National

Politics Of Translating Myths And The Indian Tradition

G. N. Devy, eminent literary critic, author and linguist, speaks to Outlook on the tradition of translating and adapting mythologies and religious texts in India.

A sculpture of Lord Hanumana carrying Lord Rama and Lakshmana on his shoulders
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G. N. Devy is an eminent literary critic. He is known for the People's Linguistic Survey of India, setting up the Adivasi Academy and the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. After Geetanjali Shree became the first Indian to win the International Booker, an award given to a work translated in English, Rakhi Bose spoke to him about the history and status of translations in India.

There is a theory in cognitive sciences that the moment a word takes its verbal form, even before it is uttered, it is already a translation of a sensation within the brain. So translation is primary. And when translation stabilises, when it becomes a kind of a cultural habit, it is seen as literature. In India, all literature started with translation.

The very first literary production known to us in India, the Rig Veda, has flowed from the Avestan language — a preceding language from the broader Indo-Iranian family. ‘Mitra’, ‘Varuna’, ‘Soma’, — names of Gods accepted by the Sanskrit Rig Veda - are words accepted from this earlier language. So the stories related to Mitra (later associated with Surya) and others were brought into a new language (Sanskrit) that came into its own at the time.

That’s where it began, 1,400 years before Christ. From then on, as we go down the history, every few centuries, Indians have been re-translating myths. The myths entered the Sanskrit universe from many Prakrit languages and went on to be translated into many other languages.

The first story ever told in India is the Brihatkatha. It has a story about how the Katha came into being. That story itself is the account of a translation. Parvati asked Shiva to narrate a story that was exclusively for her ears and that would never be told to anyone else. So he tells her a story. But some semi-god and semi-demonic creatures overhear parts of the tale. When Parvati catches them, they are banished to ‘manavlok’ in punishment and cursed with forgetting the story until they fully repent their deed. As they repent, they slowly start remembering the story. In their desperation to record the story before they forget again, they catch hold of wild animals and spill their blood to use it as ink. They write in Paishachik language on rough surfaces. Later, these texts got Sanskritised. In a way, the Brihatkatha is telling its readers, “I am appearing before you but I am only a translation. I was originally in the Paishachik language, not in Sanskrit”. This is the very first 'story about story' known in India.

The Mahabharata also has a similar beginning in the Adi Parva. There is a story about how the Mahabharata was first recited. A person visits an Ashram and starts reciting the poem. The children get excited and come to listen to the recitation. But the man did not remember all of it. He said that I only remember about 8000 lines. He names two others who know another 8000 lines and so forth. Together, the 24,000 lines tell the story of Mahabharata. But all three spoke different languages. In a sense, the maker of the Mahabharata is saying that these stories in the Mahabharata are collected from different languages.

So for us, translation came first. We began literature with translation and we continued that tradition in Marathi, where the very first poet is considered to be Gyaneshwar. He translated the Geeta into Marathi. So the first greatest poem in Marathi which gave birth to Marathi literature is a translation.

Similarly in many other languages, we see that the first major book in that language is either a book on translation or a translation itself. In Gujarati, the first major book was by Hemchandracharya in the 11th century. It was essentially a lexicon akin to a dictionary describing equivalent of words in different languages. The 12th century Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, though in Sanskrit, is probably drawn upon the Bangla or the Odiya language.

It is not perhaps an accident that the only Nobel Prize for literature that India has got was for a book of translations --- Gitanjali.

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Indians, therefore, have not looked at translations as an inferior form of literature. In fact, the idea of translation also gels with the ethos of one of the metaphysical traditions of India: the central essence of humans keeps taking different forms, shapes and reincarnations.

However, translations have always made those in power suspicious, and more so today.

Never in human history has the purpose of translation been only entertainment or giving a second hand report, or becoming a pale copy of some distant original. The purpose of translation has always been to subvert, to challenge, to shock, to modify. There are many examples. In the European tradition - the critical moment which changed the medieval times into modern times came with the translation of the Hebrew Bible into German by Martin Luther. The King’s version of the Bible came about at the same time in England. The German or English people could have continued to say those prayers in Latin, but they translated them into their own languages and thus created their identities. And as a result, the whole continent got vertically divided into Protestant and Catholic Europe. And that split has had long term effects on the history of Europe through the 17th to 20th century. Translation can be used to challenge orthodoxy.

Now let’s go back to the Marathi poet Gyaneshwar, who belonged to a family of outcast Brahmins. His family had been exterminated. Gyaneshwar challenged the Brahmanical orthodoxy and took to translating the Geeta. translation can be used to challenge orthodoxy. That’s why it is seen with suspicion by rulers.

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But oftentimes the rulers have also used translations to change history.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were produced in the times when the Shastras were being produced as well. The Shashtras were canonical texts and meant only for the study of Brahmins. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were open and the non-Brahmanical classes could recite these poems. They continued to exist in oral traditions. Century after century, there were attempts to Brahminise these poems, for example, by introducing the idea of avatars, or inserting the Gita into the Mahabharata.

The Uttara Kanda, the last book of the Ramayana, for instance, was later added class to the original poem. It has the story of Rama 's killed Shambuka, despite being a knowledgeable person because he was a non-Brahmin. This story was planted in order to propogate the Brahminical view of Sri Rama. To counter these attempts by the dominant class, folk wisdom every few centuries tried to rescue these poems from the caste structure. In a way, the history of the translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in India effectively reflects the history of the caste conflict in India. As a result, while there were several Ramayanas and Mahabharatas in the country such as the Mahabharata of the Bhils, the Bhandarkar Institute standardized it and produced the Critical Version, a canonical text, with the other versions shown as variations.

Translation has a purpose and that purpose is almost always political. It can work from both ends of the political spectrum. To dominate or to resist domination.

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A scene from 'Ram Leela', a theatrical adaption of the Ramayana | Credit: Getty

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the Maryada Purushottam who defeated Ravana and rescued Sita with the help of his forest friends. These friends - including Hanumana - are not Aryan. But it was Hanuman and Sugriva whose support enabled Rama and Laxmana to succeed. If Hanuman was not Aryan, was he an Adivasi? The present dispensation is saying that if Hanumana was a Bhakta of Rama, then the Adivasis who live in forests must follow Sri Rama. This is a political twist. In the story, Shri Ram gains strength from Hanumana. A simple reading of their relationship should conclude that the country will get stronger by showing concern for the Adivasis as Sri Rama did for Hanumana. The RSS has established Hanuman temples in many tribal villages and spreading a twisted interpretation of the original depiction in the Ramayana.

Translation is an act of creating anew the meaning of something which has forgotten its original meaning. It’s not like the image of an object in a linguistic mirror. Translation is like a lamp which throws a new light on the original. But myths are mis-read and misused by political regimes all the time. Some dispensations are very fond of using myths irrelevantly. The trajectory of mythologies used by a regime can provide a peek into the political history of a nation. Studying and documenting these changes have become all the more important today.

(As told to Rakhi Bose)

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