Politically Correct Mythology

Feb 19, 2012, 06:26 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

A young writer from the television industry met me and moaned about the terrible situation she was in.

A young writer from the television industry met me and moaned about the terrible situation she was in. "Everybody wants to do traditional stories, mythological stories, children's stories, but then when we present the stories they think they are politically incorrect and want us to change them. But when you alter them, they are no longer traditional stories. They are some new reinvented version based on modern, cool, scientific, secular, feminist, humanist politics. Is this editing or a subtle form of censorship? Is this how cultures are destroyed by well-meaning tempering of stories?"

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

So here are the problems of politically correct mythology. You cannot tell the story of Ganesha because in it a father cuts the head of a son. You cannot tell the story of Kartikeya because the child has one father and many mothers, not just goddesses, but also gods, and so has suggestions of surrogacy and queer behaviour.

You cannot tell the story of Sati and Shiva because Sati burns herself at her father's house following insult to her husband, and so alludes to crimes against women, especially honour killings. You cannot tell the story of Ramayana because Dashratha has three wives (polygamy) and Ram abandons his wife (domestic abuse).

You cannot tell the story of Mahabharata because there you have tales about Karna's birth (extra marital sex), Pandu's birth (widows being asked to go to another man to get pregnant), Gandhari blindfolding herself (abuse of wives). You cannot depict Shiva smoking chillum (drug abuse), Shiva-linga (too sexual), Durga killing Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon (crimes against animals), Krishna and Radha (are they married?), Rukmini and Satyabhama (bigamy, polygamy), Draupadi (polyandry), Lakshmi at Vishnu's feet (patriarchy), Brahma chasing his daughter (incest), Kali holding human heads (sadistic violence)!

Is it possible to tell a story that is politically correct? Correct for whom? A similar problem is faced by jokes. Every joke makes us laugh at the cost of someone else. We laugh because we feel superior to the protagonist.

So we have Sardar jokes, Parsi jokes, Polish jokes, Hindu jokes, celebrity jokes, blonde jokes. But as we are getting increasingly outraged and oversensitive over everything that we feel insults us or our communities, can we continue to crack jokes, especially on minorities or marginalised communities? Are we allowed to? Every joke makes us politically incorrect, insensitive louts.

Newspapers and television channels are anxious, frightened that someone will slap a case against them and the courts will stop them from telling a story. So everyone is being cautious, every editor, every producer, every director, and every writer.

Every story has a prejudice. Every story is a form of propaganda. Cultures accept only those stories, which align to their agenda. Modern society is no exception. There is no such thing as a correct story. Following independence, we have become a secular state, which means we have been nervous about all things religious.

So today's story telling has to satisfy the rules of secularism but in doing so it may tread on the toes of religion or vice versa. In traditional stories, women are treated unfairly by today's standards. Must it be told as it was told then? Must it be censored? Must it be edited? Must it conform to today's ethics and morality? If it does, we lose sight of the traditional voice. Is that good?

It does not help that mythological stories use a whole host of symbols, metaphors and allegories. Men are not men, women are not women, gods are not gods, dogs are not dogs. But our modern mind insists on seeing everything literally and condemns them accordingly.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com

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

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