Free Press Journal

Hindu Mythology in Contemporary Popular Writings: Revisionist or Revivalist?


Roll of Dice: Duryodhana’a Mahabharata. Ajaya

By Anand Neelkanthan

Publisher: Leadstart


Jaya                                                                      The Shiva Trilogy

By Devdutt Pattanaik                                           By Amish Tripathi

Publisher: Penguin India                                      Publisher: Westland


The Krishna Key                                                  Kaurava (The Aryavarta Chronicles)

By Krishna Udayasankar                                      By Ashwin Sanghi

Publisher: Hachetter India Local                          Publisher: Westland Ltd.


Several popular and best selling books today include lesser known stories in Hindu mythology that are re told in an innovative ways. There seems to be a surge in books, movies and art that analyse episodes and epics in Hindu mythology, re reading and deriving unexplored meanings from a contemporary perspective. Re telling Hindu myths played an important role in the Indian nationalist struggle (it helped in imagining a nation state). The myths and the traditional styles of the narratives played an important role in revival of culture and in acting as a unifying force within the society. It helped in imagining an Indian nation state with an identity, history and culture of its own. Myths, as Nietzsche suggested, worked as cultural foundations that saves the society from fragmentation. It built cultural bonds that brought people together to justify life as desirable in spite of its dark moments. Hindu mythology appeared as a literary device in the works of Indian writers including Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Raja Rao and R K Narayan (to name a few). Allusions to Hindu mythology in novels such as Anandmath, Kanthapura acted as powerful devices for expressing the personal and political aspirations and dilemmas of the writers.

Though Hindu mythology continues to remain a favoured genre, contemporary interest in Hindu mythology adopts a different approach and is consumed in different ways unique to the times.  Contemporary writing of Hindu mythology donot treat it as sacrosanct text; there are creative interpretations and the stories are analyzed, dissected, delve into ambiguous areas and derived meanings are corroborated by discussions and dialogues of readers, thinkers and academicians. The epics are reinterpreted in a way that makes them less godly and more human. The protagonists possess all human emotions including the weaker ones. Their struggles and battles may not always seen driven by higher purposes.  The narrative of the myths have changed as universal journeys of characters are retold from individual’s point of view. These bring out the human side of the Gods and has made it possible for readers to relate to them in newer ways. The characters are critiqued, scrutinized, storyplots are questioned and connected with contemporary ideologies and issues. Books like The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi goes back and forth in time, from Krishna’s life (from his birth to death) and to contemporary times, when a killer believes himself to be the Kalki avatar, Amish Tripathi’s The Shiva Trilogy that re creates Shiv, Sati, and other related mythological characters as humans, Krishna Udayshankar’s The Aryavartha Chronicles too relates mythological characters with human situations and sensibilities. Contemporary re-telling’s also attempt a version of feminist revisionist mythology that aims at a strategic revisionist use of gender imagery to transform culture and subvert the heritage that women inherit. Devdutta Pattanaik’s Sita:An Illustrated Retelling of Ramayana, Moyna Chitrakar and Samhita Arni’s Sita’s Ramayana explore Ramayana from Rama’s abandoned queen’s perspective, Sujoy Ghosh’s Ahalya inverts the story of Sage Gautama’s wife, Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revisits Mahabhrata from the perspective of Draupadi and Kavita Kane’s Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen are few examples of popular literature that weave threads of sexuality and feminism in the narration of myths. Attempts at subverting morality and the notions of evil and good, books like The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udyasankar , Asura: The Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan , Duryodhana by V. Ramanathan, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurucharan Das attempt to raise important issues of morality from the contemporary perspective. Spoken from the perspectives of the villains of the stories the books aim at reformulating the notions of dharma that dominate Hindu ethics. Books like Devdutta Pattaniak’s Shikandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You and The Pregnant King attempt at re telling the narratives from the perspectives of marginalized voices of the epics.

Yet the narratives fall short of being a literary revolution that resist appropriations and infuse the old with new meanings and purpose. Plural versions of morality and ethics appear parallel to original narratives, not as alternative conditions that can play an active role in re shaping societies towards justice and tolerance. The reconstructed narratives do not intervene and dismantle the traditional narratives in a way that remaps the older territories to expose its biases and lapses. Thus the resurgent interest in Hindu mythology, does raise issues of its relation with the larger ideology of Hindutva that dominates Indian politics. It may seem that the reinterpretation of myths are closely related to the revival of Hindu nationalism and identity; considering that almost all of popular culture’s mythological source is Hindu. The pace of its production is unmatched and there is little doubt that this revived interest has brought in change in moral consciousness of people that is not necessarily making them receptive to other cultures.

The richness of the texts that make it open to interpretation is celebrated as a mark of superiority of the Hindu tradition over other religions and traditions. This revivalist ethos has found a new market in different mediums of communication and has found state support for various reasons ranging from preservation of art, preservation of heritage sites or for political uses. It is also closely related to the ethos of overall taking pride in being Indian. Post economic liberalization and globalization there is tendency to take pride and celebrating a sense of Indianess commonly constructed by a Hindu religious identity.

Revival of Hindu myths has seldom been separate from the construction of a nation state and specific religious identities. With the continued reinforcement of Hindu iconography across mediums it is possible to argue that myth, as Roland Barthes uses it in Mythologies, functions as a synonym of ideology. Ideology refers to the body of beliefs and representations that sustain and legitimatize current power relationships. Ideologies promote the values and interests of dominant groups within society. Political theorist Terry Eagleton explains it “as a dominant power that legitimates itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident…; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself.” Thus, ideologies frequently take the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts, from which arises the conception of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. This definition of ideology is relevant to Barthes’ version of mythology . Common to both ideology and myths is the notion of a socially constructed reality that is circulated as natural. The opinions and values of historically and socially specific contexts are upheld as universal values and truths. Attempts to challenge this naturalisation process are dismissed from serious consideration and the real exploitative power relations are obscured, references to all tensions and difficulties blocked out, glossed over, their political threat of homogenisations and exclusions is diffused.

Though there is a thin line in understanding this phenomena as revivalist of revisionist, the oscillation in its narratives between breaking and reviving certain class, caste, gender and religious stereotypes through seeming critical and creatively progressive reinterpretations, makes an interesting case of the dangers of ideological imaginations (in this case synonymous with mythical imaginations) becoming utopian. While questioning, challenging, negating and reversing the original, popular reconstruction of myths has also becomes a means of controlling, ordering and giving significance to the immense anarchy that characterizes contemporary history. As far as they remain at the realm of mere reflections, contemporary mythology will cease to do justice to the potential of myths to create alternatives that conflict with power establishments and resonate with the ambivalent Other.