What Explains the Enduring Appeal of ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Mahabharat’?

As most of India continues to remain under lockdown, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are competing with the most unexpected platform: Doordarshan.

On March 28, the information and broadcasting ministry decided to re-telecast the 80’s mythological television series – Mahabharat and Ramayan. The reasons for the same could be multiple. It could be, as some have alleged, a ploy to distract people from government’s inefficiency. Or perhaps an attempt to provide people with the comfort of the familiar in these turbulent times.

Whatever the case, it seems to be working magnificently well. The inaugural episode of Ramayan on March 29 had an audience of 34 million and the numbers rose to 45 million for the evening episode.

Mahabharat: the desi Game of Thrones?

It isn’t as if we don’t know the plotline of any of these stories. From theatrical performances in village squares to your grandmother’s lap, they have been told and retold multiple times. The original telecast of the series was so popular that people would finish work early to watch it and there used to be eerie silence on the streets while it was on.

It was, in a sense, India’s pre-Internet Game of Thrones, mass-produced for the vast majority, minus, of course, the nudity, gore and the disappointing finale.

Press ‘F’ for respect

Yet the question still remains: Why? What is it exactly about these myths, that make them so endearing to the Indian populace?

As stated by John Johnson, professor emeritus of psychology at the Pennsylvania state university:

A mythic story is not a simple proposition that can be judged as either true or false or even a string of true-or-false propositions. Rather, a mythic story attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format. Certainly, many aspects of myths are not literally true.

The Greek gods did not really live on Mt. Olympus and meddle in the affairs of human beings. However, myths refer to very real human experiences, otherwise, they would make no sense. We understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions. The stories of Icarus and Phaethon resonate with us because we have seen or experienced within ourselves youthful tendencies to try to fly too high, only to crash and burn. A myth is neither completely true nor completely false. A good myth is one that artfully represents human experience

These myths appeal to us because they allow us to understand dilemmas that are unique to our culture. Our tightly bound, collectivistic culture emphasises, nay, encourages placing community benefit over individual desires. In India, sacrifice is placed on a pedestal. And we are taught from a very young age that there is nothing greater than sacrificing your happiness for the greater good.

All of this comes tightly bound in the convenient package of “duty”. And what it leads is something that I choose to call ‘a crisis’ of repression. It is unique to the subcontinent because no other society is as tightly bound by the rules of caste as ours.

Meaning duty, in the Indian context, goes beyond individual actions. It involves ensuring those around us, including ourselves, adhere to these boundaries of caste. And there are consequences for those who dare to break them. This reflects in our myths. Say, for example, Arjun was compelled to battle against those he loved out of duty to his clan, and Ram was forced into exile out of duty to his father. Such reflections provide comfort – a mirror to our relatively smaller problems that help us to come to terms with them.

But these stories are also a warning. Remember Karna? Or Eklavya? Their crime was simple. They broke the rules of the caste. And paid a heavy price for the transgression. Our myths are also guidebooks that can be effortlessly passed into future generations to keep them in check.

In essence, a society builds its myths. However, these myths also perpetuate and build a society. Not also through standards of behaviour they set but also through the promises that they have to offer. Promises of “ram rajya” have often been used by the current as well as previous governments for everything from justifying atrocities to trashing western ideals. Thus, there is not only a psychological but also a political dimension to the endurance of these myths. The fact that they are deeply rooted in the Indian psyche cannot be denied.

Only time will tell if they continue to remain roots or turn into our chains.

Ruta Sawant is student of psychology and Literature, and is an intersectional feminist who writes on topics of policy, politics and psychology. She can be found on Medium @Ruta Sawant.