Retelling Mythology

I remember reading the newspaper reports on the 106th Indian Science Congress held in January 2019 where two speakers – one a Vice Chancellor of a reputed Indian University and the second, an independent researcher, inter alia claimed that Kauravas were born with the help of stem cell and test tube technologies, that Ravana did not just have Pushpak Vimana but twenty-four types of aircraft and that there were airports in Lanka!

‘What next?’ I asked my wife.

‘I think they will next refer to Panchatantra and claim that in earlier times, animals and birds could converse in human languages or that there was something like Google translator that could translate animal and bird conversations into human language,’ she was quick to retort, albeit with a smile.

That set me thinking. Why is it that we see mythologies and fables in different lights although both contain assertions that are contrary to known science? Why is it that mythologies are regarded as ‘true stories’ and fables as ‘false stories’? Is it because mythologies are rooted in religion while fables are not?

The religious angle assumes greater significance when we look around us. In US, there is an organised opposition to teaching Darwinism in schools as it is opposed to the Church’s view of creation. In the state of Lousiana for instance, the Lousiana Balanced Treatment Act, 1981 ordained that where evolution was taught in public schools, creation science must be taught along with it. The controversial Lousiana Science Education Act, 2008 which permits supplementary material to be taught that would enable the student to understand, review, critique and review scientific theories in an objective manner, enables teachers to teach church approved theory of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Kentucky, Wisconsin and Texas are also in various stages of permitting teaching of ‘intelligent design’ or ‘creation theory’ in public schools.[1]

Recently, US has seen a resurgence in ‘Flat Earth Societies’, many of them with celebrity members, holding a firm belief that the Earth is flat. The issue may not remain innocuous and can often assume sinister overtones. Jihadism in Islam is founded on the belief that the Jihadi on his death would be rewarded in heaven with 72 virgins and all that is forbidden on Earth. We are all painfully aware of the devastation wrought by fundamentalists in the name of religion.

Granted that religion and science have different purposes but do they necessarily have to be antithetical to each other? The laws we make are amended every other day with regard to the change in circumstances. The US Constitution has undergone 33 amendments and the Indian Constitution 103. The Companies Act in India was originally enacted in 1956, then replaced in 2013 and even the 2013 Act has been subjected to repeated amendments. Then why is it that the religious texts written or rituals prescribed a thousand years back are deemed to be iron cast and cannot be amended or at least re-interpreted in light of knowledge and wisdom gained over the last thousand years?

If Truth is God and if religion exhorts followers to follow the path of Truth, then can Truth be trashed on the apprehension that it would shake the foundation of religion? Did Galileo’s discovery that Earth moves around the Sun instead of the other way round, destroy Christianity? A religion is based on higher philosophy, morality and spirituality, not on the course followed by animate objects. Religion must teach people to deal with expanding horizons of knowledge and avoid its pitfalls. It would not be a true religion if it forces its followers to shut its eyes to knowledge and deliberately follow falsehood.

Since all the religions of the world are based around mythologies, it is time that we revisit and retell our mythologies in the light of knowledge and wisdom gained over the last millennia. There are some mythologies which can be scientifically explained. The others need to be regarded as fables that give a moral lesson. It is important to follow that moral lesson than quarrel over whether such an event actually occurred or not. When we read the Ramayana, what is important is the lesson that good ultimately triumphs over evil, howsoever strong the evil may appear to be. It is inconsequential whether Rama’s followers were actually monkeys or how Hanuman crossed the sea or whether Ravana had a plane that could fly.

When I wrote my book ‘Kanha to Krishna – the Journey to Divinity’, it was a tough call explaining away and rationalising the divine birth of Krishna. But what I realised was that Krishna was divine because of his karma and not his birth. My Krishna was born as a gop – a cowherd in the family of Nandrai and Yashoda and it was through fortuitous circumstances aided by politics of the time that he came into limelight. However, it was through his effort, focus, dedication and leadership qualities that he transcended the barriers of a caste and colour ridden society and transformed from a mere cowherd to an ‘Avatar’ who was accepted as their own and as a leader even by the higher caste Yadavas. Ascribing his success to supernatural powers is to belittle his efforts and his karma. It is interesting to note that even in the original texts, Krishna killed Kansa in a hand to hand combat and not by the use of any supernatural powers. My Krishna shows the way to others and inspires them to emulate his feats. What he does is doable provided we invest our heart and soul into the job.

The spread of internet over the past decade is all the more reason why we need to re-interpret our religious texts and re-tell our mythologies. Today we see a growing division between non-believers and fanatics, with hardly anyone in the middle.

A majority of the younger generation that is growing up on the internet has no time for fanciful religious stories. To them, there is no difference between mythological characters with supernatural powers and cartoon characters like Superman, Batman or Spiderman. They are plainly disinterested in religion. Yet, unknown to them, they miss out on the morals that our mythology and religion teaches. It is by reformulating our mythological stories and investing those stories with a strong human and scientific basis that we can create interest in them to read those stories. And it is through these reformulated mythological stories that we can create further interest in them for spirituality or religion and thereby provide some guidance or stability in an increasingly complex and volatile life.

A small section, on the other hand, is increasingly tilting towards fundamentalism. Reformulation of mythological stories of all religions to bring them in step with modern times and at the same time bring out lessons of respect, kindness and compassion towards one and all, is necessary to moderate the growing fundamentalist influences and develop spirituality in its stead.

Moral perceptions change over time. Equal rights for women, abolition of slavery, equality for all irrespective of religion, race, caste or colour, etc. are relatively recent concepts which are not there in many of the existing mythologies across different religions. Religion may be eternal but these values should also have similar status. It is necessary to reformulate the mythologies to do away with discriminatory references and bring them in tune with the times. In fact, the same applies to fairy tales also.

Words can make or break a man. We authors are blessed with the power of words. Can we not convince and inspire our readers to do good and keep away from evil? Let’s try it out – each in our own way.

 

Note: The author of this article, Pranab Mullick has done a retelling of Krishna's early days in his book, Kanha to Krishna

 

 

[1]  Report written by David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, and Michael Lipka, an assistant editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project

 

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