Of Hindus and Their Ludic Epics
Souvik Monday, April 20, 2009Once again, Hinduism makes its way into 'Ludus Ex' but this time in a full-blown post devoted to it. The reason for writing this is that I recently read two rather conflicting views on the first game blockbuster in the Indian market: a game called Hanuman. A few days back, Edge reported a 300 % growth in the profits of Sony Playstation India and judging from the words of Atindriya Bose, the country manager, India's somnolent gaming industry seems to have stirred a bit. Hanuman is even supposed to ship to the UK (good news although I'm not a console gamer) and South Africa. This is a proud moment for any Indian gamer, I'm sure. Not for all Indians, though. The second news clipping that I came across told me that a Hindu group wanted the game withdrawn because it apparently offends the Hindu religion. I saw a number of comments on various forums branding these people 'fundamentalists' and one person even facetiously comments that Indians need to 'stick to Pacman'. The cloud, however, remains and the Indian gamer is at risk of being ignored altogether. Let me try to voice his or her thoughts, here.
First, the group concerned is more keen on publicity than in practising religion. If they have read even a tiny bit of the Hindu scriptures, this self-taught Hindutva will sound very hollow indeed. Mind you, these people are based in the US and are not really connected to the Indian scenario. Hanuman, the game concerned, is about a Hindu God - the super-powerful monkey-god who moved an entire mountain and flew across the country (much before anyone ever thought of Krypton). Hanuman is a major character in the Hindu epic, The Ramayan (he also makes a cameo appearance in the Mahabharat). I can understand the umbrage of people who cannot imagine how their god can be put in the hands of reckless children wielding their joypads and insulting the power of their god. After all, one hasn't made a videogame on Jesus, Jehovah or the Islamic heroes.
There is, however, a subtle difference that is missed in such simplistic conclusions. What is missed, however, is of great import: the entire ethos of Hinduism (the problem of using this term is something I shan't go into, here) is missed here. In Hindu literature, the importance of play is paramount. The gods themselves indulge in leela or 'divine play'. Strangely enough, the hardcore critics of the game have forgotten that leela is characteristic of festivals related to the Ramayan. Ram-leela as it is called is an important part of festivals and if you go to the holy cities like Benares, many a roadside trader will try to sell you dolls of the characters from the Ramayan. Needless to say, Hanuman is a prominent attraction. Indian kids have played with Hanuman for millennia because Hindu culture has constantly highlighted the relationship between the ludic and the divine. With the new Hanuman videogame, therefore, they will not be doing anything to insult a god; rather in an ancient culture whose values are being eroded by 'Westernisation', this symbolises the power that Hindu texts have of rejuvenating themselves generation after generation. Moreover, the rich narrative of the Ramayan can now be explored again and again even in places where people do not know anything about the richness of the Indian epics.
Such anti-videogame reactions are not new and neither are they restricted to Hindus or even to religion. As in most cases, the ignorance about videogames and the problem in recognising them as texts gives rise to such ignorant comments. The first thing that we need to learn, whether from Western scholars such as Huizinga or from the ancient Hindu scriptures, is that play is serious and that mistaking the ludic for the ludicrous can lead to very grave consequences.
Finally, all the best, therefore, to Hanuman and to Indian gaming.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino