The Oxford Dictionary defines myth as, “A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” There are two terms in this definition that warrant attention; tradition and history. The connection of myth with tradition and history supplies a substantial amount of inseparableness and intimacy of myth with the place, the community, the culture and the people in which the myth is rooted.
In fact, there are instances in which many societies consider myths and legends to be true accounts of their remote past and therefore, group their myths, legends and history together. Having said that, a myth can’t be taken as the true account of history, in fact, calling something a myth necessarily implies the fictitious and make-believe nature of the story. Myths are closely linked to religion and spirituality and the associated cults and rituals. The Finnish folklorist, Lauri Honko offers a comprehensive definition of myth: Myths are dynamic in nature because they have come down to the reader through the oral tradition. The original myth then is subjected to multiple perspectives and situations, changing it with the need and the demand of the render and the situation at hand.
Therefore, as the mythical story spreads between cultures or as there is a change in faith, myths too adapt accordingly. Similarly, there are instances in which historical and literary material acquires mythological attributes over time. Interestingly, the term myth has a history of pejorative use as well when it was and still is used to dub the religious and cultural beliefs and the associated cults and rituals of other cultures and religions as made up and untrue. Nevertheless, the study of myths in general is done by the branch of study commonly called as mythology. It also studies a body of myths related to a common subject, for example, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Hindu Mythology, Christian mythology, Jewish mythology and many others. Myth belongs to the genre of folklore. It consists of foundational narratives or stories of a society and its people. Myths are usually peopled by supernatural beings, gods and demigods. Closely linked to the genre of myths is the genre of legends that revolve round the stories of everyday human beings, mostly some kind of leaders.
If we attempt tracing the origin of myths, we may end up tracing the history of human existence itself because myths are as old as thinking about stories and human thought itself. Freud’s comment on myth as (qtd. in Sankaran 1) aptly fits here. The idea of the unconscious and the terms associated with it are beyond the domains of proper rational thinking and verifiability. However, humans have always exhibited an intense predisposition towards making some sense out of the world order and their own actions. In other words, curiosity has had a huge role to play in pushing the cultures and civilizations forward. Myths have come handy in filling and fitting themselves in the gaps where rational explanation refuses to fit in. Explaining myth in such roles, Elina Helander-Renvall comments, Rooted in the tradition of oral narration, myths have been a great resource for the ancient performers and the subsequent writers of literature and they continue to suffuse literary works with content and ideas. For instance, English works draw immensely from Roman and Greek myths which though were not originally available in English. Since myths are a power house of meaning, writers use them either directly or allude to them so as to add meaning to their own content. In other words, to literature, myth serves the purpose of both metaphor and allegory.
Wide range of writers like Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, Eliot, Kafka, Golding, Lawrence, Joyce allude to ancient myths in order to express the problems and conflicts surrounding their characters or the times they inhabit and also to find some semblance of a resolution at the end. Joseph Strelka from the New York State University, Albany, in his paper “Mythe/Myth” says, Many writers make use of comparative mythology in order to systematically compare myths of different cultures. The aim is to seek the common thread underlying divergent cultures. Similarly, many writers seek to interpret the present mythically by drawing comparisons with the existing myths by way of juxtaposing the two. There are instances when writers have resorted to myth and folklore in order to detach themselves from the present in order to come to terms with their past. T.S Eliot’s ground breaking poem, The Waste Land is a pastiche of myths.
Eliot weaves Biblical, European, Hindu and other mythologies to voice the angst brought about by modernism. The mythical method supplied him with a feasible tool to handle the complexity and chaos of modern life. Yeats’ poetry is replete with examples of Gaelic and Christian mythology, Milton draws from Biblical mythology and Shakespeare is heavily loaded with Greek and Roman mythology. In the Indian sensibility, myth, religion and history go hand in hand. Therefore, myth and legend are a part and parcel of Indian ethos. V.S Naipaul observes: Partha Chatterjee also points out,) The Indian writers, particularly the postcolonial prose and fiction writers in English have made use of Indian myths and legends in their works. Girish Karnad in Yayati, Hayavadan, Nagamandala, Fire and Rain and Raja Rao in The Serpent and the Rope, for example, have drawn from myths to cash on the emotional, metaphorical, historical and symbolical appeal of myths. In fact, a number of Indian writers like Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, Amish Tripathi, Amitav Ghosh, Ashwin Sanghi, Devdutt Pattnaik and many other diasporic writers of Indian origin writing popular fiction have explored and made use of Indian mythology and legends in their works. Indian writers writing in English rarely explore the myths and legends that their European counterparts draw from and there is a reason to it.
In comparison to the Western writers, Indian writers are more close to the myths originating from their own land. In the words of Meenakshi Mukherjee, they “are still closer to their mythology than the modern Irish or British people who are to Celtic folk-lore or Greek legends.” (38) She proposes two primary ways in which a myth has been used in Indian English fiction; “as a part of a digressional technique of which Raja Rao is the most outstanding exponent and as structural parallels, where a mythical situation underlines the whole or a part of a novel.” (41) Raja Rao makes the digressional use of myth in his novels Kanthapura (1938), The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Cat and Shakespeare (1965). Rushdie, Anita Desai and others on the other hand employ myth to make some sense of the modern day chaos thereby juxtaposing past over present to understand it. In either of the two cases, it seems then, writers engaged in drawing on myth and folklore are more interested in their past rather than their future. They fall back on the mythic past as a source of great imaginative power in which they see huge potential to shape their political aspirations and destinies. Moreover, unlike future which is uncertain and unpredictable, myths offer a platform which is substantial having a backing of a lived experience that is clear about what could be the consequences of something with a substantial degree of certainty.
Whether it the issue of governance, power, justice or the themes of the ideal society and ruler or the dynamics of relationships between gender and society, myths present wide ranging instances and specimens. There are two major Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in the Indian socio-literary arena that have spawned innumerable retellings and re-imaginings. These epics centre on men, specifically princes and kings, and wars. Writers also rely for their themes on Vedas, Upanishad and various Buddhists scriptures. Similarly, some Tamil epics like Silappatikaram and Manimekalai also feature princes and kings and are pre-occupied with the themes of governance and power. However, these epics are not centered exclusively on men; they feature ordinary women as well in the central roles. In the current Indian literary scenario, mythological thrillers today, are very popular. In fact, they have become a genre of their own making, with many writers giving wings, and words, to their imagination through the use of myth.
These writers use myths either to evoke patriotic feelings or to generate humour and satire to criticize certain social norms. Raja Rao who is counted among the most-significant Indian novelists writing in English during the middle decades of the 20th century, wrote Kanthapura in 1938, which is a great example of mythical adaptation. Rao draws analogies from Ramayana by drawing parallels between Indian struggle for independence together with Gandhian revolution and Lord Rama’s struggle and his march along with his army to rescue Seeta, his wife from the palace of Ravana. For instance, he writes: R.K. Narayan uses modern familiar settings and characters and juxtaposes them with themes from popular myths. For instance, he employs the myth of Bhasmasura, the self- destroying demon very creatively in The Man Eater of Malgudi. The asur is a perfect example of the modern man who is adamant upon destroying the creation.
In this context, Srinivasa Iyengar observes: Girish Karnad, known primarily as an Indian playwright wrote in Kannada and translated most of his work into English by himself. He is regarded as one of the three great writers of the contemporary Indian drama, the other two being Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar. He, like his counterparts often makes use of history and mythology to tackle contemporary issues. He experiments with ancient myths and legends to reveal the facts of modern Indian life, and in this way, juxtaposes the past with the present. He experiments with the power of the myth to give voice to the variety, complexity and intricacy of modern life. This brings to his works a cosmological and a metaphysical significance. In his experiments with myth, he was influenced to a large extent by C. Rajagopalachari’s version of the Mahabharata published in 1951. Moreover, his childhood exposure to street plays in Karnataka villages and his deep connection with western drama staged in Mumbai tempted him in retelling the legends of India in the modern context.
Karnad’s peculiar use of myth consists of drawing characters that are caught in psychological, existential and philosophical conflicts. Further, through the use of myths, Karnad indirectly but subtly questions the traditional and historical values embedded in the myths and their present day relevance. Karnad’s Yayati was published in 1961, when he was 23 years old. It is based on the story of King Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas. Incensed at Yayati’s infidelity, Shukracharya curses him into premature old age. In turn, Yayati asks his sons to sacrifice their youth for him and one of his sons agrees to do that. In this play, Karnad ridicules the ironies of life through characters from Mahabharata. It enjoyed huge and instant success and was translated and staged in several other Indian languages soon after it was published. The play was also adapted in Hindi for a stage performance by Satyadev Dubey and the legendary actor Amrish Puri played the lead role. Shashi Tharoor, the most eloquent Indian writer and politician writes with a perfect blend of fiction and myth. In The Great Indian Novel, he employs the framework of Mahabharata as a fit framework to demonstrate Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India in 1915 and Indira Gandhi’s second premiership in the early 1980s followed by the state of ‘emergency’ and its aftermath. He proclaims that, Employing the mythological format, Tharoor borrows characters from history and mythological texts and collocates one against the other.
For example, he takes characters like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru from history and their corresponding counterparts from the ancient Indian epics. Therefore, the novel operates on two time frames simultaneously; mythical time and historical time. He uses this format to question the Western historiographic tradition in order to problematise historical knowledge. Linda Hutcheon’s proposition seems perfectly relevant here: Famous for combining traditional ideas with the modern world, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is another writer who makes a peculiar use of myth in his writings. He draws inspiration for ideas related to business and commerce from many Indian epics. His works include, Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayan, Seven Secrets of Shiva, The Book of Ram, Seven Secrets of Vishnu, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of Mahabharat, Shikhandi: and the other Tales they don’t Tell You, My Gita etc. For him myth is Amish Tripathi is famous for the Shiva Trilogy, which fuses together myth, history, and fiction. It focuses on a particular man’s journey and how his legend turned him into a God.
The trilogy comprises of ‘The Immortals of Meluha’, ‘The Secret of the Nagas’ and ‘The Oath of the Vayuputras.’ This trilogy can be visualized as Tripathi’s attempt at reconciling religion/myth with science. By proposing that gods were not figments of imagination, he seems to be suggesting that they were men of flesh and blood at a particular time in history. The ‘godhood’ that is being ascribed to them has been earned by them by their good deeds and karma. He goes on to suggest that their names carry weighty meaning and they are not just names; they signify virtues and qualities that are present in the ordinary mortals capable of becoming great leaders and gods. He believes that those who are perceived as gods also suffer existential pangs and strive to make some sense out of the world order. In The Secret of the Nagas, Shiva’s uncle tells him, In this context, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik has something similar to say: Kavita Kané, an Indian writer writing mythology-fiction focuses on the neglected and altogether forgotten female characters of the Indian epics. She presents myths and their import through a woman’s perspective. Her works include Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen, Sita’s Sister, Menaka’s Choice, and Lanka’s Princess.
For instance, her novel, Sita’s Sister is a novel about Lakshmana’s wife, Urmilla, who is left behind alone when her husband chooses exile along with his brother Rama and his wife Sita. The novel is told exclusively through her perspective and narrates her ordeal when she is left to fight her life all alone. In spite of everything, she emerges as a woman of courage, conviction and perseverance. Therefore, Kané makes use of myth to give voice to her feminist commitments. The Palace of Illusions, a novel by another female mythological author, Chitra B Divakaruni, retells the story of Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi. This novel also combines feminism with myth, history and fiction. Ashwin Sanghi combines history, theology and mythology for his fictional works. In Chanakya’s Chant, as the title itself suggests, he goes back into history affected by mythology and uses the legend of Chanakya. Chanakya carries the connotations of a strategist who plans with intelligence as well as cunning for the sake of the State. In the novel, Chanakya comes to life through his fictional equivalent, Pandit Gangasagar Mishra. For Sanghi, myths are perfect analogies for explaining concepts like karma and the equation between cause and effect.
Therefore, rather than restricting its import to the myth itself, the myth becomes an explanation of the human experience of the world. In addition to Indian writers writing in English, there are many writers writing in their respective regional languages that focus on myth, folklore and legend to bring to the forefront the modern problems or even at times to delve deeper and critically evaluate the historical process leading to those problems in myth and legends. In other words, such writers go back into history to handle present. For example, The Untouchable Spring, a novel by Kalyan Rao, written originally in Telugu is a saga of Dalits or low caste Hindus, who find themselves oppressed at the hands of Hindu upper classes. The novel traces the origin of the Dalits in the myth of a cow, ‘Kamadhenu’ wherein a curse from a god reduces a whole class and its successive generations to low caste wretched people.
The devas and devatas join the gods in cursing when they pronounce that the person involved shall live in kaliyuga, the age when goddess kali will reign supreme, eating the meat of dead cows and sweeping the streets, an apt comment on how Dalits live. Rao uses the myth critically for the reader to evaluate the justification behind the continuous oppression and persecution faced by Dalits, earlier labeled as untouchables. The novel has been critically acclaimed and also translated into English as well. Indian society is characterized by and large by tradition and orthodoxy so much so that modern and tradition not only overlap but also clash with one another here and there. In literature also, the collision as well as the dependence is quite explicit. Indian writers are so deeply committed to their past and tradition that their writing draws sustenance from it. Hindu mythology in particular is a subconscious source of symbols and motifs for their works. They weave mythology with the present day, thereby modernizing the past and decontextualizing the present.
This juxtaposition has brought forward classic pieces of art and literature. Indian writers have been experimenting with mythology with ever new and creative ways to return to stories associated with them. Lately, the focus has been on an exploration of the minor characters and sub plots. In addition to adding value to the work of art, employment of myths and legends enables a writer to situate the new work in the larger corpus of literature coming from a particular culture or place and also beyond.