Myths and folktales have nourished the cultural and spiritual heritage of India since the dawn of creation. They not only accentuate the splendour of the country's diverse cultures- Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Parsi, and tribal-but, collectively, they also blend to shape our nation's psyche. Many of them are familiar to us from our own childhoods. Those that are new serve to remind us of the extraordinary complexity of India's storytelling tradition. Sometimes these tales are archetypal, and sometimes they defy categorization. Sometimes they affirm our core values and, at other times, they make us question the motives that drive us. But what is always true about them, no matter how fantastical or creative the forms they take, is the rare insight they give us into the lives we live. They teach us about kinship, desire, greed, conflict, friendship, treachery, compassion, arrogance, persecution, empowerment, secrecy, romance, suffering, courage, challenges, wisdom, sexuality, and spirituality-and innumerable other things we might expect to experience in the course of our journey through life.
Through her masterful retelling, Meena Arora Nayak brings to vivid life familiar and beloved stories from the Vedas, Puranas, the great epics, Kathasaritsagara and the Panchatantra, as well as lesser-known offerings from the Jatakas, Bible, Holy Quran, Sikh Janamsakhis, and the folk traditions of the Santhals, Khasis, Oriyas, Bengalis and Punjabis, among others. Perhaps the most comprehensive collection of Indian myths and folktales to have been published in our time, the tales in The Blue Lotus will leave readers of all ages spellbound.
Meena Arora Nayak is the author of three novels, Endless Rain, About Daddy, and In the Aftermath, and a children's book, The Puffin Book of Legendary Lives. Her stories are included in the anthologies The Gig of Sin and Splendour and Enhanced Gravity. Her last book was a monograph, Evil in the Mahabharata.
MYTH AND FOLKTALE: DEFINITIONS, DIFFERENCES, AND SIMILARITIES
Myth-making and storytelling in India are traditions of the soil; they have been seeding India's histories and cultures from the very beginning. Even the Indus Valley seals, that are yet to be deciphered, suggest fascinating tales of iconic figures in horned headdresses, unicorn like animals, and homonymic fish and stars.' Other stories, which we do know, originated in the Vedas. For example, when the sky roared and lightning swung wildly across the sky, the myth of the frightening 'tawny' god with 'braided hair' occurred:' When the Saraswati flowed with her seven sisters, her waters swift like a chariot in victory, the myth of the glorious goddess was created. And when, in the rainy season, frogs began to croak, sounding like the chant of a Brahmin in ritual sacrifice, a fable took shape.
Myths and folktales are both layered narratives that tell of the human experience in all its variety and perfection and imperfection. These experiential tales not only explore the actions of the characters, but they also describe the consequence of the choices they make, and, knowing these tales, people gauge their own behaviours. Sometimes these tales are archetypal, and sometimes they defy categorization. Sometimes they affirm our own humanness, and, at other times, they make us question the imperatives that drive us. Bur what is always constant is that they are rooted in the ethos of the culture in which they originate.
It is difficult to define the terms, myth and folktale; however, in order to explain the rationale of this book, a brief explanation of the terms is necessary. Myths can be loosely described as traditional tales about cosmology and supernatural beings that are sacred to a whole community. On the other hand, folktales, which are traditional, as well, are more about common people and their daily concerns. They are also more regional and are often conveyed in the language of the people of a specific region. But both myths and folktales are remembered stories and both gain relevance every time they are told.
Another, more significant, distinguishing feature between the two is that myth can be a powerful vehicle of change, especially when it is fluid and open to interpolations, as it was during the composition of the Hindu epics. For example, Vasudeva Krishna's divinity was in its formative stage in the early years of the Mahabharata, and, more than likely, it was through the interpolated myths of the epic that he gained acceptance as a full-fledged divine-an avatar of Vishnu. In fact, in the Mahabharata and Puranas, there is mention of another Vasudeva-Paundraka, who may have been Krishna's contender for the position.
In addition to facilitating change, myth is also a barometer of societal laws. For example, at the end of the Mahabharata, when Yudhishthira holds an Ashvamedha yajna, as was the brahmanical injunction, a half- golden mongoose arrives to denounce the wastefulness of grandiose yajnas and the violence of animal sacrifice. And when myth itself dictates an injustice; it still leaves room for enquiry about the ethics of customary law. For example, in the Ramayana, when Rama kills the Shudra, Shambuka, because he aspired to become a Brahmin, varna order is restored in the story; however, questions arise about unjust practices in an immutable caste system.
One of the most significant enquires in Hindu myth, whose reverberations can still be felt in Indian society today is the question that Draupadi poses in the Mahabharata's catalytic dice-game, in which her husband, Yudhishthira, wagers and loses her: did Yudhishthira lose himself before he staked her, and if so, how could he wager her? It is obvious that the issue of women's rights was being discussed in epic society, and its inclusion in the popular narrative not only gave it significance but it also rendered it current for all time. In fact, this question made Draupadi a precursor and poster child of feminism in India.
Folklore, on the other hand, instead of underpinning societal norms, creating standards, or evoking enquiry, is more of a mirror which reflects the lives of people whose lives are affected by those norms.
MYTH AND FOLK: PARALLEL AND INTERTWINING TRADITIONS
Despite these differences, myth and folklore in India are not separate traditions, as has been posited by some western scholars. According to this theory, the pan-Indian, classical Sanskrit literatures of the Shrutis (revealed texts, which comprise the Vedas and Vedanta), and the Smritis (remembered texts, which include the epics, Puranas and Dharmashastras), constitute the Great Tradition, and the regional and dialectal folk literatures make up Little Traditions. These distinctions of Great and Little Traditions may be true in other societies, but, in India, this demarcation is erroneous. In India, not only is there more than one Great Tradition, bur also both these tradition types are inclusive of each other. Not only that, they are also continuous and heavily interdependent, with a great amount of intertextualiry, and they have been so from the earliest of time.
Even when the Vedas were composed and their mantras and hymns were carefully preserved, because they were considered apaurusheya (not coming from men) and thought to contain secret knowledge about cosmic mysteries, there was a folk element present in them. These folk hymns, too, were composed by high priests in archaic metrical scheme, like the other liturgical hymns of sacrificial rites, gods, and celestial battles, but their themes were more earthy, describing ordinary concerns of life. For example, here is a hymn from the Rig Veda about a jealous wife who cannot abide her husband's other wife :
I dig up this plant, an herb of great power [for a magic spell], one that drives out the rival wife and wins the husband entirely for oneself.
Broad-leaved plant sent by the gods to bring happiness and the power to triumph
Blow my rival wife away and make my husband mine alone.
This hymn is, most likely, dedicated to Indrani, wife of Indra, the king of gods, but the emotions and actions described in it are hardly godlike; they are so human that they resonate with any woman who has ever felt jealous of the other woman. In the same vein of this Rig Vedic hymn, the Atharva Veda is almost entirely about dailiness and concerns and formulas to counter hostile elements in everyday life.
When the era of Shruti literatures passed, their cosmological fixity transformed into the protean logos of the Smritis. These Smriti texts still had a divine cast of characters, and they were still being authored by exalted beings, but now these authors were also connected to people. For example, the Mahabharata's authorship is attributed to Vyasa and its scribing to Ganesha; both are related to the immortal as well as the mortal worlds: Ganesha is a divine whose main attributes and functions are directly connected to the well-being of mortals, and Vyasa, while being a part of Narayana and corresponding to Brahma, is not only mortal himself but is also related to the mortal characters of the epic. Moreover, in many instances, this people-friendly aspect of divine characters fed back into their myths, making them more folk-like. For example, Ganesha's attributes of benevolence towards human beings inform the myths of Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas.
Added to this secularity were two other significant factors that erased the line between myth and folklore. Firstly, these narratives were recited, not by Brahmins, as it used to happen with the Shrutis, but by bardic sutas, who were so much of the hoi polloi that often they were even outside the caste system, because they had hybrid bloodlines. And secondly, many of the myths and stories of these literatures were actually adoptions from the folklore of various tribes with which the Vedic Aryans were forming exogamous relationships.
The mise-en-abyme structure of mythological texts, too, allowed for incorporation of folk elements: the stories that were mirrored within the frame myths were, most likely, popular folktales already in existence. For example, within the story of the Pandavas' exile, as a consequence of Yudhishthira's defeat in the dice-game, is the story of King Nala, who loses his kingdom in a dice-game and abandons his wife, Damayanti. Within the story of Garuda's enmity with his Naga cousins is the fable of the internecine quarrel of the tortoise and elephant. Moreover, sometimes these folktales, embedded in the classical texts of mythology, were themselves metanarratives for the key myth; for example, the snake tales in the snake sacrifice genocidal myth cycle of the Mahabharata create a metanarrative for the story of the Great War in which one clan plans to exterminate the other.
The Ramayana, on the other hand, not only includes folktales, it has also engendered many folk traditions in its own different versions. In the 300 and more recognized Ramayanas, many are considered folk because of their regionalization; among these are the well-known Kamba Ramayanam in Tamil and the Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam in Telegu. In addition to generating regional versions, this epic is also part of other religious traditions, such as Jain and Buddhist, and in each one, while the frame story remains more or less the same, the structure, characterization, motifs, and side stories vary. For example, in the Buddhist Dasarata Jataka, Rama and Sita are siblings, and they marry each other after Rama returns from exile. In the Jain Ramayana, Lakshmana is the one who kills Ravana; Rama becomes a Jain monk and achieves moksha, and Sita becomes a nun.
This fluidity in traditions never ceased, not even after the epics were formalized as shastras in about the first century CE. Despite their doctrinal seal, the accrual continued, but after the formalization, most of it was relegated to the realm of folk. The Puranas, on the other hand, which were probably oral narratives alongside the epical literatures, were never codified as scripture. However, scholars believe that the early Puranas went through a formal collection during the Gupta Era in the third to fourth centuries CE, which was, perhaps, a Brahmin effort to rescue the Vedic and Brahmanical traditions from the pervasive influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Hence, the folk elements of the Puranas were given divine authority and their myths were presented as divine diktat. An apt example of this hostility and mutation is the Puranic myth of Vishnu's Buddha Avatar. In this myth, Vishnu assumes the avatar of a false sage, the Great Deluder, Buddha, to trick the asuras into following the 'unrighteous' path of Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, through the myth, the Brahmins not only rationalized their apostasy, but also threatened those who may have been thinking of leaving the fold.
The Puranas are classical, henotheistic texts, each one ascribing supreme divine status to the god to which it is dedicated. Within this framework, they deal with a variety of subjects, from cosmology to religion, from practical advice to ritual; basically, they are a miscellany of folklore and myth. They are primarily in Sanskrit, but some are also regional, such as the Sthala Puranas, which give an account of shrines and temples, and many of these are part of the Tamil literary tradition. Others, such as the Devi-Bhagavata Parana and the Ganesha and Mudgala Puranas, pertain to deities that may have been regional and folkloric and probably gained pan-Indian status through the popularity of their Puranic myths.
Aside from its inclusion in scriptural texts, folklore also has a full-fledged tradition of its own, which has evolved simultaneously with the mythological tradition. For instance, the Jatakas are didactic fables about the Buddha's previous births. They are dated to about fourth century BCE to fifth century CE, the earliest tales coeval with many of the epical and Puranic myths. They are, most likely, the first set of folktales to be composed in India, and while they are an important contribution to the folklore tradition, as part of the Buddhist canon, they also constitute the mythology of the Buddha. Another example is the Pancbatantra, the third to fourth century BCE collection of allegorical fables woven within a frame story, attributed to Vishnu Sharma. Many of the Pancbatantra fables are intertextualized with the Jatakas, and a few also share elements with Mahabharata's side stories.
The case of the voluminous epic of folktales and fables, Brihatkatha, further invalidates the separation of the traditions. Its purported author, Gunadhya, probably a court poet of King Hala, a Satavahana king around the first century CE, wrote Brihatkatha, not in Sanskrit, but in an obscure Prakrit language, Paishachi, which disappeared at some point. However, despite its break from the accepted language of classical texts, Brihatkatha is sometimes called India's third epic. Unfortunately, like Paishachi, which literally translates into the 'language of the ghosts', the book, too, is lost. But it was adapted and abridged into other texts, including three Sanskrit works that are considered important in the tradition of Indian folklore: Brihatkathashlokasangraha by Budha Swami in the eighth century CE, Brihatkathamanjari of Kshmendra, a court poet of King Ananta of Kashmir in the eleventh century CE, and, the most popular of them-Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva, a Brahmin from Kashmir, also in the eleventh century CE. All of these, while falling into the realm of folktales, can also be considered part of the supposed, Great Tradition, because of their elite language and dominant pan-Indian scope.
The Kathasaritsagara itself spawned more collections of folktales. For example, the Vetala Pancbvimshati, popularly known as Baital Pachisi, drew tales from Kathasaritsagara to mould its own collection of twenty-five stories, in which a baital, or vetala, (ghost) tells King Vikramaditya riddle-tales. The Shukasaptati, (Seventy Tales of the Parrot) also borrowed stories from the same text to put in the mouth of its narrator parrot, who relates tales to a cheating queen about unfaithfulness. Moreover, the protagonist of the former collection, Raja Vikramaditya of Ujjain, became such a legend that he was intertexualized in a number of other collections, such as the Simhasana Battisi (Thirty-Two Tales of the Throne), and he continued to also be the hero of many oral folktales. This movement of stories not only kept the tales alive, but they also created sibling stories. An interesting example is in the medieval Jain story of 'Durgila' from Hemchandra's Parishishtaparvan and 'The Anklet' from Shukasaptati. The latter is the exact replica of one incident in the former, but what is interesting is the shift in motifs and beliefs. This is a story of a married woman who has a lover but is able to successfully deceive her husband. In the Jain text, she is presented as a sinner and punished for it, but in the Hindu text, she is characterized as clever and is exonerated ('The Anklet' is included in this book).
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