This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.
In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets, and the visualization of these stories (that until then were only narrated orally) in these shows was awe-inspiring. As is common for “mythology”, several different television and film adaptations of both Ramayana and Mahabharata have followed since; however, the early versions set the standard for how subsequent adaptations would be made. What has prompted me to write about superheroes and their superpowers is primarily the language that we use to describe on the one hand, “Hindu mythological” stories and on the other, stories of caped-crusaders produced primarily in the West. What I want to explore here is how the language of “mythology”, “myths”, and “miracles” puts the stories of Rama and Krishna in a different league from that of, say, Batman, Superman, etc. Superheroes in these contexts are defined or understood as someone with ‘higher mode of being’ transcending the mundane human lives; indeed as Indologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty puts it, ‘an enlightened sage’ who transcends the ‘world in which reality is defined by normal, social, conventional human existence’ (1980: 97).
The television shows Ramayana and Mahabharata portray central stories surrounding the lives of the Hindu deities Rama and Krishna, respectively. These stories include some of their heroics that establish their identities as deities amongst humans and thus, set them apart. For example, in an article that discusses the “myth” and “reality” of such stories, O’Flaherty gives an example of a story about Krishna: when Krishna, as a toddler, was caught eating mud by his mother, she asked him to open his mouth. He did, to reveal the entire universe, signifying that he was the embodiment of everything in this universe. Or the story where Krishna protects his devotee Draupathi by providing her with clothing when the cousins of her husbands attempt to humiliate her by disrobing her, as this video shows.
There are numerous such stories in Ramayana and Mahabharata (and other similar works classified as “Hindu mythology”). O’Flaherty, her problematic language aside, makes an important argument, that “mythology” made into a field of study has forced stories such as the above to fit within the framework of “myths” that need to have a function on a practical level because they concern deities (1980: 93) and are classified as “religious myths”. In doing so, these myths must then prove ‘whether or not there really is anything “out there,” and, if so, what it is’ (1980: 93). This, I contend, is primarily because, as flagged above, the language that is used to describe the stories of these deities, i.e., “myths” and “mythology”; that is, “myths” that need to within the framework of human rationality.
O’Flaherty argues that a definition of both “myth” and “reality” cannot be pinned down, but these terms are used as such: while “myth” refers to those experiences that are seen as metaphysical, “reality” is seen as pertaining to the physical world where “natural sciences” dominate (1980: 94). It is this construction and resulting understanding that problematizes how we understand stories surrounding the deities. By classifying what is perceived as metaphysical as “myth” or as the opposite of the physical world or natural sciences, stories of the deities are automatically classified as “religious” and supernatural. What then happens is a “mystification” of these stories as if they belong to a realm that is beyond human cognition or imagination. Richard King, whilst tracing the origins of the term “mysticism” as a Western construct, argues that “mysticism” is seen as pertaining to perceptions of God or deities, that is then seen as ‘antithetical to rationality’ (1999: 25). Using the term “miracles” because deities are involved makes these stories a mystified, otherworldly phenomenon: not in the sense of fiction, but as something that is supernatural. The mystification that derives from seeing these characters as “religious” pushes them towards a “religious-secular/scientific” dichotomy, in which attempts to “prove truth” automatically falter due to the false categorization. This is, of course, not to say that audiences believe that the superheroes in the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes really exist or that the superpowers of these heroes are “rational”. There is a general level of acceptance and understanding that these characters are fictional; therefore, they enjoy a certain amount of legitimacy as fictions.
Of course, both “mythologies” and superhero comics to a large extent suspend reality or what we perceive as reality. As O’Flaherty argues, the purpose of these “mythologies” is for the superhero to reveal the tribulations in mundane human existence, and ways to resolve them (1980: 97). There are thus similarities between deities in the “mythologies” and the superheroes of the comics’ universes. In my view, Rama, Krishna, and other Hindu deities can be seen as superheroes, and to distinguish these stories from other superhero comics is problematic. The distinction is based on, as I have shown above, the distinction we make between “mythologies”, which as soon as deities are involved, is classed as “religious” or “spiritual mythology”. To categorize “mythology” as such then prompts us, with our problematic understanding of the category “religion”, to question whether these stories are “true”. We then ask “did it really happen?” The idea then is that if we cannot prove that it really happened, it is untrue and therefore, a “myth”.
Thus what I am pointing to is the binary categorization that results from pseudo-empirical tests of proof; whatever is seen as “religious” must be empirically provable as science (supposedly) is; if it is not, it is “mythology” – and therefore, superficial. Instead, we must see these stories as something beyond empiricism and/or otherworldly mystification, recognizing the role that miscategorization plays in our interpretations.