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Translating Myth by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo, Leon Burnett Book

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Overview: Ever since Odysseus heard tales of his own exploits being retold among strangers, audiences and readers have been alive to the complications and questions arising from the translation of myth. How are myths taken and carried over into new languages, new civilizations, or new media? An international group of scholars is gathered in this volume to present diverse but connected case studies which address the artistic and political implications of the changing condition of myth this most primal and malleable of forms.

Translation is treated broadly to encompass not only literary translation, but also the transfer of myth across cultures and epochs. In an age when the spiritual world is in crisis, Translating Myth constitutes a timely exploration of myth s endurance, and represents a consolidation of the status of myth studies as a discipline in its own right.

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Translating Myth by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo, Leon Burnett Book Read Online Chapter One

Indian Myth: Postcolonial Transmissions

Harish Trivedi 




It may seem strange, if not unsettling, to discover that there is apparently no word for ‘myth’ in any of the Indian languages. Nor has the English word ‘myth’ proved amenable to translation, for many modern Indian languages including the largest, Hindi, simply use for it the patent neologism ‘mithak/mythak’, which is, of course, the same word as in English with an apology of a domesticating tail stuck on. The clear implication is that if the word does not exist in India, the concept does not either. What is called ‘myth’ in English must, from an Indian point of view, be thought to be a Western invention. This may be one of the key instances in support of the old (essentialist?) supposition that India and the West are deep down quite incommensurate if not incompatible — ‘and never the twain shall meet’.

Indian Myth: False or True?

Matters are nicely complicated by the introduction into the discourse of an accidental cross-lingual near-homonym. Devdutt Pattanaik, in his book Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology (2007), puns in the title on a Sanskrit word, mithya, which is commonly taken to mean ‘false, untrue’. This would seem to confirm the rationalist Western view that a myth is anything but true. However, mithya also has a deeper connotation which is summed up best in a formulation by the foundational Indian philosopher, Adi Shankaracharya (788–820). In his work Vivekachudamani there occurs a key phrase, cited and explained as below in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions: 

Brahman [sc. Brahma] satyam, jagat mithya (Skt.). A sentence which summarizes for Hindus the entire teaching of Advaita Vedanta: Brahman is the real reality (cf. SAT), the world is deceptive (because its apparent reality is super-imposed on Brahman).1

In a twentieth-century English version, the whole verse in which the phrase first occurs in that work is translated as follows: 

A firm conviction of the mind to the effect that the Brahman is real and the universe unreal, is designated as the discrimination (Viveka) between the real and the unreal.2

In other words, the only true discrimination to be made is that Brahman, the Eternal Soul or Spirit, is real and the universe is unreal, for the latter is material and transient. We have already moved away from the binary of true and false; what is mithya, it turns out, is the whole created universe — which is taken to be real by those lacking discrimination. Thus, mithya connotes something similar to the more familiar Sanskrit word, maya, defined as ‘illusion, unreality, deception’,3 a sense traceable to the oldest Indian text, the Rig Veda (1500–1200 BCE). The visible material universe is mithya, i.e. false or unreal, though it deceives the benighted among us by causing in us the illusion of its being real and true.

These are deep waters largely uncharted by Western enlightenment and rationalism, and this understanding of what is real and unreal does not seem to have impinged on the Western discourse on myth. Nor is this merely esoteric high Hindu philosophy of ancient times, for the belief that the world is an illusion exists in some spectral way at the back of the mind of any number of Indians even now. The Bhagavad-Gita negotiates a difficult balancing act by arguing that, while knowing that the world is unreal, one must in one’s sojourn in this world engage with it and act in it as if it were real.

The time-honoured Indian understanding of myth thus situates it above or beyond the familiar Western collocation in which ‘myth’ and ‘reality’ stand in direct and irreconcilable contradiction to each other, as in numerous book-titles in English which feature the phrase ‘Myth and Reality’ or, in an interrogative variation, ‘Myth or Reality?’ To name only one of these, which has a special bearing on the present theme, D. D. Kosambi’s Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (1962) is utterly dismissive of Indian mythology and indeed of Indian philosophy as well. ‘Why’, he asked with rhetorical irony at the beginning of his book, ‘should one ignore the beautiful lily of Indian philosophy in order to concentrate upon the dismal swamp of popular superstition?’ And he answered that one must do so in order to ‘discover the physiological process whereby the lily grew out of the mud and filth’.4 A little later, he pronounced on the god Ganesha, who is shown with an elephant’s head, that the ‘complex iconography and ridiculously complicated myth cannot be explained by Shiva’s elevation to the highest abstract principle’5 and he declared on the following page that Shiva’s tandava, or his dance of destruction which merges into creation as it proceeds, ‘is like a witch-doctor’s primitive fertility dance’.6 It could be said in counter-rhetoric that Kosambi is wallowing in the dismal swamp and mud of Marxist materialism; moreover, and worse still, he is here, wittingly or unwittingly, speaking the language of Western orientalism at its zenith.

Indian Myth: Orientalist ‘Translations’

The superiority of Western reason and knowledge over Indian ignorance and myth was nowhere asserted more peremptorily and imperialistically than by Lord Macaulay in 1835, when he was the Law Member of the Council of the Governor-General of India in Calcutta. Arguing against the established practice of the British government in India of paying a small subsidy for the maintenance of traditional forms of education, he suggested that this money would be better utilized in setting up a Western system of education imparted through the English language. In his famous ‘Minute on Education’, he affirmed that Western knowledge was ‘sound’ and ‘true’ while what passed for knowledge in India was so illogical as to be absurd. 

[11] It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.


[13] The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language [English], we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own, whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse, and whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.7

Macaulay, by his own plain admission, had ‘no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic’ though he claimed to ‘have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works’, a claim not corroborated by the evidence of his correspondence or other works. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from passing summary judgment on not only India but also Arabia, a judgment so sweeping as to suggest that not knowledge but ignorance is power: ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’.8 In a rhetorical move, he ascribed this opinion not to himself but to the ‘orientalists’ themselves whom he said he had taken the trouble to consult, though here too specific details of any such consultation are lacking.

In any case, what Macaulay staged here was an epistemological mismatch between Western post-Enlightenment logic on the one hand and Indian religious faith and mythic belief on the other, measuring one against the other and predictably enough finding the other wanting. It is not clear if he had met any Indians who actually believed, as a matter of fact, that there were kings in the past who were thirty feet tall and reigned for thousands of years, but it suited him to say so for the sake of argument. In short, he seems to have set up here a deliberate confusion of categories between current notions of Western empirical history and ancient poetic versions of Indian myth as found in the puranas, a set of eighteen major and eighteen minor literary mythopoeic texts composed collectively by anonymous authors, probably between the fifth century and the tenth century. The puranas never made any kind of a ‘truth claim’ in the Western sense but were scriptural texts that treated of gods and kings alike as parts of the same seamless universe, and their obvious exaggerations were literary devices employed to enhance their aesthetic and emotive effect. This may not have been quite clear to Macaulay in his day and age but now in the twenty-first century, with our acceptance and indeed acclaim of magic realism and postmodernist contingency, the very idea of any discourse advancing an unqualified ‘truth claim’ seems discredited.

Such lofty British disdain for Indian mythology exists in the context of another vital contestation which went on alongside British rule of India but which has now sunk out of sight for the reason that the British lost this battle. This was the vast and largely unavailing endeavour to convert India to Christianity, in which Britain was joined by several other European colonial powers including notably the Portuguese, the Danes, the Dutch, the Vatican, and numerous missionary organizations from many parts of the world. When India won independence in 1947, less than three percent of the Indian population was Christian, but this was not for lack of trying by Western and newly converted Indian proselytizers. Such was the elastic capacity of the already multifarious Indian mythological imagination that when waylaid while on a pilgrimage by an Indian missionary, some Hindu villagers in 1817 had no difficulty accepting Jesus as (another?) son of God the Father, but they objected to the defiling ‘Christian’ practice of eating meat and did not see why they should convert in terms of religion and take the sacrament when they were willing to accept parts of Christian belief in terms of mythology.9

It would be a fair generalization to say that nearly all orientalists (i.e. Europeans engaged in a study of India) until after Darwin believed implicitly or aggressively in the unquestionable superiority of Christianity over Hinduism and would have been happy to see India won over to Christianity. Sir William Jones, acknowledged to be the founding-figure of orientalism and sometimes called ‘Oriental’ Jones, was duped by an Indian pandit who produced for his eager and enthusiastic reception an ancient manuscript containing an account of a deluge uncannily like that narrated in the Old Testament featuring Noah and his Ark10 — except that the manuscript turned out to have been forged by the sly pandit himself. Apparently, what made Jones especially gullible was his appreciative and assimilative attitude towards the Hindu religion and mythology, reflected in the nine hymns he wrote to various Hindu gods.11 These are so widely knowledgeable in terms of the mythology associated with each one of the nine gods (four of whom are in fact goddesses) and so nicely reverent (or at least not patently irreverent) that they have frequently been mistaken for translations of traditional Hindu hymns composed originally in Sanskrit and translated by Jones, rather than composed by himself. However, in a modern reinterpretation, these hymns have been somewhat glibly characterized as belonging to that contentious category, ‘cultural translation’.12

Quite the opposite of Jones in his patent antipathy to the Hindu religion was Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, whose The Curse of Kehama (1810) was the first long narrative poem in English to be based on Indian mythology. Southey openly declared his own stance towards his chosen subject when he announced at the beginning of his Preface that ‘the religion of the Hindoos […] of all false religions is the most monstrous in its fables and the most fatal in its effects’.13 As John Drew states in his nuanced account of the oriental influence on the English Romantic poets, the young Shelley ‘had doted on Southey’s poem and regarded it as perfect’ and was palpably influenced by it in writing Prometheus Unbound though he had meanwhile grown ‘closer in spirit to Jones than to Southey’.14

Comparative Mythology

A younger orientalist even more knowledgeable and sympathetic to Hindu mythology than Jones was Horace Hayman Wilson, who translated several major Sanskrit works into English for the first time. He had travelled to India in 1808, two years before Southey published Kehama, and learnt Sanskrit well enough to compile the first Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1819). Perhaps the most successful of his fluent poetic translations was The Megha Duta, or Cloud Messenger (1814) by Kalidasa (fourth century CE), a work which has no Hindu religious significance and yet has a strong mythological dimension, for its hero is not a human being but a yaksha, ‘or Demigod so called’,15 who has been banished to our human world for a year from his native city, Alakapuri, a mythological space which exists somewhere in the Himalayas.

Wilson explained in his preface that of the copious notes he supplied to the translation, some were necessary and some others a matter of personal indulgence, indeed a part of his agenda as a cultural mediator: 

Tracing the analogies between the Greek and Hindu Mythology, furnished an amusement to the translator, which he thinks communicable to others; [these and other poetic analogies] are given especially for the benefit of those liberal critics, who admire, upon the strength of prescription, the beauties of classical and modern writings, and deny all merit to the same or similar ideas, when they occur in the works of Oriental writers.16

Wilson not only endeavoured to remove British prejudice against Hindu mythology and aesthetics but he went on to translate a major sourcebook of this mythology, The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition (1840). (The puranas, as noted above, are a genre of scriptural text that are the ultimate storehouse of Hindu mythology, for they narrate many myths not narrated before while they also consolidate the older myths, as they came much after the Vedas and the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata .) In his preface, Wilson explained that he had undertaken this great task as ‘we are far from being in possession of that knowledge which the authentic writings of the Hindus alone can give us of their religion, mythology, and historical traditions’.17

Wilson, the greatest of the oriental scholars since Jones, was in 1832 appointed the first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford. This new lifelong appointment had been endowed on the most liberal terms by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Boden (who had made his money in India in the adventurist service of the East India Company) to promote his belief, as he put it, that ‘a more general and critical knowledge of the Sanskrit language will be a means of enabling his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the Natives of India to the Christian Religion’.18 Upon Wilson’s death in i860, Monier Monier-Williams was elected the second Boden professor, partly because he was able to persuade the graduate electorate of Oxford that while his contender Max Müller may have had more Sanskrit, he himself was more strongly committed to promoting Christianity in India.

Müller still stands supreme as the iconic orientalist scholar-translator; there is a road named after him in the heart of New Delhi. He edited the foundational text of Indian literature and Hindu religion and mythology, the Rig Veda, in six volumes (1849–74) and went on to supervise as general editor what was clearly the grandest translational project of orientalism, The Sacred Books of the East, in fifty volumes (1:879–1910). All the while, he entertained the belief that ‘India is much riper for Christianity than Rome or Greece were at the time of St Paul’, and that his own untiring effort to disseminate a critical knowledge of Hinduism ‘will do a great deal towards lifting Christianity into its highest historical position’.19

In a lecture that he delivered in 1887, ‘On the Philosophy of Mythology’, Müller took some pains to point out that all mythology at first sight looked absurd. He asked rhetorically: ‘Can we imagine anything more silly, more savage, more senseless, anything more unworthy to engage our thoughts, even for a single moment?’ He then went on to reveal that he was referring, not for once to Hinduism, but to ‘the great Gods of Greece’ such as Kronos, Rhea, Tantalos and Demeter as depicted by Homer and Hesiod.20 But he was doing so, of course, in the assured knowledge that these terrible gods of mythology had passed away long ago and had been replaced by the superior truth of Christianity.

Myth, Religion, and History

In the same lecture, Müller went on to offer some observations on the crucial questions of the interrelation of myth and religion, and their possible correlation with history, i.e. their objective verifiability. In a remarkably circumlocutory and circumspect formulation, he said: ‘I would not deny altogether that in a certain sense the mythology of the Greeks belonged to their religion’,21 whereas he would have had no hesitation in pronouncing that the mythology of the Hindus was very much a part and parcel of their religion. He then offered a conceptual qualification that applied equally to the Greeks and the Hindus: ‘The word Religion has, like most words, had its history; it has grown and changed with each century, and it cannot therefore have meant with the Greeks and Brahmans what it means with us’.22

Indeed, part of the problem with deciding on the interrelation of myth and religion is precisely this, that the civilizations which had the richest mythology long preceded the rise of the Judeo-Christian religions which, when they were belatedly founded, laid a claim to being historical, and thereby substantially altered and delimited the whole concept of ‘religion’. In contrast, Hinduism deliberately places itself beyond historicization, for its name for itself is the Sanatana Dharma, i.e. the Eternal Order; and it came into existence so long before either ‘religion’ or ‘history’ were born that it bears no recognizable signs of a religion, as having no one god or one prophet or one book or one creed. (The term ‘Hindu’ was apparently invented by the Arabs around the eighth century and derives from a river on the north-western border of India named the Sindhu, which they mispronounced.)

In this context, two widely influential Western theorists of our times have offered enabling formulations that assign to myth a new value by subverting the older notions of positivist history. Claude Lévi-Strauss in a chapter titled ‘When Myth Becomes History’ in one of his later works, Myth and Meaning (1979), asks a crucial question: 

When we try to do scientific history, do we really do something scientific, or do we too remain astride our own mythology in what we are trying to make as pure history? […] So if you take two accounts by historians, […] we are not really so shocked that they don’t tell us exactly the same thing.23

He also argues that some of what may seem to us now to be arcane in mythology perhaps made perfect scientific sense in older times, before humans lost some natural skills, such as the ability ‘to see the planet Venus in full daylight’.24 An even more radical formulation was offered by Roland Barthes, when he said: 

We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. […] Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency appear eternal. 25

Specifically in the Indian context, Wendy Doniger, one of the livelier and more fecund Western scholars of Indian mythology, deployed a rather graphic metaphor in her recent controversial work, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), to describe her academic enterprise: 

this book attempts to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ). 26

There seem to be two implications of a statement such as this: first, that when it comes to India, even Western scholars apparently feel that they have nothing to learn from the insights of a Barthes or a Lévi-Strauss, and second, that they can, under the cover of cultural osmosis, make flippant use of serious philosophical concepts. Indeed, Doniger’s continuing bewilderment at, and even distaste for, her chosen subject of life-long study occasionally surface in phraseology redolent of older prejudices. In her introduction to a selection in her own translation of Hindu Myths, she fears that the ‘mixture’ she offers ‘may be a bit too rich and highly spiced for the unsuspecting browser [i.e. the non-scholarly Western reader], for Hindu mythology is a feast perhaps better suited to the gourmand than to the gourmet’.27

As it happens, the discourse on Indian myth continues to run in two parallel channels, the Western and the Indian, without any intersection even when the Indian intervention is in English. (No Western scholar writes in an Indian language, of course, as much out of inclination and disciplinary politics as out of a lack of competence.) A magisterial recent volume of nearly eight hundred pages on the subject of Indian mythology and history, published in India in a definitive series of tomes on Indian civilization and comprising contributions by many of the most learned Indian scholars, seems to confine itself, for good or ill, within the Indian framework of understanding such concepts; it shows a selective awareness of Western scholarship, especially by sociologists and anthropologists, but dismisses ‘most’ of these studies as ‘one-sided’.28 It does not make any dialogic overture towards Western scholarship and theorization but, in all fairness, nor is Western scholarship likely to take much note of an indigenous volume such as this. The very title of the volume seems quite self-contained: Purana, History and Itihasa (2014), with two of the three keywords left untranslated into English, as if they were indeed untranslatable. (Purana, as explained above, is the generic name of a vast corpus of texts which constitute the greatest fund of Indian myths as well as explicitly stated norms of narrating myths, and Itihasa is the word in the Indian languages commonly used for history, except that the epic Mahabharata is traditionally counted as itihasa, a characterization that remains an unresolved crux.)

The conceptual mismatch, and lack of communication and understanding between Indian myth and the Anglophone Western study of it, is so extensive as to be dispiriting. This may be in part because a Western religion such as Christianity was born with very little mythological fleece on it and, after the so-called demythologization of Christianity, it now looks like a newly shorn lamb. Therefore, those in the West who study a mythology-rich religion such as Hinduism in historicist terms are often faced with a conceptual incommensurability that has not yet been negotiated. Doniger, in another work of hers titled Other People’s Myths, speaks of the incompatibility between ‘Academic Hardware and Religious Software’.29 But the problem here really is that the academic hardware is Western-historicist while the religious software is Eastern-mythological, and the linga of the former cannot penetrate the yoni of the latter without illegitimate epistemic violence.

Indian Mythology Now

Of the many differences between the Greek gods and the Indian gods, perhaps the most vital is that while the Greek gods have passed away, the Indian gods are still all around us and, so to speak, alive and kicking. Perhaps alone among all the ancient civilizations, India still has the vast majority of its population, approximately eighty-two percent, still adhering to the same religion and subscribing to the same mythology as it did at the beginning of the so-called Christian Era, if not even longer back. Some of the gods from the Vedic period (c. 1500–1000 BCE) have not worn too well and are forgotten but others are still current, while the gods of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Rama and Krishna, command a following of several hundred million. And Shiva, still holding his own all over India as one of the three greatest gods in the Hindu pantheon, perhaps dates in an earlier form from the Indus Valley civilization (c. 3200–1800 BCE).

Thus, of all the great cradles of mythology in the world, only Hinduism has not had its credibility or its very existence interrogated and discredited through subsequent mass conversion to an alien and imperious religion. As a cultural insider, I had little conscious awareness of this momentous fact until it was brought home to me through a chance encounter in Athens on my first visit to Greece, some twenty years ago. At a bus stop, a local lady asked me pleasantly enough if I was a tourist, where I was from, and where I had been in Greece. When I was done reciting reverently the hallowed names (the Parthenon, the Acropolis, Delphi, Olympia, Sounion etc.), she asked me gently if I had also visited anything resembling a grand domed building not far from where we stood. I said no, and she said: ‘That’s an orthodox church, and ninety-eight percent of us Greeks belong to it’.

Hinduism has, of course, its own share of abstruse philosophy and theology, which was sometimes called the Higher Hinduism by the missionaries and that is what gets taught in the university departments in the West, but it is in its abiding mythology and continuing customs and rituals that it lives on in popular culture. The mythology is kept alive also by its constant telling and retelling, each time with a fresh investment of meaning or spin and to a new and newer audience, for without such imaginative renewal it would perhaps be as dull and dead as history. Monday is sacred to Shiva and Tuesday to Hanuman, the monkey-god. There are numerous days spread through the year in the Hindu calendar for fasting, the birthdays of Rama and Krishna are national holidays (also, even-handedly, those of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Jesus), as are non-birthday anniversaries sacred to Shiva and the prophet Muhammad. (All these holidays are determined according to the lunar Hindu/Muslim calendars so none of them falls on the same day in successive years according to the Western Gregorian calendar, which lends a special insider dimension to them of being our own holy days which are as yet uncontaminated by the West and still unglobalized.) A whole month in winter every year is holy for bathing in the river Ganga, while the same month coming round every twelve years is especially holy for bathing at Prayag (or Allahabad), where two of the most sacred rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna meet; this great twelve-yearly festival is a custom that is historically traceable to the seventh century. Any number of rivers are sacred and so are many mountains beginning with the Himalayas and including Kailash in Tibet, where the praetor-divine Shiva has his abode.

As distinct from all this which has, so to say, always already existed, there are numerous more recent instances of the abiding popularity of Hindu mythology, often in tandem with religion but sometimes distinct and disjunct from religion, as simply ever-reusable mythology. In Hindi, a religious publishing house established in 1923, the Gita Press, according to its website, has so far sold 582 million copies of its various publications including 114 million of the Bhagavad-Gita.30 (Unlike the Bible, none of its publications is distributed free for proselytization, since traditional Hinduism does not permit conversion.) Its other publications have included a special purana issue (1988) of its monthly Hindi journal Kalyan which offers a compendium in just over four hundred pages of all the eighteen major puranas as well as other aspects of Indian mythology, such as descriptions of daily rituals, the eighteen holy rivers, the sixteen holy mountains, the seven holy cities, the five holy lakes, the seven holy grounds (kshetra), the twelve holy forests and the fourteen holy confluences of rivers.31

The Gita Press publications may be said to circulate mainly among the believers, but a new younger readership has over the last few years begun to be addressed by an Indian novelist, Amish, writing in English almost exclusively for an Indian readership (like Chetan Bhagat and Anuja Chauhan, also best-selling authors in India, but unlike diasporic Indian writers Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, who sell better in the West). The chosen theme of Amish’s best-selling trilogy of novels (2010–13) is the adventures of Shiva, and it is set in a hoary pre-historic mythological past. His website tells us that his trilogy ‘has sold 2.5 million copies in the Indian sub-continent, grossing over Rs [rupees] 600 million’ and is ‘the fastest selling book series in Indian history’.32 While its primary peg may be that it is anchored in the traditional mythology of Shiva as narrated in the Shiva Purana, its appeal to young Anglophone Indians probably lies in the fact that they can readily identify with the newer ramifications of the mythology of Shiva as a questing adventurer and that the language and conduct of Shiva find a resonance with their own. One of the two dedications of the first novel, The Immortals of Meluha, reads: ‘Om Namah Shivaiy [sc. Shivay]: The universe bows to Lord Shiva. I bow to Lord Shiva’. But Shiva proceeds to say things like ‘O to hell with you!’ or ‘The same bastard who attacked Sati in Meru. The very bloody same son of a bitch’.33 In what may be called an instance of cultural translation, both sentences were toned down in the Hindi version. Having done with Shiva, Amish has now announced the theme of his next trilogy; it will have for its hero Rama (of the Ramayana), no less.

Even more effective in propagating new versions of old Hindu mythological stories have been the mass media of film and television. The first silent feature film ever made in India, Raja Harishchandra (1910), retold a story from the Mahabharata, and of the first five films made with sound, three were again mythological (Bhakta Prahlada, Devi Devayani, and Draupadi), while a fourth (Kalidasa) was what is now called a biopic on the life of the great fourth-century Sanskrit poet (all 1931).34 More recently, the television adaptations in weekly episodes of both the foundational epics were game-changers for television broadcasting in the country and, in the hour they were broadcast, were veritable nation-stoppers. The Ramayana ran from 25 July 1987 to 31 July 1988 and ‘had incredibly high viewer rates’ (precise figures were then hard to obtain) according to Heidi Pauwel who has written a detailed intertextual analysis of it.35 As for the Mahabharata, it did even better when it was dramatized for television, shown from 2 October 1988 to 24 June 1990 in ‘just 94 episodes’.36 Looking back in 2013, when a new television production of the same epic was ready to be broadcast, Jaskiran Kapoor recalled: 

Years ago, every Saturday morning at 9, India would come to a standstill. Television sets would turn into shrines, people would cover their heads and pay their respects as Doordarshan aired BR Chopra’s Mahabharat . Its resonating shlokas [Sanskrit verses recited at the beginning of each episode] were learnt by heart by children and the ‘Main samay hoon ’ Wheel of Time voice-over with the mythological serial was catapulted to a godly pedestal.37

The dissemination by the Gita Press of ancient mythological texts from Sanskrit in modern translations into Hindi and twelve other modern Indian languages (besides English) may be thought to cater, by and large, to devout believers. By contrast, Amish’s Shiva trilogy is obviously aimed at the segment of privileged young persons who know English well enough and are affluent enough to want to read fiction in English for pleasure, and who are, through their English-medium upbringing, now decultured, deracinated, cosmopolitan, or globalized enough not to be able to read fluently in any Indian language. (The proportion of such postcolonized persons in the total Indian population is probably no more than five percent but even that comes to sixty-five million, which is roughly equal to the entire population of the United Kingdom.) But the more easily and passively accessible medium of television has permitted all sections of society, irrespective of economic or social status and degree of education (for about thirty percent of the Indian population is still illiterate) to participate in this ongoing reiteration, renewal, and reanimation of the mythological dimension of the Indian sensibility. The two epics have been followed by multi-part television adaptations of the sagas of any number of gods and goddesses, in a mythological procession that does not look like coming to an end in a hurry. For, according to one time-honoured reckoning, surely mythological, there are 330 crore or 3300 million Hindu gods and goddesses. One wonders whether Lord Macaulay, a monotheist, was ever apprised of this number by his solicitous orientalist informants.

Krishna the cover Boy

There are few in India who would not instantly recognize the god on the cover of this book. It is Krishna, the eighth of the nine incarnations of Vishnu so far, with the tenth yet to come.38 (Incidentally, when pressed hard by the missionaries to convert, some Brahmin priests in the nineteenth century reportedly offered an inclusivist compromise by stating that they were willing to accept Jesus as the tenth incarnation. After all, the ninth was the Buddha, whom most people in the West, but not many in India, regard as the founder of a religion distinct from Hinduism.) There may be said to be not one Krishna but two Krishnas. The first dates from the Mahabharata; he famously preached the Gita in seven hundred verses in the sixth of the eighteen cantos of that epic and, in that great war, he was also a non-combatant ally of the Pandavas and their wise and effective strategist. The other Krishna was invented in one of the eighteen puranas, the Bhagavata Purana, which narrates in its first nine cantos the previous incarnations of Vishnu. Krishna is born at the end of canto nine, the tenth canto is entirely dedicated to Krishna, and in canto eleven he dies and goes back to heaven. Canto ten is far the most popular of the whole text and is often narrated, reprinted or translated by itself; it has traditionally been one of the most cherished of all the Hindu scriptures. Though it was composed probably a thousand years after the two great epics, it has proved as foundationally formative of the Hindu sensibility as any other text, and has in turn generated innumerable myths and imaginative works. As a popular saying has it, all of Indian literature comes out of just two and a half books (or at least did until the cultural impact of the West): the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata Purana. 

The precise respect in which the Bhagavata reinvents Krishna is in humanizing him as an irresistibly loveable young person, before he grows up, leaves his home in Brindavan, and begins to set things right in the wider world. It endows him with a fetchingly mischievous childhood and an even more endearing adolescence in which he, a common cowherd at that stage of his life, proves to be supremely attractive to the gopis (milkmaids) all around, who yearn to be united with him. Such human love is allegorically understood to be a representation of the individual human soul yearning to be united with the great or ultimate soul or the perfect cosmic spirit, so as to be able to attain liberation from this unreal world.

The painting is just one of the countless depictions of the enchantment with Krishna experienced helplessly by all the milkmaids, especially when he plays on his flute. The canonical Sanskrit text on the theme is the Gita-Govindam (Songs of the Cowherd, a common name for Krishna) by Jayadeva (twelfth century), and numerous series of paintings were produced in many Hindu courts depicting various scenes from this mellifluous poem. But the painting on the cover is clearly not one of them, for what struck me as extraordinary when I first set eyes on it was the presence in close proximity of both the milkmaids and the cows, neatly balancing each other in groups of five on either side of the picture.

There are thousands of pictures in which we see Krishna with the milkmaids — including those depicting a scene of ultimate bliss, the raasaleela, in which, magically, there are as many Krishnas as there are milkmaids and they are all holding hands and dancing in a circle. There are thousands of others, or at least hundreds, in which we see Krishna with his almost equally beloved cows, but not many in which both the objects of his affection are seen together and accorded more or less equal space in such a neat disposition and design. What made the artist conceptualize the picture in this way? The asymmetrical calf was justified, for it represented Krishna as child; the cowherd placed among the cows, again asymmetrically, was perhaps Uddhava, Krishna’s closest male friend, or alternatively any fellow cowherd, indicating that men were as enchanted with Krishna as women and as much in need to be liberated from this world. The lotus flowers, stylized as many other details in the picture are, on which both Krishna and the chief milkmaid and his dearest beloved Radha stand, are a time-honoured trope in Indian mythology and literature; and the parrots and the monkeys in the tree and the fish in the holy river Yamuna show that the whole universe, including the humans and other forms of life seen here in profusion, are organically and even spiritually one, in view of the Hindu belief that until they attain moksha or liberation, human beings are liable in their next life to be reborn in any of the 8.4 million species of animals, birds and insects etc. that populate the universe (a theory which may be thought of as a nice variation on Darwin).

But what were the milkmaids and the cows doing so close together? In the English language, to say ‘Holy Cow’ is apparently a euphemism for the sacrilegious ‘Holy Christ’, and though cows are not quite as holy in Hinduism as Christ is in Christianity, to use either version of the exclamatory phrase may be to risk blasphemy one way or the other. It is characteristic of the Western perception of India even now that an unabashedly ignorant and crassly orientalist travelogue of India with the title Holy Cow! (2004) has become a long-running international bestseller. Another English collocation that may come to mind here, no less offensive, is to call a woman a cow. On the other hand, in the whole mythology of Krishna as narrated in the Bhagavata Purana, the cows and the women both seem to be equally dear to him. Two of his more popular names are Govinda and Gopala, the keeper or protector of cows, the local mountain is called Govardhana, a place that helps nurture cows, and the women who love Krishna and are loved by him are collectively called gopis, female cowherds or milkmaids. (The word ‘go’ in Sanskrit means cow.)

The women and the cows, coexisting happily and harmoniously within the same frame, come from that sourcebook of the young Krishna, the Bhagavata Purana.39 Krishna is absent and two of the milkmaids sing to the other milkmaids a song of praise to him. They describe the effect on all when Krishna plays the flute: 

Listen to this wonderful thing, O women: the bulls in pasture, the herds of cow and deer, are spellbound, bewitched by the sounds of the flute from afar. With mouthfuls of chewed food between their teeth and ears erect, they remain as still as if in a picture.40

The Penguin translation cited above omits a phrase which is retained in the Gita Press translation: the animals stand still ‘as if they were asleep’,41 the Sanskrit word here being ‘nidritaa. And the phrase ‘as if in a picture’ (rendered as ‘painted’ by Goswami) is in fact a little more elaborate in Sanskrit: ‘likhitachitramivaa,’ i.e. as if painted into a picture.

This last phrase seems to have fulfilled its metatextual potential and promise at the hands of the anonymous painter from Jaipur; when he painted this picture in 1840, he painted that verse into his picture, turning ‘as if’ into ‘in fact’. The picture may seem in Western eyes to inhabit an odd (if not exotic) and improbable world and is neither realistic nor to scale (for the animals, described as being ‘afar’ in a pasture, are brought up as close to Krishna as the milkmaids — which they are emotionally in any case). It is precisely in transgressing Western normalcy and probability that the scene is mythological and is Indian, for few Indians would think there is anything the matter with it at all — or indeed with all of Indian mythology. In India and in the West, even in our supposedly globalized twenty-first century, ‘myth’ translates radically differently in terms of both our rational perception and our emotional response.


Translating Myth by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo, Leon Burnett Book Read Online Only First Chapter Full Complete Book For Buy Epub File.

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