During a recent interaction with students, I was asked by one of them – why are myths so silly? While the child got stern looks from his teacher, it reminded me of the days, when I had similar questions and more. As a child, I not only found them silly, but also irrational, unbelievable and often scandalous!
Why is mythology so irrational, unbelievable and at times scandalous? Were people in olden times inane or over-imaginative? Why did their flights of fancy cross borders of decency and sometimes reach zones of the depraved? Why did everything boil down to some sort of sex, at times both incestuous and bestial? The questions are not limited to Hindu mythology only. A study of different myths will reveal that the question could just be for any of the mythologies, be it Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian or even Mayan and Nordic.
When science had not found its way into civilisation but people had begun to ask questions, then mythology was man’s early science. Man’s basic questions of how, what, why, who, needed to be answered. Aspects of nature, like mountains, rivers, sunrise, darkness, seasons, thunder, lightening, rains, etc. needed to be solved which was an enigma for all. According to one school of thought, myths are tales and stories that have been imagined as against what actually is, or was. As mentioned by Dr. S. A. Dange – “…..it (myth) is an expression of an understanding that is imagined as true, and which has got rooted in the tradition…” In most cases, gods and divinities were attached to such phenomenon as anything unexplainable was attributed to some force beyond comprehension. (Not much has changed even today – when we don’t have an answer to something; we end up saying – God Knows!!).
To quote Dr. Dange – “The irrationality about the myth is due to the mysterious or wonderful experience that lies at the basis of its formation, or due to a non-regular problem, or situation faced by an inquisitive mind, which takes the form of a riddle”. Soon this concept of the riddle and the unexplainable was taken to matters beyond the natural phenomenon like social and cultural aspects and matters of life-style and as man’s thinking matured, the same was extended to his understanding of ethics and principles.
Finally, there is a predominance of sexual activity in the primitive and early myths. This is more so, as sex was considered to be the most basic necessity or act of all animals, including humans. Sex was not only a release, but also a necessity, as man was moving towards an agrarian society. Procreation was an important requirement in every aspect of the living, be it man, animals and birds or plants. Also, when man was not such an evolved species, making the sexual act as the premise to explain a few things, is quite understandable. This was also an important mode to explain the concept of fertility and the most important need of man to produce and reproduce. What might seem scandalous today, was not so then.
Myths have to be seen in context – context of the times and the culture. Myths should never be seen in the context of modern times. Needless to say, that the Victorian prudishness had not quite touched the primeval man and sex as a subject was not quite a taboo!
The subject of mythology is as vast as it can get and there is more to it than just fancy tales and magical moments. It tells us more about the people who told them and their culture. Mythology is like a small piece of cotton left on the floor full of different colours. As it rolls, it acquires something of every colour and while at it, it acquires new form and shades. The original cotton is the fact in the myth while the different colours it has acquired on rolling is the beauty and magic the myth has acquired over time!