The stories we tell of ourselves

The attempt by many Indians to think of historical knowledge as an immutable scientific fact is a response to our immediate past

September 24, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Around the year 1,200 B.C.E., a scholar-priest called Sin-lequi-unninni pressed his stencil into a clay tablet to record events that occurred 1,000 years before his own time. His words spoke about a tyrant called Gilgamesh who ruled the city of Uruk (Warqa in southern Iraq) around 2,100 B.C.E. Despite being among the oldest stories that humanity knows of, the Epic of Gilgamesh is not an origin story of the kind, say, Adam and Eve that we are now used to. In fact, that Gilgamesh’s story is situated in a bustling, crowded city — as opposed to the Garden of Eden or from the stirring of Brahma’s sleep — tells us that the story’s primary preoccupation is not with the origins of mankind but something even more obscure: the meaning of life amidst the frenzy of living.

After many travails that follow in this quest, Gilgamesh finally arrives at this long-sought meaning that a female divinity shares with him: “to make every day a delight.” Like a modern day existentialist, she entreats Gilgamesh to learn to savour small joys, to experience the sensuous fulsomeness of the present despite the inevitability of one’s own death. That, in fact, she says, “is the work of mankind.”

Response to Babylonian Captivity

For nearly 1,500 years after Gilgamesh, various versions of this story and its accompanying ethos simmered in the epics and legends that spread from Persia to the Levant. In 597 B.C.E., the Jewish kingdom of Judah surrendered to the armies of the great Mesopotamian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar. As was the custom, Nebuchadnezzar deported many Jews from Judah (along with other defeated Assyrians, Scythians, Egyptians, Medes) to the Mesopotamian metropolis. Thus, Babylon became one of the great early melting pots of humanity, stirred by the ladle of forced migration.

There, amidst life as servants and slaves, the Jews from Judah began to absorb the way of life, mythographies, and motifs of their new masters, which included the story of Gilgamesh. As Professor Stephen Greenblatt argues in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve , the earliest stories about humanity’s origin came about, in parts, as a response to this phase of ‘Babylonian Captivity’.

But instead of mimicking the world view of their captors, the Jews began to compile what eventually became a counter-canon — the Torah — to the pervasive Babylonian ethos. Such intentional narratives of self-creation however, as Prof. Greenblatt shows, can only be born as a response to the material conditions from which the immediate histories of the Jews emerged. And no history was closer to the Jews of the 5th century than the psychological, cultural and literary influences that arose from their period of Babylonian Captivity.

After their release from Babylon in 538 B.C.E, the question facing the creative minds of ancient Judaism was simple: “How do you uproot deeply held beliefs?” As Prof. Greenblatt succinctly answers: “You change the story.” Thus, the Old Testament inverts many of the motifs from the Babylonian epics to create their own originary myths, including the story of Adam and Eve. On closer reading of the two traditions, many examples of this inversion stand out. The urban life of Uruk is replaced by the primordial Garden of Eden. The triadic relation between gods and humans against Gilgamesh is transformed into a human struggle between God and Satan. If sexual experience transforms one from savage to human in the Epic of Gilgamesh , in the Judeo-Christian world it is sexual knowledge that leads to the expulsion of man from Eden. The quest for meaning which leads Gilgamesh to discover the importance of finding joy in the present moment is transformed by the Judaic tradition into a longing for the ‘eschaton’ (the end times). Where the Babylonians saw the possibility of freedom, the Jews intuited the inevitability of transgression.

Stories claiming uniqueness

What is interesting in this historical evolution of the Jewish people and their self-description is not just that the stories they told of themselves are alluring and fascinating, but that their origin stories were a response to their immediate histories. These stories about origins become a way to speak as a community of the traumas experienced, and reimagine new ways to gaze at oneself on one’s own terms.

After nearly two hundred years of British colonialism — wherein humiliation was internalised, institutions were destroyed, and social practices underwent involuntarily induced changes — it is of little surprise that Indians have now taken to telling new stories about themselves. Be it new-found icons of Hindutva muscularity, or of imagined idylls of Islamic purity, these stories rely on real and imagined borrowings from antiquity in an effort to reclaim control over their present.

However, unlike origin stories in the past when multiple origin stories coexisted, the modern origin stories that flourish within the nation-state make extraordinary efforts to claim uniqueness. They assert with an unyielding assuredness that the present is an inevitable consequence of their specific retelling of the past. These attempts seek to present historical knowledge as an immutable scientific fact when, in fact, it is more like literature: a space capacious enough to hold multiple and sometimes contradictory truths about the experience of being human.

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