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We Can Still Derive Life Lessons From Ancient Hindu Mythologies

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Hindu epics have always been an integral part of our existence, Ramayan and Mahabharata being the most important ones. The verses and lines emanating from these epics are used to justify a life of righteousness and integrity in our society, define our culture and direct our festivals. The myths, folktales and stories from these epics portray the characters in them as ‘Gods’, and therefore, they are considered to be ‘right’ in all circumstances. But, are they always an epitome of uprightness and virtues?

Like a Chinese whisper game, which modifies the meaning of words passed through several ears, the folktales have been perceived and interpreted differently over the centuries and generations. When these epics were first conceived, they were worshipped like a holy textbook, proclaimed to be containing the essence of life. The world, people and their thought process were different then. Though the country was in a developing stage, the wave of westernisation had yet not settled in. At that point, the understanding of the people was constrained; they believed that every character was either white or black, good or evil, right or wrong etc. The segregation was simple. There was good and evil, symbolising god and demon. It was believed that the demon sins, challenges God, and then the all-powerful God of that era kills him using the powers he earned through years of penance and ‘tapasya’. Ideally, every other mythological story had the same fate and ending. There was no ifs and buts, no deviation from the basic narrative convention, and the characters who played significant roles in these stories.

For example, in Mahabharat, the Kauravas were evil and therefore, were killed by the Pandavas. In Ramayana, the demon king Ravana was malicious and immoral, so, he was vanquished by Ram. It was as plain as that for the generation that lived and thrived ages ago.

Gradually with time, this world opened up, and the globalisation crept in bringing in a sea of new thoughts and beliefs in India. People started to look beyond the mugged up tales and stories of the epics, repeated and venerated for ages, and eventually dared to challenge their logic and foundation. They decided not to follow the tales they heard and read blindly. They refused to take in the hearsay moral values being force-fed by the elders since generations. They understood that inside all these tales and behind all these characters; was an ordinary life story which achieved the grandeur only due to the rhetoric added to the tale with every retelling. Characters made immortal through these tales, were indeed humans like us; who followed the society’s path and lived through different relationships. They made mistakes, felt guilty too, and were not as chaste as they were portrayed to be.

Lord Rama was indeed a ‘supreme God’ as he willingly left his kingdom and family to obey his father’s command, but he was wrong to doubt his wife’s character when she was called unchaste by someone. The concept of polyandry was also introduced by these epics, where among other countless examples of multiple marriages, Draupadi married the five Pandavas.

There has been a shift in the way these epics are seen now, as society evolved, people’s thinking also evolved; along with the rising intellect of the communities. Now, people are interested in following only that part of the story which can be backed up with logic and reasoning. Vast strata of the society have removed the blindfold which once directed their course of life. Guided by new age thoughts, perception and outlook, these intellectual people are radicalising the public through books, web series and documentaries on these epics. Gods and demons are now envisioned in a different light altogether. These are complex documentation of incidents that may have happened thousands of years ago, but they also contain the concentrated values of life, with an insight into our problems and their probable solutions. However, they also contain the same probability of error and blunders, which an ordinary man commits and tries to escape afterwards.

Every character in Mahabharata is a distinct personality; with both a good and an evil side to it. If we look closely, every character has shades of grey; which may not be visible on the surface and hence, a little hard to understand.

They might be the epitome of righteousness and valour, or courage and integrity, but they have committed grave mistakes defying their strengths. The five Pandavas, known to be the brave and noble, were unable to save the dignity and respect of their wife after she pleaded for justice in the court of king Dhritarashtra. They were held by the core value of ‘dharma’ – a principle they followed.

Whereas, surprisingly in the epic, Ramayana, the demon king Ravana, known to be evil, whose effigies we burn as a symbol of the victory of good over evil every year; did not even touch Sita while she lived in his kingdom. The tales advocate that she was treated and kept as a royal queen during her stay, even when she was abducted. However, unfortunately, on her return, she had to undergo a ‘fire test’ to prove her chastity in her husband’s court. Do I need to say more?

Many times, when we read and try to understand the complex characters of these epics, woven in various shades, we realise that these characters are as humanly and normal as we are. Just like us, they made mistakes and were punished too. Unlike our judiciary, which takes years to give judgement, every person who committed a crime back then was punished instantly in the form of curses and ‘karma’.

My reason for comparing these epics to our lives today – is to emphasise on the fact that we are nobody to judge anyone for their actions. We are exactly like these characters from different epics, and we still derive values from them and reject what doesn’t fit into our current scenario. A human makes mistakes; he is capable of being both – good and evil. He also has a grey side and has superpowers too. We are all capable of changing the world if we concentrate on our strengths and always keep a clear conscience.

As it’s said ‘to err is too human, to forgive is to divine”.  We all make mistakes, and therefore, we have no right to judge anyone for the same. Everyone has a story to tell, about their stormy life and the challenges they have faced; it’s only a matter of how we perceive life and react to it.

In the present society, when we believe that Drapaudi was chaste married five men; we should keep a broad outlook when we see a girl going out with her male friends or enjoying the life they do not approve of. When you are okay with marrying your daughter off to a stranger, then you should be comfortable with her going out with her male friends too.

As the societies have evolved, the communities have started reading between the lines, which were hidden beneath the surface of blind faith until now.

In many places today, the demon king Ravana is worshipped and is respected for his intellectual qualities and valour, rather than just rebuking him for abducting Sita.

However, completely changing the mindset of people and especially the older generation is a difficult task. In a society where patriarchy rules the decision making of the households, these epics are used and followed at one’s convenience. And because these customs have been followed for ages, the women of the house believed them to be their fate and valued them as the right way of living their lives.

The crux of the matter is that ‘right and wrong’ is highly subjective. It all depends upon how we see things. We all need to change our perception of how we look at and believe things to be. We should handle every situation in an unbiased manner, taking every aspect into account; before we make any decision.

Life should be perceived by the way it is lived today and not based on some age-old beliefs.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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