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Let’s travel to India, where the comic book pantheon has pre-installed blue guys – Amar Chitra Katha, “The Gita”

September 30, 2012

Comics from other lands have occasionally been highlighted here, but they’ve been European interpretations of American comics. The spread of Yankee iconography is ever-gratifying to the ego of American nationalism (U S A! U S A!) as much as it’s assuredly galling to natives who lament any Americanization of their culture, no matter how minute. Some people see McDonalds golden arches in every bit of imported Americana, and to them it’s like the Visigoths riding over the hills of Rome. You have to imagine that comic books, though low on the cultural ladder, would generate such a reaction.

None of that today. Today we’re going to take a brief trek to the Asian subcontinent and dive into one of the most popular of Indian comic books, a series that, ironically enough, was created to help gird the fading culture and myths of old native Hindu traditions. Behold, Amar Chitra Katha.

Disclaimer: I’ve never been to India. Most of my exposure to the country has come through Gandhi, in which an Englishman of Indian descent played the Indian who ended English colonial rule, and a smattering of books. My knowledge of that nation’s myths and traditions is limited at best, non-existent at worst.

But that’s kind of the whole point of Amar Chitra Katha.

It was a series born of one man’s desire to preserve and propagate Indian cultural heritage (or so the story goes). The founder of the line (and scripter of the comic reviewed in this post), Anant Pai, found himself shaking his head at the utter lack of awareness by Indian children of hallowed stories that stretched back to time immemorial. They could more readily answer questions about the European mythical deities than their own, and THIS WOULD NOT STAND. Hence ACK was born. (This version of the genesis may be legend itself. Another has a publisher cobbling together the series to make some money, and bringing Anant Pai on board to helm it. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.)

The resultant series, begun in 1967 and published in English almost from the beginning, reads like a cross between Classic Illustrated tomes and children’s books about the Bible. Life lessons are taught in a manner that’s easy for young readers (or young kids being read to) to digest, and the traditional folklore of a vast, populous nation is passed on to a new generation, all with pretty pictures to help drive everything home. The series was and is a best-seller, and how could it not be, with backpage ads like this to promote it?:

The issue that I decided to highlight (I bought a few at a local library’s book sale, if you’re wondering where it came from) is a perfect example. The Gita (or the Bhagavad Gita) is a Hindu scripture. A part of the vast Mahabharata epic, it tells the tale of a warrior’s crisis of conscience and the divine advice that salves it. It’s a heavy pill to swallow, with a great deal of extensive philosophical exposition. To shorten the buildup to the real meat of the tale (adapted here by Pai and artist Pratap Mulick), the Pandavas are swindled out of their kingdom by their cousins, the Kauravas, and they opt to settle the resultant dispute on the battlefield (complete with rules like an Anchorman rumble). It’s there, after the conches have blown to signal the combatants to array themselves for war, that we come to the crux. Arjuna, the great Pandava archer prince, has a crisis of conscience: how can he kill his kinsmen?:

The driver of his chariot, in case you can’t tell by the blue skin, is Krishna. As both armies wait patiently, he gently instructs Arjuna in all manner of philosophy, first telling him that, to fulfill his dharma, or duty (a rough translation, but the one offered by the comic), he has to fulfill his role on Earth as a warrior. He’s going to have to fight and kill. But killing a man’s body does not kill the man:

Reincarnation and the immortality of the soul is all pretty confusing to poor Arjuna, so Krishna branches off on a new tangent, telling him about how the mind must be clear to see the true path before it, and how this enlightened state can be achieved through meditation:

Much of what Krishna talks about can be boiled down to equanimity, i.e. taking life as it comes, staying medium and not sweating the small stuff. Or so says my Western McDonalds interpretation.

After a while, Arjuna has a variant of the “Hey, how do you know all this?” moment so prevalent in such stories (the blue skin apparently wasn’t a clue). It’s then that Krishna reveals his true nature as no mere charioteer, but the avatar of Vishnu:

Arjuna is humbled and at peace. Then there are some final words of encouragement:

Now, his mind clear and focused, Arjuna is ready to fulfill his duty. And that duty is? Killing as many of his relatives and his relatives’ soldiers as he can. Religion: it’s a strange and wondrous and terrible thing.

The Gita is a fundamental Hindu text (should you want to read more about it, or at least further than this gloss of its comic book interpretation, the Wikipedia entry for it is as good a place to start as any). Its emphasis on how to negotiate the moral conflicts of life and of selfless duty (minus the odd juxtaposition with imminent bloodshed) has helped it stand the test of time, and has influenced countless individuals great and small. One person who took to heart its lessons was Mahatma Gandhi — hey, wait, that’s him right there, in this comic! On the last page! What a coincidence!:

From the perspective of a not-well-travelled white American male of a certain age, the Amar Chitra Katha books, including this one, appear to be well done, even when Krishna is at his wordiest. And they’re certainly a lot better than when folks in India muck around with U.S. icons — I’m looking at you, Bollywood Superman. “The Gita” is fairly easy to understand, even for befuddled Westerners, and the art is solid — the cover painting to this one is what sold me on discussing it here. The books have been translated to any number of languages, and have been reprinted countless times since the series began (the cache I pulled a few out of were from 1985). Should you ever be in that neck of the woods and see one, and have some few spare rupees in your pocket, why not pick one up? Or maybe save the air fare and just go to the website.

So ends this all too short blog vacation, one that didn’t require a Marco Polo-like journey to the ends of the Earth. The joys of reading, people. The joys of reading.

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