Let me start with the conjecture on this one.
20-something Indians do not read Hindu Mythology because of one or more of the below reasons:
- Utter tragedy : They do not read at all. They don’t know the difference between reading for pleasure & ‘studying’. Both are boring, tiresome and sleep inducing. But let me take this (sadly huge) population out of consideration of this post.
- Prejudice : They do not read anything Indian. Every piece of literature by Indian authors is soppy or lacks originality or lacks depth or has bad English & editing or is just plain boring. They are happy with the Harry potters, Sydney Sheldons, John Grishams, Paulo Coelhos and Ayn Rands.
- Peer pressure : They think that if they are seen reading Hindu mythology, their friends would think that they are too religious and too old-fashioned!
- Narrow-mindedness – They think Mythology = Religion. The agnostics and atheists would have nothing to do with it because it would mean they endorse religion. The believers would have nothing to do with it because they were raised saying that the sacred texts are holy and not to be read for pleasure and/or they think the modern interpretations of the epics are too irreverent to the Gods and religion.
- Ignorance – They simply do not know that Hindu Mythology is vast, interesting and is a treasure trove of stories and philosophy. Their knowledge of the basics of the epics is from the cleaned up Amar Chitra Katha comics, Ramanand Sagar’s TV serials on DD, and a handful of old low budget movies.
How I wish all points in the above conjecture vanish into thin air! The first few might just vanish once the question is raised and they are pointed out. The Ignorance bit needs to be addressed.
Now, I love Hindu mythology. I love the variety, the fantasy world, the philosophy, the open-ended nature of the stories and the sheer number of stories. But I rarely find a person in my age group to discuss Hindu mythology with.
How many 20-something folks know who Ghatothgaj is, know the beautiful feminism in the story of princess Chitrangada or the birth story of Pandu & Drithirastra? How many know how Rama ends his ‘avatar’? Or what happens to the Pandavas after the Mahabharata war?
But the moment you ask people to consider reading the Ramayana or Mahabharata, they ask questions.
To people who ask “just why would I read such big tomes with a deluge of characters – with flying monkeys and women impregnated by boons?” : The same reason that you read Harry Potter. Treat the epics as pure fantasy fiction, you can thoroughly enjoy it. The sheer number of stories and characters and how they are cleverly interlinked makes for real good brain exercise and reading pleasure.
To people who ask “ha. . fantasy is so childish. What do I gain from reading this stuff?” : If mystery thrillers, romantic novels and ‘contemporary drama’ gives you information of the state of the art murder weapons, the coolest things to do or say while in or just out of a relationship and a general ‘slice of life’, well written interpretations of the Ramayana & Mahabharata give you entertainment, insights into life, philosophical arguments and make you question your own take of life and society.
To people who ask “wait. . aren’t these texts preachy? Don’t they try to convince you that Gods exist and that you go to hell if you fail to believe?” Yes, they do talk about God, karma etc. But they never tell YOU what to believe or live life. They just present a story. Would you refuse to read or watch Harry potter because it tries to convince you that wizards and witches exist? Or do all Mills-n-Boons reading girls in India believe that falling in love is the only way to a happy marriage? It is always up to you to take or leave the ideas presented in any book. The narrative nevertheless, is entertaining, and purpose enough to read.
To people who say “ok. .I am not the philosophical type. How would knowing the intricacies of Ramayana & Mahabharata help me be ‘cool’?”: You would understand a lot more of the culture of the sub-continent. You go to a temple (ok ok, you get forced to go to a temple by your parents), you can look around and understand the sculptures and paintings better. Try showing off your knowledge to you parents (oh yes, they too do not know they details) & see them pleasantly surprised. Try bringing in the adultery and other scandalous details of the epics (oh, there’s lot of it. . generations in India have been fed highly censored versions!) during conversations with friends & watch them get shocked. It is truly fun 😉 Are you travelling across India? You can almost always find an incident in one of the epics associated with some place or region nearby – with temples and ‘archeological exhibits’ in some cases. Am I saying that these epics were real history & everything happened for real? No, I am saying that these epics are most likely based on real natural landmarks, real kingdoms that once existed and may be real people, with a whole load of fantasy elements added on by the story tellers’ imaginations.
Do you say “Is there the one and only book that is a must read? Point me to it, instead of going on and on about this!”? Sorry, the versions and interpretations of the epics are too many – both in ancient times and in modern times. Let me list the ones I have found interesting :
- Ashok Banker‘s Ramayana Series : A set of eight books. Most entertaining and suitably irreverent to the tastes of the 20-plus atheist. Made me fall in love with Ravana.
- In Search Of Sita Revisiting Mythology : A set of essays. Informative, though I couldn’t persist to the end of the book.
- The Palace of Illusions : Chitra Divakurani weaves magic with Draupadi and her unique equation with Karna.
- Bhimsen : Prem Panicker explores the point of view of the simple-minded glutton Bheema. Very interesting take on the Pandavas and Draupadi.
- The Great Golden Sacrifice Of The Mahabharata – Maggi Lidchi Grassi : From the point of view of Arjuna and Aswathama. Very intense. Explores the question of war and post-war.
- The Great Indian Novel : An adaptation of the Mahabharata to the timeline and people of the Indian freedom struggle. Want to be amused by satirical takes on M.K. Gandhi, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten? Grab this one ASAP. Hours of fun recollecting history & mahabharata guaranteed.
- The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi : Racy & un-put-downable. Interesting premise that the myths of Gods came from legends of real people. Do watch the book trailer of the 2 books that are out.
- Jaya : An illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata : Devdutt Patnaik has this very analytical and systematic style of story telling which is very engaging even if you are reading it after reading all the above interpretation of the epic!
- The Pregnant King by Devdutt Patnaik : Explores gender roles and ambiguity in gender in the context of Hindu mythology. Yes, the protagonist IS a king who gives birth!
Anyway, it is always nicer to know the history of the Indian story culture before reaching out for the Greek ones! It may be interesting to compare Indian & Greek mythologies too. I would say all mythologies would have been created for similar reasons, would include similar ‘lessons’, would have evolved and been made larger than life in similar ways, only with different cultural & geographical backdrops. Why should we miss out on our own set?