The relationship of religion and literature has undergone a transformation lately, because of which novels based on mythological stories have become increasingly popular. The mythological characters have been presented in a new avatar in these novels and thus, quite skillfully, a specific kind of religiosity prevalent in the nation has been cashed in on; one which is aggressively backed by a culture of violence. Besides, these novels also relate in great details the practices of Brahmanism, casteism, untouchability, inequality and sectarian violence and hatred, which potentially create grounds for only further escalating these maladies. As a result, the looming danger of society regressing into primordial values is becoming realer by the day. Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of Meluha and Ashok K Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya are two such novels which this article will take an analytical look at.
The Immortals of Meluha
The Immortals of Meluha is based on the life of a character named ‘Shiva’, who although is depicted as an ordinary man yet is endowed with magical powers. In the opening extract of the novel, there is an incident of outsiders having intruded into Shiva’s village. At this time the back-up soldiers were caught dozing. Shiva’s friend Bhadra kicks them hard to which Shiva responds with reference to his friend, ‘At least he takes some responsibility’ in a calm and assured manner. Such treatment meted out to anyone is uncalled for and by depicting Shiva’s pleasure with it the author sends out a wrong message. With many such incidents, this novel becomes a conveyor of casteism, violence in wars, mythological notions of ‘Vikarma’ as well as purification etc.
Discrimination based on Caste
Amish Tripathi has depicted discrimination based on caste in much detail. He has depicted Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Suryavanshis (Descendants of Sun) as superior while Chandravashis (Descendants of Moon) and Nagas as inferiors. There are references of people marked with their caste symbols on their bodies to highlight their caste identities in the novel. With reference to Shiva Tripathi writes that Sati, “took offence at this caste-unmarked foreigner pretending that he knew more about dancing than her mistress”. Thus, even Shiva the main character of the novel has not been spared from caste-based identification.
The author establishes the superiority of Brahmins in a specifically descriptive manner. He writes that Brahma had administered ‘Somras’ (a magical potion) to a select group of adolescent boys with “impeccable character” and thus granted them an extra life. Thus, they came to be known as ‘Dvija’ or twice-born. These Brahmins, he writes, “devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and for the well-being of society without asking for any material gain in return”. Further in the novel it has been mentioned that this group of Brahmins went on to achieve “a reverential status never seen before”.
With reference to the atrocities committed by Chandravanshis on Brahmins, Tripathi writes “Decapitated bodies of the Brahmins lay around the shrine. They had been gathered together and executed. The temple itself was ruthlessly destroyed and set aflame.” There is lack of historical evidences in mythological stories, which allows the author to make modifications to them to his liking, a scenario amply exploited by Amish Tripathi.
The central arc of the novel is based on the feud between Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis. The description of Chandravanshis in the novel reads as “untrustworthy people”. It adds, “No follower of the Suryavanshi way of life will sully his soul by even speaking to a Chandravanshi willingly.” They indulge in terrorist attacks in which they use the “cursed Nagas” who rather than following rules of the war, “fight like cowards”. Further in the novel it is mentioned that the “Chandravanshi rulers and their way of life” has corrupted the people of ‘Swadeep’ (an imaginary place) and made them evil. Chandravanshi are “a crooked, untrustworthy and lazy people with no rules, morals or honour” and are a “blot on humanity”.
Tripathi alongside depicting Suryavanshis as instilled with a sense of pride for themselves has also shown them deeming Chandravanshis as inferior. This is illustrated in one of the extracts of the novel. In this extract the Suryavanshi king is depicted as lecturing his Chandravanshi counterpart thus, “We are going to bring to you our superior way of life… We are going to reform you”. The sense of casteist superiority is explicit in this extract. Similarly, in another extract Tripathi writes in context of Chandravanshis, “Save them from their sorry, meaningless existence. And we can do this by giving them the benefits of the superior Suryavanshi way of life”.
This he has described as “Lord Ram’s Unfinished Task”. Towards the end of the book there is a mention of Shiva heading towards Ayodhya. Ayodhya has been described as the capital of Swadeep, the empire administered by Chandravanshis. Holding them accountable for the bad governance, other modern day problems such as illegal occupation, slums, homelessness, potholes in roads etc. have been illustrated as examples for depicting Chandravanshis as unfit for ruling. Thus, in a mythological story, all the issues from a modern-day scenario have been included to make them more relatable to a present-day reader.
Amish Tripathi has also shown Nagas in a bad light. They have been described as being cursed with “horrific deformities and diseases in this birth as a punishment for terrible crimes that they have committed in their previous birth” and have also been depicted as stricken with various diseases. The author writes that they are “embarrassed to even show their face to anyone” as well as to be possessing “extra hands or horribly misshapen faces”. As per the story “it is bad luck to even speak of them” and “The Naga name alone strikes terror in any citizen’s heart”. Through such comments, there has been a consistent humiliating portrayal of Nagas. Central character Shiva has even been depicted saying “Now who the bloody hell are the Nagas” with reference to them. Chandravanshis and Nagas being having existed in the history as well as in present times as self-respecting communities, how is such an insulting portrayal of them justifiable?
Such an illustration of casteism where some castes or tribes have been objectionably depicted; is symptomatic of a Brahaminical mentality. Furthermore, giving importance to their caste symbols further deepens the casteist nature of this depiction. This kind of symbolism, in today’s climate inspired by Hindutva ideology, is enough to make a lasting impression upon a society already inclined to caste-based discrimination. These symbols have even been illustrated in the book, thus fully ensuring that they can be emulated in reality.
Magical and Traditional Beliefs
Depicting the main character Shiva as an ordinary man yet portraying him as capable of miracles there has been an effort to cash in on readers’ love for magic and miracles. Besides, the concept of ‘Vikarma’ mentioned in the novel provides an example of how traditional belief systems have been given importance in the book. By using the concept of ‘Vikarma, Tripathi has tried to make an argument in favour of social discrimination. According to the story, ‘Vikarma’ are those people “who have been punished in this birth for the sins of their previous births”. For instance, as per the story if a woman has given birth to a still-born child or if someone is physically disabled, they shall be called ‘Vikarma’. Their present condition is a result of their bad deeds from previous lives. Shiva’s wife Sati is one such ‘Vikarma’ woman who had given birth to a still-born child.
The idea of ‘Vikarma’ has been justified in the novel by suggesting that “If you make a person believe that his misfortune in this birth is due to his sins in his previous birth, he will resign himself to his fate and not vent his fury at the society at large”. The novel also mentions that if someone even touches a ‘Vikarma’ person, they need a “purification” ritual performed.
War and Violent Portrayals
The portrayal of war in the novel is gory, with utmost heinousness. War has been romanticised by linking it with religious themes. Along with beating of drums, shlokas (hymns) in Sanskrit are recited during the wars. Shiva too deems the war as essential by terming it as “dharmayudh” or “holy war”, and states that war is required for “destruction of evil”.
There are many extracts depicting violent wars in the novel. In one of them Sati engaged in a battle with another character Tarak is described to have “brought her right hand in brutally onto his chest. The knife pierced Tarak’s lung… dug the knife in deeper, right up to the hilt… She pulled the knife out, slowly twisting it to inflict maximum damage”. This kind of description of violence in the novel has been justified ahead in the novel- “Shiva, the destroyer of evil, sat on his throne, staring at her with a slight smile… Even if Lord Varun himself had scripted the fight, it wouldn’t have been so perfect”.
Similarly, Shiva’s assistant Bhadra’s fight in the war has been described thus, “he swung with his right hand, cutting across the face of the other solider, gouging his eye out”. Further in the novel it is mentioned “Screaming, Shiva bent down and kept hacking at the Naga’s inert body, ruthlessly slashing it to bits”. Knowing the horrors which a war entails, to write in its favour and describe it so gorily, is tantamount to encouraging violence and supporting it.
Prince of Ayodhya-Book One
Prince of Ayodhya is a mythological novel written by Ashok K Banker, based on the story of Rama. Ashok K Banker too, keeping in line with the present climate of violence, has attempted to influence modern day readers through this mythological novel, in which he has described wars heinously for contemporary society which is already inclined towards violence.
The beginning of the novel itself is strewn with horrific and incendiary extracts. For instance- “Your women were raped, your children were enslaved, your city was looted and burnt to ashes… The mother who has given birth to you will be mutilated to such an extent that you won’t be able to identify her. The mothers and sisters of your family will be impregnated by my monsters, your fathers and brothers will be eaten alive”. Such descriptions in a mythological novel are not only irrelevant but also extremely deplorable. The author has reproduced the shadow of present day climate in the novel, an equation which has the potential to mislead or corrupt the mindsets of the readers.
Violence and Heinousness
There has been an unnecessary infusion of violence and heinousness into the story. According to the story, in the basement of Ayodhya’s palace where the convicts were imprisoned, there were lasting blots and marks of blood. The author has gruesomely described that the “severed hands of prisoners still caught in the shackles in the prison”, “which reeked of a foul stench… were kept here for ages”.
The depiction of the war is violent. Rama and Lakshmana in the novel have been described as “waving their swords much like a farmer cuts his crop. The difference was that their swords were reaping the crops of blood. Body parts, sinews, hairs, tails and other parts were flying in the air after being cut in a manner never seen before”. He also writes “Monsters were tearing apart the stomachs of human soldiers and were sucking with their hungry mouths the intestines which were emanating steam”.
Abnormal and Prejudiced Depiction of Women
Banker has written a very abnormal and strange description of the female characters whom he has sought to show in a bad light in the novel. Manthara has been depicted as a woman who deals in black magic and possesses a very horrific mindset. In one of the extracts in the novel, Manthara whilst making a pan (refreshment made out of beetle leaves) for Kaikai adds the blood of a Brahmin child and says “Yes my dear child. The blood of a small Brahmin kid. The same one who was sacrificed by the king of Lanka in my previous yajna (ritual)”.
There is an unusually gruesome description of Tadaka, for whom the author has written “She created her army… through sexual intercourse between the animals of jungle and her monster offspring”. Shoopnakha during the war has been mostly depicted in the novel as an animal in a strange and disgusting manner. For instance- “Shoopnakha licked herself clean. The taste of human blood was salty and tangy… the taste would get into the mouth while severing heads and tearing apart the stomachs”. Showing a character in a bad light should not mean depicting their actions in such a manner.
At the same time, there has also been a commentary about women which says “Besides alcohol, gambling and debt; women are the enemies of warriors” as men become infatuated with them “to the extent of insanity”. This kind of stereotypical depiction represents ordinary prejudices against women.
Today as the levels of casteism and religious fundamentalism are rapidly increasing in the society, these mythological novels have been moulded in a modern context to make them popular even if this sends out a wrong message to the society. In a way there is an intent of complete revival of the regressive past inherent in such literature which is further creeping up in present times and pushing back time towards the past.
The Immortals of Meluha, in fact rather than being a mythological story becomes a strong messenger of casteism. At the same time, the already prevalent practices of untouchability, inequality and violence in society have been further encouraged. Similarly, Ashok K Banker’s novel is full of heinous description of violence in wars as well as extraordinarily inhuman portrayal of the intended evil characters. Such a heinous and violent portrayal of war can only lead society to unrest and ultimately a social decline. In a way in both the novels casteism, class differences, unscientific thinking, belief in magic, violence, heinousness and other such social maladies have been nurtured.
Amita Chaturvedi is an independent writer and maintains a blog by the name of Apna Parichay.
The original version of this article was published in Hindi. You can read it here.
Translated by Sumit Chaturvedi