the loss of local cultures? Are we re-imagining ourselves to fit into the fragmented, pastiche aesthetic of postmodernism? Are we finding comfort in the past as we gaze into an uncertain future? Or, are we simply retelling the stories that we love most?

Photographs: Poulomi Dey

Photographs: Poulomi Dey

Surely, each of these questions has many answers in a culture as diverse as ours and in a country where social and economic sectors move at different paces. However, being neither a social scientist nor a scholar of critical theory and cultural studies, it is the last question that interests me the most. Are we doing now what we have done for centuries: telling the same stories over and over again, reflecting the specificity of our times, our places and our own selves? So rich in stories, so rich in ways and modes of storytelling, the traditional narrative cultures of South Asia have never placed a premium on the new and exciting. Rather, we have made a more challenging demand of our storytellers: we ask them to tell us a story we already know, but tell it to us in a way that we have never heard before.

One of the most compelling aspects of Hindu myths is that you cannot find a single definitive or canonical version of any one of them. Myths that appear in the Rig Veda are retold in the Brahmanas, and then later, sometimes, in the epics and the Puranas. They are retold because some gods have declined in importance, others have risen to fame and glory. Wendy Doniger’s Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook (Penguin Classics, 1975) is a wonderful place to track this phenomenon. She shows, for example, how the Rig Vedic story about Indra beheading Vritra changes when it is retold almost a thousand years later in the Mahabharata. In the Rig Veda story, Indra is the heroic “king”, killing Vritra is his greatest deed, as it releases the waters that his people need. In the epic period, the powerful elemental deities of the Rig Vedahave been reduced to the “hosts of gods led by Indra”, and it is Vishnu and Shiva who control the worlds, while Brahma occupies the position of the wise ancestor who must be appealed to for advice, if not for active help. In the Mahabharata, Indra manages to kill Vritra, but then he is infected with the “sin” of brahminicide and must hide himself. Vishnu comes to his rescue and after Indra performs a horse sacrifice dedicated to the greater god, he is free of the pollution of killing a brahmin. However, this epic itself contains another version of the same story where it is Brahma who rescues Indra from the pollution, and the horse sacrifice must be dedicated, instead, to him. Religions and their stories respond to historical moments and the new elements in the Indra–Vritra story indicate various social and political changes, including the ossification of the caste system with brahmins at the top.

Stories often reappear, dramatically changed, in different literary genres. Shakuntala makes her literary debut in the Mahabharata where, far from being the shy forest girl who falls in love with the king, she is cast in the mould of the more fiery and determined women of that epic. In this story, Shakuntala agrees to sleep with the king if the son born from their union will succeed him as monarch. The lusty king agrees but when Shakuntala shows up at his court to claim her son’s birthright, the king calls her a liar. Undaunted, Shakuntala declares that he is not fit to be king since he does not uphold dharma. A disembodied voice speaks from the sky, validating Shakuntala’s story and the shame-faced king has to accept her son as his heir. That son, Bharata, becomes the ancestor of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Contrast this with Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, the virginal nayika of the nataka form. Written at least three hundred years after the epic, the playwright transforms the story of the woman who would be the king’s mother into a sentimental romance where both hero and heroine are beyond reproach. Dushyanta, Kalidasa’s hero, bears the burden of a curse, so he legitimately cannot remember the encounter in the forest and recognise the pregnant woman who stands before him in his court. The curse, entirely made up by Kalidasa, allows the king to remain virtuous and worthy of admiration, even as it allows Shakuntala to pine innocently for her lost love. But since the nataka must end in a reunion, the ring of recognition is found, the curse vanishes and Dushyanta, Shakuntala and their son live happily ever after.

Many of Kalidasa’s works are retellings of earlier stories—the myth of Vikram and Urvashi that he transforms into Vikramorvashiya appears in the Rig Veda, Raghuvamsha  is the story of Rama’s ancestors, Kumarasambhava tells of how Shiva and Parvati got married and about the birth of Kartikeya. In his paradigmatic natakas, Kalidasa uses the prescriptions of the genre—including the commandment that the story of the play be already known—to refashion these older stories to suit a different time and perhaps even to address a different literary sensibility. It is quite likely that Kalidasa was a court poet, possibly patronised by the great Gupta kings under whom the arts and sciences reached extraordinary heights of sophistication. Kalidasa and his particular retellings were made possible by his times. His exquisite poetry replaced the power politics that underlay earlier versions of the stories he told.

Perhaps no other story has reflected the times and the concerns of its tellers more than the story of Rama, which has appeared in every Indian language in practically every century (since the 1200s). The oldest version of Rama’s story comes to us from Valmiki, who probably composed it somewhere between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Valmiki’s Sanskrit story displays all the virtues of a great epic: palace intrigue and disputed kingship, exile from the kingdom, a genocidal battle over an abducted (or humiliated) woman and a triumphal return. As Hinduism developed an intensely personal devotional aspect, Rama the human hero became Rama the avatara of Vishnu. Kamban’s 13th-century Iramavataram conveys the essence of Tamil bhakti; three centuries later, as bhakti manifests itself in the north, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas overflows with his own ecstatic love for Rama. Meanwhile, in Krittibas’ 15th-century Bengali Ramayana, the local snake goddess, Manasa, plays an important role, even rescuing Hanuman when he is in danger in the underworld. Manasa’s hold on local imaginations has to emerge into stories that the region tells, and the Rama story is flexible enough to accommodate all claimants. It even breaks its own sectarian bounds by introducing Shiva as Hanuman’s father. At the same time, these very texts will maintain a Shaivite/Vaishnavite rivalry by making Shiva Ravana’s patron.

Truly, there is a Ramayana for every body. Closer to our own times and acknowledged politics, Jyotiba Phule, BR Ambedkar and EV Ramasamy have read and propagated the Ramayanas that we know as thinly veiled narratives that support upper caste dominance and Dravidian subjugation. When Vali and Ravana (as in Anand Neelakantan’s Asura: Tale of the Vanquished) replace Rama as heroes, questions of caste, race and gender are foregrounded, and the well-known tale is subjected to new questions and a different set of answers.

The point is that a great story never loses its ability to enthrall. It allows itself to be tweaked in terms of the good guys and the bad guys, the poetry and the politics, the metaphors and the symbols. We are living in a time when we find it necessary to reconstruct fictions and realities (for let us not forget that we are rewriting our histories with as much alacrity as we are retelling our myths) with which we have grown up. Such times of retelling have occurred before, as evidenced from the multiple tellings of the Ramayana which has expanded to embrace bhakti as well as competition from local divinities. And such times are bound to occur again.

Having argued that we are in the habit of retelling our favourite stories, and also that we do this periodically, it is equally important to acknowledge what else is happening when a literary world experiences a flurry of retellings. Kamban was reacting to changes within Hinduism when he layered his story of Rama with bhakti. Perhaps Tulsidas was reacting to the Islamic presence in northern India, with its deeply felt religious egalitarianism. Raja Ravi Varma changed the terms of Indian painting, equipped as he was with canvas and a new technology of oil paints. Of course, under the influence of European academism, he also changed forever the popular images of our gods and goddesses and classical literary characters. He, too, lived in “interesting times”—times of social and economic change, of shifting loyalties and new horizons.

In terms of our current retellings, it is hard to not notice the coincidence between the revival of Hinduism in India in the last 30 years and the avid, growing audiences for the “new” mythologies. Banker, Tripathi, and possibly Pattanaik as well, will stoutly deny that they have any truck at all with the religious right, that their work does not arise from a desire to propagate Hindu ideas and beliefs. While we should take them at their word, it is also true that we have all lived through a period of heightened awareness about Hinduism in general, precisely because the religious right occupied centre stage in the public imagination for the better part of the last two decades. This occupation could well have persuaded many of us to examine Hinduism anew, and some of us to return to explore the stories we had been told in our childhoods and be moved to retell them in ways that are more in keeping with the newer world. The rest of us rushed to bookstores to devour them—these latest versions of stories that we had always known and loved, updated for our times with shape-shifters and warrior princesses and dark, shadowy creatures that stay away from the sun.

Whatever the intentions of the readers and writers, we can take hope from the fact that these current retellings allow us to reclaim a Hinduism that is pluralistic and diverse. As we retell the ancient tales in our own voices and for our own times, we can, for example, question the patriarchal strains in the Ramayana, we can recall with pleasure the sexuality in the myths of Shiva, we can revel in the powers of Devi. As parents and grandparents, we can tell these stories to our children and grandchildren in our ways, with our concerns, our politics, our worldviews. We can ensure that the versions of these stories that we choose to share are progressive, perhaps even subversive. The stories themselves are generous and fearless; for centuries, they have opened themselves up to multiple tellings, to new twists and turns, to old questions that have new answers. We should not disappoint when we retell them.

One Comment

  1. Cheyanne August 30, 2014 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    I’m not easily impressed but you’ve done it with that posting.

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