The truth often lies: Do mythological fiction writers distort our great narrative epic traditions?

Popular mythological fiction writers of today are often asked why we ‘distort’ the ‘accepted’ narrative of our epics and puranas. We are often at pains to explain that the retelling of ancient myths is a very old tradition. We have 300 versions of the Ramayana and the story in each version is rather different. In the original Valmiki Ramayana, Rama is simply an ideal human being, a ‘maryada purshottama’ but not an incarnation of Vishnu. In the Tulsi Ramayana, Rama is an avatar of Vishnu, worthy of worship. In the Adbhut Ramayana, Sita manifests as Durga and kills Ravana.

In the Dasaratha Jataka (the Buddhist Ramayana) Dasaratha is king of Benares not Ayodhya and there is no conflict with Ravana. In the Paumachariya (the Jain Ramayana) it is Rama’s brother Lakshmana who kills Ravana. In the Kannada retelling of the Ramayana, Sita is Ravana’s daughter. In the Muslim Ramayana, Rama is a sultan. Which of these versions will you accept?

The second question that we get asked: How much of our myths is historical? The question, of course, assumes that history is a factual account while mythology is fictional. But there is a problem with that assumption. The novelist George Santayana famously quipped that “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” Effectively, history is simply a version of events.

Illustration: Uday Deb

In today’s history text books we read about the great statesman Chanakya as the shrewd Brahmin who brought Chandragupta Maurya to the throne. But the historical account of Chanakya comes to us from a Sanskrit play called Mudrarakshasa, which was written by Vishakhadatta at least 700 years after Chanakya had died. Remember, Mudrarakshasa was a theatrical production meant to entertain audiences. What if Vishakhadatta was an ancient Ashwin Sanghi, liberally mixing fact and fiction into a new fictional narrative? So before we treat history as the truth, we should remember Napoleon Bonaparte: “History is a set of lies that have been agreed upon.”

Look at the fault lines in our society today and you will find that they are caused by the conflict between ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. What is taught as ‘The Great Rebellion of 1857’ in India is taught as ‘The Sepoy Mutiny’ in England. Same event, different perspectives. There are those who are convinced that a massive Aryan migration happened into the Indian subcontinent and that Sanskrit and the Vedas are a product of that migration. On the other side are those who believe that the migration happened in reverse carrying Indic culture to other parts of the world.

There are those who argue that Aurangzeb was not a despot and that much of the anti-Hindu actions attributed to him were exaggerated. On the other side are those who believe that he was a religious bigot who destroyed many Hindu temples in his ferocious zeal to Islamise India. There are readers who believe that the most glorious period in Indian history was the Mughal Empire. But there are others who argue that the Satavahana, Vijayanagar or Chola empires were no less glorious but have simply been ignored.

Many see the struggle for Indian independence as a non-violent movement that bore fruit owing to Gandhi’s efforts. But equally there are those who believe that Indian independence would never have been won had it not been for Subhas Chandra Bose and the lurking possibility of a military mutiny. There are those for whom Nehru is a hero who ensured a vibrant democracy in India. There are others though who see Nehru as the man who bungled Kashmir, lost Tibet, lost the China war and gave up the offer of a seat on the UN Security Council.

How is one to navigate these multiple narratives? In fact, is it even necessary to ‘choose’ one over the other? CS Lewis argued that a myth is a lie that reveals a deeper truth. Actually, you’ve already done it if you’ve ever watched a 3D movie. If you close your left and right eyes sequentially, you will notice that each has a slightly different view of an object. Your brain merges the two images, thus allowing you to see in three dimensions. 3D films are recorded using two lenses placed side by side in order to replicate the same stereoscopic effect. If we can do this for movies, why not for stories?

It’s about time that leftist historians (who are accused of presenting a Western-inspired view that everything meaningful came to India from outside) and right-leaning historians (who are accused of connecting everything meaningful to a glorious ancient Bharat) both realised that their version is precisely that – a version. And we as consumers of those narratives must see each of those versions independently and then allow our brains to construct a 3D hologram of the person or event.

If 300 versions of the Ramayana can exist; if a work called Jaya can morph into another called the Bharata that can end with an epic called the Mahabharata over centuries; if our Puranas can contain history and our Itihaas can contain fantasy, why can’t we train our minds to see the ‘truth’ as something that is a blend of those multiple angles of vision?

So where lies the truth? Read that question once again carefully. Yes, the ‘truth’ often ‘lies’. Probably the best answer to that question is couched in another question. One that was asked by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate when asked to decide the fate of Christ.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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