By Devdutt Pattanaik
There are two kinds of truths in this world. One is called a social truth or samajik satya; the other is called the spiritual truth or sanatan satya. The social truth is bound by history and geography; it is set to time and space, it is based on rules of man and the measuring scale of the society we live in. This changes over time. By contrast, spiritual truth is not set to time and space; it is not bound to any history or geography and is not governed by cultural codes of conduct. This does not change over time.
A mythological narrative like a Ramayana or a Mahabharata is primarily aimed to communicate the spiritual truth, even though it does have some proportion of social truth in it. By contrast, a piece of literature like the story of Devdas is dominated by social truth. This difference is often not realized by modern filmmakers and storytellers. Ramayana and Mahabharata are not interested in the issues of a period or a place – they focus on the fundamentals of life. The novel and film versions of Devdas on the other hand are fully focused on the issues of a period or a place or even a person.
The novel, Devdas by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, based in the 20th century draws attention to the helplessness of a young man, who despite education is overpowered by traditional social hierarchies. He is unable to marry the woman he loves because she belongs to a different strata of society, and is unable to reciprocate the love of a courtesan, another social outcaste, and so takes to drink in a protracted form of suicide. When Sanjay Leela Bhansali retold the tale, all attention shifted to the women – the songs they sang, the clothes they wore, the drama they created on screen. And when Anurag Kashyap retold the tale, the characters of the film refused to be victims of society; they took charge of their lives and responsibility for their actions. Both the novel and the films focus on the social truths. Issues like nature of love and desire, if any, are not even considered. For these are meant to entertain and provoke thought on social issues – they are not meant to be spiritual.
But when a mythological narrative is told, the aim is the complete reverse. Focus must be given to spiritual truths not social issues. Ramayana cannot be reduced to the story of a husband and wife. Mahabharata cannot be reduced to a family fight over property. That is what Shyam Benegal did in his Bharat Ek Khoj – mythology was reduced to warped history, a glorified tribal war, reflecting the past, with no relevance to the present. And Ekta Kapur did the same. Despite a sprinkling of gods and goddesses, it remained a soap opera full of relentless machinations of over decked women and smooth chested men. In all traditional narratives, the sanatan satya explored by the two epics is the notion of dharma – what is appropriate social conduct in the context of man’s desires and the limitations of nature. This is an eternal timeless struggle – a key element that was missed by both filmmakers who belong to two ends of the Bollywood spectrum: Shyam Bengal veers towards thought provoking art films while Ekta Kapur veers towards popular commercial cinema.
For centuries, there have been hundreds of retellings of Ramayana and Mahabharata. But each one of them has been a sacred telling. This element of ‘sacredness’ is essential to make a narrative mythic. An author never makes a narrative sacred; society makes it so. When Ramanand Sagar did his Ramayana and BR Chopra did his Mahabharata, they respected the sacredness of the narrative. The style of production followed the tacky nautanki mode of presentation, but at no point was the sacredness of the epic questioned. They slipped though – BR Chopra ended the epic, for example, not with the ascent to heaven but with the coronation of the Pandavas. He wanted a happy ending not a confused one, but in doing so reduced the epic into a simplistic fight between good guys and bad guys. Sagar also slipped when he ended with the coronation of Ram and not the abandonment of Sita; he can be forgiven though because many retellings including Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas do the same, unable to explain the latter episode in the framework of Ram being a perfect man.
The fundamental problem in modern retellings of mythological tales is that storytellers do not know the purpose of mythology – is it for entertainment, is it to reflect a social truth or is it a medium for profound spiritual truths? As a result, we end up with films where Hanuman and Krishna are treated as characters no different from Mickey Mouse in Disneyworld. Or we end up with works where Ram and Krishna are judged using samajik satya. The awkwardness of both the actors and directors of current mythological serials is very evident – probably because they do not quite believe in the sacredness of the narrative, nor understand it, or feel this is meant for ‘simpler’ people. A recent episode of Krishna on television, for example, came up with a rather bizarre explanation as to why Krishna stole the clothes of milkmaids bathing in the river. This was no romantic prank of a rake; this was to punish the women for doing the wrong thing – bathing naked in a public river! Where did that come from? Not the scriptures for sure.
There is the story of a poor man asking God for a complete solution to life’s problems. God gave him a golden pot full of water. The poor man sold the golden pot and it made him very rich. But life’s problems continued to plague him. “But I asked for a complete solution for life’s problems. Why did you give me a golden pot instead?” God replied, “I did not give you any golden pot. I gave you the nectar that would make you content. But you saw only the gold of the pot. Whose problem is that?” Mythological stories are like golden pots. But storytellers today focus not on the nectar within (sanatan satya), only on the value of the pot (samajik satya). And so we end up with warped stories that give our children a warped worldview that celebrates violence and consumption. In keeping with the law of karma, the parents shall sooner or later reap what they sow in the minds of the children.
The profound truth of mythological tales is subtle – hidden in symbols and frameworks. Not everybody gets it and so for centuries the storytellers did not play around too much with the story, fearing they would inadvertently damage the underlying symbols or the frameworks. Changes between retellings were very subtle – never dramatic. Except in the 20th century, the divinity of Ram and Krishna was never questioned and the audience was continuously provoked to wonder why they do actions that do not always align to expected social truths. Samajik satya and sanatan satya are often at odds with each other. In the contemplation of this conflict, lies wisdom.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian mythologist and writer known for his work on ancient Indian scriptures.