The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India Meena Arora Nayak Aleph Price: Rs 999 No of Pages: 550

Inside the sorting hat of stories

Ancient Indian literature does not rest easy with labels. Myth or fiction, legend or history, religious literature or epic poem; the boundariesthat separate the categories are more like lines drawn in sand. As a result Western scholars (even some Indian scholars who were mostly schooled in the study of the Occident and its literature)struggled to structure the vast, rambling and diverse literary traditions in the region andkeep the stories confined totheir assigned boxes.

Some sought to separate the literature asShrutis (revealed texts, Vedas) and Smritis (remembered texts, epics, Puranas and Dharmashastras) being the Great Tradition while the folk and regional narratives make up the Little Tradition. But that too is erroneous, because as Meena Arora Nayak, author of the most recent tome on Indian myths and folktales points out, in India these traditions are not mutually exclusive. Their timelines overlap and narrators and bards have freely dipped into the reserves of one to replenish the other.

Arora-Nayaksidesteps thetried and tested methods of classification and instead, groups the stories according to themes.Under the broad-brushed tags of creation of the world, conflicts, compassion, persecution and so on, she clubs stories from Vedic, Puranic and other Hindu traditions with those from Zoroastrian, Islamic and Christian ones. And the end result, more than the vista of literary traditions that it opens up, isthe chain link of footsteps that the stories and motifs build through the divided map of religions in the sub-continent.

Consider the motif of dismemberment of the human body that is a part of several creation mythologies. In this book, these stories find their place under the theme ‘Being human’. The PurushaSuktam hymn from the Rig Veda says that ‘purusha’ or man has a thousand heads, eyes and feet. He was all pervasive, immortal and the first sacrificial being at the same time. His body gave us the moon, sun, earth, space, fire and even the caste hierarchies. The motif of the world arising out of the primordial being continues in the Puranas where Brahma, the god of creation, gives birth to humans and shapes the physical world from his own body. He also gives birth to lust and wrath.

The concepts explored in these stories run through the Avestan creation myths too. In her collection, Nayak has the story about Gayomard (from the Bundahishn, an encyclopaedic collection of Zoroastrian stories about the cosmogony and cosmology). He is the first man created from mud by Ahura Mazda and the world is created when he dies. As his end draws near, he falls on to his left side, the story says and just as life oozes out of our beings, “lead flowed from his blood, tin from his head, silver from his marrow…” And that is how the elements came into being.

The idea that we are all made from one being or that the world is created from one primordial giantis etched into the collective consciousness of the ancient world. It is prevalent in other mythologies from other parts of the world too. Outside the purview of this collection, in Babylonian stories of creation, heaven and earth are made from the body of the goddess-giantess Tiamat who is slain by Marduk.

The contours that define canonical, epic, religious and folk literature in the Indian sub-continent are aqueous. And one of the outcomes of such a khichdi existence, if one can term it thus, has been the emergence of the folk myth. A K Ramanujan labelled many of the stories he collected thus, highlighting the seamless manner in which a national hero, for instance Rama, was seamlessly made a part of a local heroic tale.

Arora-Nayak includes many folk myths in her collection and considers these a symbol of the reciprocal traditions of storytelling in the region. It was a way for the story to slip under the skin of its listeners, making them participants in the grand scheme of things.

The diverse collection of stories in the book show how these tales have mastered the art of placing people’s ideas, fears, heartbreak and anguish within the collective framework without trivializing the personal experience. That is probably why psychologists have long looked upon storytelling as an effective form of therapy.

The book opens up the different ways in which stories have permeated the daily ebb and flow of life in the region, in the form of aphorisms, proverbs and moral do’s and don’ts and in their understanding of human frailty and anguish. In the section titled ‘Persecution’, there is a folktale from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (Kahan Raja Bhoj, KahanGanguTeli) that serves up some dark humour while showing the cruel indifference of those in power and the folly of servility. It is followed by a myth from the Ramayana where Rama slays the ascetic Shambuka, a shudra who wanted to be a Brahmin, to reinforce caste hierarchies under his rule. By placing the two tales thus, the book also becomes the message. It drives home the prevalence of persecution in ancient society far more fiercely than any essay or study could and lets readers use the stories to reflect upon life and the way it was and is lived.