Thursday, October 28, 2010

There is a tension that is pervasive in the Mahabharata that threatens the conscious mind. Nothing is direct, straightforward. You feel currents from the subconscious and the unconscious that open up the human psyche. There is a ghoulish dance between despair and faith, between war and the highest message of peace (in the Geeta), between the sublime and the very conventional, between uncontrolled rage and yoga. This is of course the dance of Kali spread out on a larger stage. As in the Ramayana, something primitive emerges out of the narration challenging us to let go of our rational minds and enter the conciouscape of mythic codes and little understood archetypes. More than the absolute truth of the text (if there is such a thing) we need to look at the meaning it creates at a personal and psychological level as the conscious mind steps out of its mundane sensibility.

- Swetha Prakash

Monday, October 25, 2010

Myth as bricolage

In his book 'The Savage Mind' (1962, English translation 1966), French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used the word bricolage to describe any spontaneous action, further extending this to include the characteristic patterns of mythological thought. The reasoning here being that, since mythological thought is all generated by human imagination, it is based on personal experience, and so the images and entities generated through 'mythological thought' rise from pre-existing things in the imaginer's mind.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

On time in the Mahabharata

'Now for several reasons, the Mahabharata's use of the frame story is of special significance for understanding its 'doctrine of time' and Hindu chronicities more generally. First, the epic is one of the first texts (its dating relative to the Ramayana remains uncertain) to explore framing and its narrative possibilities in relation to themes of temporality. Second, the frame story is probably the leading device through which the text supports its vast and complex meditation on time. Third, the epic 'takes time' in order to do interesting things with it and say provocative things about it, such as those mentioned earlier, which, we can now see, are not only a curtain lifted over the main story or parameters of a kalavada but also rhythms that can enframe each other, be collapsed to simultaneity, or make joints between the temporal experiences that the text itself offers.'...Fourth, it forms part of a cultural 'reading' experience that relocates its temporalities into images that people live with.' - Randy Kloetzli and Alf Hiltebeitel
'For a combination of antiquity, volume, and ingenuity, there is nothing like it - so much so that folklorist Theodor Benfry (1801-91) could imagine India as the 'home of storytelling and of tale-types'' (Claus and Korom 1991:57). Much that is formative in these oceanic storytelling traditions is anchored in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two Sanskrit epics.'
- Randy Kloetzli and Alf Hiltebeitel

Thursday, October 21, 2010

More than the moral

In the Panchatantra tales (disguised as animal fables) delve into the human condition. You see a concern with underlying behaviours and conditions that govern personal and social interactions. Certainly there is a surface preoccupation with niti or prudent conduct of worldly existence. But, when you meditate on the invisible layers you find a subtle presence of the sublime and terrible. There emerges a hidden focus on how reality is perceived and distorted, on the prejudice and deception of the mind and the senses, on the illusionary expressions of superficial relationships. Behind the two-dimensonality of traditional tale with a moral at its end is complicated framework of chaotic feelings, suppressions, impressions and yearnings.

- Swetha Prakash

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The diverse voices of folk narratives

Folktales, narrated in varied vernacular tongues, give us narrative lines that are different from the classic narratives composed in Sanskrit, literally the ‘perfected’ language. They give us the point of view of ‘the others’ – people of other cultures, castes, gender and even species. The diverse voices that make up folk narratives help us understand the hidden historic and social forces that operated in and shaped India. Also, these stories help us see the underlying unity behind diverse human (and sometimes non human) garbs and experiences.

- Swetha Prakash

Origin of the Indian Oral Tradition

The Indian oral tradition starts with the Rig Veda which consists of 1028 poems. ‘The Rig Veda was preserved orally even when the Indians had used writing for centuries for everyday things like laundry lists and love letters and gambling IOUs. But they refused to preserve the Rig Veda in writing,’ says Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An alternate history. While the Rig Veda was preserved orally it was preserved with meticulous precision. Doniger adds, ‘It was memorised in a number of mutually reinforcing ways, including matching physical movements (such as nodding the head) with particular sounds and chanting in a group, which does much to obviate individual slippage.’

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stories for meditation

Stories often serve as tool and basis for Dhyana, which means meditation in Sanskrit, an important Indian yogic and philosophical tradition. The significance of Dhayana has been emphasised in the Chandogya Upanishad, ‘Meditation is greater than the mind. Know that the earth meditates, and the atmosphere too. Know also the heavens to meditate, and the waters too. Listen to this secret, the mountains meditate. Besides men and gods too meditate. He who knows all existence to be nothing but meditation, becomes omnipotent,’.

According to Indian yogic traditions meditation provides direct insights on our nature as pure consciousness liberating us from all the constrictions placed on us by a limited egoistic identity. But as the mind has a tendency to fluctuate – it needs a prop to meditate. Most Indian mythic stories were created with this end in view – to provide their listeners with a narrative they could contemplate on.

- Swetha Prakash

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Durga as a slayer of the ego

The “I” or the little ego is constituted by Nature and is at once a mental, vital and physical formation meant to aid in centralising and individualising the outer consciousness and action. When the true being is discovered, the utility of the ego is over and this formation has to disappear – the true being is felt in its place. ‘1
One of the most famous Indian images of Durga slaying Mahishasur is a representation of cosmic nature or Prakriti, the force of the cosmic will killing the limited ego.

1 Sri Aurobindo ‘Planes and Parts of The Being’, p.278, Letters on Yoga.