On stories we tell

Animals don’t tell stories. Plants don’t tell stories. Rocks don’t tell stories. They don’t need to. They know who they are in the food chain and the pecking order of their pack, or herd, or hive.

Humans tell stories, because we need to. They tell us who we are in this world by giving the world a structure. Stories transform us into heroes, villains, victims and martyrs. Without stories, we have no identity; we are just animals with imagination. Neuroscientists and psychologists around the world are finally appreciating the value of storytelling in human lives.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Ancient Indian sages were called rishis — those who saw what others did not see. They had discovered the value of stories a long time ago.

>> The word for story, katha, and epic narrative, ka-avya, is rooted in ka, the first alphabet of Sanskrit, which is also the root of all interrogative words in Sanskrit as well as in Hindi today: kab (when), kahan (where), kyun (why), kaun (who). In the Veda, Ka is one of the earliest names of God.

>> Ka-tha and ka-avya means stories and poems that enable humans to answer questions about their existence and purpose. They are maps of the human mind.

>> Mahabharata and Ramayanas were kathas and ka-avyas, composed by Vyasa, the sage who compiled and classified the Vedic mantras into chapters (mandalas), who passed it on to bards or sutas.

Mythology is the study of subjective truth revealed through stories; it tells us what people believe to be true and what people believe is indifferent to rationality. History is the study of objective truth that is revealed by, and restricted to, factual undisputed data. Mythology is more psychological while history is more social.

In Indian thought, mythology has always been valued over history, until the British came along and frowned on this practice. Since the scientific revolution, much value has been placed on history over mythology. But after the World Wars that put an end to European colonialism and imperialism, people world over are realising that value of subjectivity and its prevalence under the veneer created by rational philosophies and rationalised arguments. Science and rationality cannot explain colonial and imperial ambitions of Europe. It was fuelled by stories: the belief that European traders and industrialists were ‘saviours’ of the ‘savages’, a belief that is still prevalent among missionaries of modern Western thought, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It is this story that made many Western journalists very angry that the ‘savage’ Indian gets to the planet Mars so effectively and efficiently. Should Indians not tackle poverty and corruption first and leave scientific and technological development to the White saviours, they have argued.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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