The Indian Epics in Popular Culture


Image – William Jon / Flickr

Indian mythology is mainly embodied in the two great Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Despite the disparity between the cultural subsections within the Indian subcontinent, the backbone of the Indian civilization is formed by these two epics, irrespective of individual religious beliefs. Several hundred centuries after, these epics continue to shape the society and politics of modern India to a greater degree than one might imagine. This is primarily because of the universal and timeless truths that are contained in the two epics which hold true even to this day. The epics continue to survive in this manner not only by word of mouth and traditions passed down through generations, but more so because of the way in which they have been adapted into popular culture.

The novels and movies that have been inspired by the epics focus mainly on the set of events which are now almost iconic in its dimensions, while examining the philosophy enshrined in them. The philosophy that pervades the two epics is interpreted differently by different generations, for each has a distinctive outlook which makes it unique. In fact, the very storyline and characters can be seen in a different light once the eventualities are seen from a new perspective. These modern readings are mainly focused on the relevance of the epics in the modern day and they are undertaken by novelists of the specific genre who seek to uphold the epics in a manner hitherto unexplored. 

Image – Wikimedia

In recent times, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions is one such novel. Without modifying the details of the events of The Mahabharata it presents the epic from the perspective of Draupadi, that is, the woman’s narrative of a patriarchal discourse. Princess Panchaali’s fiery passions and ambitions are highlighted as the novel traces the story of her birth and culminates in the legend of her death, focusing on her experiences and rationalizing her choices. The God Krishna is treated as another character in the novel, which emphasizes upon the sibling-like relationship Draupadi shared with him. Certain sections of the story are sensationalized to entertain a new generation of readers, such as the unrequited love Draupadi harboured for Karna.

Since the events are told from her point of view, it shocks the reader by illuminating certain aspects of very well known episodes of the epic which seem in a different light through the eyes of the Pandavas’ wife. Ajaya: Roll of the Dice is another well known fictional work by Anand Neelakantan based on the same epic. An entirely different narrative is found in this novel which is written from the perspective of Duryodhana of the Kaurava clan. It is a rare piece of work which explores the great war from the losing side, providing a rationale for their actions even if not seeking to justify them. There are several non-fictional works which have not been mentioned here which undoubtedly add immensely to the revival of the popularity of the epics, including philosophical writings such as Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good.

Agin Pariksha of Sita – Wikimedia

The ideas and spiritual tenets of The Ramayana have also prompted a wide variety of fiction writing, such as Divakaruni’s take on the epic in The Forest of Enchantments. This rendition pays tribute to the women characters of the story, specifically Sita, but also acts as a commentary on the misunderstood women who do not occupy the centre stage – such as Kaikeyi or Surpanakha. It treats the story in a different light, where motifs of loss, betrayal, and honour come together to highlight the struggle of women to establish their autonomy in society.

Right – Jataayu Vadha – Wikimedia

Neelakantan’s Asura tells the story of the Asura clan with Ravana as their leader, told from the first person narrative point of view of Ravana himself. In a defence of his actions, Ravana recounts the tale of the oppression faced by his class of supernatural beings and justifies his acts which through his version are seen as those of heroism. Yet another exemplary work along this strain is Amish Tripathi’s trilogy inspired by the Ramayana beginning with Scion of Ikshvaku. This is an imaginative reworking of the myths revolving Lord Ram’s birth, exile, and triumph but is somewhat sensationalist in its addition of events to the tale which are not originally part of the story. Excluding these there are numerous on screen adaptations of the ancient tales both in the form of TV shows and movies, which help to perpetuate the interest in these works.

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