India's connection with her myth is a living, pulsating part of her psyche. It is the unique flavour of the wonder that is India. Myth and Me - The Indian Story is a handbook on Indian myth aimed at the discerning reader. This collection of essays, articles and talks forms an authentic overview of Indian myth, legend and philosophy. Grippingly retold in a rich and distinctive style, it is a passionate, personal journey through the vast landscape of Indian myth. It is also a celebration of the magic of Indian story, its insightful and visionary aspects, distilled to crystal clarity for the general reader both here and abroad. It fills a genuine gap in the literature on India whose past is still very much her present.
Lakshmi Lal has an MA in English from the Madras University. She began her writing career by editing and writing for Amar Chitra Katha. From 1980 to 1990 she wrote regularly on Indian myth, legend, art and culture for The Times of India in Mumbai. She has been a life-long student of Sanskrit language and literature. For the past two decades she has focused on Vedanta and related works. She is the author of The Ramayana, Shiva - Eye of the Storm, Ganesha Beyond the Form and the Warlis - Tribal Legends. She resides in Bangalore.
Much of my youth was spent in being resolutely Indian. Resolutely, because it was not easy. The sun had not quite set on the British Empire and we still lived in its rosy afterglow.
My mother gave me a headstart. She coloured my dreams with readings from Kalidasa, Bhartruhari and Adishankara in her rich and ringing voice. She read, recited, chanted, intoned and explained passages from the Upanishads, particularly the Kathopanishad and interspersed it with Shankara’s Bhoshyas and Stotras.
It was a heady mix. Kalidasa remains to this day the highwater mark of the romantic imagination for me. Love in the rarified environs of Kubera’s regions or on the snowbound heights of Shiva’s Kailasa seemed well within human reach. Bhartruhari’s shotokos (hundreds), three sets of a hundred verses each on erotica, politics and withdrawal ties up with the three stages of life following the initial seclusion of the student stage. It was an ideal introduction to the way the Hindu worries an idea to shreds and then tidies it all up into neat categories. Nachiketa’s dialogues with death in the Kathopanishad, the logic of karma and re-birth made a deep and lasting impression; and Shankara became a model, almost without equal, for the pursuit of the spirit through the intellect, the jnana marga or the way of self-knowledge through enquiry. The Upanishadic seers were visionaries who questioned their way through the mere facts of life to the truth that lies beyond. And they were master raconteurs whose tales of adventures in the realms of the spirit one could not easily dismiss. I never looked back.
India has been called the story-teller of the world. Besides the Ramayana and the Mahabharata we have the Jatakas, the Panchatantra, the Hitopadesha, the Vetala Panchavimshati and the Puranos, to name only the better known collections. The story is the great Indian pastime. This applies equally to history. Facts become story becomes legend and soon enough a myth is born. With myths enter insights pointing to the truth that lies veiled and out of sight. Myths are pathways to Truth, shorn of mystique and accessible to all. The fact of Rama or Krishna, if and when they ever existed, is not nearly as relevant as the powerful myths they generated.
Myth, legend and folklore have also been a prime cultural and educational tool in India. Our fine and performing arts, whether of street, village, court or temple, throughout the country draw heavily upon them. They form a common resource pool for this vast nation with its maddening diversity. They gather this diversity and lead it to some sort of unity. As far as India goes, sufficient unto eternity is the myth thereof. Our story-hoard is truly inexhaustible. Illiteracy in India has not been quite the disaster it might have been because the village story-teller and all our arts, our rituals and our festivals have spread wide the wisdom encapsulated in our myths.
In western cultures the whole concept has been devalued along with the word. A myth is something to be exploded. The Indian tradition advises us to pay serious attention to a myth, reflect upon it, make it part of our lives and wait patiently for its meaning to dawn upon our consciousness with maturity and experience. For the meaning of an enduring myth might well be part of the meaning of life itself.
We could choose to spend our lives exploding myths or examining them. I fervently hope that East remains East and West remains West if in the meeting of the twain our myths explode and go up in a puff of global smoke.
The Indian is myth-born and myth-fed. We must consciously preserve this tradition now that the world is truly upon us with the endless allure of what money can buy. In going global with Bacardi rum, Coca-Cola, free sex and instant gratification we must not lose sight of the rich and continuing culture that is India. It would indeed be a pity if a commercially projected lifestyle based on purely materialistic sights wiped out the values put painstakingly together by an ancient civilisation such as ours.
India stimulates and excites me; and it lever fails to amaze me. The wonder that is India helps me also to absorb the shock that India can frequently be. Five thousand years of vintage wisdom garnered by a long line of outstanding seekers is no mean heritage. I choose not to ignore it.
I have lived India in my head for more years than I care to remember. It has proved to be a good way, for the Indian journey is nothing if not inward.
My book begins with a general survey of the Hindu-Indian world-view as it grew and took shape to influence the Indian consciousness. From this flow the contents-the gods, the myths, the legends and the way they have spread through the performing and other arts to contribute to the strong and distinct infusion that is Indian culture. Hinduism remains the mainstream religion of India and therefore forms the basis for my presentation of the myths of India. It is, as it were, the host to all the religions that came to take root and flourish here. And it has been in spite of contemporary protests, a good and hospitable host.
The Story Begins
The Story Grows
The Story Spreads
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