Excerpts from ‘Abhyuday, a Ram-Kathā for Modern Times’

On the auspicious occasion of Ramnavami…

With increasing rationalism in the humanity we not only witness greater disillusionment and confusion as to what is Good, Right, and Dharmic, but also about 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 Rama Navmi, we present below a few excerpts from an essay titled “Abhyuday, a Ram-Kathā for Modern Times” included in an e-book published by matriwords. This essay presents an interpretive reading of a famous Hindi novel, titled Abhyuday written by the acclaimed writer, Narendra Kohli, who recently passed away. This is also our humble tribute to one of the giants of Hindi literature in our times. Abhyuday speaks to some of the questions about the deeper significance of literature with a special focus on the story of Lord Rama and its significance for our times.

The essay is an expanded and revised version of a paper which was presented at a National Conference on Language, Literature and Communication, organised at Pondicherry University in March 2008.


What is most interesting is that while Narendra Kohli’s story is certainly based in the times from long, long ago, yet his Rama seems to have taken a new birth for our times. His Rama comes to us with modern, updated sensibilities and sensitivities, whose values, beliefs and actions are not stuck in the times gone by but are guiding lights for how to be in our present-day times. This Rama’s views on gender and jāti equality, individual freedom, societal progress, upliftment of the weakest sections of society, nation-building, international and inter-regional cooperation based on principles of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence are aspects of the novel that will certainly speak to most of the informed and socially aware readers of modern times.

After knowing such a Rama, the youth of India may no longer need to rely on what politicians and mass media may say about the significance of Rama for today. Instead as conscious readers, they may be able to discover for themselves the role played by this hero of one of our greatest epics in the evolutionary path of our individual and collective psychological journeys.


Avatāra as a Leader

In one situation we find Rama asking Viswamitra that since he and his disciples in the ashram had been, for a long time, facing torture and cruelty because of the rākshasas, why didn’t the enlightened sage who was himself an expert in the most rare and advanced weaponry do something for the protection of the ashram, to protect the villages surrounding the Ashram. Viswamitra replies:

“Prakriti or Nature has a strange sense of justice. She doesn’t give any one individual all her powers. The power and ability to think and to act are two different aspects of the personality. To some individuals, Nature gives the ability to think and contemplate, to others she gives the power to act. The thinker who thinks about what is just and what is unjust, who reflects upon the welfare of the society, develops his thinking and contemplative ability and power but may lose out on the aspect of action. The thinker knows what is right and what is wrong, what is in the interest of society and nation, but may not generally be able to convert his thought into action.

On the other side, there are others who don’t spend time thinking or reflecting upon these things such as justice, truth and social upliftment but may continue to perform actions solely driven by their self-interest. Action without knowledge, action without reflection has the potential to downgrade a human being into a rākshasa, contemplation and knowledge of justice and injustice, truth and falsehood can transform a human being into a rishi. Extremely rare are those individuals who have both these aspects – essential, complete and unprejudiced knowledge of justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil, and also the power to convert their knowledge into action so they become the dedicated and completely self-less leaders of the people in their fight for justice and truth. And ordinary people begin to revere such individuals as avatār-s, as incarnations of the divine.”

(my translation from Hindi)

Thus, we see that Kohli has given readers a new way to reflect upon who may be considered an avatāra in our modern times, what is the role an avatāra plays in the societal consciousness and what characteristics and capabilities should such an avatāra demonstrate. As the readers learn more about the story of Rama in this novel, they begin to appreciate the various nuances in the author’s argument. Rama as a warrior for truth and justice is the most unselfish and unprejudiced leader, one who sacrifices all for the welfare of others, who is extremely sensitive to the layers and complexities and relativity of all truth and yet doesn’t deter from plunging into the rightful action. And that is why he is eligible for avatārhood.

Kohli’s explanation of an avatāra may get a deeper meaning when seen in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s explanation in Essays on the Gita, where he writes that an avatāra descends in human form to give a dharma, a method of inner and outer living, — a way, a rule and law of self-moulding by which a human being can grow towards divinity.

But this ascent is “no mere isolated and individual phenomenon, but like all in the divine world-activities a collective business, a work and the work for the race, to assist the human march, to hold it together in its great crises, to break the forces of the downward gravitation when they grow too insistent, to uphold or restore the great dharma of the Godward law in man’s nature, to prepare even, however far off, the kingdom of God, the victory of the seekers of light and perfection, sādhūnām, and the overthrow of those who fight for the continuance of the evil and the darkness.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, pp. 159-160).

Courage to Fight for Truth

In present times when social work, raising voice against injustice and corruption, and championing for a “cause” (any cause!) have become fashionable fads and items for ‘social pages’ in newspapers and status updates in social media, we have to be a lot more aware and conscious so that we are not sucked in by the publicity gimmicks of all those self-obsessed individuals who would like us to view them as warriors for truth and justice. Times indeed have changed but the story of Rama, as told in Abhyuday reminds us of the ideal, of the path a true leader and fighter for justice must walk on. The author presents several instances in sufficient detail and depth to bring out for the readers a clear picture of Rama’s inner courage and determination to stand up for truth and justice.

One significant story that is told is about Ahalya, the wife of the highly revered and enlightened Rishi Gautama, the kulpati or President of the famous gurukulam of Mithila. Many of us know the story of how Ahalya was abandoned by her husband Gautama because he suspected her of having an illicit relationship with Devraj Indra, even though it was Indra who, disguised as her husband, had seduced her under false pretense. As per this popular legend, angry Gautama cursed his wife who was turned into a stone which could be brought back to life only when in her stone-form she would receive the almighty touch of benevolent Lord Vishnu incarnated as Rama in Treta yuga. And so, the long wait began for Ahalya transformed into a stone.

In Abhyuday we are given a very reasoned and logical rendition of this story. We are presented with a much-nuanced understanding of the situation and we are told that Gautama does not consider Ahalya guilty nor does he ever suspect or doubt her fidelity. This Gautama is a most supportive husband who is trying to grapple with the tragic circumstance of his wife’s rape. He never even thinks of abandoning Ahalya, in fact he gives up his position and status as the kulpati (Principal or Director) of the gurukul because the influential ācharyas (teachers) of the gurukul would not accept his wife.

Readers get a detailed description of how the highly educated elites of the society do not have the courage to stand up against the powerful Indra, and instead find it so easy to target the poor victim Ahalya. They even declare that the ashram has been polluted because of her presence. She is unable to bear this kind of humiliation and is extremely sad that because of her Gautama’s career and their son’s future prospects are being ruined. She is the one who convinces and persuades her husband to leave her and take up a position at the new gurukul that is coming up elsewhere. Gautama is most reluctant to go but eventually agrees to do so because of their son’s future.

More than twenty-five years pass. And Ahalya continues to live in complete isolation, as an outcaste, like a piece of dead matter, like a stone. Now Rama has heard the story of Gautama and Ahalya from Viswamitra. Rama is deeply anguished at learning about the extreme injustice and humiliation that Ahalya has been facing for all these years, and for no fault of hers. He is pained to hear that the entire Rishi community, including Rishi Viswamitra, has not been able to do anything or speak against this kind of injustice. He is saddened to see how the dead and rigid codes of conduct which have completely lost their true spirit and relevance are being used to oppress, humiliate and torture women, to keep them weak so that they gradually lose their self-confidence and sense of self-worth.

Ahalya bears all this with poise and patience, in her isolation. For twenty-five years she has had no contact with any human being. Until Rama, Lakshmana and Viswamitra come to her door. Rama touches her feet and says:

“Devi, I, son of Kausalya and Dashrath, Rama do my pranams to you. With me is my younger brother, Lakshmana, son of Sumitra.”

(my translation from Hindi)

Just hearing this simple introduction, these simple words spoken from a true heart and with utmost sincerity and humility, Ahalya knows that she is no longer an outcaste, no longer a blot on the society’s honour. She knows that Rama, with his one simple action of coming to her home and touching her feet has revolted against the dead social convention and false code of honour, and given back her true honour and self-respect. She knows that from now on nobody can say anything against her, because now she has the protection of Rama. A new life has been breathed into her; she has become alive after all these years of being dead as a stone.

Rama has challenged the status quo and ushered in a new light of truth and justice. Ahalya’s honour has been restored; the stuck-in-time ‘elite’ community has been rudely awakened to accept what is true and right; and the powerless have been shown a glimpse of their own inner power and self-worth.


The full essay is included in Matriwords’ e-book titled “On Intellectuals and Thinkers – And Other Musings on India in the Light of Sri Aurobindo”, available on Kindle at: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B086G79Z4F  OR  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086G79Z4F

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