An etiological narrative is a story that purports to explain (in mythic, religious, or literary terms) the origin of something. It is, in other words, an imaginitive story triggered by a question about how (or why) something came to be in the world.
- Example: Why does a rainbow appear in the sky after it rains?
- Etiological narrative response: After the Great Flood, God told Noah that he would not inundate the whole earth with water ever again, and the rainbow is the sign of God’s promise (see Genesis 9:12-17).
Today’s etiological narrative comes from Indian literature, the Hindu epic Ramayana.
There is a narrow land bridge between Sri Lanka and India that the Ramayana says was built by the god Hanuman and an army of monkeys.
The Ramayana says that squirrels, bringing pebbles, also assisted Hanuman in the bridge building project.
As literature, the story reads as an ancient and delightful pre-scientific explanation for an otherwise natural geologic phenomenon.
But according to Time magazine, this etiological narrative is taken literally by fundamentalist Hindus, and when the Indian government proposed building a shipping lane through the bridge, it resulted in a conflict between religious fundamentalists and secular economic interests:
A 30-mile chain of limestone shoals called Adam’s Bridge connecting India with Sri Lanka has become the unlikely centerpiece of a political drama. Devout Hindus believe that the Ram Sethu, as they call it, was constructed by a monkey-army led by Lord Hanumana to enable Lord Rama to cross over to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the Lankan king, Ravana. Scientists, however, say it is a natural structure that joined Sri Lanka to the Asian continent during the last Ice Age.
When the government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court last week saying “mythological texts” could not “incontrovertibly prove” the existence of Lord Rama or the simian construction of the Ram Sethu, all hell broke loose. Opposition Hindu hard-liners held spirited demonstrations accusing the government of “hurting Hindu sentiments” by suggesting the gods were mythological figures. The government was forced into damage-control mode — two senior officials were immediately suspended, an inquiry was ordered, and the affidavit was withdrawn. The controversy reached such heights that NASA was obliged to declare it had nothing to do with the use of its photos by some Hindu groups to imply that Adam’s Bridge was 1,750,000 years old and hence synchronous with “Ramrajya” — the golden period of Lord Rama’s rule.
This latest episode in the Indian equivalent of the creationism/evolution debate began with a case in the Supreme Court against the $560 million Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, which aims to create a navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula so ships can avoid going around Sri Lanka, thus saving time and money. Arguing that the planned route would cause damage to the Ram Sethu, pious petitioners wanted the government to forge an alternative route.
Etiological narratives are fascinating cultural barometers—for they can bring out the raw tensions between religion and science—and unveil the diverse (and often unconscious) assumptions that people bring to the reading of texts.