As Indians, we are inheritors of arguably the world's oldest civilisation, which has remained unbroken for nearly five millennia. We have hundreds of stories, folk tales and legends that talk about humans, animals, deities, and demons.
One might wonder to what extent these stories are true. While it is unwise to consider these stories as historical facts, it is highly unlikely that they are wholly based on imagination. An epic like the Mahabharata, for example, simply could not have been composed from thin air. All works of fiction are based on real life incidents at some level.
As a writer of fiction myself, I find it unfathomable that one could write a story that is totally outside one's experience. Also, because many centuries have passed since the original compositions, it is difficult for us to separate fact from fiction when we examine them today.
More than their historical veracity, their emotional appeal makes us believe them. Do you say that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character? Technically, yes. But he is alive in the collective consciousness of people for the last century. Even today, a TV series based on Holmes is hugely popular.
Tom Sawyer, Zatoichi, Mma Ramotswe, D'Artagnan, Professor Shonku - all of them are fictional, but they feel so alive to us. And one of the reasons is that they have been drawn from reality. Mark Twain created Tom Sawyer as a composite of many boys he knew in school while Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes in the mould of one of his teachers, Joseph Bell.
In the Indian tradition, some of the characters from the Itihasa (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and the Puranas (the 18 Mahapuranas) were deified. They were given the status of a deity, one who was worthy of worship; in other words, a role model. While there are a few exceptional geniuses who are self-driven and original, most of us need role models and templates. Deities like Krishna, Durga, Hanuman, Lakshmi and Shiva are such role models for us.
Just like we need deities that tell us what to do, we also need demons that tell us what not to do. And for this purpose, characters like Ravan, Shurpanaka, Mahishasur, Putna and Hiranyakashipu are admirably suited. Whether or not they existed, they provide us with excellent templates. While the deities highlight the advantages of virtues, the demons highlight the dangers of vices.
Another remarkable aspect about the Itihasa-Purana tradition is that it avoids painting people as black or white. While Ram and Krishna are basically good people, they too have flaws. While Ravan and Duryodhan are basically bad people, they too have merits.
Then there are fascinating grey characters like Vali and Karna, who show us how the interplay of virtue and vice transforms a person. At all times, our stories remind us that nobody is perfect but it's a good idea to generally be virtuous instead of vicious.
Further, the tradition has never hailed the villains but it has looked at them with humane eyes.
Since the ancient Indian tradition is so magnanimous and open-minded, people have taken unfair advantage of it - be it the Islamic invaders or the European imperialists. However, the systematic maligning of the Indian tradition perhaps began with the British Orientalists, who bent over backwards to show that India was a barbaric land and anything sensible that could be found in it was brought from outside centuries ago.
This trend of maligning the spiritual and cultural heritage of India continued through the 20th century with the Marxists taking over the mantle after Independence. They made gods out of Ravan and Mahishasur while they maligned Ram for his chauvinism and Krishna for his womanising. They spoke of Hinduism as being misogynist and in the same breath, made whores out of Sita, Durga and Draupadi.
On the one hand, Marxist historians dismissed the Itihasa literature as mere imagination, and on the other hand, Leftist writers came up with "alternative histories" of these epics, claiming that history was only written by victors and therefore, we need to see it from the loser's perspective.
Ravan and Duryodhan suddenly became victims who were oppressed while Ram and Bhim became oppressors. But all through their writing of the alternative history, they never use any existing sources. For example, there is no text or sculpture that talks about Mahishasur being a good guy.
Whatever textual references or sculptures that we have, always depicts Durga as the slayer of the evil and arrogant Mahishasur. Instead of making Durga a symbol for women empowerment, they made Mahishasur a hero, and without any basis whatsoever. After all, for the Leftists, anti-tradition, by definition, is pro-progress.
In the recent episode in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), everyone seemed to be focussed on the students. But what about the teachers? Like Mr Miyagi says in 'The Karate Kid', "No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do."
Without the teachers influencing the students in a negative way, it seems unlikely that there could be such large-scale hatred towards anything that strengthens India and the Indian heritage. It is also, in part, the problem with the system of education that doesn't expose the students to the realities of religion and politics. Being fed with politically correct material till 18, if a student is suddenly unleashed into a world of ideology, it becomes rather easy for her to fall prey.
One of the questions being raised around the JNU episode is whether we have lost our freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is not unconditional; there will be restrictions. One can't let out state secrets in the name of freedom of speech.
So also, one cannot hurt the sentiments of another community in the name of freedom of speech. Whether it is MF Husain or Salman Rushdie, Kamlesh Tiwari or the JNU students, they have all crossed the line. Irrespective of the legal ramifications or the moral implications, it's an unwise thing to do.