Narratives and texts are a part of our lives. In this essay, the novelist-author explores the reinvention of mythology in the present Indian context.
Myths are both beautiful and dangerous. They are wonderful flights of imagination-like poetry, fiction or theatre. They turn menacing when invested with sectarian, religious meaning. Because religion has a history of infiltration by vested interests, and myths, being free-wheeling products of the psyche, are sitting ducks for manipulation. They are common property. Like any product of imagination in the public realm, myths can be bent to fit any need or requirement.
Clearly, there cannot be only one interpretation of the creation myth in the book of Genesis. Or, to take an example from literature, who can say her/his reading of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is the right one? Both are fruits of imagination existing in the public space and there is no end to the ways in which they can be experienced or explained.
Kafka’s story, however, though it has an edge of myth, might not be subjected to cunning interpretation for the simple reason that it is not ‘holy’ and, therefore, there are no vested interests at work. At least it is not holy in the religious sense — for an ardent lover of literature the story could be hallowed ground. But the creation myth, having been prescribed as holy, is a pliant tool in the hands of those who seek to use it as an instrument of power. Three Semitic religions share the myth.
India is a civilisation that abounds in myths, the majority of them ‘holy’ in the religious sense. Islam and Christianity have their own Indian mythologies. Once a myth turns holy it is only a short leap to its being termed ‘historical’.
In a scientifically advanced civilisation like the United States, there are sections of people who believe it is a historical fact that God created the world in seven days and Adam and Eve are the first parents of mankind. Is it surprising then that, in India where science takes a back seat, there are people who believe Kerala was raised from the sea by Parasurama? Or that the undersea geological fault that links India and Sri Lanka is a holy relic?
With large sections of the Indian society — including the highly educated classes — existing in a pre-scientific realm of religiosity, every myth is a time bomb depending on who wishes to exploit it and when. And the media can be disastrously ambivalent when myths resurrect as holy history. Why single out the media? Even the judiciary can be Janus-faced.
It is not as if all myths are remnants of ancient days or artefacts of religion. Think of the mythologies that spring up around media celebrities, god men and god women (their constituency is different from that of mainstream religions) and even politicians. Gandhi is the stuff of myth today. So is Ambedkar. Watch the mythological recycling of Sardar Patel. Often mythologies and demonologies go hand in hand. Take the demonology of love jihad, a spin-off of right-wing mythologies featuring the Other.
Therefore it is up to oneself to approach myths warily. They could uplift and enrich and also defile and enslave, depending on how much they have been poisoned and how vulnerable and credulous you are.
Myths in themselves, by and large, are innocuous. It is the interpretation that makes them poisonous. More often than not, myths have been implanted in your brain from your earliest years and reinforced by religious and cultural training. Some are so beautiful and touching that you feel guilty even to rethink them, leave alone renounce them.
Like myths, ‘holy’ books have the same capability to stay entrenched. Which Christian would want to let go of the Christmas myth, of a baby born in a manger and sheep and angels waiting upon him? From that heart-moving image, who wants to turn his eyes to the horrendous history of the Inquisition, the Crusades and racial slaughter, all in the name of that sweet baby?
The grip of implanted tradition through myth and holy books is so powerful and deep rooted that it takes something like an intellectual and spiritual root canal to pry it loose and wriggle free.
It is profitable to many to romanticise and sentimentalise myths and make them look larger than life. We are a myth-saturated nation and tremendous harm has been done to Indian civilisation and polity by myth revivals. Ram Janmabhoomi stands as a stark reminder of how a myth can become a deadly vector.
The only way out seems to be to consciously make oneself free intellectually and spiritually so that one is not cowed down by the so-called holiness. The idea of holiness has been historically enslaved, encashed and misappropriated.
Every human document, every story, poem, play or fairy tale, is ‘holy’ if it is true that God dwells in man. But not if it is a creed of power, hatred, violence and untruth hiding under the hallow of holiness.
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