Criminal neglect of our heritage must count among the worst failures of the Indian nation-State. In the name of modernity, we have cultivated cultural illiteracy. In the name of progressivism, we have taught our young to look down upon any ritual as superstition, any cultural bond as regressive. A modern, highly educated Indian does not read or write in any Indian language, beyond necessary to speak to his driver or maid. She cannot tell one kind of textile weave from another. He/she knows little about any of our classics, except perhaps the Amar Chitra Katha version. And now they are turning away from local food, except the staple roti or rice. The less we connect to our culture, the more modern we are in our eyes and in the eyes of those we value. Modern India has promoted a deadly mix of ignorance and arrogance.
There is another polite version of this modernist hubris. This high-brow version of modernism connects to cultural heritage, even takes pride in it, but only if it passes the test of modern sensibility. Following Nehru or Amartya Sen, we could foreground some abstract, philosophical strand in our culture and take pride in it. We are okay with Fabindia clothing. But an encounter with popular culture anywhere outside a museum makes us squeamish.
I suspect that the current rise of aggressive cultural assertion that passes off as Hindutva is a reaction to this cultural vacuum in modern India. Like most reactions, it is a mirror image of what it opposes. These proponents of Indian culture and traditions are often as ignorant as their opponents. They too seek modern Western approbation and invoke pseudo-science for anything they uphold in the Indian culture. Worse, they use it to put a gloss over some of the worst forms of caste oppression and patriarchy, not to mention hate-mongering against people of other faiths. Mercifully ridiculous when not out-and-out obnoxious, these defenders of our tradition do more damage to our civilizational heritage than the critics.
Is there a third way?
Can we connect with our cultural heritage in a relaxed manner, without awkwardness or embarrassment, without being patronising or aggressive? To my mind, this is the way forward, not just to take on the monstrosity called Hindu nationalism, but also to move towards true swaraj. If K.C. Bhattacharya’s Swaraj in Ideas was a philosophic manifesto for this third position, Ram Manohar Lohia turned this into a political position. Ashis Nandy offered robust social scientific grounds for this cultural critique of the modernist hubris. I like to place Devdutt Pattanaik’s rendering of Hindu mythology, T.M. Krishna’s or Singh’s soulful spiritual singing, Anupam Mishra’s excavations of pre-modern systems of water in this much needed third way of relating to our cultural heritage. Sadly, just when we were getting ready for this deeper, alternative and rooted modernity, we were taken over by a shallow, copycat and chauvinist response in the name of cultural nationalism.
Professor G. N. Devy’s latest book Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation shows us how to reclaim swaraj in ideas in the face of the current political onslaught. He has all the credentials for leading this effort at cultural reclamation. A professor of English all his life, he has been a renowned literary critic. But he is better known as a linguist, as the pioneer of People’s Linguistic Survey of India, and a crusader for linguistic diversity. Activists know him as a long-standing friend of the de-notified and nomadic communities at the lowest rung of our social hierarchy. He leads dakshinayan, a movement of writers in Indian languages that has taken on the RSS. Currently, he is the national president of Rashtra Seva Dal, one of the few robust counter-challenges to the RSS. Ganesh Devy is one of the few Indians who combine something of Tagore, Gandhi and Ambedkar within themselves.
The argument of this small book is straightforward. Mahabharata is a poem about history, though not the history practised by professional historians. The epic captures the history of a millennium or so, characterised by a great transition of the Indian civilisation from early Vedic period to the creation of an empire, by weaving the mythical past and the historical past into a single narrative. Mahabharata continues to be popular as it provides us with a national template to relate to our past: “The Mahabharata created a unique method of remembering the past. India has internalized that method as the way of preserving its national memory. The Mahabharata, in that sense, is our national epic. It is an epic not about the nation, but about our manner of remembering the past.” (112)
Unlike most other interpretations of Mahabharata in the twentieth century – almost all our 20th century thinkers wrote something about this epic – Devy does not focus on Bhagvad Gita. He bypasses this philosophic interlude and focuses on the story. He is not shy of the mythical, the spectacular, the improbable and the impossible that Mahabharata is full of. Instead he reads meanings into these myths. He reads a mood of philosophic resignation, of ‘itihasa’, of this-is-how-it-has-been. The epic belongs to shant rasa and carries a ‘metaphysics of being a sthitpragnya, a sakshi’ (45)
That is why, Devy suggests, there is no single hero of Mahabharata. Here too, Devy departs from most other commentators who focused on one key character: Krishna, Draupadi, Arjun, Karna or Bhishma. If anything, Devy finds Yama to be present at the beginning and the end of this epic. Its philosophic significance lies in that it brings together four imaginations of time: cosmic, mythical, historical, and psychological.
The most fascinating aspect of Devy’s reading of Mahabharata is his willingness to take head on the charges of social conservatism. After all, the great book is full of references to the varna order, fear of pollution and the theory of rebirth. Devy argues that the dharma of Mahabharata is not the Brahminic dharma of dharmasutras. The distinctive features of the history and myth woven together in the Mahabharata were “assimilation, synthesis, combination, acceptance, and moving forward without exclusions” (77). Thus, the continuing popularity of Mahabharata is because it is “the non-Brahmin’s book of religion, their dharma grantha.” (106) It does not mention Buddha, but silently incorporates many of the insights of the great master and continues to serve as a veritable mine of ideals of courage, moral truth, and liberation.
I am not a historian, nor an Indologist, to be able to assess the book’s argument based on historical sources or textual material. But I suspect that’s not the point of Devy’s book. For me, this is very much a political treatise, an argument that counters a dominant misappropriation of our epics and suggests a way to reclaim our civilisational heritage without hint of an apology, without a sense of inferiority or feigned superiority. Just as Devy is interested in Mahabharata’s method of relating to our past, I am interested in his method of relating to our national epic: “never a complete objective truth nor a complete fiction” (127).
That is what we need today to reclaim our republic.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)