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Campbell - Indian context

“I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in the poem is what the myth does for you.”

-- Joseph Campbell

In his phenomenal work, the Power of Myth, Campbell describes the world of myths in these words. Hailing from Indian roots, being brought up on a steady diet of Ramayana, Mahabharata and many puranic stories, I can corelate this view to Indian mythology with much ease. The imagery mythological stories gives us, the accounts of spiritual experiences the characters are said to have, the near perfect protagonists, free spirited beautiful women, the twists in the plots, treachery beyond expectation, the amusing set of boons and curses, the grey shades of characters, even the Gods and Goddesses engaging in drama, having flaws, falling off the pedestal time to time is thought provoking, engaging and inspiring for artists, poets and those who live artistical life.

The enchanted forests, the ethereal beautiful woman, forces of nature, the rivers and mountains taking human forms, humongous wars, weapons of mass destruction, the interesting traits of protagonists; not just the Gods and heroes, even villains and sages with superpowers constitute an inescapable part of Indian mythology.

Churning of the milk ocean, Samudra manthan as we call it, is in itself, any artist’s muse. The myth of all the things that have been churned out signify the potential of extracting many possibilities by Humans for Human existence from the universe. Celestial apsaras described as ageless beauties, seductresses, the celestial musicians or singers gandharva males and celestial dancers as gandharva females, Airavata, the white elephant in the size of a mountain, Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity, the medicine man with a pot of nectar for immortality, the elixir of life. The depiction of a blue Haalahal poison whose vapors are potent enough to kill anyone who inhales, the saviours Vishnu and Siva, itself is the most depicted episode of our stories.


The settings of stories such as Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyanta have inspired many poets like Sriharsha and Kalidasa, the imagery of Nala deserting Damayanti, sending messages of love through swans, Shakuntala being attacked by a bumble bee and Signet ring Dushyanta given by Shankuntala being swallowed by a fish are all images that poets and artists have carved in our memories for time immemorial. Indian epic poetry and epic prose are classic examples of how mythology has influenced great minds, Sanskrit scholars and local artists and poets have depicted in many myriad of hues Indian Gods and Goddesses from such stories. Epic proses like Abhijnana Shakuntalam, Raghuvamsa, Meghadutam by Kalidasa offer a brilliant visualisation, aptly enough, Kalidasa is well known for his use of similies. Maha kavyas Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsa, Naisadha Charitha, Sisupala vadha, the list goes on. Bharavi kavi’s Kiratarjuneeyam and the episode of Arjuna fighting Lord Siva himself who is disguised as a hunter, is from the epic Mahabharata. The description of King Dilipa, Raghu and Rama and his other ancestors are larger than life and sometime surreal in the seminal work Raghuvamsa by the most celebrated poet Kalidasa.

Not only the Sanskrit poets, many works have been published in regional languages and such poets and artists have been inspired by the stories from the scriptures. Particularly the epic Ramayana is the most translated and most depicted. Only second to it is the epic Mahabharata which has nested stories an a plethora of themes to offer to the readers.

Bhakti and sufi cult poets and singers have penned lyrics and rendered divine melodies which are soul stirring.

Visual Arts

Drawings, paintings, wall art, cave art depicted starting from cavemen to the contemporary, folk and tribal artists bring about the myths from the imaginary to the real world. Tribal art forms like Patachitra, Chittara, Pithora and many others depict the myths and beliefs local to those regions, offering splendid explanation of how the world works and how the Gods have been invoked for peace, progeny, prosperity and much more. Symbols and iconography of Indian mythology, the trinity and the mother goddess, dasa mahavidyas, have been represented in ways more than we can ever imagine. The pandals during durga pooja, idols used in processions of Ganesh Chaturthi, the sculptures of temples, the figurines and temple architecture are all inspired by the myths.

Baby Krishna being ferried by his father Vasudeva across the river Yamuna, Krishna stealing butter, dancing with the gopikas in Brindavan are all visual treats and part of our acculturation to Indian traditions. Rama fighting ten headed Raavana, the golden deer, pushpaka vimana in which Sita is carried away are artists’ delight and images we hold dear as part of our growing up.

Similarly the images of Buddha and the depiction of his life and teachings, the symbolism of his mudras, the images of swethambara and digambara Jain stories, are all part of popular culture or have been transmitted through anecdotes, songs or stories.

Performing Arts

Classical dance forms like Perini, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, dance dramas, folk and classical musicians playing both folk and classical instruments, storytelling, performing harikathas and other such performing art forms are all drawing inspiration and content from mythology. They have been so much internalised by us, that we say we dance like Siva when we get angry or passionate, we attribute playing musical instruments, knowledge and wisdom to Gods like Saraswati and Ganesha.

Life, rather than monotonous and mundane, becomes full of possibilities of encountering supernatural heros, parallel universes, time and space travel, celestial dancers and singers, boon giving wise sages, peace imparting Buddha, visualising young children who are naughty as Hanuman or Krishna, obedience as attributed to Rama and powerful women to Durga or Kali. Mothers or mother figures sing lullabies to their kids and drawing parallel to Krishna or Rama impart life lessons. Myths make us imagine that we are all a part of a dream-drama, the world being a stage and the Gods as the audience or spectators.

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