One of the unforeseen side effects of a culture based on devotion to the gods is that we sometimes fail to process reality with the kind of nuance it deserves. Because we refuse to see our gods portrayed in any kind of bad light, we fail to see people as anything more complicated than good or bad.
So when a prominent actor gets accused of sexual harassment, we begin to defend him by citing all the good things he has done. Because apparently, a person has to be either completely golden, or an utter stinking rat. Apparently there can be no middle ground. Apparently, it’s not possible for someone who has done good deeds in his life to have ever committed a wrong. And conversely, it is impossible for a criminal to have anything to do with virtue.
We have a culture of deference. It shows when a Ram bhakt twists himself into knots trying to explain why it was perfectly okay for the prince of Ayodhya to have shot vanara king Vali while hiding behind a tree. It shows when people bend over backwards trying to explain why Sita had to literally set herself on fire to be accepted by her husband. It shows when people find themselves unwilling to accept that in the Mahabharata, Krishna caused a war and that Ganga drowned her own children until her husband stopped her from doing so. Our stories show a tragic reality of life that we try to mask with magical explanations.
And what is this tragic reality? It is that the moral universe does not translate very easily into dichotomies like hero vs villain, good vs evil, righteous vs wrongdoer. Ram did kill Vali unjustly and it is better to accept that than to justify it using philosophical sophistry. Sita shouldn’t have had to burn and it is better to say so than to come up with reasons to explain why she had to. And let’s just accept that Ganga did a horrid thing. Because when we do face up to these truths, we also become capable of applying such nuance to real life. We stop justifying a young woman’s rape by pointing at what she was wearing. We stop making excuses for abusive fathers and husbands by saying they had bad childhoods.
The best stories are those that deliberately subvert our ideas of right and wrong. The best stories make us better human beings by challenging us. Failure to meet the challenges issued by stories with grey characters results in a society that can’t handle anything more complex than mythology. And a mythic narrative is exactly what we are suffering from right now — heroes who can do no wrong because they do charity, leaders whose shit smells like roses because they mouth patriotic key phrases, and boorish sex offenders who can get away with harassing a woman because they donate money to farmers.
I have written before about how it might make sense to remove the Mahabharata from its feel-good fantasy context and look at it from a Materialist perspective. About how, if we look past the many explanations offered for characters’ bad behaviour, we might learn from the epic something rather stark — life sucks and we are all kind of in it together. Maybe Duryodhan was as much a victim of life as the Pandavas were. Maybe Krishna was not completely virtuous.
Perhaps we need a Materialist view of Indian society as well — one where nobody gets to be a god free of all flaws, or a monster absolutely beyond redemption.