Hindu mythologies and epic characters have become cultural metaphors in India. Many speak with ease of a lakshman rekha that constrains the behaviour of a woman, call scheming older men shakunis, identify sati savitris in women we see around us. No wonder then, that mythological themes, characters and events are found widely recurring in the country’s popular cultures and literatures. To speak of Hindu mythologies permeating contemporary literature in India, therefore, is to state a truism – but a compelling truism, nonetheless. In one sense, there is nothing more traditional than repeating the stories from the past: throughout the region we have been doing so for centuries, each retelling becoming another layer in the vibrant, living palimpsest of the myths and epics. So it is unsurprising when we find contemporary writers doing what writers from the Subcontinent have been doing for what seems like forever – using themes, characters, events and emotions from a literary past to add nuance to their work.
For these reasons (and perhaps others as well), there is almost never a single version of any Hindu myth. We commonly know Hanuman to be the son of Vayu, but the Siva Purana tells us that this extraordinary monkey was the son of Siva (via a complex impregnation process that involved shed semen and hawks and leaves and open-mouthed women). By telling ancient stories in our own way, we are asserting a claim to these stories, making them our own, just as the story of Hanuman’s birth passed through many hands and minds and mouths and became a Saivite myth. Similarly, we, any and all of us, are invited by the Hindu tradition itself to tell stories again and again. By doing so, our contemporary tellings and variations and interpretations enthusiastically add to the inherent diversity and dynamism of our reservoir of tales.
Other traditional and modern art forms in the Subcontinent have also eagerly mined the riches of mythology for their narratives and their characters. Even a medium as recent as cinema (a hundred years is a mere moment in the centuries that it has taken to form the traditions that Southasia inherits) chose, in India, to mitigate its newness by telling the stories that Indians knew best, beginning with the story of Raja Harishchandra, which was the subject of the first full-length feature film made in India, in 1913. Since then, this magical medium has continued to be used to tell stories of miracles and wonder, of gods and demons and flying monkeys and apotheosed goddesses. For all that film has allowed us to ‘show’ the wonders of myth (and turning celluloid stars into gods), we have also transposed the older, grander narratives into contemporary cinema’s stories of power, hatred, love and lust. In the last two years alone, audiences have been offered a contemporary Mahabharata in Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti and reconfigured Ramayanas in Mani Ratnam’s Raavan as well as in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam.
Indeed, the Subcontinent’s literatures have returned time and again to the epics for inspiration and grounding. Classical Sanskrit drama prescribes that the plot of nataka be drawn from the epics. Kalidasa, writing as early as the fifth century, transforms the feisty Shakuntala of the Mahabharata into a gentle forest creature who becomes a victim of circumstance in his romantic play, Abhijnanasakuntalam. Even Bhasa, who appeared to break the rules of classicism, went back to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana for at least half of his known works. Writers working in languages other than English have drawn from myth and epic for secular literature for as long as we can remember, certainly as long as we have records of oral and written traditions. Most everyone takes this in their stride, assuming (with some prejudice) that regional-language writers, even modern ones, have a linguistic and emotional affinity with the past that so-called deracinated Indian English writers do not have.
And so it is with some interest that we discuss the Indian writers in English who have (re)turned to the fertile pastures of myth and epic to anchor their stories. There are re-tellings and re-visionings, transcreations and transpositions, references and allusions. Shashi Tharoor, in the vanguard of the post-Salman Rushdie generation, played games with our knowledge of the Mahabharata by using the epic’s characters as a lens through which to view the political story of modern India in The Great Indian Novel (1989).
Before Tharoor’s novel, a smaller and more delicate canvas was used by such writers as Shashi Deshpande and Bhisham Sahni. These writers gave other voices to the Mahabharata’s characters in their short stories (Deshpande) and plays (Sahni). In his magisterial Ramayana series (2003-06), Ashok Banker moves the magical world of Ram and Sita, Hanuman and Ravan into a more recognisable fantasy universe that evokes J R R Tolkien. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s recent Palace of Illusions (2008) sees the Mahabharata’s central conflict through the eyes of an angry and vengeful Draupadi. There are satirical and subversive tellings of ancient tales as well, perhaps none more so than Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana from 1954, banned in India and, sadly, now out of print. Arguably, what all these renditions share is the desire to tell the story again, to tell it anew and, as suggested earlier, to ‘own’ the story.
Hindu and Buddhist myths have exerted their influence beyond their cultural borders as well, drawing non-Southasian writers into their expansive and seductive fold. The life of the Buddha has compelled such romantics as Edwin Arnold (The Light of Asia, 1891) and Herman Hesse (Siddhartha, 1922). Octavio Paz, poet and philosopher and once Mexico’s ambassador to India, wrote The Monkey Grammarian (1981), in which Hanuman, less known to most as a grammarian, becomes the poet’s guide to meditations on language. Roberto Calasso’s powerful Ka (1996) penetrates Hindu mythology and pulls out a diaphanous thread that links the mystical hymns of the Rig Veda to the Buddha. Just this year, Alice Albinia Leela’s Book reconfigures the Mahabharata and its narrators to tell a complex story of class, caste, gender and power in a 21st-century India.
Even as we acknowledge the predominant influence of Hindu myths and epics on the literatures of the Subcontinent and beyond, we should take note of how writers from Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, for example, use their own myths and legends in their work. Temsula Ao, in particular, chooses to examine political and social injustices in the Northeast through ancient Naga tales, simultaneously raising the issue of how and by whom these (and other) rich narrative traditions were deemed ‘folk literature’, simply because they fall outside of a constructed pan-Indian (inevitably Vedic) canon. Not only does this point to the various cultural hegemonies created and perpetuated by dominant traditions, it also points to the politics of language and the hierarchies created by nationalist discourses.
Also outside the Hindu frame of reference (and notionally from the Subcontinent), Salman Rushdie uses the mischief and mayhem of Islamic djinns to great effect in some of his works, most cunningly in Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990). In a far more daring enterprise, of course, he takes on the founding myth of Islam (the recording of the word of god via the Prophet Mohammad and his scribe, Salman) in his magnificent The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie re-views this story to ask fundamental questions about how revelation is received and transmitted. And though the revelation of the word of god and the command ‘Recite!’ are considered the cornerstone upon which the edifice of Islam rests, we might just as well ask the same questions about the Vedas, which, as sruti literature, are also ‘revealed’ – they are ‘heard’. Rushdie was able to use a well-known story from the past to ask the big questions about how we, as humans, create the world in which we live, how we understand that world and our part in it, how we relate to the idea of the divine and how it is manifest to us, irrespective of the religious tradition into which we are born.
It is amply clear that it matters little where we are born in the Subcontinent and what we believe. In this part of the world, it would seem that ancient stories remain reservoirs of meaning that can be used to negotiate our understanding of the universe and our existence as human beings. The intriguing question is not how we move our myths into the present but, rather, why we do so. Why do we go back to the fundamental stories of our childhoods – for they are that, these myths and epics, these para- and quasi-religious narratives – to enrich our current writing?
Perhaps it is because they are the founding myths of our cultures, in ways that we only subconsciously acknowledge. On some level, obviously, we believe that these stories provide easily accessible metaphors, symbols and allegories for our readers to understand. Because these symbols and metaphors can provide depth and nuance, we use them to tell known stories the way we want these stories to be told. And we use them to tell our new stories, knowing that they do more than language in helping us to say what we want to say. By telling old stories differently and new stories in familiar ways, we create new communities, new alliances and new constellations of meaning and significance.
As such, these same stories that we use to express ourselves, and to create new and inclusive communities, can also become the basis of us-and-them divisions. If you believe my myth, you will understand the story I am telling in the way that I am telling it. If you do not know (or believe) my myth, you must be the ‘other’, the ‘not me’. This particular kind of divisiveness has infiltrated a story as beloved, widespread and multiply owned throughout the region as the Ramayana. Over the last two decades, the Hindu rightwing in India has captured the story of the exiled prince and turned it into a monolith of xenophobia and nationalism. At its most literal and most devastating, the ‘us versus them’ corset into which the story of Ram has been thrust is this: If you do not believe that Ram was god, you are not Indian. Apart from endangering the lives and livelihoods of so many, this corset creates hierarchies of knowledge by privileging certain stories and kinds of discourse. The cultural nationalism that it sets up automatically marginalises anything that is not Hindu, that has another source or another inspiration. This is exactly what has happened with traditional (and often sacred) narratives of the Indian Northeast.
Repetition as perfection
So why do we tell these stories again and again, inflecting them with our own emotions, politics, concerns and anxieties? Perhaps it is because the stories themselves bother us, leave us with more questions than answers. Susanne Langer, in Philosophy in a New Key (1941), argued that our era is defined not by the answers we have but by the way we frame age-old questions. A K Ramanujan, the scholar and poet, said of the Hindu epics that they were like crystals – that they grew around a flaw, a disturbance. We continue to tell Ram’s story because we have a hard time coming to terms with what he does.
By insisting on telling a story till we have worked it out to our satisfaction, we have developed a rich and pluralistic Ramayana tradition, rather than simply a Ramayana. Likewise, the constantly shifting moral goalposts in the Mahabharata bring us back to the same place over and over again, expanding the story and creating an increasingly rich narrative tradition around it, as well as reams of discourse on ethics and morality. Is Duryodhana really the villain? Is Yudhishthira fit to be king? What will the Pandavas do with the scorched earth they inherit at the end of that terrible war? Can we truly believe in the idea of a righteous war that justifies violence and even fratricide? The Mahabharata is as open today as it ever was, holding within itself Banerjee Divakaruni and Tharoor with as much felicity as it does the vibrant and dynamic ‘folk’ Pandav vani.
So also, it is obvious that feminists and contemporary women would want to create voices for the relatively silent women in the ancient stories. This brings them back to the Sitas and the Savitris, the Ahalyas and Ambalikas, all of whom have been acted upon by the dominantly male narrative universe in which epic and myth places them. What might Sita have said to Ram when he banished her to the forest? What was Ambalika thinking when she was asked to sleep with her husband’s half-brother? Women writers can find the flaw in the crystal that Ramanujan alerted us to, and can work around it – cutting and polishing so that the crystal reflects us as clearly as it has reflected our ancestors.
Feeding our insatiable desire to know more about the human condition, we are led to ask: What if Salman the scribe made a mistake when he was transcribing what the Prophet recited from memory? Worse, what if he wrote what he wanted, rather than what he heard, either from mischief or from malice? What was Nachiketa seeking in his dialogue with Death? What does it mean when Puru takes on the curse of his father’s decrepitude? These are questions that continue to haunt us all, for, like those that came before us, we too search for meaning in a world that we do not fully understand. As Langer suggests, knowing more about the world can give us better questions. And we can hope to give ourselves better answers in the stories that we tell. Over and over again until we get them right.
~ Arshia Sattar is a translator and writer. Her published works include translations of the Valmiki Ramayana and Sanskrit tales from the Kathasaritasagara, as well as a book of essays, Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s anguish.