A Hanumanic Leap: We have to let India's mythological epics evolve beyond religion

Ten years ago, a friend recommended me Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series. I hadn’t heard of Banker’s work until then, but my friend sold me on this series (written in English) by describing it as a ‘Lord-of-the-Rings-esque’ retelling of one of India’s greatest epics.

Like most Indian kids growing up in the Doordarshan era, I was familiar with the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata through those ubiquitous 80s TV series. I had stood roadside by crowded markets to watch folk re-enactments—The Ramlilaof episodes from the epic, which are performed annually in my ancient hometown of Varanasi. I was familiar with simplified retellings (in Hindi and English) of the Ramayana in primary school textbooks or the Amar Chitra Katha comic strips.

As I grew older, I expanded my horizons to other mythologies from other cultures. To Homer and his Odyssey and Iliad. To stories of other Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, or tales of the Vikings, and Beowulf, and King Arthur, and to the more modern era fantasies like Star Wars, DC/Marvel superheroes, Hogwarts attendees, and of course, Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Banker’s series mixed the best of both worlds: a new, accessible adaption of a familiar Indian story. Over the next few years, I read the entire eight-part series. They weren’t written as well as LOTR of course (Banker is a good writer, but like most of us, he isn’t Tolkien!), but they were a fun read. Banker’s presented his expert knowledge of the epics in a refreshing, new way. He dealt with the demigods—Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman etc.—as they were: characters with shades of grey, with super-heroic traits as well as flaws, with a human consciousness that made them assess their decisions, feel guilt, love, hate, jealousy, loyalty, and more. In Banker’s telling, they were complex characters whom we could study, analyse, and understand. They were more than unimpeachable overlords with whom we only engaged with as idols in temples.

In the decade that followed, mythological fiction grew in immense popularity. Banker himself wrote a Krishna series and started one on the Mahabharata. His spiritual successors in this realm—authors like Amish Tripathi, Devdutt Pattanaik, and many more—turned this into the most-profitable genre of fiction writing in the country.

However, religious sensitivity and caution has forced many authors to tip-toe around the ‘human’ characteristics of the heroic characters in these stories, as if any flaw in them would be a blot on the religion itself.

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The popularity of mythological-fiction can be somewhat attributed to a new generation of English-educated Indians yearning for spiritual meaning or in reading exciting tales with familiar, household characters. I believe that our love for our epics is mostly a healthy obsession. But I say that knowing full well that I read these Hindu epics differently than many others.

For many, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata aren’t just stories—they are continuing frameworks for how to view the country’s present-day spiritual and political life. I am not one of those people. Despite being raised in a Hindu household in Varanasi—the city which is arguably the global capital of Hinduism—I am an atheist. I view India’s rich history of Hinduism and other religions from a cultural lens rather than a spiritual one. As I have understood it, Hinduism—in its truest form—was always more of a philosophy or a way of life rather than a set of strict religious practices. I don’t believe in any of the religion’s divinity or supernatural aspects, but I respect its positive cultural contributions to our community.

In Varanasi, I saw the India at its peak Indianess. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously-living cities in the world, and the banks of the Ganga here have been inhabited for millennia without interruption. Civilisations around the world have come and perished, new religions and new messiahs have been imagined, global maps have been changed, colonialism has come and gone, and the age of tech has arrived, and yet the city has continued unabated.

It’s in Varanasi’s timelessness that I see a small microcosm of a larger Indian disposition. For us, history has never been the past. It’s always around us, ever-present in the way we eat, travel, pray, and interact with each other.

Because the history has never left us, we have never stopped thinking of our epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—with continued relevance. These epics may have been conceived by oral tradition two to three thousand years ago, but these and other Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and more continue to spiritually and politically pertinent in India. Even as a nonbeliever, I can’t help but marvel at the staying-power and adaptability of this ancient religion, and be fascinated by many of its philosophical interpretations of reality.

Unfortunately, not letting go of this history—this past—can often hurt our present and our future. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are two of the greatest epics imagined in any culture in human history, but their literary and cultural value is wasted by religious fervour. Religious sensitivity is hindering scholars and artists from reinterpreting these epics and pushing them forward in more creative ways.

In my opinion, our epics—the stories, the characters, the legends—need to be made a part of mainstream global pop-culture like stories from the ancient Greek, Roman, Nordic traditions. For a long time, Ancient Greek was a religion and Zeus was its overlord. But time passed, science explained the attributes of Zeus (sky and thunder) and he graduated into a realm of mythology, rather than religion. This allowed literary and modern cultural interpretations of these Greek gods to exist in today’s world, with everyone understanding their significance but not treating their stories as gospel.

Ah, that word: gospel. When the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) replaced many pagan ones of the past, they insisted on gospel truths, on strict interpretations of books written by men. Sky and thunder had been explained, so perhaps those gods weren’t needed anymore. But these new gods were here to explain mankind’s other questions that science and philosophy hadn’t tackled yet.

Sometime funny happened over the past two millennia: even after science did tackle and explain a large percentage of our questions (including evolution), a majority of the world refused to stop believing. The Abrahamic religions, then, have remained in the mainstream, and their gospels continue to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways by believers and scholars. For example, some of the wildest stories in the Old Testament (six-day creation, Noah’s Ark, Jonah in the big whale, etc.) are understood as allegorical by some, but as fact/literate truth by others. The same can be said for many extreme interpretations of the Quran.

Having a uniform scripture (Bible, Quran, Torah) helped to limit the rules of each religion and thus make it easier for the followers to subscribe. Everything you need to do to be a Muslim is written in the Quran, and nothing more.

But what tenants do Hindus follow? Hinduism is considered the oldest-surviving religious tradition in the world, but it’s closer to the Ancient Greeks in its polytheistic/henotheistic ways than to the newer Abrahamic religions. Putting faces and names to Gods was itself a newer way of uncomplicating deeper cosmic ideas. In strict Hindu philosophy, the enlightenment of understanding the Maya (the illusory world) vs. the Atman (the deeper soul itself) is of greater significance than the idols in the temples. The religion isn’t limited by the idols worshipped in temples or tenants passed on by Brahminic Gurus. All enlightened people then—Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Guru Gobind Singh, etc.—are enlightened with the same knowledge, but they naturally interpreted this enlightenment in different ways by being borne in different circumstances during different places and times in world history. Inadvertently, they created different religions—albeit, all under the same cosmic philosophy.

Even within Hinduism, there is no one ‘truth’, but different cultural interpretations of a wave of similar beliefs. The most famous example, of course, is of the Ramayana’s Raavan, who is considered a villainous demon in some cultures, while he is an enlightened monk in others. Some interpretations view Ram and Raavan as polar opposites; some as two sides of the same coin.

Hindu culture isn’t a monolith like the Abrahamic religions: there are different types of Hinduism for mainstream North Indians, people from southern regions, tribes tucked away in Himalayan heights, in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia, and Thailand, and beyond.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been space for this nuanced appreciation of the religion in modern times. Mainstream Hinduism today has leaned too far into the political realm—as has every mainstream religion in the world—and many right-leaning groups are attempting to generalise a Hindu code to make it easier for the masses, a code like the one that exists for Christians in the Bible or Muslims in the Quran. This code is trying to shackle a freely interpreted religion into a set of rigid rules; rules that say that Hindus shouldn’t eat beef, that they shouldn’t inter-marry with other religions, that they should worship Shiva on Monday and Ganesh on Wednesday. The code divided Hindus up into different castes pitting the scholars—who wrote the code—on the very top.

It is this same code that has deified Ram and Lakshman, and the Pandavs and Krishna, instead of letting them exist in the mythological realm. The fanaticism of these beliefs has led many right-wing Hindutva groups to place unreasonable sentiment on fiction, such as the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya and the Ram Setu bridge connecting to Sri Lanka. Every religion has its imagined sacred entities, but increasingly, these entities are being exploited for political needs. Today, more people are sensitive about what a translated interpretation of Ram means, rather than being interested in the actual (fictional) character of Ram himself.

There have been many unfortunate consequences of religious sensitivity in India and beyond. For the sake of fictional interpretations, it has become more difficult for those who wish to make more creative adaptations or to present the mythological characters in unconventional and modern ways. Last year, violence and protests broke out around the country following the film adaption of the epic poem Padmavaat. One of Bollywood’s biggest actors, Aamir Khan, mentioned that he was now reconsidering his idea of a Mahabharata film because of the possible repercussions it could face in a country that has become more intolerant over the past few years.

(It’s a good thing nobody threatened Tulsidas when he wrote the Ramcharitmanas 400 years ago, a radical adaptation of Ram’s story for its time, which only turned out to be one of the greatest-ever works of Awadhi/Hindi literature).

Ram probably didn’t exist. But even if he did, even if he indeed was one of the avatars of god Vishnu, a supreme Being, a warrior with heavenly skills, would he really require regular 21st-century men to fight his battles for him? Would his legacy, enlightened beyond the realm of our illusory Earth, be so fragile as to be hurt by mere land-disputes? Would he, a symbol of compassion, ever approve of his so-called followers to taint his name with violence in his “honour”?

The questions above can be asked of any religion and the deity in whose name its followers lose their grasp of basic human goodness. In Ram’s case specifically, the fervour over religion is actually harming his real story. The heroes, villains, and everyone-in-between in the Ramayana and Mahabharata are truly some of the greatest characters ever envisioned. It might be a leap across hundreds of yojanas like Hanuman, but for the sake of preserving the authentic characteristics or our epics, it’s imperative that we see their complexities; that we resist the urge to limit them as one-dimensional idols or reflections of bhakti TV serials. I believe that by fully admitting their place in the realm of mythology, allegory, and imagination, they can become even ‘realer’ for the future generations.

We need more Bankers, more Pattanaiks, more versions of India’s mythological tales that fit the storytelling medium of our time, just like Tulsidas translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit to make it more accessible to a changing audience in his time. New adaptations will undoubtedly release new visions of the story, and allow the intended purpose of these epics to flourish. Just like the Hindu religion, the epics are not a neatly-packaged truth, but a wave, open to interpretation by all.