The power of the myth

Print edition : August 08, 2014

A mural at the Ramasamy temple in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu, depicting a scene from the Ramayana. Myths still charm us, involve us, move us, encourage us to intervene in history, positively or negatively, leading us backward or forward speaking often as they do of utopias in the future or golden ages in the past. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

A man dressed up as Maveli trying to attract clients to a commercial outlet in Kozhikode district in Kerala. Myths had been employed during the freedom struggle, too, but chiefly to arouse national pride and invite people to join the anti-colonial struggle. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Uday Bhembre, Konkani writer and scholar, at the two-day National Seminar on Konkani Ramayanas in Mangalore on October 2, 2010. Situations and characters in the major epics were taken up again and again for the interpretation of new social, political and mental states and structures. Photo: R. Eswarraj

THE term “myth” is not used here exclusively or chiefly in the extended sense in which Roland Barthes uses it in his Mythologies to denote certain semiotic constructions of ideological intent; nor as it is used in common sense discourse meaning just a superstition or a lie widely believed in and accepted as truth. However, the meaning of myth in the context of these deliberations does not rule out these possibilities of elaboration since it has a profound relationship with the concepts of truth and untruth and the mechanisms of truth production with which modern thinkers such as Nietzsche, Barthes and Foucault are concerned with.

No account of the relation between myth and literature can proceed without defining the term myth, and this is the very subject of myth studies. On the one hand, there is the question as to what myths actually refer to, since they have come to mean many different things from primitive and sacred rituals to propaganda and ideological statements. On the other, there is a lot of confusion and conflicting argument over how to define the significance of myth. There seem to be only two ways of making sense of either of these questions of reference and significance. We can argue historically following the development and functioning of myths and their passage into mythology, or we can concentrate on the nature of the mythic, or mythicity, rather than on certain myths. Here, we can even become concerned with the ontological status of myth as part of a general theory of human expression.

The paradox of myths is that they are factually false, not true in that form at least; but they have a power that transcends their inaccuracy, even depends on it. Myths are believed, but not in the same way history is. Those who subscribe to a myth may assert its “truth” by which they often imply a valuable meaning. History is what myth is not; history will lose its value if it is not factually true. But myths help us ask even more basic questions about human meaning, and this is what gives them continued relevance in the successive ages of man. Marx was wrong in supposing in Grundrisse that myths would not survive science: they still charm us, involve us, move us, encourage us to intervene in history, positively or negatively, leading us backward or forward speaking often as they do of utopias in the future or golden ages in the past. (We may recall how the myth of Rama, of his mythical birthplace Ayodhya and the Ram Sethu he is supposed to have built with the help of Hanuman, led to major political controversies in the recent past. Read this with the recent statements, prompted by faith rather than science, on the epics by Y.S. Rao, the newly anointed Chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research.) The meaning of myth has been historically evoked through many versions of its main themes: myth as the source of history (“euhemerism”) or as religion, morality or an expression of psychological origins. There is mythic form in which the structural significance of myth is said to be in its metaphorical word play as pointed out by Vico, Mueller and Schlegel or in its symbolic consciousness as demonstrated by Jung and Ernest Cassirer. These arguments are closely linked to theories of the function of myth as ritual, speculation or wish fulfilment and even as primitive science.

Mythopoeic imagination

All aspects of the thematic, formalist and functionalist arguments about myth seem to be relevant to literary studies. Mythological references in literature establish our psychological origins or the structure of our collective unconscious: we all know how a single reference to a character or situation in an episode of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata suddenly illuminates a whole personal or social context and unleashes a flood of associations in the readers or listeners. Names such as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Kumbhakarna, Sita, Kaikeyi, Urmila, Ravana, Soorpanakha, Hanuman, Sambooka, Sabari, Bali or Sugreeva in the Ramayana, or Krishna, Arjuna, Karna, Ekalavya, Drona, Dhritarashtra or Draupadi in the Mahabharata are used in daily conversation in India to invoke specific associations; this is also true of certain episodes in these epics. They reveal the binary structures of thought or fantasy dislocation or problem reflection. They may ironically prefigure literary meaning or act as the primary language of experience. In addition to these thematic variations, literary myth studies from those of the German Romantics to Barthes have argued for the importance of mythopoesis—the mythopoeic imagination as the source of the power of both myth and the best of literature. This is close to Frank Kermode’s well-known idea that myth “short-circuits the intellect and liberates the imagination”, or Northrop Frye’s view of literature as “displaced mythology” or John Vickery’s argument that Fraser’s The Golden Bough has propelled the modern (Western) imagination along an important mythopoeic course.

Myth today is so encyclopaedic a term that it means everything or nothing. We can find in it whatever we want to say is essential about the way humans try to interpret their place on earth. Myth is a synthesis of values which uniquely manages to mean most things to most men. It is “allegory and tautology, reason and unreason, logic and fantasy, waking thought and dream, atavism and the perennial, archetype and metaphor, origin and end”, to quote Eric Gould ( Mythical Intentions in Modern Indian Literature). Thematics and the search for the powerful motif have given rise to unearned optimism, befuddlement, revolutionary subversion and even fascism as in the case of the Nazis who nourished the myth of “Aryan” superiority or the champions of what M.N. Srinivas would call “Sanskritisation” in India. Whatever the ideological use to which it is put, somehow myth has proven itself essential or very close to essential, within the cultural and social scheme of things. Myths apparently derive their universal significance from the way in which they try to reconstitute an original event or explain some fact about human nature and its worldly or cosmic contents.

Multiple interpretations

All myths seem to have an ontological gap between event and meaning. A myth intends to be an adequate symbolic representation by closing that gap; yet its meaning is perpetually open and universal only because once the absence of the final meaning is recognised, the gap itself demands interpretation, which in turn must go on and on, for language is nothing if it is not a system of open meaning. A myth may deal with ultimate questions, but its repeated exploitation of the fact that its questions have no answers leads to a linguistic crisis, to the inadequacy of human language, or a need to resort to trans-linguistic facts such as God or nature: we realise that our ability to interpret our place in the world is distinctly limited by the nature of language. We are aware of the arguments of the trans-rationality of myth from the traditional Jungian perspective. The problem lies in determining the extent of that unreason. The mystery of the origin of myth most often finds its place in versions of Jung’s theory of collective unconscious. Cassirer and Langer also suggest that the gap in myth between event and meaning requires the verbalisation of some “motor expression” or states of feeling to replace the motor expression of the “holy”, as proposed by myth critics like Mircea Eliade or Rudolph Otto. There is one line of critics from Vico to Malinowsky, Durkheim, Mauss and Levi-Strauss who have tried to bridge this gap through positivistic and rationalist approach, aligning myth with rationality; another line aligns myth with the evolution of consciousness as is done by Herder who treats myths as allegories, or Max Mueller who considers myth a “linguistic disease”, while a third group of eminent modernists, including Jean Piaget and Barthes consider myth to be superior reason. Existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidegger associate myth with the basic questions of being, encompassing and nothingness; structuralists such as Propp, Levi-Strauss, Todorov and Kristeva try to offer a poetics for mythic form, and post-structuralists such as Derrida look at the institutionalisation of the mythic discourse as a linguistic phenomenon. In short, there are ways and ways of looking at myth and its relationship to literature and life.

In some sense, literary modernisms seem to begin with the deployment of myths in an attempt to articulate the complexity of the contemporary human predicament, thus innovating the tradition and putting it in the service of the individual genius of the writer, the genius of the specific language, and the modern situation. Myths had been employed during the freedom struggle, too, but chiefly to arouse national pride and invite people to join the anti-colonial struggle. Later, it came to be used to comment on the new, postcolonial, situation with its doubt, despair and dilemma as in Dharmveer Bharati’s Andhayug, Girish Karnad’s Yayati, Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s Jatayu, Balamani Amma’s Viswamitra, Ayyappa Paniker’s Kurukshetram, N.N. Kakkad’s Vajrakundalam, or Sitakant Mahapatra’s Yashoda’s Soliloquy, and Pratibha Satpathy’s Shabari.

Situations and characters in the major epics were taken up again and again for the interpretation of the new social, political and mental states and structures. Mahabharata, with its polyphony and its almost inexhaustible hermeneutic potential, inspired several novels such as Shivaji Savant’s Mrityunjay, V.S. Khandekar’s Yayati (both Marathi), Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni, Haladhar Nag’s Achia (The Untouchable, a Dalit novel that uses the Sabari story), both Odiya, Vasudev Mohi’s Ekalavya (Sindhi), S.L. Bhyrappa’s Parva, Anupama Niranjana’s Madhavi, both Kannada, Uday Bhembre’s Karnaparva (Konkani), M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (The Second Turn), P.K. Balakrishnan’s Ini Njaan Urangatte (Let Me Sleep Now), and V.T. Nandakumar’s Karnan (all the three Malayalam), and Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and P. Lal’s The Mahabharat of Vyas (both English). C.N. Sreekantan Nair’s drama trilogy, Kanchana Sita, Saketam and Lankalakshmi and Sara Joseph’s series of short stories based on Ramayana in Malayalam (some of which are collected in Retelling the Ramayana: Voices from Kerala (OUP, 2005), Kuvempu’s play, Shudra Tapaswi, in Kannada, Bhisham Sahni’s Madhaviin Hindi, and Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi in Bengali, are some examples of the subversion of myths through ethical/political interrogation. The Ahalya myth in Ramayana has been interpreted variously by Tamil writers such as Suradha, Na. Pichamurthy, Murugasundaram, Jnani and Pudumaipithan (remember his famous story, Saabhavimochanam or Deliverance). If Viswanatha Satyanarayana wrote Ramayana Kalpavrikshamu,which is “pro-myth” (reaffirming the hegemonic reading), Muppalla Ranganayakamma wrote Ramayana Vishavriksham that is “anti-myth” (interrogating and subverting the hegemonic interpretation). Shudra Tapaswi, a radical retelling of the Sambooka episode in the Ramayana, is an indictment of the caste system while the other two reassert the plurality of the Indian philosophical traditions and seem to adopt a Buddhist view of life where everything is self-moulded, momentary and empty.

S. Kanakaraj, while examining the transformation of myth in Girish Karnad’s plays, Hayavadana and The Fire and the Rain, share with the works of William Faulkner, Robert Pen Warren, Saul Bellow, T.S. Eliot, John Barth and Chinua Achebe an attitude to myths where myths serve as the literary tools for reviewing postmodern life situations. Mukund Rao’s Rama in the English story Rama Revisited, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Jartakaru in the Kannada story of that name, and Girish Karnad’s Vakratund and Hayagriva in the Kannada play, Hayavadana, and Yavakri in The Fire and the Rain also turn into metaphors for certain conditions of existence. Paul Zacharia, Sara Joseph and Anand in Malayalam have made radical use of the Bible for critiquing evil and violence. Thus, myths have been employed at times to reinforce the status quo and more often to look at nature, society and relationships from fresh and often radical points of view. The irreverent iconoclasm exploding mythic paradigms breaks the shackles of ideological conditioning and gives voice to the long-suppressed aspirations of the marginalised majority silently clamouring for truth and ethics.



At least since the 1970s, our literatures seem to have entered a phase of revisionist myth-making where myths are re-visioned and reinterpreted from original perspectives. The feminist, tribal and Dalit discourses have been particularly productive in their retellings: marginalised or oppressed characters such as Sambooka of the Ramayana slain by Rama for doing penance, a right denied to the sudras, or Ekalavya of the Mahabharata disempowered by the Brahmin Drona who asked for Ekalavya’s thumb as his teacher’s fee as the disciple, an avarna-outcaste, had secretly learnt what he was not authorised to learn, have appeared in tribal and Dalit literatures as protagonists and symbols of oppression. Characters such as Sita, Mandodari, Manthara, Soorpanakha and the wife of Sambooka have been portrayed by Sara Joseph as victims, often resisting victims, of patriarchal oppression and Ravana appears morally superior to Rama in her narratives. Such subversive interpretations often persuade us to interrogate our status-quoist notions of dharma from the point of view of the victims of the discriminatory social order: women, Dalits, tribals, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, thus employing myth in the service of democracy, human rights and social justice.

Paula Richman’s anthology, Ramayana Stories in Modern South India (Indiana University Press, 2008), carries several excellent samples of the free re-readings and counter-readings of episodes from the Ramayana by creative writers from the four major south Indian languages. Wendy Doniger in her two books on Hinduism has also interpreted a lot of Indian myths in the light of modern psychoanalysis. No wonder the champions of a synthetic, monolithic Hindu religion (which never existed in history) inspired by the colonial perceptions of Western Orientalism, the Judaic concepts of religion and the Nazi deployment of traditional myths and symbols find such re-readings hurtful.

We may here recall how an exhibition organised in New Delhi by Sahmat on the Ramayana tradition which showcased the diversity of the interpretations of the epic story as well as an exhibition of M.F. Husain’s paintings based on the Ramayana and other mythical tales were vandalised by Hindu zealots. The same forces had also pressured Delhi University to take A.K. Ramanujan’s scholarly essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas” off the syllabus. All these go to show how myths continue to impact our lives and our imagination and how the defenders of the status quo are prone to fight every new use to which myths are put except their own political use of it.

Myth and literature

Myth was literature until recently when we began to believe that literary texts have an epistemological potential and can reveal the truth. Later myth came to be increasingly replaced by history as stories that really happened. This coincided with the birth of the “author” who is supposed to be blessed with special insights into the order of superior reality. Even then myth continued to define and shape literature prominently. By the second half of the 18th century, countries in Western Europe began to develop a national consciousness that compelled them to construct histories and lineages for themselves.

Myth was now being used in literature to serve the hegemonic political entity. Fiction writers such as Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle in Britain helped project the nation as an unproblematic and unbroken entity that continues into the future. This construction of the Nation happened also in India. A serious and recognisably modern use of myth in literature takes the shape of an existential exploration of either a putative past from the present or the present from the past. R. Shasidhar in an essay (“Literature and New Myths” in Myth in Contemporary Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi) demonstrates this with the Kannada works of P. Lankesh, Girish Karnad and H.S. Shivaprakash, who have all drawn from the history and myth of the Veerashaiva movement of the 12th century in order to explore the existential traumas of our times.

Myth becomes especially powerful when it is seen in an ahistorical, universal frame as is done by O.V. Vijayan in his Saga of Dharmapuri. Vishvanath Khaire has attempted a rationally consistent understanding of the mythological material in the Vedas, Brahmanas and epics. With plenty of examples, he proves that the metaphors and narratives in them are replete with reflections of the social structure and class dominance in Indian society across ages. Sanskrit mythology, the scholar says, was created by members of the priestly class who were themselves speakers of Indian folk tongues. Indian mythology has to be studied in the multicultural setting of a subcontinent in space and five millennia in time ( Understanding Indian Mythology; ibid).

Speakerly texts

Jain poets such as Pampa and Kumaravyasa in Kannada found it difficult to accept the Brahmin ideology underlying the epics; so they had to interpret them afresh. Kuvempu, too, exposes the cruelty and absurdity of the Kurukshetra war in the play Smashana Kurukshetram and turns Sambooka into a hero in Shudra Tapaswi. Folk and tribal epics also re-vision traditional legends and folk myths.

Mahasweta Devi mediates between two worlds separated by thousands of years in stories such as “Draupadi”, “Shishu”, “Bichchan” and “Sesh Samman” and yet seem to live side by side. She creates a new language, a “third term” stemming out of the two distinct worlds with their distinct languages that she negotiates. This, as Subha Chakraborty Dasgupta says (“Contesting Polarities, Creating Spaces: Myth in Mahasweta Devi’s Stories”; ibid), is fashioned out of oral as well as written traditions leading to a “speakerly” text. It is with the dynamism of these “speakerly” texts that myths receive form and functionality in the modern context. Bhalchandra Nemade’s nativist use of myth in his Marathi novels Kosla and Bidhar helps him counter the modernist onslaught of excessive individualism while Vilas Sarang’s use of myth in Enkichya Rajyat typifies the opposite, what P.G. Deshpande calls “the avant-garde swell of excessive individualism”. The retellings of the kissa (tale) of Pooran Bhagat in modern Punjabi literature move from the spiritual to the subaltern. The expansive ambiguity of the story allows for re-inscriptions. Authors such as Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Atamjit, Ajmer Singh Aulukh and Iqbal Ramoowalia represent a gradual displacement of the original story that brings in new significations.

Myths have not only survived science and technology but will continue to fascinate creative minds who find in them the threads to weave their own narratives that reflect the traumatic times they live in, despite the threats from the revivalists and the proscriptions of the status-quoists.

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