From Rakshaks to Rakshasas: when mythology is misunderstood and misused

The present mythology boom is not the worst thing to have happened to Indian publishing since an IIT/IIM graduate gave up a career in banking to take up writing.
Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only.

The present mythology boom is not the worst thing to have happened to Indian publishing since an IIT/IIM graduate gave up a career in banking to take up writing. This passion for tales from a glorious heritage has inspired many to pry their eyes and claws away from their tabs, or handheld gaming devices, or smartphones for a few moments, and inspired many more to try their hand at reinventing the genre in the hopes of becoming the next Amish Tripathi. Therefore, an abiding love for mythology can never be a bad thing and yet, somehow we seem to have found a way to take something wonderful, toss it into the blender with faux Hindutva dogma, distort it past all recognition and use it to serve vested interests keen on divisive politics.

How did it come to this?
For starters, everybody, it seems, is an expert after glancing through a book or two and listening with half-an-ear to granny’s tales, or having returned from a session with the friendly neighbourhood storyteller who likes to expound at length on Puranic lore while high on bhang. Considering themselves scholars who know everything there is to know about the veritable sea of obscure facts that is Indian mythology, uber-patriotic pests feel free to clump together and lynch or abuse those who are not infected with whatever it is that has turned their brains to mush and hearts to lead.

Nobody is exempt from the excesses of these modern-day rakshasas, but the so-called ‘evil eaters of beef’ have been targeted with tragic results. While there is no denying that the cow is revered in Indian mythology, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that meat—any meat—was consumed with relish by the ancients, including the Brahmins. In fact, there is a tale from the Periya Puranam, which reveals how Shiva paid a visit to his devotee, Siruthondar, in disguise and insisted that he must have non-vegetarian cuisine. Being a poor man, who could not afford to buy meat, the great man, slew his son, made his wife cook the choicest cuts and serve it. For this act of faith, which in this day and age would be considered as the foulest kind of murder (rightly so), he received an express pass to partake of the vaunted delights of heaven. Sage Agastya, similarly, was a gourmand with a partiality for meat, and consumed the demon Vatapi with great gusto. Chew on that for a bit before forming erroneous notions about how best to enforce the glories of a distant past that may or may not have even existed.

If cannibalism was not exactly frowned upon back in the day, then couldn’t there be a remote possibility that more than a few of our ancestors had an irresistible taste for beef and did not mind risking damnation for a superbly-cooked dish with the said ingredient? And surely, there is a possibility our famously compassionate gods would have let it slide mainly because they cannot possibly be the jerks their extremist devotees are?

In addition to human flesh, the gods clearly had voracious sexual appetites and saw no reason to apologise for them. Shiva’s lust for Vishnu in his guise as the enchantress Mohini is well known. Even Krishna disguised himself as a woman to seduce the demon Araka in order to kill him. The rest of the gods and goddesses in the massive pantheon of Hindu divinity made no bones about the fact that they were lusty and, on occasion, outright lascivious.

Surely, the gods in all their wisdom would not see it fit to abuse, mistreat or condemn to the thousand hells of Yama those among their mortal offspring such as the LGBT community or straight women for their sexual desires. Of course not! Would they actually condone the senseless violence, hatred, intolerance and killing that is carried out in their name? I should certainly hope not.

Ultimately, anybody who knows anything at all about mythology will tell you that it is a constantly shifting narrative that is metamorphosing even as this is being written, and 100 years hence will be unrecognisable from what we know of it today. Therefore, it would be lovely if people stopped using mythology, religion, morality or any of the flimsy excuses being bandied about for their insupportable and unconscionable behaviour that is a disgrace to this nation.

Anuja Chandramouli

Author of Arjuna, Kamadeva, Shakti and Yama’s Lieutenant

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The New Indian Express