The Epics and our National Life: ignored perspectives, six examples and some views
Dr. Anirban Ganguly

Avant Propos: Constructing – Deconstructionism

Inspired by the theory and belief of an imagined India a vocal and influential section in the Indian and Western academia and intelligentsia has been uninterruptedly inspiring and promoting a spirit of an all round deconstructionism – especially when it comes to Hindu foundational texts and literature. I shall not enter here into the issue of how such a state of affair came into being in the first place and of how it continued to be promoted by a widely networked scholar-coterie over the last four decades. I shall avoid doing so, simply because the phenomenon has been adequately and vehemently debated over the last decade and much has been exposed and unmasked. It would suffice here for my purposes to point out that this habit of deconstructing and of looking at the whole of our collective national existence as imagined and notional began to gain ground in the early seventies of the last century when a political light-weight Syed Nurul Hasan (1921-1993) became the Union Minister of State for Education (with Independent Charge). As the undisputed boss of Indian education and culture in the seventies, Hasan, to his credit, created research institutions all over the country – especially in the field of history and sociology – but he also ensured that they remained in control of and packed with his ideological comrades of the Marxian Left. In course of time this Left syndicate came to rule the Indian academia and wield an influence much disproportionate to their political strength, which even at its height remained confined to a few far-flung pockets of the country. The ascendance of this group in the Indian academia and their robust and mutually sustaining network with other such like minded conglomerates in the Western academia helped usher in the era of deconstructionism with a special focus on Indian – read Hindu – texts, scriptures, positions, customs – in short, the Hindu way of life. As per its prescriptions our revolutionary nationalists became terrorists, our epochal kings and sages vaporized into fiction, our epic figures transmuted into pygmies with debasing propensities and our entire civilisational existence and literary creation was, well – just imagination! The effort reminds one of the French Jesuit Abbé Dubois’s (1765-1848) observation on the objectives of colonial education in India and the method of achieving them, ‘To make a new Race of Hindus’, opined Dubois, ‘one would have to begin by undermining the very foundations of their civilisation, religion and polity, and by turning them into atheists…’1

To further and consolidate this habit of deconstructing; texts and passages that propagated such a diluting spirit were selected as course material and recommended reading and the originals, or traditional interpretations, or interpretations of these texts that reinforced concepts of a national life, unity – cultural and spiritual – were deliberately omitted. Hence, a process of divorcing young learners from an all round understanding and knowledge of their collective civilisational mind was gradually introduced. The young minds simply received a deconstructed view of the entire Indian cultural and civilisational tableau and were never being equipped to savour the whole nor appreciate its deeper and life-sustaining message for the Indian people and the whole of mankind. All this was done in the name of promoting a genuine spirit of enquiry and rational thought among them – it never mattered that the promotion remained one-sided and ideologically tinctured! The current and past argumentations surrounding our national epics may perhaps be examined with this background in mind.

The Epics in our national life: some points

In the present discussion’ I argue that in the not so distant past some of our best and most versatile national minds where also preoccupied, in their own way, with examining, analysing and discussing our epics and their message. They were not static ideologues bogged down solely with the semantics of the texts but were instead roving ambassadors of national unity and culture spreading the life-sustaining message of the epics as they discerned it. While doing this they also absorbed the deeply percolated age-old traditions and customs surrounding them that they saw preserved by the vast masses of the subcontinent for whose liberation they sought to speak. It was the ‘proletariat’ – rather than the rootless ‘bourgeois’ who unfailingly responded, thrilled and found solace in the epics. For the present discussion I have selected a few of these thought-leaders and shall highlight excerpts from their interpretations and understanding of our epics finally arguing that these too must find their way into our educational syllabus of literature and history allowing them to mould opinion and thought and to give rise to the much needed ‘other point of view’ in the study of Indian history, culture, religion and society. Apart from their striking lucidity some salient points emerge from an examination of these passages: First, that there were a number of interpretations, additions and alterations in the epics was a known and accepted fact and did not seem to give rise to any controversy and rather encouraged debate. But the moot point to be observed is that in all of these interpretations there appears to be absolutely no place for the profane, each version was looked upon and seen from a sublimated perspective. Second, the epics and all their versions were widely accepted as a sacred and powerful vehicle of national education – education for the masses – which in the comrades’ parlance symbolises– the proletariat. This, the people themselves had accepted as such and had developed a unique system of the wandering preachers and minstrels who would, through the ages, keep reiterating the message of the epics throughout the length and breadth of the land. Third, the habit of recounting the epics that each Hindu family had evolved over the ages had turned into an effective instrument for exposing young minds to a deeper ethico-spiritual code of existence and conduct and in moulding, to a great extent, their personalities in accordance with that code. Fourth, the epics, kept alive and throbbing to the present day, were seen as threads of national unity which, despite differences of interpretations and versions, weaved the entire people into a palpable national oneness. Most of the selected perspectives, as shall be seen, exuded on the whole an entirely constructive approach to the epics and their messages and made the case that in a system of national education these can emerge as powerful educating and spiritualising instruments. Nowhere does one perceive exhaustive dissections of versions and interpretations but only an attempt at presenting their deeper metaphysical sense, much as Swami Vivekananda, talking of ‘The Sages of India’, exhorted, while referring to the life of another giant figure of the epics, Sri Krishna, that ‘Do not waste your time upon little details. Take up the framework, the essence of the life.’2 It is this essence that the present arbiters of education in India fail to take up and to communicate.

I. Epics as Unifiers: C.R. and his vision

While dedicating his rendering of the Ramayana the formidable polymath C.Rajagopalachari (1878-1972) made a personal remark that perhaps sets in perspective the contemporary relevance and place of the epics in our national life, [the retelling of the Mahabharata and] ‘Ramayana, is, in my opinion, the best service I have rendered to my people. At any rate, they embody the best joy I have experienced; for in these two books I helped our great Sages to speak to our dear men and women in their own language, elevating their minds through the sorrows borne by Kunti, Kausalya, Draupadi and Sita. The real need of the hour is a re-communion between us and the sages of our land, so that the future may be built on rock and not on sand.’3 Rajaji was quite forthright in his demand for the epics to be made available to the young, unlike some of the present day academics; he saw this as being part of a constructive effort at positively igniting young minds. ‘I appeal particularly to the young men in schools and colleges’, he wrote, ‘to read these books …after reading you will emerge with greater courage, stronger will and purer mind. …They are the records of the mind and spirit of our forefathers who cared for the good, ever so much more than for the pleasant and who saw more of the mystery of life than we can do in our interminable pursuit for petty and illusory achievements in the material field…’4 The scholar-statesman clearly saw the epics as unifiers, ‘let us keep in our minds the fact that it is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that bind our vast numbers together as one people, despite caste, space and language that seemingly divide them.’5 Weaving the other view, Rajaji’s rendering of the epics has till date not found a place in the national educational mainstream, this despite acceptance by some public intellectuals today that they had, in their formative years, read and re-read these renderings for ‘the lucidity of their language and the extravagant colour of their content.’6

II. Epics and the Masses: examples from an Indian village

That the epics had a pan-Indian appeal and inspired and soothed all sections has been amply and richly recorded. That the huge ‘rustic’ masses of India spontaneously responded to them and to any opportunity to listen to their tales and morals and that these indeed became the binding force of the vast majority has also been meticulously recorded. But these narrations have never or have rarely found their way out into academic light. In fact, it would be interesting to note that in the Indian – Hindu lexicon and perception there appears to be an absence of any exclusively ‘North-Indian’ or ‘South-Indian’ god or deity. A reading of descriptions of the peoples’ response to the epics is bound to shake many of the shibboleths at least, of the impartial seekers. The description of the approach of the villagers to the epics in a village near Madras is perhaps illustrative of this point. In his ‘Life in an Indian Village’ T.Ramakrishna narrates just such an occasion seen at first hand and describes the link that the epics have with the people and the system evolved to make it accessible to them in a regular manner. Ramakrishna argues that the ‘two great national epics’ have exerted a powerfully ‘ennobling influence on the character and modes of thought of the people’ of the country partly owing to ‘the fact that they have an intrinsic merit of their own, as being the grandest literary achievement of India’s master minds, and in a great measure owing to the strong conviction that they are Thévakathas (stories of God).’ He saw the pious Hindu walking great distances, sitting up for hours and ready to forego all sorts of conveniences, only for an opportunity to hear these divine stories even ‘though it may be for the hundredth time.’ ‘Various ways are devised to entertain the people with the stirring incidents of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They are produced on the stage in form of plays, they are recited by professional bards in lyric verse, and they are expounded to the public in plain prose.’ And in order to enliven and stage these, professional preachers were found everywhere in the country ‘even in obscure villages, who sermonize on the popular incidents to be found in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata…’7 His description of a session in the village of Kélambakam where episodes from one of the epics were narrated deserves to be cited in some detail, just to reinforce the point that the epics did greatly impress the Indian mind across regions and divides:

‘In Kélambakam, the preacher who delights its inhabitants is Nalla Pillai, the schoolmaster. He has read very carefully all fourteen thousand stanzas of his great-grandfather’s Mahabharata in Tamil, and at night…he explains them to the people. His fame as a preacher is pretty well established, and the people from the neighbouring villages attend his preaching. I myself had once the pleasure and privilege of hearing this preacher of Kélambakam. …People came pouring in from Kélambakam and from neighbouring villages to the house of the village headman. On the pial of the house was seated the preacher. Before him was placed the picture of Krishna playing the flute and leaning on a cow. The picture was profusely decorated with flowers. There were also two vessels. In one there was camphor and some burning incense, in the other were flowers and fruits. The people swarmed like bees. Some were seated in the open street, and others on the pial of neighbouring houses, the whole audience being eager to catch the words that fell from the preacher’s lips. At eight o’clock the preaching commenced….There was dead silence…The preacher knelt down before the picture, and then seating himself commenced to speak… [The preacher ended the discourse with]…’Glory be to Krishna, this saviour of mankind, who is ever ready to assist the good and punish the wicked, this Dispenser of Justice who protected the good and noble Arjuna from his awful doom. Let us all therefore unite in praising our Creator. So saying, the preacher knelt down before the picture…and the whole audience rising en masse and exultingly shouting words, Krishna, Govinda, Gopala…knelt before the picture.’ 8

With regard to the ‘wonderful incident’ the author was relieved to realise that the ‘boasted “age of reason” had not yet arrived in Indian villages, the people of which implicitly believe in whatever is written in their scared writing.’9 Recognition of such primary texts as material for better understanding Indian religion, culture and history would have served the purpose of truly educating the Indian mind on the intrinsic and organic link that these foundational texts had and continue to have with the people of this land and with their quotidian life. And, as mentioned above, the epics were truly recreational texts for the vast ‘proletariat’ and were not usually meant for the ‘bourgeois’’ pastime. The original Left academic-syndicate as well their present day successors have roundly overlooked this very crucial factor in their often skewed study of the epics! Biased interpretations of the epics would perhaps have some effect and acceptance among an urbanized set of learners but it would, undoubtedly, be squarely rejected by the above kind of audience which continues to dominate the vast Indian hinterlands.

III. The Perpetual Hinduisers: Nivedita and her India

It would be worthwhile here to present two views and understanding of the epics in our national life, made by two Westerners who had in their own ways internalized the Indian civilisational ethos. One evolved as a front-ranking thought-leader in her years in India, having dedicated herself to India’s spiritual, cultural and political rejuvenation. And the other, a more subdued academic who for years closely observed Indian life, traditions and customs and prolifically wrote on them. The first, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble) (1867-1911), made immense and multifaceted contributions to the nationalist movement in India in the first decade of the last century – it is another matter that contributions of this Western lady is downplayed and ignored and no systematic effort made to include in the education curriculum selections from her vast and diverse writings on Indian culture, history, spirituality and mythology.10 In her celebrated ‘The Web of Indian Life’ which gained wide acclaim as a deeply authentic study of Indian life and Eastern ideals and on which the Manchester Guardian was to comment that ‘it is the first time that an Englishwoman has not only grasped the Eastern outlook, but has set it forth fairly and freely without regard to its startling contradiction to Western misconception’ which in any case was under a spell of ‘appalling ignorance.’11; Nivedita brought out the various aspects of the epics as powerful, unifying and educating instruments for the nation. Her direct, simple yet captivating style that may appear to academics today as exaggerated and emotional became immensely popular with generations of Indian youth active in the national movement. India, argued Nivedita, is ‘one of the saga-lands’, this was an essential recognition in order to be able to absorb the place and the role of the epics in its national life. Similar to the above description of the congregation in the south Indian village, Nivedita too, sets in perspective the exalted position of sagas in the Indian psyche when she writes that ‘At every lull in her [India’s] history we may hear the chanting of her bards, and the joy of her people in the story of their past. The long twilight of the North is no better adapted to the growth of such a literature than the deep and early night of the South. In verandahs and courtyards, with the women concealed behind screens at the back, it has been the Indian fashion for hundreds of years through the winter months to gather at dusk round the seat of the Wandering Teller, and listen hour after hour to his stirring theme. Surrounded by lights and flowers, gay carpets and burning incense, there is in his performance a mixture of reading, song, and story. It is something of the opera, sermon, and literature, all in one.’12 There was no surprise at the habit of making additions in the principal narrative. The additions in the main story was but a natural accretion of centuries and it was very well understood that ‘the stories that it [epic] tells have been worked over by the imagination of singers and people for hundreds of years [and] have become simple, direct, inevitable. They are spoken out of the inmost heart of a nation…They are nothing if not absolutely sincere.’13

Referring to the Ramayana, Nivedita saw its ‘strong and quiet story’ speaking straight to ‘the heart of the people,’ and to this day there are no characters as beloved of the masses as those permeating the Ramayana. For her, in order to truly understand the ‘roundness and plasticity’ of the Ramayana’s drama one had to be in touch with the national aspiration, but even a cursory reader of the epic would be stuck with its ‘insight and delicacy.’14 The existence of various versions was recognised as a natural dimension of the saga, Nivedita saw these versions as serving a larger purpose. Since few were able to read the original Sanskrit version translations were made ‘in various vernaculars by great poets from time to time – into Bengali…by Kirtibas, and into Hindi by Tulsidas’ with each rendering having its peculiar regional flavour, outlook and additions. The source of inspiration for these and vernacular translators was their life in the community – their growing up in the communal life where recounting of the epics was a daily pulsating-ritual performed by their venerated elders. And in recounting the great tale, basing themselves on memories of past narrations, the poets had the ‘perfect freedom to give their own version of each episode’ which keeps it ‘fresh and living and explains its change of tint in the hand of the genius.’ There could no ‘complete criticism of the Ramayana’ without recognition of this ‘working of the communal consciousness on the theme’ [of the epic]’ for each version was ultimately ‘new transcribings’ of the original.15 Each version seems to define the story more clearly and through each of them runs the ‘Hindu reverence for Rama as man, husband, and king’ and this reverence never seeks to accept that ‘that which is expressed was at any time less than the ideal.’ And the ideal that each version expressed remained the same, it was that of a ‘conception of duty that placed Society far above the individual, and made the perfect king seek the good of his people without any consideration for his own or his wife’s happiness.’16 But perhaps Nivedita was at her eloquent best when describing the epics and their mingling with the Indian soil and soul:

‘They [the stories of the Ramayana] penetrate to every part of the country, every class of society, every grade of education. Journeying in the mountains at nightfall, one came upon the small open hut of the grain dealer, and saw, round a tiny lamp, a boy reading the Ramayana in the vernacular to a circle of his elders. At the end of each stanza, they bowed their heads to the earth, with the chant, “To dear Sita’s bridegroom, great Rama, all!” The shopkeeper in the city, counts out his ware to the customer, saying, “One (Ram), two (Ram), three (Ram), and so on, relapsing into a dream of worship when the measuring is done…The woman terrified at thunder calls on “Sita Ram!” and the bearers of the dead keep time to the cry of “Nama Rama Sattva hai!” (“The name of the Lord alone is real!”). What philosophy by itself could never have done for the humble, what the laws of Manu have done only in some small measure for the few, that the Epics have done through unnumbered ages are doing still for all classes alike. They are the perpetual Hinduisers, they are the ideal embodiments of that form of life, that conception of conduct, of which laws and theories can give but the briefest abstract, yet towards which the hope and effort of every Hindu child must be directed.’17

Interestingly voices of South Asian Studies and Civilisation in the Western academia find space and permanence in university departments in India but interpretations, thoughts and examples such as the above made by an Indianised-Westerner in India are habitually neglected or at best treated as romantic and fantastical!

IV. A storehouse of instructions: Campbell and his retelling of the Indian Epics

The other ignored Indianised-Westerner was John Campbell Oman (1841-1911), sometime principal of the Khalsa College at Amritsar, an avid Indophile and a prolific producer of tomes on Indian religious and social life who recounted the epics in his ‘The Great Indian Epics – Stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.’ Though not in the same category as Nivedita, Campbell nevertheless, exuded a rare earnestness towards his subject. His inclusion adds further credence and colour to the whole discussion. What is of interest to us in the present discussion is Campbell’s understanding of the central role that the epics played in the collective existence of the country which he ceaselessly tried to examine through his works. Campbell not only ‘tried to reproduce faithfully …the main incidents and the more striking features’ of these ‘gigantic and wonderful creations of the ancient bards of India’ but also attempted to ‘direct attention to the abiding influence of those works upon the habits and conceptions of the modern Hindu.’18 He too saw the continuing existence of the epic among the Indian people, the epics were loved he wrote, ‘with an untiring love by the Hindus’, and are to this day accepted as ‘entirely and literally true by large number of the Indian people.19 Campbell argued that the epics had interwoven deep within their narrative of events and legendary romances ‘a great bulk of philosophical, theological, and ethical materials’ and remain a storehouse of …instruction in the arts of politics and government; in cosmogony and religion; in mythology and mysticism; in ritualism and the conduct of daily life’ and abound ‘in dialogue wherein the subtle wisdom of the East is well displayed, and brim-over with the stories and anecdotes intended to point some moral, to afford consolation in trouble, or to inculcate useful lesson.’20 They could therefore be treated as simply stories or fairy tales and it was worth undertaking deep studies of its various facets. Comparing the pervasiveness of the Indian epics in the Indian mind with the fate of the ancient gods and sagas in England, Campbell observed that it is indeed intriguing as to ‘how the gods of the ancestors of the English people have entirely faded from popular recollection in Britain’, how the sagas have been completely forgotten and of how the ‘almost complete extinction of the ancestral beliefs of the European nations is a striking fact to which the religious history of Indian presents no parallel.’ This occurred because the wall of Christianity was reared ‘in colossal dimensions …between the past and the present, cutting off all communication between the indigenous faiths and modern speculative philosophy of the Western nation’ all the while diverting the ‘affectionate interest of the devout from local to foreign shrines.’21 Such a wall, Campbell surmised, never existed in India – the majority of her people were not and could never be cut-off from their past. Describing the Dussehra celebrations, Campbell made some of his most poignant notings:

‘Once every year, at the great festival known as the Dasahara, the story of the famous Hindu epic, the “Ramayana” is, throughout Northern India, recalled to popular memory, by a great out-door dramatic representation of the principal and crowning events in the life of the great hero, Rama. The “Ramayana” is not merely a popular story, it is an inspired poem, every detail of which is, in the belief of the great majority of Indian people, strictly true. Although composed at least nineteen centuries ago, it still lives enshrined in the hearts of the children of Aryavarta and is as familiar to them to-day as it has been to their ancestors for fifty generations. Pious pilgrims even now retrace, step by step, the wanderings, as well as the triumphal progress, of Rama, from his birth-place in Oudh to the distant island of Ceylon. Millions believe in the efficacy of his name alone to insure them safety and salvation. For these reasons the poem is of especial value and interest to anyone desirous of understanding the people of India; affording, as it does, an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the bard or bards who composed it and of a race of men who, through two thousand eventful year have not grown weary of it.’22

Perhaps because he was too uncomfortably candid in his assessment of them, Campbell’s text of the epics faces near oblivion today. Meanwhile the current educational method in India, with its selective approach to Indian texts and their interpretations, appears determined to rear a wall of ‘colossal dimension’ divorcing the Indian present totally from its actual past.

V. Epics – the true basis of a real education: Coomaraswamy and his Idealism

Another legendary evaluator and master interpreter of Indian art, culture, religion and metaphysics, Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), also evaluated and interpreted the role of the epics in our national life. Completely marginalized from the present day curricula and from the current cultural discourse, Coomaraswamy nevertheless once wielded an enormous influence among the Indian intelligentsia while making an unequalled contribution in the Western understanding of Indian traditions. In his ‘Essays in National Idealism’ (1909) Coomaraswamy made a deep study not only of Indian art, art history, architecture and music but also of Indian education, the quest for a national education and the role of the literatures in educating the Indian mind. Throughout the work, he aimed at unraveling the deeper spiritual basis of not just the Indian arts but also of the entire national movement arguing that a renaissance of art and culture were the signs of a true liberation. Talking of the genius of the old Indian culture Coomaraswamy made a startling observation that is in complete contradistinction to the theory that propagates the notion of a centrally administered Indian culture and religion. Coomaraswamy saw the distinction of the old culture in that ‘all’ could partake of it ‘in their own measure.’ Culture came to man at all times and in the most mundane of situations and surroundings and the one way ‘in which this came about…was through the literature.’ The literature was usually orally transmitted, was very much alive, and ‘belonged to both the illiterate and to the literate’ and ‘expressed the deepest truths in allegorical forms which …have both their own obvious and their deeper meaning’23 with the deeper meaning continuously expressing itself in the more obvious. For Coomaraswamy this literature, the national vehicle of culture, ‘was the intellectual food of all the people, because it was really a part of them, a great idealization of their life’ and the most striking aspect of all was that it was of value to all men – was ‘large and deep enough for the philosopher, and simple enough to guide and delight the least intellectual. So that all, however varied their individual attainments, were united in one culture, the existence of which depended largely on the existence of a living literature, forming an inseparable background to daily life [and] just as the Icelandic family histories were stories of lives lived in the light of the heroic stories of the North, so Indian life is lived in the light of the tales of India’s saints and heroes.’ 24The epics, their content and their message thus were accessible to the masses and intermingling with their lives provided the sustaining code and culture. But Coomaraswamy made his most striking observation while referring to the epics as vehicles of national education and transmitters of national culture. It is that which appears most relevant in the present discussion and the one that deserves to be etched in all social science departments in universities across the country:

‘The two great Indian epics have been the great medium of Indian education, the most evident vehicle of transmission of the national culture from each generation to the next. The national heroic literature is always and everywhere the true basis of a real education in the formation of character…The value of the epics in education is partly in this, that they are for all alike, the literate and the illiterate, men, women or children; all are united in a common culture, however varying the extent of their knowledge. It is this common culture which the modern English education ignores and destroys. The memorising of great national literature was the vehicle of this culture; and hence the tremendous importance of memory in education. For great literature of this kind, does not yield its message to the casual or unsympathetic reader at once, it must be part of the life of men, as the Greeks made Homer a part of their life…it is no use to prescribe some one or two books of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, or a Jataka for an examination course. No, the great stories in their completeness must be a means of the development of the imagination – a faculty generally ignored and sometimes deliberately crushed by present day educators. The great heroic figures must express to us still the deepest, most religious things. For all purity is included in the purity of Sita, all service in the devotion of Hanuman, all knighthood in the chivalry of Bhishma…The foundation of all true education lies in the national heroic literature. Poor, indeed, is the nation lacking such a means of education; and mistaken an educator who should dream of deliberately ignoring such a means of education laid ready to his hand in India.’ 25

Written a century back, the above passage seems to clearly reflect all that ails Indian education and educational approach to this day. Coomaraswamy is deliberately ignored and most of his massive writings on India are habitually suppressed and remain ‘out of print.’ He was too much beyond ideologies and isms and therefore remains a tad too uncomfortable for the Marxian patriarchs of Indian education for inclusion in the curriculum. The deeply unfortunate reality is that in the last four decades generations of young learners in this country have been exposed to Indian thought without ever hearing of Coomaraswamy and of his prolific contributions to the study of India.

VI. Epics – chief instruments of popular education: Sri Aurobindo’s defence of Indian culture

The other nationalist savant whose philosophical and literary contributions are equally ignored by most mainstream educational institutions in the country and who saw a ‘massive purpose’ in the epics was Sri Aurobindo. In his ‘Defence of Indian Culture’ written in the second decade of the last century – when the colonial critic displayed an ignorance and disdain for things Indian similar to the present Left-syndicate in India – Sri Aurobindo took a detailed look at the role of the epics in the evolution of Indian civilisation and also refers to the them as significant vehicles of national education. For him the epics were ‘itihāsa’ i.e. ‘an ancient historical or legendary tradition turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people.’26 They played, Sri Aurobindo argued, a crucial role in the formation of the Indian mind and those who wrote them did so conscious of the fact they were, in a sense, architects, fashioners of national thought, life, culture, religion and ethics. ‘The poets who wrote and those who added to these great bodies of poetic writing’, observed Sri Aurobindo, ‘did not intend merely to tell an ancient tale in a beautiful or noble manner or even to fashion a poem pregnant with much richness of interest and meaning, though they did both these things with a high success; they wrote [instead] with a sense of their function as architects and sculptors of life, creative exponents, fashioners of significant forms of the national thought and religion and ethics and culture.’27 And what do these epics actually contain and signify, ‘A profound stress of thought on life, a large and vital view of religion and society, a certain strain of philosophic idea runs through these poems and the whole ancient culture of India is embodied in them with a great force of intellectual conception and living presentation.’ 28On the high-role of the epics in forming and sustaining the collective life, Sri Aurobindo too, in line with his above cited contemporaries, saw them as vehicles of popular culture and as instruments that made available to the masses in a simple language and colourful manner the deep and arcane knowledge contained in the Vedas, Upanishads and other such texts:

‘…The work of these epics was to popularise high philosophic and ethical idea and cultural practice; it was to throw out prominently and with a seizing relief and effect in a frame of great poetry and on a background of poetic story and around significant personalities that became to the people abiding national memories and representative figures all that was best in the soul and thought or true to the life or real to the creative imagination and ideal mind or characteristic and illuminative of the social, ethical, political and religious culture of India. All these things were brought together and disposed with artistic power and a telling effect in a poetic body given to traditions half legendary, half historic but cherished henceforth as deepest and most living truth and as a part of their religion by the people. Thus framed the Mahabharata and Ramayana, whether in the original Sanskrit or rewritten in the regional tongues, brought to the masses by Kathakas,—rhapsodists, reciters and exegetes,—became and remained one of the chief instruments of popular education and culture, moulded the thought, character, aesthetic and religious mind of the people and gave even to the illiterate some sufficient tincture of philosophy, ethics, social and political ideas, aesthetic emotion, poetry, fiction and romance. That which was for the cultured classes contained in Veda and Upanishad, shut into profound philosophical aphorism and treatise or inculcated in dharma-shastra and artha-shastra, was put here into creative and living figures, associated with familiar story and legend, fused into a vivid representation of life and thus made a near and living power that all could readily assimilate through the poetic word appealing at once to the soul and the imagination and the intelligence…”29

It is an intriguing phenomenon with the Indian academia that whoever speaks of or for the Indian traditions in a positive light and sees in them a uniting, harmonising, synthesising and coalescing instrument of our national life faces summary rejection and is sidelined as a reactionary, demonstrating a bourgeois spirit. And those who, on the other hand, continue to faithfully work out Dubois’ dictum in the education system receive accolades and are comfortably ensconced within the detoxified precincts of the hallowed academia. Sri Aurobindo and his above cited contemporaries continue to be victims of that habit of a summary rejection!

Including the other view

In presenting the above thinkers on the Indian epics I argue for the inclusion of their views and the views of many others like them – which in effect represent the ‘other view’ – in the universities’ curricula. If students are to really develop a habit of rational evaluation, a universal outlook and a healthy spirit of enquiry then why confine them to views and interpretations that merely deconstruct our sacred and popular holdings of centuries and not let them judge and perhaps revel in those that reconstruct, preserve and perpetuate these holdings? The deeper bond that exists between the epics, between their characters, their narratives and allegories and the people of this land can only be fathomed when exposed to interpretations such as these. It is these interpretations that continue to remain – if so recognised – as powerful symbols for the essential understanding and discovery of India. The disproportionate fascination with Western interpretations of Indian traditions and the intellectual ghettoisation of indigenous thinkers and commentators is indeed a sad state of affairs in the Indian intellectual world. Unless these tangles are eased out and the prejudice against a balanced presentation of the foundational texts and epics dropped, their true worth in and contribution to the sum total of our national life may perhaps be never really known and appreciated.

The unimagined burden of a deconstructed past and of a deliberately crushed spirit of an all round enquiry may perhaps prove for us one day too heavy and too hard to bear!

Endnotes :

  1. Cited in Ananda Coomaraswamy, Essays in National Idealism, (1909), (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, ed. 1981), p.101. Having cited the passage while discussing Indian education Coomaraswamy candidly observes, ‘no words of mine could better describe the typical product of Macaulayism.’
  2. ‘The Sages of India’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol.3, (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 21st imp., 2008), p.259.
  3. C.Rajagopalachari, Ramayana, (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 42nd ed. 2005), p.x.
  4. Ibid., p.xii.
  5. Ibid., p.xiii.
  6. Ramchandra Guha, ‘Remembering Rajaji: the men and women of character who once ruled us’, The Telegraph, Kolkata, 25th December, 2002.
  7. T.Ramakrishna, Life in an Indian Village, (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1891), pp.142-143-144.
  8. Ibid., pp.144-145-159.
  9. Ibid., p.160.
  10. For a detailed exposition of Sister Nivedita’s contribution to the national movement and to the cultural renaissance in India see e.g. Sankari Prasad Basu, Nivedita Lokmata vol.1 – introduction, (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 5th imp, Beng. 1406), Pravrajika Atmaprana, Sister Nivedita, (Kolkata: Sister Nivedita’s Girl School, 6th ed., 2007), also see Swami Vedantananda, ‘The Story of Sister Nivedita’s Life’, pp.176-186, in Vedanta Kesari, vol.xiv, no.5, September 1927, for a brief overview of her national contribution.
  11. Press Opinions on The Web of Indian Life, (London: William Heinemann, 1904).
  12. Sister Nivedita, The Web of Indian Life, (London: William Heinemann, 1904), p.107.
  13. Ibid., pp. 108-109.
  14. Ibid., pp. 109-110.
  15. Ibid., pp. 109-110-112.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., p.124.
  18. John Campbell Oman, The Great Indian Epics – Stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, (London: George Bell & Sons, ed. 1899), p. iv.
  19. Ibid., p.1.
  20. Ibid., pp.1-2.
  21. Ibid., pp.3-4.
  22. Ibid., pp.15-16.
  23. Coomaraswamy, op. cit., pp.118-119.
  24. Ibid., pp.118-119.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Sri Aurobindo, ‘ The Renaissance in Indian and Other Essays on Indian Culture’ in The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol.20, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Dept, 1997), p.345.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., pp. 345-346.
  29. Ibid., pp.346-347.

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Published Date : 15th December 2011

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