Mythology, while always part of Indian culture, is climbing the popularity charts, reflecting in blockbusters like Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy and prompting analysis on whether this is repackaged Hindutva. Examines the ‘mytho-glut’ in depth
Mom, Hanu-man can beat Superman, na? Tell Rohan, he’s saying no,” complains six-year-old Kiran Anchan. A bit lost for words, Sneha draws him close on her lap, calls out to her elder one and asks, “Forget Hanu-man and Superman, why are you two fighting?” Realising that this is not the response he’s looking for, Kiran forgets the fight, grabs his brother’s hand and runs to the slide in the building compound. Sneha smiles fondly, shaking her head. “All these kids are so much into Hindu mythology and take it all so seriously.” Contrasting it with her own childhood, she adds, “It’s good that they’re showing interest in superheroes from our own culture.”
Sneha remembers growing up negating most things Indian. “I was embarrassed when my mother came to our convent school annual day wearing a gajra in her hair and created a huge ruckus till she threw it away.” Holding up a dog-eared copy of Amish Tripathi’s The Oath of the Vayuputras, the last in his blockbuster Shiva trilogy, she says, “Thanks to the way religion and mythology are now being packaged, I hope my children don’t grow up with any such hang-ups.” Introduced to the trilogy by a neighbour, she read the first two parts from her. But she never got the third part. “I was eager, so I picked up this copy from the local raddiwalah the moment I saw it there.”
Sneha isn’t the only one observing how Hindu mythology seems to have become omnipresent across genres and ages, reflecting in the success of authors like Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik and animated TV shows that have children hooked.
“From serious analytical books, fictionalised narratives with episodic tomes to lifestyle and even management books, it’s amazing how this genre can adapt itself to all sensibilities and needs,” says cultural historian Mukul Joshi. “In fact, I’m wondering how people haven’t linked mythology with food and fashion yet.”
He uses the demand and supply theory to explain what’s driving this ‘mytho-glut’. “If it weren’t for this almost insatiable hunger in everyone from eight to 80 for such content, many of these writers wouldn’t become the celebrities they have.”
Joshi also feels the reason for the immense success of these books is because mythology is a part of every Indian’s upbringing, “Given how we’re all brought up on a staple of mythology where good triumphs over evil with infinite gods and goddesses, each with more divine magical powers and fascinating than the other, these tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata occupy a permanent place in our collective consciousness.”
Tripathi is amongst those riding the mythology wave. Across the city in a central Mumbai cafe, we meet the man who left the Indian publishing world agog with his whopping Rs5 crore deal for his next series after his best-selling Shiva trilogy — the fastest selling in the history of Indian publishing.
The 40-year-old ‘Dan Brown of India’, who’s sold two million copies that generated over Rs50 crore in sales, insists that the fascination with mythology is nothing new. “In the Indian language writing space, in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Bengali, the most popular genre was always mythology. Just take the example of Mrityunjay (English: Triumph Over Death) based on Karna, one of the leading characters of Mahabharata. Not only is the original in Marathi written by Shivaji Sawant, but all its subsequent translations in Hindi, English, Kannada, Gujarati and Malayalam received numerous awards and accolades and continue to do well. Similarly, you see Parva in Kannada and Mahasamar in Hindi, which have always done well,” he explains. “It is only in the English language that this genre is not as visible.”
According to him, the English language publishing industry was highly Westernised before. “They wouldn’t pick subjects like these. Because they weren’t available, they weren’t selling, and this was used as a ruse to justify not commissioning any. When few books in this genre were published, they wouldn’t be showcased. Ashok Banker, in fact, has spoken about how he didn’t get adequate marketing support from his publishers.”
Some like Joshi link this with the Hindutva upsurge in the early ‘90s. “From the Ramjanmabhoomi yatra which catapulted NDA-I into power to the landslide majority that brought in NDA-II, you have to admit to the resurgence of the Hindu voter. S/he is not the saffron bandana-wearing trishul brandisher, and for long resented being made to feel apologetic and even negate their culture and religion because it didn’t fit in with the ‘secular’ narrative. A significant jump in their buying power is changing that.”
Tripathi echoes him. “Our healthy tradition of re-interpreting myths in India for thousands of years had died out in the last 200 years. If it’s making a comeback, this has to do with a return of our confidence in ourselves for what we are as a people, as a land, as a culture. Our country is becoming successful once again after a really long time, and that has to do with this.”
Author, spiritual lifestyle coach and ISKCON priest Shubh Vilas’ second book? ?in? ?the Ramayana Game of Life series — Shattered Dreams — which comes close on the heels of the success of his first book Rise of the Sun Prince, says Indian mythology is finally coming into its own thanks to better packaging. “Lord Brahma told sage Valmiki that Ramayana will be an epic which will be around till the mountains, rivers and sky are. This is true about all Sanatana Dharma mythology. I refuse to call it Hindu, because in doing so we use the same pejorative used by invaders for people of this land.”?
Another problem with ‘Hindufication’ is of extra-constitutional censorship by self-appointed Hindutva watchdogs. Calling this misguided, Neelakantan, whose Asura and Ajaya have sold over two lakh copies each, feels the success of today’s mythology genre lies in its ability to interpret it with contemporaneity.
“We have an ancient tradition of alter-narratives as great works of literature in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Odiya. Just outside the Madurai Meenaxi temple is a Periyar statue damning the Hindu religion and calling its followers fools.” He is, however, quick to ask, “Can you imagine this happening in the Vatican or Mecca or even outside Communist party headquarters in Russia or China? Despite aberrations, Hinduism is largely peace-loving and accommodating.”
Always one to caution against fighting over which myth is better, Devdutt Pattanaik, author of 7 Secrets of Vishnu said, “Which is better? Greek myth of resistance or Abrahamic myth of compliance? Taoist myth which values nature or Confucian myth which values culture? The Buddhist myth that life is suffering or the Hindu myth that life is ananda? This debate itself is timeless. As long as there are humans, there will be subjectivity and every human will insist his truth is the truth. But if we value mythology, then we will value subjectivity, pay attention to other truths and expand our own truth. This is the power of myth.”
A power which could perhaps provide an answer to whether Hanu-man can beat Superman…