The Profound World of Mythology and What its Loss Means to Indian Culture

The Profound World of Mythology and What its Loss Means to Indian Culture

सन्ति सिद्धरसप्रख्या ये च रामायणादयः ।
कथाश्रया न तैर्योज्या स्वेच्छा रसविरोधिनी ॥
The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other classics of their calibre provide us all the material we need to deliver Rasa (emotion, feeling, enjoyment). Anyone who takes sveccha or licentiousness in art stands in opposition to Rasa.

That was Ananda Vardhana, the 9th century aesthetician and scholar who authored the timeless and enduring work on aesthetics, Dhvanyaloka. What he means by that is that Rasa is the ultimate arbiter and yardstick of enjoyment in the sense that there is no conflict or mental agitation in good art but only enjoyment. The term “art” is meant in an all-embracing sense: painting, literature, music, dance, sculpture, and so on.

And nowhere does this dictum hold truer than in what is called mythology. It’s quite tragic that in the post-industrial world…our present world, generally speaking, has perhaps lost the ability to create mythology. We seem to have lost a sense of wonderment, a sense of awe, and we have forgotten to experience what I call immersive imagination which is the bedrock of mythology: both on the part of those who create mythology and those who savour it.

Which is perhaps why we continue to use the mythology created by our ancestors hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. This also shows the one of its defining features: endurance and a quality of timelessness. No matter how much you mine them, they always have something new to offer to the seeker: of truth, beauty, experience, human nature, and the interplay of various forces that guide us and even push us towards misery, suffering and destruction. The power and appeal of mythology also lies in its universality: it is one genre that has no age bar and no geographical bar.

Needless, when we say mythology, we invariably turn to India, Greece and Rome and to an extent, to the Norse mythology because these have continued to remain relevant. But even here, there’s a key difference: Indian mythology remains intact—it is a living tradition found in the lives, families, lifestyles, and in the very breaths of millions of Indians whether they consciously realize it or no. Even today, the names parents give to their children has some connection to our mythology and divinity. Perhaps in no other world languages do we find the stunning wealth of idioms and proverbs derived directly from mythology as that in India.  

But what has faded away is the tradition of learning our mythology on the lap of our grandmothers, mothers, and in some cases, even great-grandmothers. This is learning in a very fundamental sense in that it almost had no method or structure to it. It was completely transmitted in the oral tradition. Even in the realm of form, it occurred through narrative stories, titbits of poetry which was mostly sung, and in some cases, even enacted while performing mundane tasks like cooking, cutting vegetables, drawing water, etc. Reading and writing were essentially external aids that came handy to the child to fill in the blanks, in a manner of speaking. The near-total destruction of the backbone of Hindu Samaj and its foundation, the Grihastashrama, put an end to this ancient tradition. In recent times, perhaps it is only Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha that have done yeoman service to this grand tradition.     

Technically, speaking, in our tradition, Ramayana and Mahabharata are called Itihasa (history) and mythology is known as Purana. I won’t indulge in hair splitting about terminology but suffice to say that this lore fits the definition of mythology in the sense in which I’m using it in this essay.

While Mythology is derived from nature, it also transcends it, soars above it, questions and challenges it using the full power of human imagination and creativity. So the creator or writer creates and props up something unbelievable, incredible, and fantastic and then uses it as a base to build upon it, and delivers timeless values and enjoyment in a powerful manner.

Countless generations throughout the centuries have revered the Mahabharata not merely for its story. Indeed, almost everyone has heard and read its story innumerable times. In spite of this, they want to listen to this familiar story repeatedly with the anticipation of finding some new message, insight or light—from the prior experience of having seen something new each time they have heard it anew. The work has the innate capacity of giving different experiences at different stages of life: in childhood, youth, middle age and dotage. The work remains the same; the person grasping it varies. [Emphasis added]

The greatest gift that mythology has given us is the infinite symbolism that lies in its innards. These have become proverbs, epigrams (which is an entire literary genre in itself), and idioms to every nation and society. “Midas touch,” for example. In India, Tyagaraja’s Kritis would have become poorer but for mythology, some of our major festivals wouldn’t exist without it, our dance forms, art, sculpture…imagine an Ellora or Hampi or Badami minus our mythology.   

In closing, I will dare to proclaim that if you can’t enjoy mythology it means that you can’t let go of your obsession with yourself.

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