mythology

Jaded's picture

Learning Relevance Through Erasure

One of the few things people connect with India besides Slumdog Millionaire and hub of cheap Third World labour are the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat — which are of course, anglicised to Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost always, these epics are seen as the narrativisation of ‘the great oral tradition of storytelling’, basing this tradition in the past, which not only increases the net worth of such a text but also binds the epic with ‘history’; it’s seen as a ‘pre-colonial’ Indian¹utopia and as the ‘pure’ culture, while neatly obliterating the existence of more than a few hundred narrativisations of these epics — which are subjective to the caste and class of the community they come from — and they’re seen synonymously with Hinduism and our religions — meanwhile western epics like the Iliad and Odyssey are seen as Great Literature and not the representative of a population. Thanks to this pact with ‘history’, these texts are seen as — forcibly — situated texts that describe how Things Were Back Then and almost always read when mirrored with Christianity or the western gaze. So when the text turns out to have any contemporary beliefs or depict any ‘modern’ behaviour, it is hailed as a new ‘discovery’, when in reality these ‘discoveries’ have always existed in the texts. Insert quip about colonisation here.

Lately, there is a new surge of reading ‘religious’ texts through a queer perspective, which perplexes me to no end — for these particular texts, Mahabharat especially, have always been queer texts. I grew up with stories from the Mahabharat and have known tales of Krishna and Radha role-playing and switching genders, Arjun living as a woman for a year with a man’s mind, Draupadi as the daughter born of a man’s body — and these are a few instances I can remember without even looking at the texts my grandmum used to read. Agreeably, in most re-tellings of this epic, even these gender transgressions are somehow inserted into patriarchy — Krishna becomes a ‘womaniser’ who doesn’t mind ‘playing around’, Arjun is written and seen as a character who ‘just dresses as a woman’ while retaining his identity and physical form, Draupadi’s birth is naturalised — however what these studies do is anthropologically ‘carve out’ queer instances and characters, instead of just rescuing the regional-dialectical re-telling from the mainstream one. Not to mention, even these queer characters are seen through the Western lens and then we have debates and papers arguing just why Arjun isn’t a trans* character, without taking into account that being trans* across different cultures or that even ‘queer’ manifests in different forms here. Because of such ritual and continuous exotification, books like Devdutt Pattaniak’s ‘The Pregnant King‘ are a cause for wonder and amazement in the Western world — more like a mild case of, “I used to be Brown but now I Think!”.

Jaded's picture

Going Behind The Old Stone Face

As a country dedicated to be a hub for Westerners to feel 'at home' or to 're-find themselves', India peddles a lot of things right by your nose -- to the delight of the omnipresent DoucheColonial Gaze--  as long as they fit the frame of being 'exotic' and condescendingly charitable. Like the handmade paper by limbless workers, the Snake Dance performed by devdasis or Temple Dancers or anything that evokes the same sentiment that Slumdog Millionaire did: consumable, understandable and decoded culture, set to lively Bollywood beats, ready for you to devour it and then feel better for being as far away as possible from a culture or space that 'terrible'. In this process of re-packaging and selling culture, we've started buying it ourselves. That our religions or gods were indeed some mystified beings, that they did really exist at one point, and we will seek legal proof of just that -- as opposed to the previously held belief that they were well written and formed myths or epics -- that festivals need to be celebrated collectively, publicly, catastrophically till all semblance of an 'I' is washed away and in its place remains the bigger, more heavily inscribed 'We', till the act of worshiping god becomes an exhibitionist ritual while the personal in religion is coloured invisible.

Eyes glowering. Sometimes raised, sometimes fixed. Rock steady.

The last two weeks have been what we call in India 'Navratri', where most of the overtly Hindu regions of the country break into a folk tradition of dance and celebration to felicitate the myth of a Goddess who slayed a Horrid, Horrid Monster some centuries ago and in her memory we perform this ritual. There are ambiguous reasons behind this Goddess Amba some say she is another avatar of Shakti (the root of all feminine folklore), some believe she existed outside Shakti and some believe she is tied up with Creation itself, seeing how she is the Mother of the Universe. Whatever the reason may have been for her creation, today she is one of the ideals of femininity; an extremely non-threatening one at that. The myth I grew up with was the demon Mahisasura had got himself a boon of immortality and specifically speaking requested that "No god nor animal" will be able to match up to him, conveniently forgetting to include 'Woman'. So the Gods from their Heavenly Seats decided to make such a woman, where each God gave her some of his special powers, she was given extra limbs and a weapon in each arm, to kill the demon. One thing that strikes me is how she is ManMade, how she is created with a specific purpose in mind, she has utility for the DudeCouncil and that she wouldn't exist at all -- or even occupy the few hundred lines she does in our epics -- had it not been for one vain demon. Just like Eve, she too is half, incomplete without her demon; she has no role to play except fly into a rage, use her Shakti to restore peace unto Earth, displaying sanctioned amounts of rage on the source of 'Evil' after which she dissolves into obscurity without a trace.

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