Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Understanding term myth.

Scholars of 19th century, misconstrued the term myth , connoting , primitive, barbaric, uncivilized and even falsehood. Thus linking cultures which followed the religious and mythic systems as backward , unscientific and non-progressiveness civilizations . Thanks to scholars like Strauss, Bathes and other Post Modern thinkers whose works have shown that myth or mythology is not just a primitive thought but part of the human consciousness irrespective of primitive or modern world you inhabit.

However the confusion over the meaning is still far from over. And in my understanding, this confusion is mainly because of the self styled mythologist, and media pundits who have used and abused the term myth loosely to connote any traditional tale. General perception in India is Ramayana , Mahabharata or even Panchatantra and other traditional tales are all myths. In short if the tale has been quoted in ancient text then it is a myth. So WRONG! Ramayana and Mahabharata are epics not myths. (Of course one finds mythic narratives embedded within these epics but that does not distinguish these texts as myths or mythological text ). It should be made clear onset that not all traditional tales are myths.

I often encounter people who tell me how much they were inspired by reading myths from Amar Chitra Katha.For many the stories they read in Amar Chitra Katha all qualify to be myths , because that is how they encountered the ancient Indian culture through the comic books. Well in-spite the comic series classifying the series under various types of tales such as historic tales, Jataka tales, Birbal tales etc. public perception tends to ignore such classifications to call them under a bracket term of MYTHS.

So what is a myth?

Mythologists from ancient times have realized that myths are a 'special' kind of tales. They differentiated them from other types of tales such as folk tales, fairy tales, didactic tales, legends, historic tales, parables, fables etc. Like most of these tales mentioned above myths are traditional tales and yet unlike other traditional tales, which functioned primarily as entertainment , these class of tales were considered "sacred" because the purpose of these tales differed from other tales.

It was also observed, that all ancient civilizations preserved these tales along with their most revered literature, rites and beliefs of the society. And for this reason many of the myths were found within the religious texts. But it is not necessary that these tales were religious in nature. Or myths have to be part of any religious text.I will try and explain this in later blogs. Many scholars believe that mythic tales were incorporated in the religious texts much later by priests and other religious authorities so that people should not forget these tales. Such was the power of these tales over its people.

In ancient India , Yaska a great philosopher and sage of 7th Cen B.C.had identified these tales in his book Nirukta as 1. Aitihasika( relating to history); 2. Mantra Brahmana vada( eulogy relating to prayer and ritual); 3. nirukta (relating to etymology). Since then many thinkers , philosophers and scholars have tried to analyze these tales and understand the role and function these tales called myths to the society that created and preserved such tales.

Many travelers missionaries and philosopher have recorded myths in ancient times but rarely have these tales have been studied under academic systems. It is only in late 19th century German Indologist, F. Max Mueller initiated a branch to study the similarities between Greek and Vedic myths which re kindled the interest in study of mythology especially of Indian mythology . Anthropologist who also undertook the study of foreign cultures which were conquered and colonized nations provided opportunity to bring out various facets of mythology of different world civilization.

In the next blog I would like to elaborate on the myth and process of myth making.

Image Copyrights
Ramayana: The Epic
An Animation movie by Ketan Mehta

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