Hindu Mythology as Media Formula. Essay and Interview with Writer Vamsee Juluri - from PlanetShifter.com Magazine
Hindu Mythology as Media Formula. Essay and Interview with Writer Vamsee Juluri - from PlanetShifter.com Magazine

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Amar Chitra Katha, has made the stories of the gods familiar to young modern readers.

How the media retell these stories is a matter of some consequence. After all, for many Hindus, these stories are not just stories in the sense of fairy tales. These stories have been the templates for our lives, helping us see Krishna in our children or Shiva and Parvathi in our parents. We see them as more than entertainment, but how we see them today and how we will see them in the future is a crucial question.

Hindu myths have survived much over the centuries through a complex form of cultural negotiation and resistance against the forces of colonialism. In the present day, mythology may not seem overtly in danger of extinction, but it will have to be thought through carefully to remain as vibrant and vital as it has been.

At present, Hindu mythology is under strain from two opposite tendencies that are not entirely unrelated to broader debates about religion and politics in India and the diaspora. There seems to be a "didactic" extreme and an "experimental" extreme in present approaches to the tales of the gods. The didactic tendency views mythology as a litany of facts about history and geography.

It shows up in some of the recent animated mythological movies. The gods are depicted like pop culture superhero figures while a pedantic voice lists facts about them. The experimental tendency, on the other hand, sees mythology as open to virtually any sort of reinterpretation without regard to virtue or intent. Some artists and intellectuals espouse this view, and end up assuming that any imputation of sanctity to mythology is inherently fundamentalist.

Despite these unfortunate extremes, it is my belief that the tales of the gods, like the philosophy that is infused in them, like Hinduism as a whole, are deeper and more resilient than any constraint that our era can put on them. Commercialism may have turned mythology into a media formula, with virtually any movie being cited as a retelling of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha; politics may have rubbed the stories of the gods the wrong way, from Right and from Left, leaving out the greatness of heart in them altogether. But when we look at the history of our "myths" more accurately, we will surely find what it was about them that made them both timeless and timely for so many generations. After all, even in the relatively short span that these tales have appeared in the media, there are great contributions only beginning to be acknowledged.

For instance, long before mythologicals allegedly provoked religious extremism by turning up on Indian television in the 1980s, they were sparking the spirit of Gandhi, social reform, and Indian independence in the stages and cinema halls of early 20th century India (seen in the work of film pioneers Phalke and Nagiah). The question for us to ask now is what the tales of the gods need to liberate us from in the future. In an age of terrorism, wars, environmental degradation, financial hoaxes and mass mediated delusions, the need for the tales of the gods is stronger than ever. The challenge for us is simply to tell them better.

We are already telling ourselves more stories about the gods than ever before, thanks to new media technologies. But in order to tell ourselves better stories and stories that speak as much to new concerns as to old ones, we must avoid the extremes of the present moment. There are many new voices that are rising to the sky in praise of the gods in ways that make sense to us in the 21st century. Devdutt Pattnaik's work covers anthropology, philosophy, and art but speaks to us ultimately in one simple voice, of devotion. Sanjay Patel's vision of the gods shows freshness in their form and a charming 21st century American sort of coolness to them, without straying into irreverence at that. His child gods, delightful and divine all at once, are the best image for us to think of Hinduism's popular pantheon as it leads us into the future. It is as if each god is being reborn with each child that comes onto this earth, and it is up to us to learn to live and walk worthily among them once more.

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Interview with Vamsee Juluri by Willi Paul

How have we perverted the idea of adoration in the Sustainability Age?

I think we have confused possession with adoration, especially in the stories that the media and consumer culture tell us. To adore is to stand aside from our own limited and limiting selves and simply appreciate others.

Please give some examples of how you want us to surrender to serenity?

I must admit my limitations in trying to answer this. How we surrender into serenity is simply our own journey. And I have barely started myself :)

"Mythological Genre" and "Mythologicals" are unfamiliar to me. Can you explain what these productions usually entail?

These are popular Indian movies about the stories of the lives of the gods. The productions are often spectacular, with great costumes, sets, and in some cases lots of poetry and song as well. Some of the actors who have played the gods in these movies have gone on to great political careers (a theme I explore in my novel).

What stories are templates for USF students?

A fascinating question--I am going to ask them when I get back to class.
So you are saying that without the forces of colonialism, myth has been weakened as a force for good?

Not at all. Colonialism attempted to destroy myth as a force for good by portraying it as mere superstition. Although the era of colonialism has officially ended we do feel its aftermath in many ways, economically, culturally and so on. In the present day, what we find is not necessarily an attempt to destroy myth as superstition, but a broad confusion about its role due to neocolonial and postcolonial biases that I hope the myth-makers of the future will sort out in a positive manner.-

Is not the power of myth, in part, that it is open to virtually any sort of reinterpretation without regard to virtue or intent?

Perhaps. But we must remember that some myths are held sacred, and we must understand what makes it sacred--I would much prefer that we impute sanctity on the basis of good intentions rather than force and fundamentalist proscription!

Who owns Hindu myths?

If I may answer somewhat loosely but in some earnestness--all those with a good heart!

"The question for us to ask now is what the tales of the gods need to liberate us from in the future." Please answer your question!

Delusion. Cruelty. Greed. The rest, I believe, will follow.

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Vamsee Juluri, PhD Target="blank">Bio -

Vamsee Juluri received his PhD in Communication from the University of Massachusetts in 1999. His research interests are media audiences and globalization, Gandhian philosophy and media violence, Indian cinema, mythology and religion in the media, and vegetarianism. He is the author of three books, Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (Peter Lang, 2003/Orient Longman, 2005), The Ideals of Indian Cinema (Penguin India, forthcoming) and The Mythologist: A Novel (Penguin India, forthcoming). His work has been published in journals such as Communication Theory, Television and New Media, European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Critical Studies in Mass Communication and in various scholarly anthologies on globalization, audiences, and Indian cinema.

He has also written numerous op-eds and feature articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, Times of India, India-West and Hinduism Today, among other publications, and is a contributor to The Huffington Post . He has been quoted about media matters in the Christian Science Monitor, India-Abroad, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera television, and KPIX-CBS, and is a recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences in the Media Award. His teaching areas include Media Audience and Research, International/Global Media, Media, Stereotyping and Violence, and Understanding India, a USF International Program course.

Author of Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television, The Ideals of Indian Cinema, and The Mythologist.

Connections -

Vamsee Juluri, PhD, USF professor
juluri at usfca.edu