Dussehra, the day when Sri Rama became victorious over the Rakshasa named Ravana. The day when the Good conquered over the Evil. The day when Dharma won over Adharma.
With time as more and more sections of humanity have made stupendous progress in the realm of mental development, along with which there is increasing emphasis on rationalism we are also witnessing greater disillusionment and confusion as to what is Good, Right, and Dharmic. And also what is Evil, False and Adharmic.
On one extreme we see a postmodernistic moral-ethical relativism which eventually leads one down the path of nihilism where nothing really matters and everything is essentially meaningless. And on the other we see desperate attempts to impose a certain fixed and rigid view of what is Good, Right and Dharmic which doesn’t take into account the wide-ranging and evolving nature of individual and collective mental reasoning.
What role can literature play in such a scenario? Can it become a facilitator for rethinking and questioning? Can it be a source for upliftment and inspiration? Can it create an intellectual, reflective and contemplative space for a reader to know his or her own mental processes of interpreting, accepting, rejecting, assimilating, questioning and integrating information? Can literature become a means for readers to re-discover Dharma for the age?
On this special day of Dussehra, we present below a few excerpts from the introductory and concluding sections of a selected chapter of the e-book published by matriwords, which speaks to some of these questions with a special focus on the story of Lord Rama and its significance for our times. The chapter is dedicated to an interpretive reading of a famous Hindi novel, titled Abhyuday written by the acclaimed writer, Narendra Kohli.
This chapter is an expanded and revised version of the original paper which was presented at a National Conference on Language, Literature and Communication, organised at Pondicherry University in March 2008. To read the full chapter, look up “The Thinking Indian: Essays on Indian Socio-Cultural Matters in the Light of Sri Aurobindo”.
RE-TELLING CLASSICAL LITERATURE, AWAKENING A GENERATION: CASE OF RAMAYANA
“Classical literature is a lasting transcription of the supraphysical and spiritual, and has the power to awaken an individual or a nation by its uplifting and inspiring impulse; nay, it can even sustain an age through the changing vicissitudes of life by its psychic and spiritual character.” (V. Madhusudan Reddy, 1993, p. 22).” Written from a true Aurobindonian perspective, this book presents a forward-looking and futuristic outlook of the individual and collective aspirations of humanity.
Inspired by the author’s discussion on the role of Literature in evolution of consciousness, in this essay I present an interpretive reading of the two-volume contemporary Hindi novel titled “Abhyuday” (2004, first published in 1989) written by the esteemed Hindi author Dr. Narendra Kohli. The title page of these voluminous works, Abhyuday I and II clearly mention — “Ram-katha par aadharait upanyas” (a novel based on the tales of Rama).
While reading the novel one certainly gets the sense that this is a very contemporary humanistic telling of Ram-katha, fit for our modern times. Abhyuday’s basic storyline comes from the great literary tradition of India, and as such it portrays the higher values of life, shows the potential greatness of humankind and the boundlessness of life. And at the same time as a novel, the rendition is contemporary, progressive, modern, logical, and relies on the reader’s sense of reason for its validity.
Abhyuday, the twentieth century rendition of Ramayana is an apt example of classical literature fit for our modern times, for the present age of Reason. In such times when the young minds of today refuse to accept the status quo without questioning, when the rampant commercialism and meaningless and purposeless individualism have left no ideals intact for the youth to hold on to, there is an even greater need for literature that speaks of the high values and ideals but without alluding to the ‘golden’ times gone by.
The need today is for literature that captures these young minds by showing them the challenges of their times, the problems faced by their generations, and reveals for them how a true hero, an inspiring leader faces the challenges of the time and stands up for that which is true, right and just. Because presently we are going through a mental age, we need literature that speaks to that which is the highest in us – the ability to reason, and a calm intellect. But more importantly, because as a collective, the highest aspiration in humanity at present is more concerned with the welfare of entire humanity beyond the barrier of any social creed or caste or community, signified by the movements like “religion of humanity” or “secular humanism” – which are more mental or intellectual movements instead of a spiritualized religion of humanity that Sri Aurobindo advocates – in that sense too Abhyuday stands as a good example of capturing the state of consciousness we as a collective embody.
Rama’s and Krishna’s characters and personalities are available for interpretation. Their kathas are meant to be retold for each generation by each generation. I am reminded of a line from a beautiful Hindi movie called Pinjar – based on the novel by the same title written by Amrita Pritam. A character in the movie (set in pre-partition India) translates Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in Urdu and Ghalib’s poetry in Sanskrit. When asked by another character if he is only changing the language of the authors’ works, not the authors’ personal identities, this character responds very calmly – “In my opinion they both – Kalidasa and Ghalib – were telling the truth of their respective times.”
I believe that’s what this Ram-katha of Abhyuday is. If it is a reinterpretation of Rama’s character in the light of author’s own experience – personal, imagined, or his understanding of what the avatar of Rama represents – it is an exercise in truth-telling for the times in which this story is being created and told. Perhaps the authenticity of Rama’s avatar is in the renewed realization that in order to create a perfected, spiritualized society based on the principles of oneness of humanity, equality, fraternity and liberty there is a need to strongly question the status quo. What Ramayana’s Rama did in that time, has to be re-learned and re-understood in the light of the current situations faced by the society.
Perhaps the author of Abhyuday sees his Rama in this way – as a revolutionary leader who by his actions and a dedicated stand for truth and justice becomes divine. Unlike, say, how my grandmother saw him – as a God and therefore divine. Or unlike how my father sees Rama – as Maryada Purushottama, the Supreme Being who is the most perfectly ethical and idealized divine incarnation – someone who lived and breathed his dharma, as a son, brother, husband, warrior, and king. Perhaps all these are authentic interpretations by these three individuals. Perhaps two of them see their Rama through the eyes of a devotee, a bhakta, and the third (the author Narendra Kohli) sees his Rama with an eye of a storyteller who through his pen gives himself the ability and privilege to see inside the heart of his Rama and even give a new purpose to his existence.
Perhaps the author’s experience is that of someone who has a keen sense of social justice and progress for all. As a writer he realized that “just portraying the society, or ridiculing its flaws and dilemmas was not going to satisfy him. He wanted to fix a lot of this. He realized that literature cannot reach its ultimate completeness just by a narrow, partial and limited display of society, nor can the society benefit from such literature. The demonstration of poor human qualities will only encourage the evil and the foul. Therefore, it must be the goal of literature to demonstrate the great, honorable and moral aspect of life.” So I would say that the author’s experience as a thoughtful, socially conscious and socially responsible writer played a big role in how he is telling his Ram-katha.
According to Sri Aurobindo, “Rama was the Avatar of the sattwic mind – mental, emotional, moral – and he followed the Dharma of the age and race.” (SABCL, Vol. 22, p. 315) He further described the deeper significance Rama’s work for the terrestrial evolution in these words:
[Rama’s] business was to destroy Ravana and to establish the Rama-rajya – in other words, to fix for the future the possibility of an order proper to the sattwic civilised human being who governs his life by the reason, the finer emotions, morality, or at least moral ideals, such as truth, obedience, co-operation and harmony, the sense of domestic and public order, – to establish this in a world still occupied by anarchic forces, the Animal mind and the powers of the vital Ego making its own satisfaction the rule of life, in other words, the Vanara and Rakshasa. ….It was not his business to be necessarily a perfect, but a largely representative sattwic man, a faithful husband and a lover, a loving and obedient son, a tender and perfect brother, father, friend – he is friend of all kinds of people, friend of the outcaste Guhaka, friend of the Animal leaders, Sugriva, Hanuman, friend of the vulture Jatayu, friend even of the Rakshasa Vibhishan. All that he was in a brilliant, striking but above all spontaneous and inevitable way, not with a forcing of this note or that…., but with a certain harmonious completeness. But most of all, it was his business to typify and establish the things on which the social idea and its stability depend, truth and honour, the sense of Dharma, public spirit and the sense of order. To the first, to truth and honour, much more even than to his filial love and obedience to his father—though to that also—he sacrificed his personal rights as the elect of the King and the Assembly and fourteen of the best years of his life and went into exile in the forests. To his public spirit and his sense of public order (the great and supreme civic virtue in the eyes of the ancient Indians, Greeks, Romans, for at that time the maintenance of the ordered community, not the separate development and satisfaction of the individual was the pressing need of human evolution) he sacrificed his own happiness and domestic life and the happiness of Sita. In that he was at one with the moral sense of all the antique races, though at variance with the later romantic individualistic sentimental morality of the modern man who can afford to have that less stern morality just because the ancients sacrificed the individual in order to make the world safe for the spirit of social order. Finally, it was Rama’s business to make the world safe for the ideal of the sattwic human being by destroying the sovereignty of Ravana, the Rakshasa menace. (pp. 318-319)
These words of Sri Aurobindo help us more clearly understand Abhyuday’s Rama in the light of the role that Rama plays in the planetary evolution of consciousness. Like Ramayana’s Rama, this Rama of Abhyuday is also working tirelessly to establish the supremacy of ethical-aesthetic-moral mental consciousness over physical and vitalistic. Abhyuday’s Rama, like Rama as seen by Sri Aurobindo, is also aware of and carries in him imperfections but still lives by his swadharma, kula-dharma, jati dharma, dharma of his time and age, and works to establish a society based on this idea of Dharma.
Because the times and contexts have changed, so the author of Abhyuday writing in 20th century perhaps feels the need to recreate his Rama in a way so that he speaks the language of today, when one is not simply revered because of the ideals one holds but because of the way one lives one’s ideals. Modern mind is lot more sceptical and critical – perhaps the result of scientific bent of knowledge and thought – and Rama of Abhyuday pre-empts some of these questions and sense of scepticism and addresses that through his works. In that way, it is a re-creation of Rama. And yet, the message of Rama’s idealism stays firmly rooted and living in this re-creation. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: “[Rama’s] figure has been stamped for more than two millenniums on the mind of Indian culture and what he stood for has dominated the reason and idealising mind of man in all countries—and in spite of the constant revolt of the human vital is likely to continue to do so until a greater Ideal arises” (p. 319).
In conclusion I go back to the beginning of this paper, to the idea that classical literature has the power to awaken an individual or a nation by its uplifting and inspiring impulse. If I were asked a question if Abhyuday is the type of literature that Prof. Madhusudan Reddy has in mind when he says that true literature should be able to “sustain an age through the changing vicissitudes of life by its psychic and spiritual character,” my answer would be in affirmative. But I would encourage others to pick up the two volumes of Abhyuday and decide for themselves.