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It is not uncommon in public discourse to refer to mythologies as pertaining to the divine and the ‘supernatural’, and hence categorise them within the problematically constructed ‘religious’ sphere. Within the public sphere and academia in the West in general, these questions are dealt with as a certain kind of mystification. Such mystification takes two different courses: a) it is used as a talking point for the ‘secularists’ and ‘atheists’ to argue against the ‘evils of religion’ by seeing the supposed lack of rationality in these mythologies; b) it is used as a justification by many faith-based conservative groups to argue for an unquestioning mystified construction of understanding of various faiths. In fact, Richard King has, rather eloquently, argued that the latter has led to the construction of the ‘mystic East’ by Orientalists.

Whilst these two courses of narratives can possibly be seen as polar opposites, as many have argued on this website, the ideology that underpins these is the same: the reification of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ binaries. What is needed, then, is a more nuanced understanding of mythologies that does not fall into either trap, for which we need more than just a deconstruction of the ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ categories, but rather a ‘middle ground’ to negotiate two primary issues pertaining to mythologies: a) that they are often a part of oral traditions as a result of which embellishment of the stories is common, thereby questioning the meaning of what is ‘original’; b) how can they be presented and understood in the current milieu of ever increasing importance to empirical evidence and quantification.

I recently acquired a copy of Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik (Penguin India, 2011), which is a relevant example here. To interpret or retell Mahabharata, a collection of many stories that forms a central narrative and one of the two major Sanskrit epic poems (the other being Ramayana) is not new. In addition to regional interpretations of these epics within India, there are varied retelling available from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. In addition, whilst these epics are generally seen as ‘Hindu’ epics, different interpretations are available within Jainism. Many of these retellings have adhered to the original story of the Bharatha Dynasty. There are slight variations to the stories but the core is retained. For instance, whilst according to the Indian telling of a character, Karna, as being born to Kunti and Surya (the Sun-God), Indonesian telling retains this narrative whilst adding that Karna was born out of Kunti’s ear and hence the name (Karna: lit. ear in Sanskrit) (p. 70).

What is interesting about Pattanaik’s retelling is how he points to alternative understandings of particular details of the stories to emphasise the crucial aspect: that these are ‘re-tellings’ of stories passed on through centuries. For instance, pertaining to the role of women in these contexts, using specific stories, Pattanaik points to the ‘gradual deterioration in the status of women in Vedic [sic] society’ (p. 38). He approaches the characters as embodied beings thereby not glossing over the questions of eroticism, sexuality, etc. He also points to an important historical development surrounding constructions and understandings of ‘Hinduism’ as a modern category: stories in Mahabharata referred more commonly to the Vedic deities of elements of nature – water, earth, air, fire and space. That Vedic rituals focussed entirely on the divine representation of these elements is well highlighted in this book, whilst the modern focus on deities such as Shiva or Vishnu were later developments during the first two decades of the first millennium, which saw a rise in Vedanta philosophy. Both Nicholas Dirks and Richard King have made similar arguments in their respective texts. Pattanaik also astutely observes that whilst all the stories within Mahabharata surround rituals (within the context of war between different groups and communities), they also point to a time when ‘State’ and ‘Religion’ were not separate (p 89). Of course, there are problems in Pattanaik’s retelling too: some of the categories he uses, for instance moral/immoral, masculinity/femininity, are not deconstructed or problematised.

However, this is a refreshingly new interpretation of the epic poem and points to the need for critical study of mythologies behind Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are so easily mystified and categorised as ‘religious’ texts. By critical study I do not mean the ‘de-mystification’ of these stories. The question here is not whether or not these mythologies ‘really took place’ or whether we can prove that Karna was really born out of Kunti’s ear. Equally, the alternative is also not to leave them untouched because of their constructed ‘sacrality’. Instead what we need are more texts like Pattanaik’s that deal with mythologies for what they are: stories embellished through centuries that point to the complexity of the contexts within which they were and are being told or re-told.

Mythologies thus must be understood not as accurate accounts of history or ‘objective’ retelling of past events, but as contextualised understandings of our pasts. Works that point to alternative re-tellings of mythologies must not be stifled, an issue that has risen often in India with the Hindutva groups as the main actors—Wendy Doniger’s work being a good example. In doing so, we might be able to subvert the dominant narratives of ‘rationalists’/‘secularists’ and groups such as the Hindutva and establish a more nuanced understandings.