Monday, June 13, 2011

Questioning the Epics

OOPM's fourth issue, on mythology will come out later this month. Here's a piece on mythology by one of our editors.

An ancient story features a boy with a penchant for asking questions. One day, the boy watches his father - a Brahmin teacher - perform a sacrifice, dedicating livestock to the Gods. A question occurs to him, and he asks his father - "to whom do you give me?"

The boy's father, always under a constant barrage of difficult questions, is exasperated and so retorts - "I give you to death!"
The father's reaction isn't hard to understand. He's not too dissimilar from parents and Indian school teachers today, who are confounded and vexed by the questions children ask - why is the sky so high? Why is it blue? How deep is the sea? Like the father in the story, they snap back with a caustic remark. 

But in this old tale words once spoken can’t be taken back, and the boy, obedient to his father's words, makes his way to Death's house. Death is away, so the boy patiently waits. When Death returns he is impressed by this boy, and grants him a boon. But the boy doesn't want toys, gold or riches. He only wants to ask a question: "What is the secret of life and death?" Death, surprised, entreats him to ask for something else - but the boy is stubborn. Death is forced to answer him.

This story of the conversation between the boy, Nachiketa, and Death serves as the frame for the Katha Upanishad and is also featured in the Mahabharatha. The boy in this story, Nachiketa, possesses the same remarkable, delightful curiosity that many children share. In my new introduction to the latest edition of The Mahabharatha - A Child's View I've written about the questions that the children I've met over the years - in readings, on book tours and in family gatherings - have asked me. Those questions, in many cases, are deeply inspiring and the source of new insights. I'm not going to write about those particular questions here (if you would like to know more, check out my new introduction).

Instead I'd like to write about the need to encourage questions and curiosity, especially in India, where we are sadly saddled with an education system that discourages curiosity and rewards rote learning and memorization. It's a system that positions the teacher as a figure of authority not to be questioned or challenged. As a result, obedience is one of the most important and powerful values in our society. We are encouraged to respect (unquestioningly!) our teachers and parents, to abide by their choices and to sacrifice our wants to fulfill theirs. We are told that, "children must be seen and not heard". In classrooms all over the country children like Nachiketa are punished and scolded for asking questions that fall outside the purview of a syllabus. 

This is a position that is also advocated with respect to our epics and myths. We no longer engage with them: we are told what to think, and what the moral of the story is - without being allowed to discover it for ourselves. When such stories are told, the teller often has a moral or pedagogical motive in mind. The epics are always about "the victory of good over evil," and we're not encouraged to think beyond that analysis. This story, of Nachiketa, has been used to advocate obedience of the "unquestioning" variety to one's parents (I liked the use of the word 'unquestioning' - it made me think that the teller had completely missed the point!)

There's another story, at the beginning of the Mahabharatha, which is equally anti-authoritarian in its stance. King Yayati is cursed to turn old by his Brahmin guru father-in-law (a teacher) when he angers his wife (Devyani) by falling in love with her maid. Yayati is distressed, and his father-in-law relents - Yayati can become young again if he can find someone willing to take up the burden of his old age. The King approaches his sons, but his eldest two sons are unwilling to give up their youth. His third son, Puru, the ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas, is willing to take on his father's curse - and so his father rewards him by disinheriting his elder sons. It's a pattern that repeats itself later - Shantanu, like his forefather, is driven by desire, and his desire leads him to disinherit his eldest son. 

In these tales, children turn out to be wiser than their parents and teachers. Authority - in the figure of kings like Yayati and Shantanu who pursue their own personal pleasures at the cost of others and their kingdom - is questioned.
For these reasons, I take issue with those who argue that our epics are about the victory of good over evil, and that obedience is a value of Indian culture.  I was recently in a seminar for graduate level students (in an Indian Institute) on the Mahabharatha - and such statements were tossed back and forth across the classroom. The Pandavas were "good"; the Kauravas were "evil." I was soon bored. I've heard - as has everyone else - these remarks over and over again. The Mahabharatha is a layered, complex epic - on one level it is certainly about good and evil; but on another level it questions our notions of what constitutes right and wrong in the first place.

As I've grown older, I am filled with more and more respect and admiration for the Mahabharatha and for our myths. The Mahabharatha is full of situations and characters that raise questions in the minds of its audience and readers – questions that provoke us to think. How could Drona ask Ekalavya for such a terrible sacrifice? How can Drona, a Brahmin who must traditionally abhor and avoid violence, be a teacher of war and an unsurpassed warrior? Isn't it odd that Bhishma, born to rule, must forego his birthright and live a life better suited to a brahmachari than to a Kshatriya prince? Isn't it peculiar that Arjuna, the greatest warrior and lover, is emasculated and turns into a eunuch? Is it fair that Bhima, the strongest man and brother of the righteous Yudhisthira, must break the rules of combat and strike his enemy on the thigh, in order to win?

These questions have many, many answers. But we aren't encouraged to ask these questions. Curiosity is thought of as subversive - it challenges the knowledge and the authority of teachers, as the story of Nachiketa illustrates. Consequently the graduates of our school system can parrot information and memorize page-long essays, but they are unable to adapt to new situations or think independently. 

And so I'd like to end with a question - how can you truly learn without asking questions?

Samhita Arni is the author of "The Mahabharata - A Child's View" (1996, Tara Books). This piece was written to commemorate the publication of the fifth edition of the Mahabharata, earlier this year, and was originally posted on the Tara Books Blog.