Monday, June 7, 2010

The Epic and the Avatar: Between Myth, Religion and Fiction – 2

One of the constant questions that I get asked (and sometimes ask myself), is: Why search for alternative explanations? Why insist that the Epics are filled with metaphor, or interpolations?

In short, what’s wrong with the Mahabharata (or any Epic), as it is?

Why not accept the story as it stands? So what if there are events that seem magical, even ridiculous in these modern times. So what if relationships, people, behaviours seem both impossibly noble, and impossibly base? Why dispute legend?

Because, it is legend.

And behind every legend, there is something more. Let us consider for the purposes of illustration, a mythical creature well known to all, and often found in legend – the half-man, half-horse centaur. How could such a legend have got a start?

The possibilities are:

a) There truly existed half-man, half-horse creatures in the past; but they are now extinct.

b) Some ancients saw men mounted on horses for the first time, and were spooked enough to think these were part-man and partly-horse. Moreover, they continued to remain spooked, after getting a closer look.

c) The ancients knew that there were horsemen, but were using poetical metaphor to convey the bond between rider and steed (one creature – part man, and part horse...)

d) They were being deliberately misleading to protect the existence of horse-tribes, and to use the information to their own gains.

e) Other.

Choosing from the options:

Option A: Not impossible, but doesn’t seem very plausible right now, given our current knowledge of past species, and the Theory of Evolution, both. After all, humans and horses belong to different genus, and their biological make-up may not have been compatible enough for a unified form to evolve. Having said all of which, I’ll take this back the day they find the first centaur fossil.

Option B: Again, not impossible. But, it is kind of hard to believe that the men and women of Epic times were that silly. Perhaps I indulge here in the same kind of veneration that I criticise in others, but then, how else could we explain the fact that these characters have survived the test of time.

Or perhaps, I should be candid – I do not like this explanation. It makes my characters, my wonderful, brave characters, look rather stupid.

Option C: Poetic metaphor, even pun and wordplay, are to be expected. Especially so if the scribes of old were exactly that – scribes. Word-smithy may have been a lauded art, and the use of new word-forms and metaphors would be an appreciated talent. Anyone who wanted to recount dry, dull, facts could write academic papers instead.

Option D: At the same time, we cannot dismiss the possibility that some degree of secretiveness underlay the use of metaphors. It may not even have been meant in guile.

I once heard that the first-nations or aboriginal peoples of Australia used their songs and dances to transmit information about different animals and how to hunt them. They also gave metaphorical descriptions of natural landforms, as maps and guides; which each tribe or group doing so in their inimitable style.

And that is what some of the ancient scribes and seers of Epic India were doing.

Option E: Most likely, it is a combination of factors, of the four options above, which gives us a legend as it is today. Perhaps the people of the Mahabharata times heard some stories as legend, just as we do today. Perhaps they were familiar with the mythical creature known (to us) as a centaur, just as we are familiar with it today.

Fear and awe can often become intermingled with legends of the unknown, to give new life to old legends. Some of what is added, revised becomes canon; and the next generation then re-interprets this new body of lore, in its own way.

Things get added as art, as metaphor, as homage to ancient tales – precisely the same reasons why we analyse and retell the Epics, in our times.

In conclusion... (at last)

To say that the answer lies in no one thing, but rather in the combination of the many is admittedly rather vague, and evasive. That, is precisely why, legends take on a life of their own.

And so it is, that the forest-kings of Dakshina-varta (the Deccan Peninsula of today), with their monkey-emblems and bear-skin accessories become the monkey-kings and bear-chiefs of the Ramayana.

Similarly, the Rikshasas – Vriksha or tree-people, forest dwellers of the north, become the terrible Rakshasas of legend. Their animal horn helmets, and tiger-tooth necklaces were perhaps morphed into the horned heads and fanged teeth still seen today in TV serials and movies where these ‘forces of darkness’ make an appearance.

We cannot stop that. We cannot undo the effects of time. This is evolution in its own right, and we cannot undo it. To be unaware, and to be aware of the process, both contribute to it. Beyond that, the choice is ours.

For my part, I choose a world of Epic lore that may be slightly better, but not significantly different, from the world around me. It brings me that much closer to what I write.

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