A debate on the rationale behind myths
(April is an important month for the Bahujans. The birth anniversaries of the Bahujan icons Jotirao Phule (11 April) and Ambedkar (14 April) fall in this month. For the past two years, FORWARD Press has been celebrating April as the ‘Phule-Ambedkar Month’. April 2018 will be no different, although this time we will focusing on how these two Bahujan heroes looked at mythology. We will be publishing a series of articles on their treatment of mythology. Here, well-known thinker and litterateur Premkumar Mani starts off the series. – Editor)
Some years ago, when I had raised the issue of Mahishasur through an article, some friends suggested that lending credence to mythology and glorifying it would only create confusion in society and enable social retrogression. I respect my friends’ interventions. They were not driven by deceit or frustration. However, I feel that the points they had raised were conventional and presented without scrutiny. They were apprehensive that focusing on mythology and glorifying it would gladden retrograde social forces, which, on the pretext of resisting the new interpretation, would get an opportunity to once again bring mythology to the centre of discourse. But this did not happen. A decade after I wrote the article, students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University published it in the form of posters and organized Mahishasur Day celebrations, thus triggering a cultural movement. The entire country witnessed an ideological ferment on the issue and in February 2016, the issue was taken up in the Parliament, following which a member of the right-wing brigade lost her temper. The retrograde social forces were not gladdened, as my friends had worried; instead they were perturbed. And they were exposed. I felt that that I was right on target. We had managed to demolish – even if partially – the web of myths woven by them using their parallel interpretation of mythology. The myth that Durga was worth worshipping lay demolished to some and became debatable to others. A parallel discourse began. This was what we wanted. We wanted to start a discourse on Durga Puja. History and mythology should be a matter of discourse and debate. This purifies them. In the absence of discourse and debate, they may die or may assume a dangerous form.
Also read: who are the bahujans really worshipping
What are myths? In the present times, how should we interpret and understand them? Can we afford to ignore them? Is it possible for any society to do so? If not, what should we do about them and how?
The English word “myth” has been translated as “mithak” in Hindi and the credit for this conceptual import might possibly go to Hazariprasad Dwivedi. But the word ‘pauranik’ is also frequently used for mythology. Mythological stories are the ones for which no historical evidence is available or even if it is available, it is very weak. They have more to do with feelings and sentiments and less with facts. Hence, it is expected that people should accept them, suspending their reasoning faculty. They, basically, showcase the power of imagination of the human mind and seek to link us with our ancient past. The mythological stories of the Tribals and backward communities have a slightly different character. They are a mixture of fact and fiction. Societies, sometimes, try to give a mythological ring to even contemporary events. For instance, attempts were made to deify Gandhi, Birsa Munda and Bhagat Singh. This is how mythology is born. Societies that have an ancient history – like the Indian society – have a very old and therefore, complex mythology. Studies on such mythologies are awe-inspiring. One should find time to read W.J. Wilkins’ Hindu Mythology.
I believe that these myths should not be dismissed or ignored. The dominant section of society has used them to perpetuate its dominance, hence, whenever we talk of cultural resistance, the issue of re-interpretation of the mythological stories always crops up. For instance, when we talk of the myth of the churning of the ocean, we will be left wondering who the gods and the demons figuring in the tale were. We can always see this tale in the present context: The producers and toilers are the demons, who are still handling challenging tasks. They endure the heat of the blazing kilns to mould molten iron into desired shapes. In the myth, they held the mouth of the Vasuki Nag (cobra) even as it spat poison. On the other hand, the gods held the tail of the snake, and today, they wield the pen. The gods usurped the gifts that emerged from the ocean as a result of the churning and only poison fell in the share of the demons. This tale is representative of the cycle of exploitation. The gods and the demons today are the capitalists and the labourers, respectively.
Somewhat similar is the myth of Ganesha, also known as Ganapati. Today’s president or prime minister is like Ganesha – half-beast, half-human. There is a similar character in Greek mythology called Chiron – which is also half-beast and half-human. The upper part of Chiron is human whereas his lower half is that of a horse. In his famous book Prince, Machiavelli advises the prince to draw inspiration from Chiron (p 99, Penguin, paperback edition). Machiavelli writes that when the prince becomes the king, he will have to operate at two levels. The first is law, which will be meant for civilized people. But the law alone won’t be sufficient for the wicked. For them, brute force may be necessary. Hence, the prince cannot be advised to be completely human. He has to have a beast in him. Without it, he won’t be able to wield power. Thus, Ganesha is the Indian counterpart of the Greek Chiron. I may be hurting some people’s feelings by describing Ganesha’s animal half in this manner. However, I for my part would like to praise the society that had the wisdom to create a myth as symbolically rich and satisfying as Ganesha.
It is said that once Rabindranath Tagore, during a discussion with Albert Einstein, told him about Indian mythology. Soon, the scientist was detailing the structure and the beliefs of Indian society. The poet was taken aback. But Einstein said that, based on the mythology that Tagore had just narrated to him, only such a society was possible. I was told about the discussion between the two giants by one of my teachers. I have not researched this incident in great detail but I guess it must be interesting.
Hindu mythology can be broadly divided into two sections. Some mythological stories, such as about gods and demons, do not lay any claim to historicity while others, such about Ram and Krishna, do. Some pieces of “evidence” are also put forth. Some talk of Ram Setu, others talk of Ramjanmabhoomi and Krishnajanmabhoomi. It would be unfair to reject these claims outright. During the ages of Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europe had intellectually and forcefully rejected mythology. In the 20th century, some scholars like Levi Strauss criticized this tendency to reject mythology. Karl Marx, the famous materialist philosopher of the 19th century was so enthused by mythology that he cast himself as the mythological character Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity.
Today, when the toiling Bahujan class of Indians is searching for its own mythology, I feel that it is doing something that is culturally important and essential. Bahujans know nothing of their own history. Its heroes have been pushed into oblivion. They exist only in mythology, albeit in a distorted form. Jotiba Phule dug out Baliraja from the ancient tales. He put out a new interpretation, showing how proponents of Brahmanism distorted the story of Baliraja. In his book, Who were the Shudras?, Ambedkar fishes out Sudas from the Indus Valley Civilization and gropes in the darkness of the myths and finds clues to the history of the Shudras. Today, the Bahujans are trying to find new meanings of the characters of Sita, Shambuk and Hanuman. They have every right to be offended that the highest sports award in the country is named after Arjun and not after Eklavya. Arjun and Eklavya appear in the same epic in which Eklavya becomes a victim of deceit: But for his severed thumb, he would have been a greater archer than Arjuna. How can we put a stop to re-interpretation of these tales?
But this does not mean that we should allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by mythology. Only an enlightened and conscious society can put mythological symbols to constructive use. But we will have to decide when, how and to what extent these symbols have to be used. Their misuse can lead to dangerous outcomes. It is not without reason that the mainstream Indian society is focusing on issues like Ramjanmabhoomi to establish social and cultural dominance over the weaker sections instead of spending their energies on developing science and technology. The question is: Why should we accept the dominant brahmanical rendition of the story of Ram? Why not its inclusive and democratic version?
Translated by Amrish Herdenia and copy-edited by Harshvardhan Siddharthan
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