Editor’s Note: This essay is included in the author’s new book titled “On Intellectuals and Thinkers – And Other Musings on India in the Light of Sri Aurobindo”, available on Amazon Kindle.
In his essays on Indian Literature, Sri Aurobindo wrote of the national significance of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata in these words:
“These epics are…not a mere mass of untransmuted legend and folklore, as is ignorantly objected, but a highly artistic representation of intimate significances of life, the living presentment of a strong and noble thinking, a developed ethical and aesthetic mind and a high social and political ideal, the ensouled image of a great culture. As rich in freshness of life but immeasurably more profound and evolved in thought and substance than the Greek, as advanced in maturity of culture but more vigorous and vital and young in strength than the Latin epic poetry, the Indian epic poems were fashioned to serve a greater and completer national and cultural function and that they should have been received and absorbed by both the high and the low, the cultured and the masses and remained through twenty centuries an intimate and formative part of the life of the whole nation is of itself the strongest possible evidence of the greatness and fineness of this ancient Indian culture.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 353)
In less than 100 years after this, some scholars in the American academy found themselves interested in exploring (or possibly inventing) another type of function of Ramayana and Mahabharata. This time, they were examining whether a televised rendition of these epics had any impact on influencing and even shaping a certain type of political consciousness of a vast majority of gullible Indians, which according to them, was divisive and chauvinistic in character. This is a critical study of some such analyses.
This essay presents some reflections based on some of my preliminary readings of a select sample of scholarly essays and analyses written about the hugely popular Indian television shows from the 1980s, Ramayana and Mahabharata, that are still being serialized as re-runs on some channels. These analyses were done by scholars in fields as diverse as Sociology, Cultural Studies, Film Studies, Women’s Studies, History, Leisure Studies, etc.
An important reason why such a study becomes interesting even after three decades of when these TV shows were first broadcast is simply this: in the last three decades, religious and mythological shows have indeed become quite popular among large sections of Indian television audiences. Many shows based on the Purānic stories of gods and goddesses, life-stories and teachings of various ancient and contemporary religious teachers, mystics and saints from various regions of India have been produced and broadcasted in a serialized manner – some programs continuing for several years – through various TV channels and cable services. Many of these shows, produced and/or dubbed in various Indian languages, have enjoyed huge viewership ratings. Several of them have also been broadcasted as re-runs. For an ordinary Indian, this says something about the general Indian religious bent of mind. But is that how such a phenomenon is understood by the mainstream intellectual thought prevalent in the academy, primarily the Western academy which, for various reasons, sets the terms of the discourse in the ‘globalised’ academic world?
It is a critical question to ask because as Vamsee Juluri (2015) reminds us in his book, Rearming Hinduism: “A discourse is backed by institutional power, it is therefore power.” Such a powerful discourse has the power to shape perceptions, even that of a large section of the population, when repeated ad nauseam and presenting the similar argument through various channels – academic papers, conferences, op-ed pieces in widely circulated media outlets, panel discussions, television interviews, newspaper reports, social media write-ups, etc. Such a discourse ends up not only shaping perceptions of the outsiders about a certain way of life but even of the insiders to that way of life, simply because they are being told again and again – this is what your practices really mean, this is what your way of life is really about. To quote once again from Juluri (2015):
“The challenge that Hinduism faces today comes not from governance or armies, but essentially in the sphere of culture; from two institutions, academia, and the media. Modern academic and mass media. Hardly one hundred years old. Yet, the ideas in each have become tremendously influential around the world. So influential, pervasive, and normative, that unless we learn how to question them, and how they tell the story about the world, we will forget who we really were altogether.”
It, therefore, becomes really important that we ask the question – does the discourse that surrounds some of our cultural products really capture what those products mean to the actual consumers of the products?
Reading Popular Culture
This study explores this question using a particular case of the intellectual discourse surrounding the TV shows Ramayana and Mahabharata from the 1980s. The sample of writings chosen for this analysis is small and could be seen as a skewed one, but it nonetheless allows a peek into the kinds of “readings” that are done into Indian cultural products and the India that gets constructed through these readings. My reflections are primarily on some of the conclusions drawn from these analyses and the methodological approaches used to arrive at these conclusions.
I focus my attention primarily on the issues of Hindu consciousness and Hindu nationalism discussed in certain analyses of the popular TV shows Ramayana and Mahabharata. By themselves, these analyses are not a cause for concern, and they, in fact, help readers develop a new understanding of the phenomenon under study. Multiple readings of the text result in multiple interpretations, making it difficult to “buy” into any essentialist representations the text’s author may have intended. In this sense, it is indeed nice to see growing academic interest in reading the text of Indian popular culture, especially the Indian television. But, as Korsmeyer (1993) argues, perception and appreciation of depictions in a film not only entail some particular social standpoint, but are also formed out of the responsive dynamic operating within an embodied viewer. Given this, one key question I ask is whether these readings take into account the dynamics operating within the embodied viewers of these popular TV shows, Ramayana and Mahabharata?
Moorti (2000) points out that the ways in which we understand cultural products (such as films) are deeply rooted in the historical conditions that mark the locus of spectatorship. But, are the spectators’ experiences of the film or TV shows part of the approaches used by the critics? In examining the selected readings presented here, I also argue for the significance of the perceptions of the audience in the reading of a cultural product.
Perhaps this focus on “historical conditions that mark the locus of spectatorship” in interpreting a cultural product may explain why we find a sense of concern over the spread of Hindu consciousness and Hindu nationalism in India and in Indian diaspora when we examine some of the analyses of TV Ramayana and Mahabharata. Whether these shows actually contributed to social, political, cultural shifts in India and Indian diaspora is secondary to the fact that these shows, like other popular Indian cinema, provided ample opportunities for experts of cultural studies to supply and use what Nandy (2003) refers to as “categories and models to reduce [them] to sociological data for studies of prejudice, violence, sectarian nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, feudalism, retrogressive family values and patriarchy” (p. 83). It may become rather obvious that certain historical conditions such as the rise of a certain political party on the heels of the broadcast of these shows may have been one of the reasons for such analyses.
A little background may be in order at this point. The TV adaptations of two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were first serialized by the Indian state-run channel Doordarshan between 1987 and 1990. These soon became the most popular serials ever shown on Indian television. Several media reports in India talked about the ritual viewing of these shows all over India, many viewers performing puja in front of their TV sets, garlanding their TV sets, and participating in what became a national devotional activity. In his essay titled, Media Revolution and Hindu Politics in North India, 1982-99, Robin Jeffrey (2001) describes the phenomenon – “North India stopped for that time; the streets were deserted, servants crept up to windows to watch employers’ televisions from respectable distances; people reportedly dressed in their best clothes and said prayers before switching on. One survey claimed that the Mahabharata was seen by 92 percent of all people with access to television. The media trade journal A&M put the figure more modestly at 80 percent.”
The popular response to these serials was of such a huge magnitude that it inspired several studies, in India and elsewhere. In his delightful essay, All in the (Raghu) family: A Video Epic in Cultural Context, Philip Lutgendorf (1995) remarked, “Ramayan [became] the most popular program ever shown on Indian television, and something more: a phenomenon of such proportions that intellectual and policymakers struggled to come to terms with its significance” (p. 217).
Culturally Specific “Ways of Seeing”
Many of the early critiques of TV Ramayana were shaped by a modernist contempt for mass culture and were predicated on conceptualizations of viewers as homogeneous and passive consumers, and of “mass culture” as monolithic and essentially manipulative (Mankekar, 1999, p. 187). Referring to TV Ramayana as “an original retelling in a new medium,” Lutgendorf (1995, p. 237) has appropriately challenged and addressed some of these criticisms. His analysis situates this retelling in the long tradition of Ram Kathā and Ramlīla. He challenges the condescending and disgusting tone of some of the critics at the incongruity of “worshipping” an electronic gadget (p. 241) by reminding them and their readers of the spirit of Indian living tradition of bhakti and puja and their diverse outer expressions. For example, he writes: “Such critics are often out of touch with the religious customs of their own urban neighbors, and choose to overlook, for example, the purificatory puja of motor vehicles, printing presses, and other mechanical devices, which is common throughout the country” (p. 241).
A writer-friend, Dagny Sol, who reviewed this essay in its draft version, wrote back to me after reading this passage:
“If I were asked to explain this seemingly irrational act of worshiping an electronic gadget, I would say this: Indian psyche is deeply convinced that everything which manifests itself in the universe, does so because it pleased Him that it be manifested. People were not worshiping the TV set; that was their way of saying thanks to the Divine for letting a passage be created so that they could watch Ram-kathā being told through a new medium. And what’s wrong with that?”
This is the kind of Indian religious experience rooted firmly in a uniquely Indian idea of all-pervading Spirit about which most academic commentators on Indian socio-cultural matters are either clueless or which they simply want to ignore because it does not fit their ideological slant.
Lutgendorf has also addressed another fear of critics who worried that the TV Ramayana “homogenized a host of different versions of the epics into a single version, frozen on and stamped with the authority of the videocassette” (Jeffrey, 2001). Referring to this as a fear possibly arising by a misunderstanding of Ramayana as a text rather than a tradition, he argues that this TV and video retelling should be seen as “another step in a long historical process” (p. 246) which the epic has already gone through and survived several synthesis, retellings, and endless reinterpretations. To the critics who bemoaned the serial as a “vulgarization of a literary treasure,” Lutgendorf reminds that “they overlook the fact that millions of people recite, sing, enact, and in their own words retell the epic every day, generating a powerful metatext that functions at every point along a shifting spectrum that outside observers chart with such terms as folk and classical, elite and popular” (p. 248).
What Lutgendorf’s thorough analysis shows is that a reliable reading of Indian popular culture requires an interpretive lens that captures, more accurately, the lived reality of Indian audiences. He cautions that though the technology of mass media may be much the same everywhere, their utilization and impact depend on specific conditions and even culturally specific “ways of seeing.” This necessitates that analyses of Indian mass media and films consider culturally and socially specific “ways of seeing” when applying appropriate frameworks and theories.
Critical Analysis with No Real Data
It has been more than two decades since the last episode of Mahabharata aired on Doordarshan (though the re-runs still continue to air on different channels, and in recent years Indian audiences have also seen newer TV productions of both the epics). Just like the popularity of these shows, the so-called intellectual analysis and critical reflection on the phenomenon also continue—sometimes with an aim to understand the impact of these shows in the Indian diaspora. In a 2002 paper titled, “Border Crossings and Diasporic Identities: Media Use and Leisure Practices of an Ethnic Minority,” Kenneth Thompson writes:
“Their [serials’] huge popularity, including among diaspora communities, has been attributed variously to the mesmerizing power of television itself, to the enduring significance of sacred narratives, to the soap-operatic ingredients, and to the unique manner in which they assisted in the reconstruction of an idealized “imagined community” of the nation.…The serials are said to have helped reinvent Hindu consciousness for a new era of religious nationalism in India and in the diaspora. But whereas Hindutva discourse in India represents a political move by xenophobic essentialists to assert their superiority and dominance with respect to non-Hindu Indians, in the diaspora it is often a strategy of those who wish to assert their ethnic equality to other ethnic or majority groups. Hindus abroad, especially in the U.S. and UK, have made massive contributions, financially and through political support, to Hindu nationalism (Kurien, 2001). For such people, often feeling insufficiently recognized and valued, or even with a sense of isolation due to wide dispersion in the U.S., the appeal of Hindutva discourse is considerable. There is also an increasing transnational ethnic networking, facilitated by information technology, such as the Internet.”
My researcher mind is quick to ask a question here: Is it possible that the Hindu families in diasporic communities actually saw the “ritual” viewing of Ramayana and Mahabharata on their TVs as a way to teach their children about their heritage? How accurate is it to simply assume with no concrete evidence and conclude that such teaching and learning about heritage may have also led to the rise of “Hindutva” sentiments in the diasporic community? What methodological stance makes this second level of analysis possible – namely, that the “visually mediated representations of Indian-ness have generated nationalist sentiments,” or that “the televised versions of sacred texts” reinvented Hindu consciousness for a new era of religious nationalism in India and in the diaspora? Do these methodological and/or theoretical stances appropriately capture the wide range of Indian responses to any cultural product? These are the questions we do not often see asked or addressed in such mass media studies meant to primarily serve a pre-determined ideological theory.
What is also interesting to note here is that most of the analysis in Thompson’s article is done purely on a theoretical level. This kind of reading of a cultural text sounds like guesswork on the part of the analyst without any real-world evidence from the viewers who are supposed to be the subject of this analysis. The only ‘data’ is the writings of others or theories which may not fully or even partly capture the ground realities. For example, I do not see a single Hindu who actually watched the Ramayana being quoted in Thompson’s analysis. Simple questions such as – why do you really like watching this show; were you just as loyal to other TV shows; what did you like about this show, what you didn’t like, what do you think this show means to you – could provide the much valuable insiders’ perspective that is so often missing in such readings of popular culture.
In another analysis of Hindu nationalism in the diaspora, Christian Karner writing in 2002 did say in his methodology that “majority of his research was carried out in the diaspora settings in East Midlands (i.e. Hindu communities of Nottingham and Leicester) … and was followed by a series of interviews in Northwestern India (Delhi, Rajasthan, UP), the heartland of Hindu nationalism…” But here is the analysis that the author presents in the paper:
“Given Hindutva’s discursive and organisational focus on reorganizing the Hindu nation from within, it is perhaps ironic that a major impetus to the diffusion of Hindi nationalist ideas originated outside the Sangh’s organizational boundaries: in the much-discussed Doordarshan… broadcasting – starting in January 1987 – of the Ramayana epic. The mass-appeal of the 78 weekly episodes (as well as the subsequent screening of the Mahabharata in 91 episodes) has been well documented. Rajagopal, in a recent and comprehensive analysis, argues that the broadcasting of the Ramayana played an important role in the unfolding mobilisation around the Ayodhya issue. He argues for a contextual understanding of this mass-scale celebration of an epic golden age through the medium of TV, embedded in neo-liberalism, consumerism, and the encroaching forces of globalization (Rajagopal, 2001). The series drew huge audiences, resulting in ‘all activity being suspended on Sunday mornings when the broadcast was taking place’ (Jaffrelot, 1996, 389). The Ramayana thus not only became the most popular program ever seen on Indian television, but also turned out to be a social event of great significance (van der Veer, 1994, 175). Rajagopal goes further in detecting a deeper political significance in the mass consumption of this televised ancient Hindu epic. He argues that the Ramayana became `the medium within which a new set of political opportunities came to be articulated (2001, 74) …The TV serialization and broadcast of Ramayana thus arguably constituted the most apparent manifestation of Hindu nationalism discursively overlapping with, or tapping into, a pre-existing symbolic universe.”
In this long quote, I do not find any evidence of any interview data from the “heartland of Hindu nationalism” or the research carried out in East Midlands. The only pieces of evidence presented are the conclusions of other experts such as Rajagopal (2001). For his book titled, Politics after Television, Rajagopal did talk with a lot of people on the impact of the Ramayana, and also collected data from multiple printed sources. Several of his respondents mentioned that they watched the TV show out of devotion, and that they felt that God was giving them darshan through TV. Rajagopal has, however, further argued that these shows created a Hindu consciousness and the Indian State manipulated the “consent of the people” for democratic governance through the serial.
Like millions of Indian viewers of these TV shows, in India and elsewhere, my naniji (maternal grandmother) felt that God was giving darshan through TV. I wonder if she realised that she was somehow being “manipulated” to create a political Hindu consciousness embedded in neo-liberalism, consumerism and globalization. Even after she lost almost all eyesight at the age of 90, she still liked to ‘hear’ the re-runs of these shows out of devotion. But then she also listened to the early morning shabad kirtan recitals on another TV channel. Should that be seen as some sort of an emerging Sikh political consciousness?
The point I am trying to make through this example is that we cannot ignore the ‘seeing’ experiences of mass audiences when “reading” into a certain cultural product and its meaning for the individual and collective consciousness. Arguing that the devotional consciousness of millions of Indians was manipulated by the Indian state not only assumes their passivity but is also patronizing and condescending. What is also surprising is that even though this idea of assuming viewers as passive consumers has been adequately challenged (Lutgendorf, 1995; Mankekar, 1999), such a view is still being put forward in some recent analyses of these TV shows.
Why not ask loyal viewers of Ramayana or Mahabharata to see if there was any connection between watching these shows and their religious nationalism? In fact, Mankekar’s in-depth analysis (1999) on exploring the connections between Ramayana and the community does provide some audience data. While challenging the “passive viewer” criticism, she argues that these TV shows “participated in a reconfiguration of discourses of nation, culture, and community that overlapped with and reinforced Hindu nationalism” (p. 166). She further adds that these TV serials, Ramayana in particular, invoked an “imagined” Hindu community that was “markedly militant and exclusionary” (p. 170). She sufficiently challenges the notion of one “unified” Hindu community, which she sees as a construction of Hindu nationalism. Yet, she goes on to interpret the ethnographic data based on her interviews in India with an assumption that this serial helped “unify” Hindu community that consolidated its Hindu identity and “naturalize[d] the slippage between Hindu culture and Indian culture” (p. 183). Perhaps it is because of this concern about the slippage between Hindu and Indian culture that she insists that Ramayana is a Hindu epic, not an Indian epic!
Mankekar’s audience data does help to provide enough nuances to her analysis. However, much of her criticism of the show is situated in her reading of Ramayana as a text that has historically been appropriated for creating discourses on ‘self’ and ‘other’, and also for demonizing the Other. It would be an interesting exercise to examine in-depth this particular reading of Ramayana, including the frameworks in which ‘self’ and ‘other’ are understood. But for now, I wish to simply point out that many Ramayana scholars may find much of this reading not really related to how most people in India and elsewhere have read or experienced Ramayana over several centuries and through its innumerable retellings. While reminding the readers that we cannot afford to dismiss the bhakti of the viewers of Ramayana, she also provides enough background on the Indian political context in the 1990s to help explain how even “faith is not impermeable to religious nationalism” (p. 204).
As is obvious from the above review, much has been written linking these TV shows to the religious (Hindu) nationalism in India and also in the diaspora. To quote once again from Farmer (1996), “even though no explicit cause-effect linkage between television imagery and violence can be clearly demonstrated, the broadcast of programming widely perceived as having communal undertones has highlighted and focused criticism on the legitimacy of the government’s secular stance.” This statement about “communal undertones” in the show is especially interesting in the light of the fact that the very first episode of TV Ramayana included a narration that situated it in the long tradition of Ramayana stories in various languages, thereby introducing the theme of the Ramayana as a symbol of national unity and integration (Lutgendorf, 1995).
In real-life India, what symbolic impact Ramayana could have on Indian consciousness can also be demonstrated through the words of an Indian Muslim friend who said this during a discussion I had with him about the TV Ramayana:
“After the 2002 violence in Gujarat, the Kanchi Shankaracharya was one of the traditional Hindu religious leaders who uncompromisingly condemned the violence with no ifs and buts and references to Godhra and reaction etc. etc. He also said something that struck a very deep chord among many Indian Muslims; specifically: ‘Hindus and Muslims in India are like Ram and Lakshman’…In that instance, I think that he said exactly the right thing. So right, in fact, that when the call for resolving the Ayodhya conflict through respectful negotiations came up again, it was suggested that Indian Muslims approach the Kanchi Shankaracharya to represent them in these discussions. And the suggestion got a lot of favourable reactions. How interesting it is that this Ramayana, whose serialization on television supposedly increased religious nationalism among Hindus which posits Indian Muslims as the source of all India’s ills, also provided the words and an allegory which touched these very same Indian Muslims so deeply and positively. I don’t buy this watching Ramayana increases Hindutva and religious polarization theory. (But I also believe that in the right hands, Marx’s Das Kapital could be used to sell investment properties in Florida, so…)”
While my friend may not “buy this watching Ramayana increases Hindutva and religious polarization theory,” Mankekar (1999) does provide some data from some of her Muslim research participants whose reactions she found to be “more critical…than those of Hindu viewers” (p. 183). She, however, also cites Krishnan (1990) who wrote about a Muslim entrepreneur in Chennai who subtitled the Ramayana describing it as a labour of love and an act of faith. Perhaps there is a need for a study that primarily focuses on understanding the wide range of Muslim reactions to the serial.
Ramayana in Indian Consciousness
What is, however, more important is to understand what Ramayana in its essence has meant for the collective Indian consciousness and imagination. And this understanding must emerge from within the living and breathing Indian religio-spiritual-cultural context, which to this day witnesses thriving traditions of Ramlīla and Ram-kathā in various parts of the country, especially during the holy days of Navratri. Why would a tradition of reciting, listening to or watching enactments of Ram-kathā survive and thrive for thousands of years, inventing newer forms with the advent of technology?
Perhaps the answer is best given by Sri Aurobindo when he speaks of what Ramayana has meant for Indian collective imagination. He writes:
“The Ramayana embodied for the Indian imagination its highest and tenderest human ideals of character, strength and courage and gentleness and purity and fidelity and self-sacrifice familiar to it in the suavest and most harmonious forms coloured so as to attract the emotion and the aesthetic sense, stripped morals of all repellent austerity on one side or on the other of mere commonness and lent a certain high divineness to the ordinary things of life, conjugal and filial and maternal and fraternal feeling, the duty of the prince and leader and the loyalty of follower and subject, the greatness of the great and the truth and worth of the simple, toning things ethical to the beauty of a more psychical meaning by the glow of its ideal hues. The work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the moulding of the cultural mind of India: it has presented to it to be loved and imitated in figures like Rama and Sita, made so divinely and with such a revelation of reality as to become objects of enduring cult and worship, or like Hanuman, Lakshmana, Bharata, the living human image of its ethical ideals; it has fashioned much of what is best and sweetest in the national character, and it has evoked and fixed in it those finer and exquisite yet firm soul tones and that more delicate humanity of temperament which are a more valuable thing than the formal outsides of virtue and conduct.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 350-351)
Reading popular cultural products in the prevailing social, political and cultural context is important. Rajagopal (2001) has studied the significance of TV Ramayana in the context of economic liberalization, consumerism and globalization. But, the prevailing social and cultural context also includes religiosity in the day-to-day life of majority of Indians regardless of their backgrounds. This religiosity, for the most part, does not lead to religious chauvinism or fundamentalism or religious nationalism. But, as shown in this analysis, for the last several decades there has been a growing tendency to deconstruct Indian popular culture and mass media using a selective ideological stance that concerned itself with only the problematics of Hindu consciousness in India and even saw itself as an intervention against religious (but only Hindu) nationalism.
As pointed out by another friend, in the case of TV Ramayana, the situation becomes more interesting when one considers that this show was just as hugely popular in Indonesia where the same alleged “communal undertones” of the program did not seem to result in any Hindu nationalism. Perhaps the political shifts in India made it easier for several analysts to detect a non-existent or marginally-existent political significance in the mass consumption of this televised epic, leading them to argue that the TV serialization and broadcast of Ramayana constituted the most apparent manifestation of Hindu nationalism.
It must be emphasized that because of their extremely limited, prejudicial and biased lens through which these scholars view the phenomenon of unprecedented popularity of these television shows among Indian masses, they indeed miss out on the deeper, truer reason behind the surface data. For that, a deeper appreciation of and a keen insight into the Indian religio-spiritual cultural traditions, in their living complexity and diversity, are essential. Ideological commitment to some particular theories popular in the current academic discourse will not yield a culturally grounded understanding.
It is most befitting to conclude with a long passage from Sri Aurobindo (presented below in a slightly reorganized format for easier reading). In this passage, he describes the real purpose that Ramayana and Mahabharata played and continue to play in the Indian socio-cultural and intellectual context.
“One of the elements of the old Vedic education was a knowledge of significant tradition, itihāsa, and it is this word that was used by the ancient critics to distinguish the Mahabharata and the Ramayana from the later literary epics. The itihāsa was an ancient historical or legendary tradition turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are itihāsas of this kind on a large scale and with a massive purpose.
“The poets who wrote and those who added to these great bodies of poetic writing did not intend merely to tell an ancient tale in a beautiful or noble manner or even to fashion a poem pregnant with much richness of interest and meaning, though they did both these things with a high success; they wrote with a sense of their function as architects and sculptors of life, creative exponents, fashioners of significant forms of the national thought and religion and ethics and culture. A profound stress of thought on life, a large and vital view of religion and society, a certain strain of philosophic idea runs through these poems and the whole ancient culture of India is embodied in them with a great force of intellectual conception and living presentation.
“The Mahabharata has been spoken of as a fifth Veda, it has been said of both these poems that they are not only great poems but Dharma-shastras, the body of a large religious and ethical and social and political teaching, and their effect and hold on the mind and life of the people have been so great that they have been described as the bible of the Indian people. That is not quite an accurate analogy, for the bible of the Indian people contains also the Veda and Upanishads, the Purana and Tantras and the Dharma-shastras, not to speak of a large bulk of the religious poetry in the regional languages.
“The work of these epics was to popularise high philosophic and ethical idea and cultural practice; it was to throw out prominently and with a seizing relief and effect in a frame of great poetry and on a background of poetic story and around significant personalities that became to the people abiding national memories and representative figures all that was best in the soul and thought or true to the life or real to the creative imagination and ideal mind or characteristic and illuminative of the social, ethical, political and religious culture of India. All these things were brought together and disposed with artistic power and a telling effect in a poetic body given to traditions half legendary, half historic, but cherished henceforth as deepest and most living truth and as a part of their religion by the people.
“Thus framed, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, whether in the original Sanskrit or rewritten in the regional tongues, brought to the masses by Kathakas – rhapsodists, reciters and exegetes – became and remained one of the chief instruments of popular education and culture, moulded the thought, character, aesthetic and religious mind of the people and gave even to the illiterate some sufficient tincture of philosophy, ethics, social and political ideas, aesthetic emotion, poetry, fiction and romance.
“That which was for the cultured classes contained in the Veda and Upanishad, shut into profound philosophical aphorism and treatise or inculcated in dharma-shastra and artha-shastra, was put here into creative and living figures, associated with familiar story and legend, fused into a vivid representation of life and thus made a near and living power that all could readily assimilate through the poetic word appealing at once to the soul and the imagination and the intelligence.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 345-347)
TV Ramayana and TV Mahabharata became another form of retelling of the itihāsa-s aimed as instruments of popular education and culture, opening the Indian collective mind to the higher thought, higher ideal of life and living, higher ethics, philosophy, social and political ideals as well as offering them a higher aesthetic emotional experience. For many, these shows probably became their daily lesson in dharma.
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Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to Indian culture, society and education.