By Prof. Th. Ratankumar Singh
Department of English, Manipur University.
Literatures of the world are filled with the presence of God in different aspects since time immemorial. Literature, in the early period of human civilization, existed in oral tradition based on religious rituals and ceremonies. In fact, literature started as a religious ritual in many cultures. Myths and legends found in different places of the world are part of literature even though they exist in fragments and in a chaotic manner. If we trace the growth and history of any literature, we come across a number of stories steeped in mythology and religion in the early prehistoric period. They constitute the folklore of the country and are an integral part of its culture. Thus, the relationship between religion and mythology is as old as that between religion and literature.
In Manipuri literature, we have a number of works concerned with ancient myths, legends and religion. The early history of civilization in Manipur, as recorded in the annals of Manipuri literature, is quite distinct and of great significance. Several of these myths and legends show the origins of this ancient land and the different groups of people associated with it in various ages. The early Manipuri literature is basically a narrative form of literature where we find many interesting stories connected with religious ceremonies, although there were no organized forms of religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam etc. People were mainly practising the pagan way of life as found in any other European culture. They worshiped natural objects and indulged in a kind of life where religious rituals were their day-to-day routine work. They also worshipped a number of different gods and goddesses associated with different attributes and qualities. These various deities were regarded as symbols of Nature itself.
If we would like to understand the significance of literature in relation to the society and culture of Manipur, we have to look into the presence of god elements in literature.
Many of the myths embody the experiences of the early people in a world where they had to struggle hard for survival. They were surrounded by the hostile forces of Nature and the environment. Their living conditions were to a great extent influenced by the forces beyond their control. And they had a need to provide some explanations and accounts for the good and the bad things which happened to them along with those of the favourable and the adversaries. It is a very interesting fact that many of the forces were often personified, and given names and personalities. This phenomenon was perhaps the first step for having beliefs and religious rituals. Consequently a number of gods and goddesses representing the various elemental forces and qualities appeared. And the galaxy of deities, which we find in the mythologies, along with other ghosts, spirits, goblins, monsters etc., are the creations of our belief and imagination. They reflect our lives; they are the symbols of our hopes and aspirations, our miseries and sufferings, our fears and uncertainties etc. When we attempted to explain the experiences of our life—the favourable and the adversities—in such magnificently constructed and intricately woven stories of gods and goddesses, of angels and devils, etc., we were actually creating art and literature. In course of time, such beautiful artistic creations have become rare treasures of mankind in the form of great religious scriptures. With our desire to lift the quality of life we live, we gradually have started incorporating the lofty ideals and our desire for everlasting peace and happiness. Thus, the abstract thoughts and strange rituals in religion, art and literature were invented. So myths are narratives relevant to a particular society in which they had originated, and are often considered the truthful accounts of the incidents that happened in the past. The only measure of truth, however, is our own perception of truth. The poet Ezra Pound once wrote about myth:
It was only when man began to mistrust the myths and to tell nasty lies about the Gods for a moral purpose that the matters became hopelessly confused. Then some unpleasing Semite or Parsee or Syrian began to use myths for social propaganda, when the myths were degraded into an allegory or a fable, and that was the beginning of the end. And the Gods no longer walked in men’s gardens. The first myths arose when a man walked sheer into ‘nonsense,’ that is to say, when some very vivid and undeniable adventures befall him, and he told someone else who called him a liar. Thereupon after bitter experience, and perceiving that no one could understand what he meant when he said that he ‘turned into a tree’ he made a myth- a work of art that is- an impersonal or objective story woven out of his emotion, as the nearest equation that he was capable of putting into words. The story, perhaps, then gave rise to a weaker copy of his emotion in others until there arose a cult, a company of people who could understand each other’s nonsense about the gods. (Eliot, 1968, pp. 431-432)
The reality of the myths seems to be a very important quality among the believers and non-believers. Thus, the myths came into prominence among the people as an important subject matter for academic discussion. It also had its own importance for its amusement and entertainment values. In the course of time, people added a moral dimension to it. And sadly, in the process all myths and religious stories gradually deteriorated the credibility among the people, particularly to those who are non-believers and nonchalant. Myths no longer could be considered as a part of the reality, but a very significant part of the culture.
Thus the origins of God can be located in the narratives and the narratives in turn are part of literature. In a sense, we can say that God is the creation of literature. If there were no Vedic literature, the Hindu Gods might have never been there. Perhaps that is the reason why Jacques Derrida called God ‘a philosophical fiction’ and ‘a transcendental signified’ which lies beyond all meanings. His famous concept, ‘the metaphysics of presence’, simply emphasizes our desire to create God. Although these concepts mainly deal with philosophy, it is difficult to isolate literature from philosophy in certain contexts. As literature deals in language and words, the philosophical concept of God has to be found in the composition of words. In the Bible, the word has been identified with God. God’s manifestation in literature has thus been depicted in the Western myths. Similarly, in the East too, there are ample evidences to suggest this very belief. The Bhagavata, which is worshiped by Hindus just as they worship their gods, is the home of the Lord, as the Lord Himself entered into the words of The Bhagavata. This is what we call a Grand Narrative.
In all cultures, thus, in the portrayal of God, there are certain elements which are common and significant in the sense that mankind shares one earth, one sky and one sun. And human nature is the same irrespective of caste, culture or creed in all places. However, when we look at a particular aspect of the presence of God in literature in explicit or implicit form, it is the artistic representation, which is more important. In fact, literature can only artistically present God.
If we examine the history of literature, we come across the myths and legends and other God elements reflected in it, and see how these elements get developed in particular cultural contexts that produce literature. An interesting fact is that we find a distinct pattern of the presence of God in literature. For example, in the literature of all cultures, there is an eternal conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil—a clash between the gods and the devils. Gods are always believed to be in heaven, high above the earth, and the devils in the underworld, far below the earth. Another interesting feature is that these gods and demons are always given human qualities and attributes. They are subject to human passions like vanity, arrogance, anger, envy, repentance, etc. which bring us closer to the gods. It is because of our desire to transcend this physical world in our effort to understand things which are beyond our comprehension. Our sense of helplessness and limitations in spite of all our powers and wisdom necessitates the invention of gods. Supernatural and mystic elements in literature can be interpreted in such lines. Sir James Frazer did understand it, as the relationship among magic, religion, and science. He said:
Are the forces which govern the world conscious and personal, or unconscious and impersonal? Religion, as a conciliation of the superhuman powers, assumes the former member of the alternative. For all conciliation implies that the being conciliated is a conscious or personal agent, that his conduct is in some measure uncertain, and that he can be prevailed upon to vary it in the desired direction by a judicious appeal to his interests, his appetites, or his emotions. Thus in so far as religion assumes the world to be directed by conscious agents who may be turned from their purpose by persuasion, it stands in fundamental antagonism to magic as well as to science, both of which take for granted that the course of nature is determined, not by the passions or caprice of personal beings, but by the operation of immutable laws acting mechanically. In magic, indeed, the assumption is only implicit, but in science it is explicit. It is true that magic often deals with spirits, which are personal agents of the kind assumed by religion; but whenever it does so in its proper form, it treats them exactly in the same fashion as it treats inanimate agents, that is, it constrains or coerces instead of conciliating or propitiating them as religion would do. (GB, 1993, p. 51)
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the pattern of the presence of god elements in literature particularly in the context of Manipuri literature. As many of our learned readers are not aware of Manipuri literature, I would be pleased to point out only certain patterns in Manipuri literature and culture which are common and recognisable under a distinct design or pattern, found everywhere, and in all cultures.
The pattern and the trends in Manipuri literature are as follows:
Manipur has got a rich cultural heritage because of its strategic location and being situated in the ancient land routes of the people having different cultures and religious. Manipur was one of the three silk routes in the 12th century AD.
And Manipur shares a number of common features in its religious and cultural practices with a number of countries like China, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan and Korea etc. as well as India.
The almighty God is immortal and God has neither a beginning nor an end. So, God does not take birth but incarnates. A formless god can manifest in whatever form(s) He intends to do. He can also take some forms or many forms of different types simultaneously. As a result the several incarnations of God in separate entities embodying different qualities corresponding to the purpose of their incarnations appeared. Many of them possessed super-human qualities even though they acted like human beings or other creatures.
They always lived together with mankind in the ancient days. Many of the great myths of the Manipuris emerged during this period. They all described the incidents of the pre-historic times. However, as found in the Royal Chronicles of Manipur known as the Cheitharol Kumbaba (which records the history of Manipur from AD 33), the gods often took possession of a portion of the land in Manipur and ruled their shares as kings.
In the course of time, the gods gradually disappeared from the world of mankind. There are a number of interesting stories in this regard in the annals of Manipuri literature. We find a lot of indisputable references to these theories of myths in the remarkable works of ancient Manipuri Literature. A prominent example is one of the ancient works named Panthoibi Khonggul composed in the 17th century. However, the legend of Panthoibi in Manipuri culture had been in existence right from the beginning of the civilization of Manipur. The oral tradition of literature which was handed down to successive generations as a legacy of the cultural heritage of Manipur has been crystallized in the written form of literature only in the later period of civilization when we began to use the alphabets and letters. But the hi/story of goddess Panthoibi is intricately woven in our culture just as Genesis of the Bible has become a part of Christian culture . According to the beliefs of the Manipuris, the creation of the Earth and the Heaven by the God has been symbolically presented in the history of Panthoibi. Panthoibi was being chased by her husband Nongpok Ningthou in the Panthoibi Khonggul. These gods and goddesses represented the elemental forces of air, water, fire and earth. There are various episodes in their history which points to the eternal conflicts of the forces of evil and good too, more prominently reflected in the Leiharaoba (a religious ritualistic festival, depicting the re-enactment of the creation myth).
Another important work which is concerned with the appearance of gods in the valley of Manipur (Manipur is not the original name of the land) is called Poireiton Khunthok, composed around the 1st century AD. Poireiton brought a great change in the history of civilization of Manipur even though he did not become the king. The importance of this book is not in its historical accounts but in its artistic presentation of the historical facts and as a great and priceless treatise of literature. In 1969, this book was completely revised and rewritten in modern Manipuri with notes by a group of scholars. Since then people have been discussing it as a great work of literature.
Some important works that are concerned with the early periods of the land are Thawanthaba Hiran, Numit Kappa, Naothingkong Phambal Kaba, Totenglong and Chainarol. Thawanthaba Hiran gives an account of the people and the society of Manipur in the 12th century when the Manipuris started having some relationships with the countries around her and began to worship the gods from those strange places. There had been some gradual assimilation of the South-East Asian culture in Manipuri culture along with some Hindu traditions. In Numit Kappa, another interesting book, we find an account of how a great archer, Kwai Nungjeng Piba, killed one of the two suns which had been shinning in the sky throughout the day and night. Practically there was no darkness. But it was essential. So it was imperative that one sun should be shot down. Besides, it also gives us an idea of how the art of archery was practised in ancient Manipur and India and its importance in war. Perhaps that may be the reason why a number of Hindu gods and goddesses had been adorned with bows and arrows. The killing of one of the Sun gods, Taothuireng, by the great archer Khwai Nungjeng Piba has been symbolically presented in the text. Allegorically, this book has also presented a truthful account of Manipuri society in the medieval period. Naothingkong Phambal Kaba deals with the coronation of King Naothingkhong in AD 763 It gives an account of all the religious rituals practised in Manipur. Some of these rituals are still observed by the Manipuris with great conviction. Tutenglon is another important work of literature, where the two brothers started cleaning the rivers of Manipur with the help of a god in heaven. Soraren who rules the heaven was approached by the brothers Tauthingmang and Yoimongba (according to the Royal Chronicle, Taothingmanng is the king who ruled Manipur during the second half of the 3rd century AD) to help them in cleaning the rivers. Soraren agreed and they successfully completed the task. It shows the devotion of the rulers to the gods. Chainarol is the art of combat. The inevitable presence of god in the martial arts and duels, which are very popular among the Manipuris, can be seen in this book. This is a very important treasure of Manipuri Literature. Although the book appears to have been composed in a later period, it gives an account of the tradition of fighting from the early period to the 17th century, just before the advent of Hinduism in Manipur. There are ample evidences in the book, where the names of many places in Manipur had been given following the combats. These combats, in some way or another, were always instigated by the gods and they frequently made interferences in their combats.
With the arrival of Hinduism in the 17th century there was a tremendous change in the religious practices of Manipur. The forced conversions of the majority of the people to Hinduism and its aftermath have been narrated in many accounts of Manipuri literature. The practices which had been adopted willy-nilly by the people in the course of time became the established norms. These new traditions, along with the ancient indigenous traditions, were in existence simultaneously in Manipuri culture. In some aspects, we find a beautiful amalgamation of pre-Hinduism and Hinduism elements in Manipuri culture.
Then with the arrival of the English and the establishment of British paramountcy and the intrusion of Christianity, another dimension appeared in Manipuri religion and literature. The people living in the hills of Manipur adopted Christianity and there is a marked division between the literatures of the Christians and the Hindus. It is an interesting fact that the people of Manipur did not have any connection with these religions in the past.
However, with the advent of globalization and the fast changing scenario of the world in terms of rapid progress in information technology, it can be concluded that no nation can remain in seclusion for a long time and we have to look forward to a world where interdisciplinary studies will be the only discipline of our learning and any place, a part of our mother earth, will be our native land as the poet James Kirkup wrote, “No men are foreign, and no countries strange.”
Eliot, T.S. (Ed.). (1968). Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London, United Kingdom: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Frazer, S. J. (1993). The Golden Bough. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Reference.