Oral Tradition & Locked Myths

As I have read various retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, I have seen two important traits they share:

  1.  The Extras & Oral Tradition:  The epics are huge, and it is not the main story that fascinates me but all the side stories and morals. Super condensed version tend to exclude these. The extras get attached over the thousands of years the stories evolved in oral tradition.
  2. The Retellings & Fixed Agendas:  Even to this day, people continue writing “re-tellings” of the two epics. And reading these retellings. one can clearly see how myths are flexible enough to absorb political, sexual, tribal and religious agendas. This is different from te the Christian scriptures which became a fixed canon (anthology) by law in the 300s AD,   At first I thought that this was perhaps an evil side-effect of the printed word — once written, people were loath to change it.  But in India, retellings is not as taboo as they are in the West.  The best “retellings” that can be snuck in for the Christian tradition is putting spin within a translation.

Below are selections from two of my recent readings to further illustrate these points.

(1) From the Introduction to John Smith’s translation (and abridgment) of the Mahabharata. (see the bibliography for source)

“However, to think of the Mahabharata as merely one more heroic epic would be a serious over-simplification, for it became much more than that. The story that lies at its core came to be overlaid by numerous additions in the form of narrative digressions, substories and protracted sermon. In the process the character of the work underwent a significant change: the bardic Ksatriya epic whose early existence we can deduce (but about whose circumstances of performance we can only guess) ended up by becoming a gigantic compendium of chiefly brahmanical lore and a key text in the early development of the Hindu religion.”

(2) From India’s Business Standard, an excellent article on a rewrite of the Ramayana.

“The Ramayana began its life as a collection of disjointed stories strung together in a song. It took several decades and innumerable bards and writers to thread the tales into the linear narrative as we know it today. Every time it was sung, it acquired a fresh sound and rhythm. And once it was put down on paper, it gathered volume and mass. According to Camille Bulcke, a Belgian Jesuit missionary who studied the Ramayana and wrote Ram Katha: Utpatti aur Vitaran (The origin and spread of the Ramayana) there were around 300 tellings. It was not the fashion to refer to these as retellings at the time because the epics, myths and legends were part of an oral culture that allowed them to be interpreted and reinterpreted several times over. Scholars and historians lay much store by these tellings as they believed that the subtle differences between the versions held a mirror to the social and moral mores of the times.”

Question for readers:  The oral tradition of the Bible was not locked up for hundreds of years, can you give us an example of the two principles I mention above that are obvious also in the Christian tradition — before the lockdown.  Or perhaps elaborate on ways Christians get around the lockdown. (It is my hope in sharing the Hindu examples, our own culture’s patterns become more obvious).




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Oral Tradition & Locked Myths

  1. Perhaps differences in the four gospels, especially between the earliest (Mark) and the latest (John) reflect a process of embellishment and extension as described in your first point? Each gospel would have been, at least in part, a snapshot of the oral tradition in vogue at the time it was written.

  2. @ Keith,
    Agreed. Thanx.

  3. One thing that comes to mind is the list of contradictions in the bible. One can hypothesize that a source of many of these contradictions is that stories were being told and re-told before the “lockdown”. (I have written some papers on mathematical models which seem to fit nicely the graphs in the link above and I plan to do the fitting some day when I have the time.)

  4. @ Takis,
    Contradictions show that there are several authors often for one book. Contradictions between books should be no surprise. But that chart you link to is all show, in my opinion. The comments on the thread show the problems with that chart.
    As for your paper — yeah, right! Ain’t no one going to read that technical stuff. 🙂

  5. Hey Sabio, I agree, that was a kinda tongue-in-cheek posting…
    I’m afraid I can’t come up with a more serious reply at the moment, although I see the point of your posting.
    Greetings from Ireland.

  6. I think this has happened with Hindu scriptures, with OT, with NT and with the Buddhist scriptures; the original word revealed to the original recipient or revelation has got buried under the debris of time.

  7. @paarsurrey,
    Yes, I know this Islamic teaching that the other religions have corrupt scriptures. I don’t find it an interesting claim — because, in the end, you are saying yours are not corrupt. I believe none of them with any authority. I will not argue that here though. Too many religions out there who think only they are right and their scriptures are the ultimate authority. All such thinking is obvious false in my thinking.

  8. @Sabio Lantz 01/06/2014 at 8:16 pm

    I think I did not say that?
    Do you think that the Hindu scriptures, OT Bible, NT Bible and the Buddhist scriptures are in the original form in the original language? Please

  9. I care not if any ‘scripture’ is in their original form or not.

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