The Time Is Right For A New Literary Genre – Dharmic Fiction

by Aloke Kumar - Sep 23, 2017 10:54 AM +05:30 IST
The Time Is Right For A New Literary Genre – Dharmic FictionCovers of contemporary Indian books inspired by Hindu kathas and Puranas
  • We have been witness to the birth of a new genre of stories that are inspired by Hindu kathas and elements of dharmic jeevan darshan.

    The name dharmic fiction is proposed for this genre.

“It’s bigger on the inside!” Any new ‘human’ visitor invited inside The Doctor’s TARDIS – his time machine – is bound to exclaim.

‘The Doctor’ is a ‘Time Lord’, a species hailing from a planet called Gallifrey. The Doctor is not a real man but a science-fiction character from the series Doctor Who, who, despite his imaginary status, has shaped many lives.

Science-fiction stories were a favoured staple of my childhood. My love for the art of storytelling has continued well into my adulthood and, lately, I have been fascinated by books inspired by Hindu kathas and Puranas. One of the first such books I came across was Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy, to which I happily dedicated a few weekends. Keen readers have probably noticed a recent literary varsha (rain) of such books, and Tripathi’s trilogy now has many companions. Prime among them I have read include Vamsee Juluri’s Saraswati’s Intelligence, Saiswaroopa Iyer’s Abhaya, Rashmi Chendvankar’s The Rigveda Code and Ashwin Sanghi’s The Krishna Key. However, there are dozens of similarly themed books that I have not yet been able to read but hope to read one day.

Given the multitude of books with themes borrowed from Hindu kathas, it is not far-fetched to claim that a new writing genre has been born. While The Doctor enjoys a unique classification in the pantheon of literary characters, our katha-inspired characters such as Avishi (the central female character of Iyer’s Avishi: Vishpala of Rig Veda Reimagined) are refugees of foreign classifications. How should we classify this newborn genre of books?

Genres like science fiction are well-defined. According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets”. But the new genre of writing inspired by Hindu kathas does not seem to have been classified definitively. Proper genre classification is useful in categorising literary material and is regularly used in resource management. From your local book store to Netflix, all rely on categories to facilitate consumer browsing through genres relevant to their interests. In the absence of proper classification, books such as the Shiva trilogy are often listed under such genres as fairy tales, mythology and so on.

I posit that these books deserve a new genre classification since current genre names are not relevant to their content. Furthermore, I propose the genre category ‘dharmic fiction’ to classify such books. Having proposed a new name, I will also answer three important questions in this essay: (i) Why do we need a new name? (ii) Why the specific name ‘dharmic fiction’? and (iii) Do I have the adhikara (right) for such naamkaran (naming ceremony)?

Why a new name?

Why lobby for a new name, some may ask. Is there an issue with borrowing existing words such as mythological fiction, fantasy and epic fantasy? The simple answer is, yes, there is an issue – borrowing these words is a sign of intellectual laziness.

Terms such as ‘fairy tale’ and ‘fantasy’ are defined through Western literature. For example, Merriam-Webster defines a fairy tale as “a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)”. The definition is obviously ill-suited to describe the literature under discussion.

Just like quantum mechanical phenomena are best understood by names given to them by the quantum physics community, dharmic ideas are also best understood through the lens of Sanskrit terms. This idea has been referred to as the non-translatable nature of Sanskrit terms by Rajiv Malhotra (Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism). Puranas and Hindu kathas such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata encompass a sacred geography and philosophy, concepts which words such as ‘epic’ and ‘mythology’ cannot adequately signify. Similarly, the word dharma has no English equivalent, although people often use terms such as ‘righteous path’ to refer to dharma.

Allow me to illustrate this with an even more concrete example. Take the term devas, which is often loosely translated as demi-gods or gods (with a small g) in English. Both these terms are poor translations of devas because there exists an entire galaxy of celestial beings such as yaksas and gandharvas for which there could be no meaningful description should you accept god or demi-god as an equivalent term for devas. The use of non-Sanskrit terms restricts the inherent diversity of Sanskrit literature and, in the long term, will prove counter-productive.

Thus, this new breed of fictional stories warrants a Sanskrit name so that the higher dimensional elements of Hindu kathas are not ‘lost in translation’. The name dharmic fiction meets this objective.

Why the name dharmic fiction?

Before I proposed this name, I considered other names such as Puranic fiction or Itihasic fiction. These names all describe certain aspects of the new literature. For example, the name Itihasic fiction would imply any fantastical story based on Hindu Itihasa literature. While this name certainly has a wide scope, it would become restrictive when novels based on, say, the Upanishads, and other elements of Hindu thought, external to Itihasa literature are introduced.

Two things need to be considered when naming a new genre: (a) the name should be broad enough to represent the least common denominator of all possible literary works in that genre, and (b) the name should be precise enough to have a definitive identity. Given these constraints, I believe the name dharmic fiction is best suited to describe this newborn genre. The other advantage of this name is that novels which utilise elements of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and so on can also be legitimately considered for membership in this genre.

Hence, we define dharmic fiction as fiction based on aspect(s) of the dharmic jeevan darshans and/or dharmic literature such as Puranic literature.

So, which novels fall within the proposed genre of dharmic fiction? The obvious examples are those with storylines woven around Puranic and Itihasic literature. Novels inspired by Vedic literature and/or deities, such as Iyer’s Avishi also fall under this new classification. The beauty and elegance of dharma lie in its complex worldview, which supports the characteristic richness of dharmic narratives. Thus, stories which exploit dharmic elements in plot synthesis certainly qualify for inclusion in this genre.

I point to the blockbuster movie Baahubali and associated novels as a prime example. Dharmic fiction stories need not always be set in the distant past; futuristic and present-day plots formulated using dharmic elements will add depth and dimension to this new genre (see Ram Rishi’s The Yantra: When a Vimana Returns). Obviously, the nationality of an author has no bearing on classification, extending dharmic fiction genre membership to works such as The Matrix.

The adhikara for naamkaran

Finally, what right do I have to assume genre-naming rights? As an avid reader and consumer of this category, I am invested in the proper categorisation of literary works. Hence, my adhikara is that of a reader and consumer. I would also point out that most commercial sectors regard the consumer as king; if these privileges are extended to me, then I claim the right to identify and propose a name for this new genre.

Having said that, to be truly acceptable, it is imperative that I have a buy-in from the authors of the texts themselves. I would like to thank those authors who have already expressed support for this idea, and encourage others to enter the discussion to voice their views on the proposal.

Dr Aloke Kumar is currently an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

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