The Prevalence of Memes in Indian Culture
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Before reading Richard Dawkins analogy between genes and memes I was of the opinion that a meme is nothing but a myth or a superstition that has existed in a particular culture. But a detailed research of this chapter impels me to think of the evolution of this meme.
Through this discussion I want to make a claim that a meme also represents a kind of evolution. Since time immemorial the concept of the term “churel” has existed in India, not through a manuscript but in an oral tradition. Dawkins is right when he says that language is the main fuel that propels meme in a culture. The rate of the rise of a language is far higher than the rate of genetic evolution. Another important fact that we come to know is that language grows through non-genetic means1. Dawkins gives the example of birds2 that showed evolution not by genes but by language.
Dawkins speaks of the mutability of genes. The genes that a child has today may become halved soon, and at one point of time the resemblance might as well vanish. But it is not the case with memes. The meme of a churel today in India has not lost its hold on people. In different parts of India churel is known by different names. It shows the evolution of the meme in as scientific a manner as the genetic evolution. In east India and west India3, it is believed that a churel is a witch that entices the young children, and devours them in a lonely corner of the village. It is also said that she eats the young babies in order to maintain her youth and looks.
Dawkins says that a meme can also be as mutated as a gene is. This is also true when we find that the image associated with that of a churel changes as we travel in India. In some parts of the country a churel is an old hag with backward feet4. She looks horrible with wrinkles all over the body. But in other folklores, a churel is shown to be very attractive woman, not unlike Lamia, a beautiful maiden who is after the young and handsome men5 in order to satiate her libido. In some versions the churel is said to be feeding on the human blood while some portray her as guzzling the semen.
With reference to the origin of the word churel there is no consensus. Like a meme churel may have come from the “soup of human culture.6” Many stories of churel speak of their becoming witches after they had died during childbirth7. Other anecdotes say that churel rose as an attempt to wreak vengeance on their unfaithful male counterparts. Some stories relate their arrival just to taste the carnal pleasures with respect to the fact they died virgins.
It appears that the connotation of this meme has much to do with our blind faith. The concept of churel is no different from our “belief in life after death8,”-an idea that is so deeply instilled in our minds that we cant forgo it. This idea is akin to the idea of the hell fire, which was originated by some Machiavellian7 priest. And it can also be equated with the existence of god. In all, these three ideas are very closely linked with one another. This coupling of the idea shows us how the memes too get a hold on man through the development and flourishing of a human culture.
In Dawkins terminology the meme also represents our blind faith., Dawkins calls “faith” a blind trust in anything even if it is unaccompanied by evidence. Faith is a kind of mental illness but it is too deeply rooted to pull from our minds. Same is the case with the churels. Scientifically we know that these supernatural creatures don’t exist. But since we keep ourselves tightlipped on the issue of the existence of god, we keep mum on the issue of memes. Who can challenge the existence of god even though Darwin’s theory of evolution disapproves of it? Similarly memes have become such a deep part and parcel of our lives that we cannot let go of them from our psychology.
If genes evolve through sperms and eggs, memes evolve from mind to mind9. If one idea is put in a mind, it means weeding out all the other, and giving that idea a parasitic growth. This is the way a meme evolves. Similar to the DNA, a meme has a high survival value. It is associated with fecundity also, as language gives it the spur to develop wings and become indoctrinated in the human minds.
Thus it appears that memes are replicators. They imitate themselves in a direct proportion to human culture and civilization. Like the genes they too have a kind of a DNA and unbeknownest to all they will exist as long as the culture prevails. Is it not strange that the same churel that exists in India has its global parallels in the entire world:” Dracula, Frankenstein, Lamia, Lilith, Werewolves, Ghosts” etc. this all points to the growth of a analogous human culture, and of the fact that meme will evolve, even in the teeth of evidence, in our minds and hearts, as long as humanity survives.
It appears that “we are cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators10.” It does look possible that we can dissociate ourselves from the meme of a churel but have we ever been able to dissociate ourselves with the illusion of god? Memes have become an inherent part of human culture, and they will thrive until the end of time.
India is globally known as the land of magic and mythology. In the eyes of foreign cultures it is place of saints, witches, magicians and snake charmers. What has led to the popularity of these ideas? The Indian religion, Hinduism, holds the key to it. The Hindu scriptures are a form of oral culture passed from one generation to the other. The Scriptures date back to 5000 BC a time when there were no scripts and manuscripts. Thus it appears that the Hindus scriptures have passed from the pre historic times to the modern times in the form of a meme. And one of these memes is the churel culture. From the very beginning of Indian scriptures and epics, such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, there has been a prevalence of gods, demi-gods, devils, giants, furies, witches, jinn, genies and churels.
For example the Indian epic Mahabharata tell us the incident of a churel “Hidimba1” who married one of the heroes of the war fought for religion and truth. The couple engendered a son “Ghatotkacha2” who proved to be the springboard of victory for the warriors. In modern context, one of the most famous churel stories is the story of Kaalo2 churel. Legend has it that Kaalo is the most notorious witch in Indian folklore. She is said to have existed in Kulbhata region of Northern India in the 18th century. She was very fond of nubile girls, and did not miss any opportunity of fornicating with them, thinking that it would make her immortal. As the number of disappeared girls increased, people became cautious, and killed the Kaalo witch after she was found to be involved in these sinister activities. She was burnt at a stake and buried deep under the recesses of the earth. Time ran its merry speed, and after some years the people of the village sighted her again. She was back with a bang, and looked more horrible and fierce than ever. She started wreaking vengeance on the people by killing them indiscriminately. Within a few days after her sighting, the village was vacated. All the roads were sealed after it was reported that she killed anyone who entered Kulbhata. Today even after 250 years of this incident, nobody dares to enter the village frontier, as it is believed that whoever enters the village will be devoured by her.
The Indian epics and folklore are replete with such incidents. Churel has exited from the ancient times, and probably she is waiting in many desolated places and palaces of India. Every Indian knows of these tales and anecdotes, as these memes are indoctrinated in our culture very firmly. But has anyone tested these tales on the anvil of truth and authenticity? Is it not that we hear these tales and show a favoring propensity to them without ever challenging their veracity? Well, It is not possible for anyone to testify whether Hidimba existed or not, but the existence of the churel Kaalo can be verified. It is true that the village of Kulbhata is desolate even today, but can the reasons behind it be attributed to Kaalo? A deeper study of this meme shows that there are many versions to this story. Some even say that the witch had been killed again when she tried to lure a young girl, riding on a bus. Some even say that the Kaalo incident is nothing but a myth, and that the village was vacated on account of a drought. The more the mouths; the more the versions.
It appears that Kaalo is a meme that has become cemented in our minds just like the DNA cemented in our blood. Looking from a scientific point of view, there is no gainsaying that all such folklores and anecdotes will exist on the Indian soil until people prepare themselves to falsify them in the light of their reason, and not emotions. But given the popularity of these memes in Indian culture it does not look possible.
3. http://www.boldsky.com/yoga-spirituality/faith-mysticism/2014/secrets-from-the-epic-mahabharat-037444.html http://realghostories.blogspot.in/2013/07/kaalo.html