Thoughts on the Ramayana – Part 2

(This is part 2 of the reflections inspired by my YouTube conversation on the Ramayana with my friend Pranav. Available here)

Nārada muni had confirmed to Vālmiki that it was possible for someone to have the sixteen guṇa-s, and Ram was one such person. After few days, Brahma the sriśṭikartā visited Vālmiki’s ashram. Brahma confirmed about Ram, what Nārada had claimed. He encouraged Vālmiki to write Ram’s story and spread it in the world, for people to follow as an example. The advice from Brahma created a resolve in Vālmiki to spread the word about Ram.

One morning, Vālmiki saw a hunter hunt down a bird while the bird was in middle of mating with his partner. Seeing this, Vālmiki spontaneously said ­– मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमश्शाश्वतीस्समा: । यत्क्रौञ्चमिथुनादेकमवधी: काममोहितम् ।।1.2.15।। 15 (Tr. “O fowler, since you have killed one of the pair of infatuated kraunchas you will be permanently deprived of your position”). Importantly, the sentence was spoken in a particular chhanda (meter) of poetry. It was beautiful. After that, Vālmiki decides to narrate/compile the story of Ram in the particular meter of poetry. And hence, we witness the birth of the poet in Vālmiki.

In my opinion, there are two important points to note here. First, in both classical India and classical Greece, the poet was the historian. Histories were written/sung in the form of poetry. And unlike the modern process of history writing, for which time-sequence is sacrosanct (what happened before : what happened after), the classical historiography is description of an event. For the classical poets, “the lesson of each event, deed or occurrence is revealed in and by itself” (Arendt. “Between Past and Present”, p.64, Penguin Books 2006). In my opinion, an event by definition is autonomous i.e., it has the capacity to reveal (aspects of) Truth independently, with no need for any causal relation with past or future events. Our interest in narrating events is reflection on Truth, and not to find causal ‘time-sequence’, which modern historiography seems to be obsessed about.

Secondly, the prominence of poets in a society (and poets as those who describe events) was common to both classical Greece and India. The importance accorded to poets is probably due to the realization that whatever is worth passing on to next generation needs to be inscribed in meter of poetry. This is in contrast to contemporary attitude (or modern attitude) which gives importance and dignity to inscription in the form of binary-logic. I think, one important tenet of Indian civilization is its kalā-pradhāntā or kathā-pradhānta and this aspect is a natural outcome of the tradition of poets in our society.

Pranav, in this recording calls maharishi Vālmiki as ādi-kavi (the original poet or the first poet) and Rāmayaṇa to be ādi-kāvya (original poetry or first poetry). The purpose of Rāmayaṇa is to pass the learnings of Veda-s amongst people. And therefore, there is a bias towards knowledge (veda). The classical historiography is biased, is subjective unlike modern historiography whose character is “eunuchic objectivity” (Arendt. “Between Past and Present”, p.49, Penguin Books 2006) i.e., incapable of any reflection on matters of Truth.

In my opinion, this is an important matter to flag – the classical process of historiography, when conceptualizing the ‘Indic framework of expression’.

Thoughts on the Ramayana – Part 1

(The following reflections are inspired by the conversation I had with Pranav on the Ramayana. Available here)

I am finding the story of Ratnakar, the dacoit transforming to Vālmiki, the poet very interesting.

Ratnakar used to loot and kill travelers, and thus support his family. On one such occasion, he caught hold of 7 rishi-s and looted them. Before being killed, one of the rishis asked Ratnakar if he is aware that his actions will invite pāpa upon him. Ratnakar said he was aware of it but justified his actions by saying he has to feed a family. The rishi-s then asked – “are the family members willing to share a portion of your pāpa?” The questions stunned him, for he never thought about this. He had assumed that the pāpa will be shared by the family. But the rishi-s suggested him to check with family members. To Ratnakar’s shock, the family refused to have any part in his pāpa – Ratnakar’s sins were his own, and he alone would bear the brunt. The realization that pāpa is not shared, nor transferred to anyone, proved to be a turning point. Ratnakar now asks the rishi of what he should do for prāyaścita. The rishi-s give him a mantra and ask him to do tapasyā. And so, Ratnakar leaves dacoity and become a tapasvi.

I thought this was one important point for us to flag. In India, we do not believe in ‘aggregation’ of sin. This is in contrast to the abrahmic world, where sins of many can be aggregated together and then transferred to someone (Jesus, the son of God, decides to suffer on behalf of men – a decision which transformed him into Christ). In India, perhaps we do not believe such a thing is possible – and this belief is an important aspect of the karma-phala principle.

Moreover, the case of Ratnakar has another interesting aspect. He knew that his actions would invite sin, and yet he chose to continue with them. It was not a case of ill-informed decision making on his part. Pranav explains, that according to veda-s certain actions invite puṇya and certain invite pāpa. The human being always has a choice to act or not act correctly. However, whatever action he chooses to do, the associated puṇya or pāpa cannot be escaped from. A human being may choose to postpone his mokśa to next life by choosing to do actions worthy of pāpa. We find another such example in Duryodhana, who says that he knows his actions are adhārmic but he still chooses to do them.

Moving on with the story,

Ratnakar’s tapasyā was intense. Over a period of time, an ant hill (called valmika in Sanskrit) got formed all around him, but he remained unfazed in his chanting. Once the same group of rishi-s was passing by, when they heard sound of chanting emanating from inside the valmika. On clearing that, they found Ratnakar immersed in his tapasya. Impressed by his transformation they predicted he will find glory and named him Vālmiki – the one from valmika. On their suggestion, Vālmiki built an ashram on the banks of river tamasa, where he continued with his tapasyā.. One day, probably as a result of the tapa, he formulated 16 characteristics (guṇa) an ideal man would have. Having thought of these, he wondered if there is actually anyone in this world with all the sixteen guṇa-s. One day, rishi Nārada visited Vālmiki in his ashram. Vālmiki described the sixteen guṇa-s and posed the same question to Nārada muni – is there anyone in this world with these guṇa-s? It is then, that Nārada muni told Vālmiki about Ram.

(To be continued…)

Ramayana Conversations with Pranav – 1

I have known Pranav for more than a decade, since our days in CEH at IIIT-Hyderabad. For some time, I have been wanting to have a series of discussions with him on the Rāmāyaṇa.

Why Rāmāyaṇa? Like many, I have faint memory of watching Ramanand Sagar’s Rāmāyaṇa serial on Doordarshan. In addition, I have heard the story in bits and pieces in moral conversations in the family, especially with my Nani. I remember, for many years my Nani every morning did pooja of Ram and Sita before she would eat her first meal. In more recent times, I heard Rāmāyaṇa from Guruji Ravindra Sharma at his place in Adilabad. His rendering caught my attention and developed a curiosity towards the story of Ram. Further, in discussions with Navjyoti sir, we pondered over the idea of maryādā and maryādā-puruśa. Navjyoti’s long essay titled “Role of Good Manners as a Bridge between the World Religions in the Sanatana Tradition (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism)”, chapter published in “Philosophy Bridging the World Religions” (Ed. Peter Koslowski, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003) is an important read. In this essay, Navjyoti has attempted to show that construction of a maryādā-puruśa is perhaps common endeavor to all religious pursuits, and the ‘Sanatana theory of justice’ can be the basis of all dispute resolution. Further, in discussions with Navjyoti we learnt about the enterprise of Itihāsa (distinct from the enterprise of History); Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have been considered Itihāsa by people of India.

Of late, in SIDH, I have been contemplating upon Dharampal’s seminal essay – “Bhāratiya, Citta, Mānasa aur Kāla”. In that, amongst other things, Dharampal has called for a need to develop a conceptual framework of ‘Indianness’ or public behavior supported by systemic structure. Our small team in SIDH has been contemplating on what would constitute such a framework? Further, the question we have faced is where do we begin from? In that regard, I thought a contemplative conversation on Rāmāyaṇa could be useful, since Ram is integral to India. And I could not think of a better person to converse with than my dear friend Pranav Vashisht. There would be very few people in my generation who are not only familiar with western philosophies but have also read the Śāstra-s. Pranav is one such person.

In Episode 1, Pranav talks about the story of Agnisarma, also known as Ratnakar, a dacoit who lived by looting and killing travelers. The story is about his transformation into Valmiki – the poet, who decides to tell the story of Ram. (It is important to note that both in classical India and Greece, the poet plays the historian). Towards the end of episode 1, I put forward three questions – 1. Is it possible to share/transfer one’s pāpa/puṇya with/to others, 2. What is the significance of considering Veda-s to be aupurushiya (author-less) and 3. What is the significance of using meter (of poetry) to describe good deeds to future generations?

The reading of Itihāsa is a lifelong process. Let us see how far Pranav and I can go with it. Hopefully, this would help us identify some basic tenets of Bhārtiyatā.

The talk is available at:

A sangoshthi at Jeevika Ashram (Part 2)

On the second day, I liked Sant Sameer’s presentation on bhāshā. It was informative and useful to my rudimentary interest in languages. Sant Sameer’s claim that Indic scripts (he was referring to devanāgri in particular, but I guess it would apply to all Indic scripts) represent the ‘a priori reality’, what he called ādhāra and nothing is written without it. In devanāgri the horizontal like represents this. I thought this is a serious proposition and we must take it further. It was however quite sad, when this proposition was challenged by some non-Hindi speakers, since Dravidian scripts have no horizontal (or vertical) line. I thought it would be useful for them to accept Sant Sameer’s proposition on ādhāra with an open mind and explore into similar affirmation for Dravidian scripts; is there a conception of ādhāra in these languages, and if yes, how is it represented?

In afternoon, Gopi Krishna presented his experience with Pastoralist communities in India. Gopi’s experience with these communities is very rich. His 10 min presentation was quite profound. Amongst other things, his assertion that these ghumantu communities weave together civil with wild as they move with their animals is extremely important. For example, a wandering sheep cannot be categorized as either a wild animal or domesticated. And as the shepherd walks with his flock, he weaves a symbiotic relationship between forests/grasslands and agricultural fields. Perhaps, one trait of modernity is the strict divorce between the civil and wild. In the same session, Vaibhav Kale spoke about how modern construction has limited “material palette” to only RCC and steel primarily; mud, wood, bamboo, straws, stone etc. have nearly vanished from our contemporary construction activities. In the same session, I attempted at presenting a non-utilitarian view of technology by narrating the story of Art and Society and situating technology in that.

The evening session was on the perspective of Kalā. This session took the entire 3 day meet to another level. Susruti spoke beautifully on the relation between ‘Art and Spirituality’ and Sachin shared his experiences with different materials and craftsmen from different parts of the country. I hope these presentations were recorded well and would be available soon for viewing and sharing. I am refraining from writing about them here, as I wish to only share the recordings.

Post lunch, there was a beautiful Kathaka dance performance by a troupe of young dancers. I am really impressed by Ashish’s ability to form connections with local people in Jabalpur. I think, these connections will go a long way in growth and acceptability of Jeevika Ashram in times to come.

Overall, the three days went by very quickly with some great company and very powerful presentations.

A sangoshthi at Jeevika Ashram (Part 1)

(A 3-day sangoshthi was held at Jeevika Ashram (Indrana) near Jabalpur, 24th-26th December 2021, on “Bhārtiyatā and the perspective of Ravindra Sharma “Guruji”, with contributions of around 50 participants from different parts of the country. The event was organized with the support of IGNCA, Delhi)

According to Nirukta, Bhārat is that – “prajā bharaṇa rupa” (Vāyu Puraṇa 10.45.76)

About 40km north of river Narmada in Jabalpur, about 12 km short of the 11th century Vishnu-Varaha sculpture, lies the unassuming Jeevika Ashram (near village Indrana) where Ashish and Ragini live with their daughters. As Ashish bhai succinctly puts it, Jeevika Ashram’s efforts are towards riṇapoorti of Guruji Ravindra Sharma. Almost all of us gathered for this 3-day meet have been nudged by Guruji in some way or the other. This gathering does not carry any hesitation towards the potential that is called Bhārat or Indic tradition. The sentiment towards the promise of tradition was shared by all, and hence one would naturally expect a conversation here to have seriousness.

The question however, as Pawanji emphatically said on the opening day, is not of understanding Bhārtiyatā alone, but equally important is to develop a critical understanding of western modernity which has had a debilitating impact on local cultures across the world. All of the first day was spent on this concern- how modernity has debilitated us, the people of Bhārat.

I think, as important as it is for us to have faith in Bhārat, equally important is for us to understand how western modernity works. I see no reason for us to be shy about this, to be hesitant about this. However, this is not easy. We live in times, where we conflate modern ideas with Indic ideas, often innocently. Listening to some of the speakers on the first day (and even on later days), I got this impression. Listening to many of the questions asked by the audience, I got a similar impression.

I thought it was important to spend one whole day on this question. It is certainly a difficult question to handle in public, as inevitably one is accused of hypocrisy, of over-simplification and of one-upmanship. These criticisms are valid and in fact even necessary for they prevent us from falling into an echo chamber and mutual back scratching. However, we also need not get disheartened from them, nor get defensive about our own shortcomings. In Pawanji’s words- “we are both victims and perpetrators of modernity”, acknowledging it does not mean embracing our fall or justifying it.

(Next week we will talk more about what was discussed during the 3 day sangoshthi)

A Baithak at SIDH

(Photos from the 5 day meeting at SIDH campus at Kempty. 6th to 10th December 2021. With around 30 participants)

I’ve been thinking on this word ‘baithak’. Pawan ji has used it often in conversations. The gathering in SIDH, although began as a retreat but probably evolved into a baithak of ‘samaan-dharmi’ people from different parts of India.

I have begun to realize the importance of gathering samaan dharmi-s on one platform. As an individual, for me a gathering of like-minded strangers feels reassuring. Moreover, it feels that the conversations can rise to a certain seriousness. Otherwise, talking amidst a crowd often feels like going round in circles over unbaked issues and sentiments. This gathering did achieve a certain depth, and as a result there were signs of a baithak emerging.

It dawned upon me that almost no one asked questions with the intent of breaking the conversation. I thought it was amazing that all questions asked further lead to probing in greater depths. The baithak feels like one sentence completed over 5 days; collectively constructed by a group of 30 people from different parts of the country (many of whom were strangers to one another). Now that the sentence has been formed and we have returned home, hopefully we will re-look at the sentence in our individual environment.

What is worth doing in these times? I think, creating a space for conversations on Indic tradition is one important thing to do. A space of affinity, of confidence and of hope towards tradition is needed. We must remove the sense of shame and guilt we carry collectively. We must realize our self-worth as Indians. And then actualize it. We must talk to each other for the purpose.

I think, the two important tools we have at our disposal are recalling and reflecting. I see immense potential in recalling our collective past, a past which is anādi (beginning-less). And then to reflect upon it, sometimes collectively but most of the times individually. I see them as important tools for me to build a ‘sense of past’ (itihāsa). Probably, this is one way to find our roots. The inverted asvattha tree (given in Bhagwat Gita) with its roots coming from sky and branches/fruits available on earth symbolizes man. As men, we derive our self-worth from the sky- the realm of memories, judgements and ideation (par-loka).

Image of asvattha tree- roots are emerging from the sky and fruits are available on the ground.