Sunday, July 25, 2010

Teaching philosophy through stories

Yogic philosophy teaches us that consciousness can indeed be disengaged from existence and be freed of every thinkable conditioning. Several Puranic tales serve to illustrate this. Ved Vyasa, the narrator of the Mahabharata, is traditionally believed to be the compiler of the Puranas. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad refers to Puranas along with the Epics as the "fifth Veda" - itihasapuranam panchamam vedam. The word Veda is derived from the root vid which means to know. So a veda is book of knowledge. Of the many Puranas, eighteen are considered critical texts and these are known as the Mahapuranas. They are - Agni, Bhagavata, Bhavishya, Brahma, Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Garuda, Harivamsa, Kurma, Linga, Markandeya, Matsya, Narada, Padma, Shiva, Skanda, Vamana, Vayu and Vishnu.

- Swetha Prakash

Friday, July 23, 2010

What is a tall tale?

'What is a tall tale? And what is tall talk? A tall tale is a folk tale seized by the activity of tall talk and construed as a lie. Anyone who memorizes Vladimir Propp's thirty-one episodes can tell a folk tale, recite the legend of a hunt, but only a thinker who has contemplated the bloody hurt of that hunt, considered the pains of Time, Distance, and Dimension, and examined critically the way myth resolves them, can properly stretch a tale, derange its structural features, and expose its absurdity. Tall talk is thus at once a narrative skill and a philosophical stance. The teller unerringly bombards us with pertinent hyperbole, artfully digresses, takes us in, draws us into the field of deception, and makes us at last complicit. Whether in folklore or literature, the tall tale is never innocent, mythically immediate, but instead always begins as a subversion of the story.'

- Neil Schmitz
From Tall Tale, Tall Talk: Pursuing the Lie in Jacksonian Literature

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The creation hymn from the Rig Veda

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen
- perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not -
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps even He does not know.

Translation by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. From the Book "The Rig Veda - Anthology"

The wisdom of the traditional tale

While traditional tales often have flat characters without any interior landscaping and seemingly simple narrative lines they are full of timetested wisdom. They are reliable guides which tell us how it act in any situation, any crisis. In India, traditional tales were used for the political education of princes. The Panchatantra, one of India's best known tale collections is full of stories which teach people how to survive in a world where contradictory forces like violence and tranquillity continuously act on each other, in an energy field where impetuses are rarely straightforward. By helping us understand and accept primordial human energy currents (envy, fear, greed, lust etc.) these traditional stories keep us from getting disenchanted with existence.

- Swetha Prakash

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Stories and sympathetic magic

Sympathetic magic or imitative magic involves any belief or ritual which attempts to influence an environment through imitation or correspondence. In correspondence it is believed that one can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing. In Myth = Mitya, Dr Devadutt Pattnaik extends the concept to using narratives such as the Ramayana and the Puranas for influencing events in the household. He says that this is the logic that 'prescribes the reading of stories from the Bhagavata.' The Bhagavata Purana describes the joyous events in the life of Krishna and thus becomes a perfect candidate for sympathetic magic.

- Swetha Prakash

References: Myth=Mitya: A handbook of Hindu Mythology - Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin Books India, 2006.

Storytelling Course

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On the Mahabharata

It’s conflict that keeps drawing readers and writers back to the Mahabharata. Not just the literal conflict of the war on the field of Kurukshetra, but the conflict between right and wrong, between duty and personal belief, between the larger pictures and the smaller details, between your station in life and what you want to be – the Mahabharata is all about conflict.

By Kushalrani Gulab, In the greatest story ever retold, Hindustan Times Brunch, July 11, 2010

'No one in the Mahabharat knows how to be moral and I realised when I read it that morality is a difficult quest. The Mahabharat makes you ask questions.'

Gurcharan Das, Quoted in In the greatest story ever retold, Hindustan Times Brunch, July 11, 2010

'And the Mahabharat is a very dark tale. Its a horrific narration. To have everything at one moment and to be exiled to the forests for 13 years - that's not easy.'
Devdutt Pattanaik, Quoted in In the greatest story ever retold, Hindustan Times Brunch, July 11, 2010

Stories and Identity

'Status in India still depends on being westernized - but we're Indian. Yet, what does 'Indian' mean?..

What better way to understand who you are than through tales that have come to you down the generations, tales that have been alive for hundreds, if not thousands of years, tales that can tell you where you came from, so you can perhaps figure out where you are now and where you're going?'

- By Kushalrani Gulab, In the greatest story ever retold, Hindustan Times Brunch.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Stories and metaphors

Metaphors are the building blocks of story worlds, the language in which meaning is constructed. To truly realize a story, follow its metaphors

- Swetha Prakash

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Stories

'Stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves.'

- Barry Lopez

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Re-enacting the vedic sacrifice

The ancient vedic story of the primeval sacrifice is re-enacted in the Ramayana. According to the Vedas the worlds were created when the primordial person or spirit sacrificed his own being. Rama is often identified with this ancient person, described in the Upanishads as Neti Neti – Not this, Not this, the one who is without attributes while encompassing everything that exists – ideas, abstractions, forms, sentience and insentience.
A vedic saying goes, ‘sacrifice is the nabhi, navel of the world’. The vedic sacrifice is made to the ancestors and devas, gods or better translated as the powers of nature and manifestation such as fire, time, etc.
Rama re-enacts the ancestral sacrifice when he renounces his kingdom to keep his father’s word. This act is ultimately done for the pitrs or ancestors.
Rama’s vow to eliminate the flesh eating rakshasas is primarily a sacrifice to the gods. It is the devas who are most harried by Ravana and his clan. Rama’s misfortunes are not of his own making but the result of a niyati or divine fate that has decreed that he must be put in direct combat with Dasamukha, the one with ten heads. The Rakshasas have been continuously been disrupting sacrifices being made to the devas and by subduing them Rama protects the Vedic sacrifice.
Chants are indispensable for any Vedic fire sacrifice and Rama complies by finishing his great Rana Yajna or War sacrifice with the recitation of the ode to the Sun god - the sacred Aditya Hridayam, which conclusively disempowers his opponent.

- Swetha Prakash

Monday, July 5, 2010

On place stories

“Without place-lore man would be surrounded surroundings; place-lore links generations and provides them with a shared identity – the narratives of belonging.”

- Ulo Valk

Notes on Assamese Place-Lore
Indian folklife, Serial No.31, November 2008, p13.

Tales of the wild land tortoise

In Kokborok, one of the languages of Tripura, there is a single term for folklore - ‘Kerang Kothoma’. A Kerang is a land-tortoise and Kothoma means a tale. All folk-tales are thus designated as tales of the wild land tortoise.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

The destruction and regeneration of stories

Stories are set in a certain time and place, within a specific historic context. They use the vocabulary and symbols of the culture that creates them. When all these things pass way, the stories too cease to be relevant. The stories of kings and queens don’t make any sense in world bereft of them and it is hard to identify oneself with a bow and arrow carrying archer. But, when tellers and writers stop thinking of old stories literally and instead present a narration that highlights their symbolic value, these ‘relics’ are once more resurrected. This is a cyclic process which happens periodically.

- Swetha Prakash


Myth is the concentration of attention. It is the consciousness becoming singlepointed and joyous. This is pure being rejoicing at the recognition and appreciation of its own fabulous nature.

Each myth is what Koestler called a `holon', a whole that is simultaneously part of some other whole.

It is the geometry of spirit, intersecting at marmas that enlighten instantly like zen koans.

Myths are imprints of the reptilian brain; emotional reactions which eternally and unfailingly override our rational mind.

- Swetha Prakash

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A case for researching, documenting and preserving India’s storytelling traditions

Cultural heritage is not limited to material manifestations, such as monuments and objects that have been preserved over time. This notion also encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally.
- UNESCO Intangible Heritage Portal

The soul of a people is mirrored in their legends.
- Henry Murray

Storytelling traditions reflect the spirit of peoples and communities. India's storytelling traditions are endangered by globalisation and cultural homogenisation. By preserving knowledge about storytelling traditions we preserve community-based intangible cultural heritage
Following are some points on the importance of researching and documenting India’s storytelling traditions –
- India has many unique storytelling traditions that have evolved in response to their environments, giving their communities a sense of identity and continuity. It is important to preserve the knowledge behind these traditions for future generations.
- Understanding the ideological and social backdrop to storytelling traditions will help contemporary practitioners to accordingly modify their performance to suit new needs and audiences.
- The storytelling research can be used extensively in training teachers and educators.
- Storytelling has a profound impact on culture. Culture can be conceptualized in terms of groups of individuals who share common stories to interpret and provide meaning to their lives. Stories introduced and established cultural identities. Storytelling constructs meaning in the lives of audiences.
- By researching our stories we can discover and preserve the enormous diversity of India's living cultural heritage. Indian stories are a rich source of Indian life, legend and thought.
- Storytelling is a tradition and living expression inherited from ancestors. Stories provide a link from the past. Thus stories contain ancestral knowledge concerning nature and an understanding of how the universe works. Through storytelling cultural identities and history were known within a generation and were communicated from one generation to the next.
- An understanding of the storytelling heritage of different communities paves the way for intercultural dialogue.
- Preserving India's rich storytelling heritage is important for maintaining cultural diversity in the face of cultural standardization and globalization.
- By researching and documenting India's storytelling traditions we also preserve the wealth of knowledge and skills that has come down through many generations. Stories have been handed down from generation to generation in vernacular languages and there is a risk of losing these stories with the spread of globalization and mass media driven cultures.
- Storytelling traditions represent contemporary rural and urban practices which allow diverse groups to express themselves. India's storytelling traditions are constantly changing and evolving and being enriched by each new generation, and recording this evolution and change is important.
- Storytelling traditions result in create social cohesion and help in building responsible communities.

- Swetha Prakash

Spontaneity in storytelling

Spontaneity is very important aspect of the storytelling experience. Tellers improvise upon frame stories based on their own life experiences and the social conditions they live in. Oral stories also emerge as the inspection and interpretation of immediate awareness and lived experience. This is how stories and storytelling traditions mushroom over history across diverse geographies.

- Swetha Prakash

Stories as aspects of the consciousness

In Indian consciousness studies, the consciousness is known to have two distinctive traits - Prakasha and Vimarsha. Prakasha refers to the self luminous nature of consciousness and vimarsha is its ability to reflect on itself. Subjective reality is understood to be prakasha while objective reality is vimarsha. Storytelling corresponds to both these aspects of consciousness. Stories are created as expressions of the consciousness revealing its nature. For recipients of storytelling performances, consciousness manifests as reflecting upon its essential nature through the 'truth' perceived in the stories.

- Swetha Prakash

Myths and emotions

Storytelling caters to our psychological needs fluctuating between feeling and fantasy. Stories proceed from the deep association that exists between emotion and imagination, depicting the intimate connection between our feelings and the world we perceive. The irrational beings that populate myth are psychic expressions of our emotions and reactions to the world around us. In myth, creatures such as Mahishasur in the Devi Mahatmya cycle are often creative expressions of pathological phobias, persistent fears, obsessions etc.

- Swetha Prakash