Poetry and the Reality of Sacred History

Epic poetry often created a rich and lofty history for its people. Through strong and noble heroes in times glorious and places grand and abundant, epics conjure up a past that makes the heart swell with pride. In the depression of current turmoil and the helplessness in overwhelming obstacles, it is relieving to think of a splendid past when mighty men arose to subdue the agents of mischief, fighting valiant battles for truth and honor and standing tall after virtuous victories, even as escapist movies make us forget the troubles of the present and float in a world where all is Technicolor and musical number. But in ancient cultures, the mind's eye and the heart's throb perceived epic characters as historical figures, and the accomplishments of the heroes were taken to reflect the intrinsic greatness of the nation.

Ancient rulers were not unaware of this. The Roman Emperor Augustus assigned the gifted poet Virgil to write an epic history of imperial Rome. The work, which is among the greatest epics, introduces in poetic meters magical episodes with Roman gods, tours of Hell and other implausibilities, all uttered in a serious vein. We of this day and age look upon them as creations of a fertile mind, but once they were real as rock on the ground. Virgil's epic lifted up the spirit of every responsible Roman.

Firdusi, the Persian, constructed an epic history, the immortal Shahnama for his beloved land, in 120,000 poetic lines, culling stones for his edifice from the folklore-rumors that pervaded the air. He spoke with sureness of Gayamurth and Jamshid and Rustam who lived on and on for centuries long. And they became as real in the Persian psyche as Aristotle or Achilles in the Greek mind. The tragic battle between Rustam and his lost son Sohrab (whom he did not recognize as such) was no mere fantasy for one of truly Persian blood. Epics can transform meek citizens into fiery patriots prompting them to proudly declare with Virgil, Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae: I recognize the trace of that ancient fame!

It may be difficult for us to imagine how people at large could take all of this as part of reality. But such impacts of epics persist to this day in various forms and in various cultures. In modern India, for example, the ancient poetic visions of Vedic imagery which personify and invoke through glorious hymns the sun and the moon, the sky, the sea and fire, persist as life-giving world-views to a robust and lasting civilization, for these deities are addressed on solemn occasions through chants composed millennia ago. Austere temples to the epic gods Rama and Krishna and related divinities draw millions in pious devotion. It was through the sage-poet Valmiki that the hero of the Ramayana got a birth date and birthplace, for the epic specifies the configurations of planets and constellations when the god was born as prince to a benign potentate. And so, to this day the devout observe the auspicious day of Rama's birth every year in worship and sacred singing. The place where the epic says the hero was born is a sacred spot of contention between competing faiths. The unattached outsider may not be moved by any of this, but this does not diminish the conviction of the committed, even as the electron spin and lepton number mean nothing to those untouched by the meditations of modern physics.

The Mahabharata is another major Indian epic of impressive length in majestic poetry whose thousands of lines were passed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition, long before ink and paper were conceived or contrived. These are hoary narratives of dynastic reigns, of royal intrigues and confrontations between the forces of good and evil. Interspersed in them are reflections on life and morals, and references to the divine as incarnations. The epic has shaped the Hindu heart and mind, and if such has been its effect, who can say if what it conveyed was reality or not? One may wonder how such massive stanzas in rhyme and rhythm came to be composed, and scholars still debate about the historicity of the episodes. But those poetic visions have given meaning and purpose to myriad souls; have engendered moving music and majestic architecture, feasts and fun-filled festivals, as also lofty ideals around the themes and personages in the work. In the episodes of the Puranas a thousand incidents and genealogies are mentioned in which gods and demigods, kings and super-kings and talking animals emerge and interact. Places are mentioned where this god or that evil monster appeared and did this or that fantastic deed. These are not told as tales of fancy, but as events to be remembered with reverence, commemorated with care. Every temple of the distant past has a Puranic story behind it, informing us of how the edifice arose. Not infrequently, it was a god or a miracle-prone saint who appeared at the hallowed ground, to bless or instigate the temple. These are fascinating poetic visions, their sources hidden in intractable mystery. Fantasy perhaps or powerful imagery, but the anecdotes are intense in their impacts on the faithful, no less real in their framework than the love of their parents or the local gossip. Not many of them regard the associated anecdotes as poetic creations or legends for children; to most, these are historical events of mystic significance. The boons and blessings of the gods, their cosmic dance and curious conflicts were occurrences as real as any news item from the BBC.

In other cultures too the visions of the ancients have taken firm roots. As long as we are constrained to the logic of facts and figures, we cannot understand how God could have talked to Moses at the burning bush, or the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave on Mount Hera. Ancient poetic visions opened the mind's eye to dimensions not perceived through the ordinary channels of sight, sound and smell, and they unveiled whole new worlds of gods and forces that became as much part of reality as the sky and the stars.

Likewise, tourists in Verona click their cameras at the balcony whence, according to Shakespeare, fair Juliet wondered about dear Romeo's whereabouts, and others at Elsinor castle stand in the open and fantasize about Hamlet posing himself the question whether to be or not to be.

Naïve realism imagines reality to consist of concrete stuff, and that the world of science alone captures it, because it is from the scientist's grasp that a hundred things of practical relevance have flowed. But then, the vision of some ancient poets also led to the flowering of entities that have enriched enormously the human experience. Not just plays and poems, but the fabric of Greek society and the framework of Greek theology were influenced and inspired by the Homeric poems. The few surviving clay tablets from Ras Shamra are but faint remnants of ancient Phoenician epics of the fourteenth century BCE. The tell the tales of Baal, the divine, who appeared in many forms as the gods of the various cities with names like Melkarth and Moloch.

The poet's visions don’t always create worlds and beings out of nothing. Sometimes, like powerful microscopes, they merely focus and render more visible entities of which the people had already heard. The horrors of Hell and the glories of Heaven, saints, angels, and God Himself, were all part of the medieval framework of worlds beyond. In those times, a hundred poets rhymed and sang about them with the conviction of present day physicists who speak to the public of quarks and gluons. Dante's immortal Commedia is a veritable guided tour of heaven and hell and in-between, describing in superb and spine chilling triads what awaits sinners of every kind, and those who have not become part of Christ's flock. He takes us through biting cold and blistering heat, powerful storms and filthy mire, where ex-gluttons lie pitifully submerged in murky mud and are pelted with hail; where heretics burn in their tombs; where violent criminals languish in rivers of blood. Such are the visions of the poet of what lies beyond. But apart from the balance and rhyme of the lines, much of what Dante said was in consonance with what most of his contemporaries really believed in. Horrible hell and magnificent heaven were surely not Dante's creations, nor the celestial kingdom where Christ, the Lord, reigns supreme. From this distance in time we might read Dante's lines as the allegory it was meant to be. However, in the days of magical thinking, Mercury, Mars, and Moon were not just inert objects orbiting an indifferent sun, but heavenly abodes where mortals with various credits of merit had ascended post-mortem. The saints Peter, James, and John were not just apostles who had lived and died, leaving their Biblical legacies, but loyal attendants of Christ and Mary walking up there in the starry firmament, waiting to interrogate those who have earned their entry into Paradise. Our telescopes may not reveal them, not our astronomy believe in them, but these were very much part of reality for our ancestors of a by-gone age, and for many in our own times. And it was the poet who with the splendid light of his words, makes the people acutely aware of that reality.

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