The ground we walk on is solid but, the world we live in is enchanted by a rich web of story and myth. Born in the time before language, religion or the written word, human mythmaking has survived the test of time as a powerful tool for decoding the fundamentally difficult questions we ask ourselves. Painted with the broad strokes of human experience, these tales of cosmic struggle offer us a glimpse at life at a distance. Dealing with the widest range of human paradoxes and concerns, they speak a language we can all comprehend. In this way, these stories can help us to understand how we can bring the warring factions within ourselves into harmony. Revisiting the epic Hindu myth, The Ramayana as told by photographer Vasantha Yogananthan, and Hindu scholar, Dr. Douglas Brooks, we explore how the power of mythology can be used as a tool for our personal understanding of the world.

Vasantha Yogananthan, Photographer, 'A Myth of Two Souls'

In India, they say – you can travel the land for twenty years but, if you haven’t read The Ramayana you won’t know India

Young Warriors, Sitamarhi, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, Black and white C-print hand-painted by Jaykumar Shankar

Kaushalya And Young Rama, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India, 2015

ABOUT THE MYTH

 

As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, India is a land where the stories of the old gods remain and, are deeply embedded in everyday life. For anyone who grew up in India, the Hindu epic, The Ramayana will be a familiar tale. Playing deeply into the Hindu devotional imagination, its fantastical plot follows the journey of Prince Rama across the country to free his wife from the grips of the demon Ravana. Told in schools and at bedtimes, the pantheon of mythic characters that many Indians grew up with become familiars, extensions of the family. Outside of religion, the story touches on universal themes of freedom, discrimination, loss and redemption. Retold over 300 times in a plethora of languages, it is undoubtedly the most popular, and in that sense, the most important of all Hindu mythologies.

Father And Sons, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India, 2015

In his own version of the twenty-four thousand-verse epic, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan’s A Myth of Two Souls series explores the physicality of the myth in the land and the modern imagination. Developing over the last – years, his photographic journey saw him retrace the fabled route from north to south India as told by Sanskrit poet Valmiki in the 4th century. By inviting bystanders to help him recreate scenes from the story, he was able to get to the root of the culture’s personal relationship with the text. He comments, “most of the people I meet with in the Indian countryside, they don’t see the text as a fiction. There was this idea that the fiction and reality were completely blurred.”

Vasantha Yogananthan

The Ramayana houses a vision of life and a way of thinking that is indicative of Indian culture.


Dr. Douglas Brooks

I think in a difficult, precarious world, that’s global, political, social and personal, finding that stability, that sense of truth and value in one’s life is exemplified by the heroes of Ramayana.


After realising at an early age he couldn’t find the answers to his questions in the Episcopal church, Dr. Douglas Brooks turned to the East and never looked back. Since then, the Hindu scholar and Professor of Religion has devoted his life to unravelling the ritual and meaning of Hindu mythology. Speaking about the omnipresence of myth in Indian life, he speaks about The Ramayana as a ‘living and vital story’ that has come to form the backbone of a culture. Looking back on the way this myth was hijacked by India’s resurgent fundamentalists and used to stake a claim in the religious land, he sees the photographer’s series as a welcome effort to reclaim the spirituality and message of the story. Reflecting on the way the sacred is an all-pervasive and intrinsic part of everyday life in India, Brooks explains, “The Ramayana is a story told in public and, living your spiritual life in society is very much the heart of the story. You don’t just tell the story of Ramayana, you walk it, you see it and you envision it.”

The Playground, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, 2016

Dr. Douglas Brooks

We mark the occasion of our own self-invention when we become the person we create.

“There are no greater self-help books than mythology,” remarks Dr Brooks. “The beautiful part of it is that we can find ourselves in every character of the story, and we can focus on each one to teach us about our personal responsibilities”.  In a world that often gets caught up in destructive singular viewpoints, Dr. Brooks believes that mythologies present opportunities to enrich and engage in compelling conversation. In times of great conflict, these mythologies can help us to think through unthinkable situations by way of analogy.

Brooks explains, “we can focus in on each character to tell us about our personal responsibilities”. For example, “Sita stands for that love, endurance and willingness to make the commitments of intimacy that put you in jeopardy. If you are going to love, you’re going to risk.” Seeing ourselves reflected in each of the characters, these myths serve as a platform to “tell stories that are true and essential”. This can be seen most clearly in the modern retellings of Sita’s divisive story. Rather than a docile, devoted and chaste, she has been re-painted as a figure of strength, who whose complicated tale many modern women could relate to.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, 2015

Garden Romance (Sita), Mumbai, India, 2015, Black and white C-print hand-painted by Jaykumar Shankar

Dr. Douglas Brooks

The self is not static. It’s not stable. It is capable of taking whatever form is necessary in order to make the world come together.

Lovebird, Ramtek, Maharashtra, India, 2015

A Journey towards the Self

 

The Ramayana is a tale of the journey towards self-realisation. Through the mythic narrative, it speaks of the inner condition of the mind and body and the constraints, desires, and fears that lie in our path. Brooks explains, “all of the characters of Ramayana are offering further fractals and expressions of self by the way they adapt, adjust and move through the story.” Rama represents the soul, Sita the mind, Ravana the ego and Hanuman the life force. And, each of the roles in the story become opportunities to reclaim identity, to make the right decision. In our daily lives, this comes into play when we are called to inhabit multiple roles. We take on the role of someone’s friend, someone’s sister, someone’s child, mother and lover. In a way, every character in the epic lets you tell a different story. Brooks adds, “it also allows you to create an aspiration and a hope, a sense that if you’re every character in the story you’re also not every character in the story”. We are free to invent ourselves but, we are reminded that we are ultimately responsible for our choices.

Party Field, Janakpur, Nepal, 2016

Dr. Douglas Brooks

Suffering isn’t something we experience so much as it’s a definition of how we deal with the simple challenge of being alive.

“I think suffering is everything that nourishes us and everything that threatens us because, one way or another we in the human condition must contend with it. Suffering might not always be the best word in English but we are in a situation as human beings that is always precarious. ”, Brooks explains.

Reading The Ramayana raises the problem of human suffering. In Hindu scripture, it is defined as an inescapable fact of human life. Gandhi famously said that the way towards self-realisation was through “sorrow and suffering”. In comparison to Western thought, the individual’s suffering is put into a much broader context. Inherent in the cosmic cycles of living and rebirth, suffering in Hindu doctrine is something that has to be lived through. The purpose of Hindu practices is not to end human suffering but, to learn from it. Although karma is unavoidable, it acknowledges the importance of personal effort in shaping our own destiny.

The Workers, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2013

Dr. Douglas Brooks

The human condition is best guided by staying in conversation with the great resources, mythologies, and histories.

“In the opening lines of the Odyssey, Homer describes the twists and turns of life. I think life is found in those twists and turns. The beauty of life lies in its dynamism, in the change, in the instability and, in the unpredictability too. We really don’t know what’s going to happen next, do we?”

According to Dr. Brooks, ancient myths like The Ramayana are vital to the human condition. Encouraging us to engage and connect with the world, they offer an opportunity to, at once, look inwards and, see the cosmic dance of life from a broader perspective. This involves the contemplation of the duality of darkness and light, chaos, and harmony in the world. Brooks weighs in, “There’s plenty of dark even in the heroic characters of The Ramayana despite their best efforts and, I think that a rich a contemplative reading of the text doesn’t wash away the shadow even of the heroic characters”. As the world turns, just as there is a new life, there is death, just as there love, there is loss but, this is the beauty and rhythm of life.

Ravana Calling The Golden Deer, Janakpur, Nepal, 2016, Black and White C-print hand-painted by Jaykumar Shankar

The Crossing, Madhubani, Bihar, India, 2014

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BIOGRAPHY

Based in Paris, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan began his 7-year, 7-book project A Myth of Two Souls in 2013. The project, which will be complete in 2019, retells the story of traditional Indian myth of Ramayana. Yogananthan has won several awards for his work including the IdeasTap/Magnum Photos Award, the Prix Levallois and the 2017 ICP Infinity Award as Emerging Photographer of the Year. The first three books of the project are now available to buy on his website here

 

Dr. Douglas Brooks is a scholar of Hinduism, South Asian languages and the comparative study of religions. Currently, he acts as Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester and provides courses in Srividyalaya, the study of yoga and the practice of tantra.

Photography by Vasantha Yogananthan, A Myth of Two Souls.