The abiding mystique of Indian mythology

Anuja Chandramouli

In recent times, the tidal wave of interest in mythology has become something of a phenomenon. Thanks to the extraordinary success of the likes of Ashwin Sanghi, Anand Neelakantan, Arshia Sattar, Devdutt Pattnaik, Kavita Kane, Koral Dasgupta, Satyarth Nayak, and Amish Tripathi among others, the supposedly 33 crore deities from the Hindu pantheon have been retrieved from the musty passageways of memory and legend, dusted off, polished, retrofitted, and propelled into the collective consciousness with gleaming, often glamourous avatars. Big and small screen adaptations of beloved stories from the great Indian epics may have been skewered by the critics and have had mixed results at the box office but there is no denying the buzz these projects generate. People simply can’t get enough of this treasure trove of stories handed down to us from a bygone era with the result that an endless stream of myth-based books, films, and shows are making their way to the marketplace for us to consume. But is this surfeit of a good thing really a good thing?

While those with a religious frame of mind or an appreciation for our glorious culture and heritage are no doubt thrilled that youngsters have taken to mythological lore in such a big way, the more conservative among the populace are frothing at the mouth with some of the artistic liberties taken with the sacrosanct material. Worse, there are those who seek to weaponize mythology to further the politics of hate and intolerance, which seeks to oppress and suppress socially and economically vulnerable groups. This misuse that springs from a misunderstanding of mythology warrants a closer look in the interests of preventing mayhem.

In this brave new world, the Gods are no longer all-powerful entities who leave the pious quaking with love, awe, or fear and must be blindly obeyed as per the tyrannical rulings of God’s representatives on Earth. The immortals have been brought to the level of the mortals, where one may get up close and personal with them and I daresay find a wart or two and even grey hairs, in the midst of all that divine splendour. This intimate and irreverent relationship that has been forged with the supreme consciousness, appalling as it may be to some, is nevertheless a wonderful thing. And before extremists grab their weapons of sweeping condemnation and moral outrage, allow me to elaborate. Even the best, most steadfast of relationships must evolve to survive. Acknowledging that it is not only possible but even necessary to question the divine and argue over its very existence in order to better understand and draw closer to the almighty is a step in the right direction for what is essentially a personal odyssey towards spiritual upliftment.

Illustration: Shilpy Lather

Indian culture with its grandiose, sweeping range and a major chunk of traditions, religious, and otherwise that have been handed down over the millennia has endured despite repeated attacks by invaders who made short work of entire civilizations and the more ignorant among us working from within to undermine something beautiful and reduce it to its ugliest form. And no, this tenacious ability to persevere is not a fluke. Nor is it a miracle wrought by the one true God. The powerful Gods from Roman and Greek mythology rule only in the pages of charming fiction but are otherwise forgotten and certainly not worshipped. Youngsters hardly know the Norse Gods, except Thor and Loki, the mighty God of Thunder and his nemesis, who many believe to be the work of Stan Lee at his most creative for the Marvel juggernaut. Have the Egyptian Gods or the way of life that came into being with the magnificent Nile valley civilization retained their relevance? What about the Incans, Maya, or Aztecs? What really spared India from a similar fate?

While it has not been worked down to a science, the general consensus is that Indians have always had the ability to assimilate the best from other religions, cultures, and traditions even if it belongs to a hated conqueror in order to incorporate the best others have to offer with the vastness of the precious knowledge that was no doubt accumulated in the same way. It is through this remarkably symbiotic process that the giant strides made by our predecessors in the fields of art, science, philosophy, etc., have been preserved in the annals of mythology handed down from generation to generation and we ensure that the presents from the past survive the merciless sands of time.

This willingness to be inclusive and to open the heart to better engage with the mysteries of the universe comes from a core belief in the power of love to triumph over hate; to commit to knowledge and share it without facilitating ignorance or seeking to hoard the pearls of wisdom painstakingly gathered over aeons so that only a select few may benefit; to put aside petty, spite, and mean-spiritedness in the pursuit of elusive truths along the middle path between the sacred and sordid, so that we may transcend our human foibles and evolve into more enlightened beings. This commitment to truth and beauty which lies at the heart of Indian mythology is what makes it so easy to fall in love with and worthy of preservation across eternity.

If the modern era demands that we re-examine the way we choose to connect with our Gods and Goddesses, treating them as friends, adversaries, or intriguing puzzles that need to be scrutinized every which way, surely there is nothing wrong with it? Because for the most part, readers pick up these new-fangled books and view mythology-based content where creative license has been taken not merely because they are a fad or an amusing curiosity but out of an underlying sense of love and deep respect for a culture and heritage. The Ramayana and Mahabharata – the most beloved of Indian epics have more versions than can be accurately counted and incorporate elements from regions ranging across the length and breadth of the country and represent all sections of society. Why then should we disparage authors and content creators for taking mythology and doing with it what they will if it means that our children and their children will keep the best of our ancient beliefs close to their hearts and value it forever?

Hopefully future generations will take the old stories, add a little something new in keeping with their times and infuse them with a delicious irreverence and wicked humour that will make the most sacrilegious and contentious authors and mythmakers of the present-day roll in their graves. That would be fine too, because ultimately, we cannot have too much of a good thing especially when it is our good thing. Besides, mortals will live, love, outrage, despair, and die, but Indian mythology itself is immortal.

The author is a bestselling author and New Age Indian Classicist. She can be reached at anujamouli@gmail.com.

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