The Profound Sanatana Storytelling Tradition on the Edge of Extinction: An Introduction to Our Grandmothers
Two and half generations of older Indian adults are living witnesses to an unbroken tradition of undated antiquity that is standing on the edge of extinction: the timeless tradition of the storytelling of our grandmothers. They were and still are the true carriers of a vital element of Sanatana culture: its inexhaustible treasure-chest of literature. When we think about it, little has been written or said about the profound civilisational service they have rendered for thousands of years. For a reason: there was really no need to write about them because like the Sanatana civilisation, they were everywhere and they were all-encompassing like air.
Indeed, the near extinction of this tradition is the direct outcome of the systematic dismantling of the Sanatana family system and society by instilling shame in the psyche of its practitioners. A living, practicing culture like Sanatana Dharma has to be first learnt at home largely via certain unbroken practices and nuances of lifestyle that are performed by people. When this was destroyed, a huge void was created, which we can perhaps never fill. The alarming and growing phenomenon and fad of trying to learn Sanatana Dharma by reading books is merely a panicked and desperate attempt to fill this void. It is impossible.
This timeless Sanatana tradition of storytelling can be best understood by what is happening around us. We now have highly expensive courses that “teach” storytelling to a great and ancient land and a profound cultural heritage that has produced the largest volume of stories of every imaginable nature and on every conceivable topic in every major and minor Bharatiya Bhasha. Indeed, the corpus of stories that we have produced is akin to counting the number of units of ice in the Himalayas. At the level of the family, our grandmothers were the most compassionate, patient, and the most affectionate conveyors of these stories; it is only the genius of Sanatana Dharma that could envision, instil and conserve its culture in this fashion. For centuries, this genius performed an invisible Mahamangalarati to itself through the stories it birthed. No university can come remotely close to doing what our grandmothers have done in their own inimitable way. In this sense, all grandmothers are both alike and different.
I daresay that if you haven’t learnt the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Panchatantra and Jataka stories on the lap of your grandmother, you haven’t truly learnt them. Those who are familiar with this affectionate tradition will agree with a straightforward, verifiable truth: of pestering your grandmother to narrate the story of Dhruva or Prahlada or Shumba-Nishumba or Kumbhakarna or Vatapi-Ilvala or Kartiveeryarjuna again and again and again and again and again and again. You would never get tired of listening to the same stories again, and to preferably doze off in her lap. Perhaps our grandmothers have immortalized Maharshi Valmiki, Veda Vyasa and uncountable such sages and saints more than a million books put together by preserving their perennial stories in the fertile wombs of their memory and imagination. At that tender age, those were all merely stories that delighted you for unfathomable reasons but as you learned much, much later in life, they were also foundational building blocks of a lasting cultural education.
And how would she narrate them?
Take the story of say, Vali. She would literally recreate and bring the entire Kishkinda alive and we would see Rama, Sugriva, Hanumantha, Vali and all the Vanaras magically materialize on the silver screen within our minds in tandem with the loving incantations of her voice. When she would pause…a silent question, we would supply the answer on our own. The next time she would narrate the same story of Vali, Kishkinda would be the same but it would be different at the same time. This time, Vali would punch Sugriva with his left fist instead of his right. Then we would pester her to repeat the story. And she would. Patiently. Lovingly. And with the tender skill that is the exclusive patent of grandmothers. Or if she is narrating the story of Vatapi-Ilvala for the thirteenth time, we would ask her to fast forward it right to the very end for a simple reason—we are eager to hear the magical intonation in her voice when she makes Agastya utter, “Vatapi Jeernobhava!” We want to experience the thrill that accompanies that curse. We want to savour the unhurried, languorous quality of the grandmotherly narration akin to the curved flow of a lazy but clear river at 11 AM.
Which book gives us this sort of education? What “moral science” class has this innate capacity to deliver such all-encompassing cultural training that outlives us? Which book or class can supplant or replace the unsullied, unqualified love of the grandmother who narrates these stories with the same devotion and affection that she shows when she bathes or clothes you or puts you to sleep? Reading books is largely a passive activity, highly recommended as a great addition on top of this profound foundation. Sans this foundation, we get what we deserve: the appalling spectacle of “dissecting” the Ramayana and Mahabharata using insane theories cooked in the degenerate mental kitchens of third-rated perverts. The so-called “textual criticism” cannot be a justification for inciting intellectual rioting on our epics. Even if it were so, a simple question suffices: what is the exact and final objective of doing such “textual criticism?” The answer from even an outline study of all such criticism is clear: to dilute the profundity, depth, value, and appeal of these sacred works. Dilution leads to degeneracy leads to destruction.
But for this brilliant tradition upheld for ceaseless centuries by our grandmothers, we would never have the Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha. They were the 20th century pictorial and textual continuities of the selfsame grandmotherly tradition.
Like our ancient and grand temples, this storytelling tradition has all but vanished or staring at an impending destruction. Thousands of our grandmothers who are in old age homes…who will they tell these stories to? To their grandchildren who visit them on weekends, the same grandchildren who have been warned by their own parents against “talking too much” to the grandmother? And what will be the fate of these grandchildren who grow up without these stories? The graphic below is a fairly accurate description of their fate.
As this worrying situation unfolds daily before our own eyes like a sick drama, and if it escalates in the coming years, Bharatavarsha might not have any grandmothers in the future because the very notion of the sanctity of motherhood has not only been destroyed but the depravity that motherhood is a shameful thing has been deeply drilled into the psyches of our young girls and women by our “education” system.
Maharshi Valmiki and Bhagavan Veda Vyasa will soon be orphaned in their own land of birth.
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