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Culture of Knowledge Production

Heeraman Tiwari

By Danielle Feller
Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 2004, pp. xv 369, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Myths have fascinated all human societies, from the oral tradition to the written and to the age of cyber technology. Myths live forever, and, like genes, mutate and learn to survive and flourish in every generation. The term myth originates from the Greek muthos, which means “speech” and resembles the Sanskrit katha, vac (“story telling”, “narration”). When talking about “myth” specialists draw a distinction between “the sacred” and “the profane” and suggest that myths give expression to “the sacred” tales of gods and super humans, for myths “ultimate or metaphysical reality” is not an issue. (For a summary, of this vast and much debated subject, see The Encyclopedia of Religions, under the entry Myth, vol. 10, pp. 261-272.)   Much literature has been produced on the definition, nature, structure and history of myth in all cultures, but, in India, myth holds a particular relevance. The culture of knowledge production and propagation in ancient India depended solely on oral tradition. And this explains the special interest the scholars of ancient India have in myths and story telling. Danielle Feller is one such western Indianist whose interest in the relationship between the Vedic myths and the two great Sanskrit epics has resulted in this very engaging and exciting book, which should delight every reader interested in literature, religion and philosophy of ancient India. In her introduction, Feller provides a very lucid survey of the literature on the definition and meaning of myth by modern scholars like Mircea Eliade, Wendy Doniger, Alf Hiltebeitel and others who have worked on Indian mythology. In justifying the topic, Feller begins by quoting (p.19) Wendy Doniger that “in the history of religions, the term myth has far more often been used to mean ‘truth.’ What makes this ambiguity possible is that myth is above all a story that is believed, believed to be true …despite sometimes massive evidence that it is, in fact, a lie.” Feller then presents the debates between various scholars of the West on the function of myths and proposes to study them, what she calls, ‘myth in action”, particularly those that tell the tales of Vedic gods and then resurface in the later Sanskrit literature, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.   Feller says that her purpose in the book is not to follow the particular myths from their Rgvedic origin to the “various avtars throughout Sanskrit literature,” but “to view one particular ...

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