We grow up with epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. With annual festivals, these stories are never too far. But do we process them the right way? Do they inform our morality and behaviour as they should? Are we looking deep enough? Renuka Narayanan, editor of Religion and culture at Hindustan Times , explores how we often ignore the incredible sensitivity and depth with which our epics were originally written.
I think we learn our theology from childhood by osmosis, be it via our grandmother’s tales, children’s storybooks or Amar Chitra Katha. I did, for one, graduating to Rajaji’s retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
I was very impressed as a child that Sri Rama was so nice and mannerly to Kaikeyi when she came with Bharata to meet him at Chitrakoot. It set a subconscious standard from which I tried not to lapse and felt guilty if I did.
In passing, please note that I say ‘theology’, not ‘mythology’. It is a colonial imbalance in the English language that we may not even be aware of and could consciously correct. I have banned the word ‘mythology’ from my personal vocabulary when talking about our scriptures.
The drawback with short, flat renditions of our old tales is that they often leave out the sweet little details. One very relatable detail is from the Srimad Bhagavatam. It is that Mother Yashoda gave Sri Krishna a packed lunch of curd rice and pickle when he went out to herd the cows with the gopa boys. I once had an earnest discussion in Hindi at my local temple on whether it was lemon pickle or mango people. We felt charmed and elated to think that we still ate the food that Sri Krishna ate.
The epics in their fuller form are replete with delightful nuances, told with a great understanding of the complexity of human nature. They inspired my retellings in ‘Learning from Loss’ in stories like that of Ahalya and Gautama and their sensitive son. I didn’t know they had a son until I delved deeper into the epics.
So scripture is an endless journey of discovery and I hope we are all able to enjoy it with every retelling.
Explore the depths of our epics with Renuka’s latest book, Learning from Loss, where she breaks down how mythical and theological characters dealt with loss and what we can learn from them.