Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa's Novels - Part 1

Myth has become a prominent term at present in literary criticism. A large group of writers, myth-critics like Robert Graves, Francis Ferguson, Maud Bodkin, Richard Chase, Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell and others view the genres and individual plot patterns of many works of literature - including what appear on the surface to be highly sophisticated and realistic world, as recurrences of basic mythic formulas. As Northrop Frye puts it, "The typical forms of myth become the conventions and genres of literature." Archetypal critics tend to emphasise the occurrence of mythical patterns in literature on the assumption that myths are closer to the elemental archetype than the artful manipulations of sophisticated writers.  The theme of death and rebirth is said to be the archetype of archetypes.

Born and brought up in a land where mythology, mythological characters, legends, and folklore are an integral part of popular imagination and belief, it is quite natural that the literary luminary in the field of Kannada novels, S. L. Bhyrappa, makes abundant use of stories, incidents and characters from mythology, legends, folklores and stories that are either transformed or twisted through the ages. Besides this, he also uses excerpts from scriptures, and mythologies and depicts time-honoured social customs, rituals and religious rites that bring authenticity to his works.

Before analysing the use of myths in Bhyrappa‘s novels, I would like to elucidate the range of meaning of the word ‘myth’. In classical Greek ‘mythos' signified any story or plot, true or invented. In its central modern significance, however a myth is one story within a mythology, a system of hereditary stories, which were once believed to be true by a particular cultural group and which served to explain (in terms of the intentions and actions of deities and other supernatural beings) why the world is as it is and things happen as they do, to provide a framework for social customs and observances and to establish the sanctions for the rules by which people conduct their lives. Most myths are related to social rituals - set forms and procedures in sacred ceremonies - but anthropologists disagree as to whether rituals generated myths or myths generated rituals" (M.H. Abrams in ‘The literary terms and conditions’). Apart from these, the word 'myth' is used to signify any wildly held fallacy such as ‘myth of progress’, ‘the myth ofAmerican success’ etc. In our country we may talk of the ‘myth of secularism’ with this meaning.

Why does an author make use of myth? What advantage does this method offer him? The mythical method consists of seeking analogies for the present in the past and thereby allows the author to explore the contrasts and the similarities between the past and the present.

1) A myth is used as a norm, or as a pattern to measure the anarchy, confusion and degeneration of the present and attention is thus focused on modern society

2) It provides a pattern, a device for controlling and bringing order to  what is chaotic and shapeless.

3) It shows that the present spiritual predicament is an everrecurring phenomenon and hence acquires a universal significance.

4) It emphasizes the wide gulf that separates present human society from early human society, where human values were intact.

5) The use of myth enables the author to compress entire epochs into a short span of time and space, and thus provides comprehensiveness, brevity and poignancy to what the author has to convey.

6) Since traditional myths and legends are familiar to the common man as well to the erudite, the use of the mythical method helps the author to communicate his purpose and meaning easily and swiftly.

With the above mentioned points in mind, I would like to consider the use of myths, legends, and rituals in Bhyrappa’s novels. The various kinds of myths used in his novels may be categorised as:

1) Nature myths,

2) Myths related to popular beliefs or legends

3) Stories and incidents from mythologies

4) Rites and rituals from scriptures, Dharmashastras and from time-honoured, traditional customs.

Besides using myths in his novels, Bhyrappa has demystified the ‘Mahabharatha’ in ‘Parva’. And with that, he has created a new myth of his own method.

Many people have asked Bhyrappa why he has employed myths in ‘Saakshi’, even after having demystified the epic ‘Mahabharatha’. In an interview with M.S.K Prabhu (For ‘Karmaveera’, a Kannada weekly) Bhyrappa had addressed these questions.

Prabhu asks: After doing away with myths completely in ‘Parva’, you have used myths again in ‘Saakshi’; is this not an internal paradox in your point of view?’

Bhyrappa answers: ‘To me, creating literature is actually a sort of exploration of the meaning of the experience of life. Myths are the expressions of the meanings explored and arrived at by others. I felt that there is much more to be explored directly and realistically in the ‘Mahabharatha’, leaving aside the myths. Hence I did away with myths altogether in ‘Parva’. By discarding myths, much literary advantage is gained. But the motif of ‘Saakshi’ is in unveiling the faces of truth and untruth. As I went on probing, I found that it was not possible to evoke higher meaning at the actual, realistic level and thought that the range and profundity of meaning could be enhanced by using myths. Using myths means to take myths acquired from tradition, and to put them in the new contexts to get new meaning. I am neither an opponent of myths nor an enthusiastic defendant. What I needed was to enhance the depth and width of experience……”

When Prabhu asks whether the characters and other objects developed from the beginning would become insignificant at the end of ‘Saakshi’, as it takes a philosophical turn and the source of truth and untruth, reason and matter become an important issue, Bhyrappa answers, ‘Even in the last chapter that is delineated in the backdrop of myth, there are new aspects of the story. This notwithstanding, the tendencies that were found in the characters earlier would be developed as forces and principles. That means that this becomes the central vision of the whole novel. A literary work which lacks vision is a mere report. (In an interview for ‘Karmaveera’ with M.S.K Prabhu, ‘Bhyrappa Antardarashana’).

It is surprising to note that even though Bhyrappa has used various myths and legends in his many novels, only the use of myth in ‘Saakshi’ is stressed. Dealing first with the use of myth in Saakshi, I will try to analyse its use in other novels. The various benefits of employing myth in a literary work are exploited to their maximum in ‘Saakshi’, where the mythological concepts of Yamadharma, the God of death, Yamaloka, the world of the dead, Chitraguptas, the servants of Yamadharma and the thumb-sized spirit of the dead person Parameshwarayya are used to weave the texture of the story. Taking us directly to the court of Yamadharma, with Chitraguptas and the spirit of Parameshwarayya, Saakshi gives a perspective of life in this world here, of living people, from the world of the dead, with the detached consciousness of ‘Saakshi-prajne’.

The mythical concept that a person’s good and bad deeds are recorded without any bias by Chitraguptas during his lifetime and that this will be reported to Yamadharma after his death, in the presence of the spirit of the departed, is used there. Though it is a literary device, the myth enables the author to unveil very effectively the world of truth-untruth, trust, breach of trust, crime and punishment, taboos and transgressions, ethical and psychological probing of the conscience and the sheer force of evil that overpowers good. This use of myth transforms us to the puranic (mythical) world of conflict between the primodal forces of good and evil and demonic force and mild righteous power. The evil called Manjayya is destroyed physically only after ravaging much good and this happens to be the chief principle of tragedy. Manjayya’s positive qualities like courage, intelligence, and physical prowess all only help the evil in him to dominate and quicken, and that pushes him to cheat, lie, destroy families, indulge in innumerable immoral and incestuous relationships with women and finally to murder. Like the demons of the mythologies, he has positive qualities only for perpetuating evil. In Mohanlal of ‘Mandra’ all his positive achievements, positive qualities are annulled by his one weakness and moral turpitude.


(To be continued...)

Thanks to Gowtham Srihari for keying in the article



Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.

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