Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold

By Mukunda Rao, published by HarperCollins, New Delhi, released on 20th March 2018.

Available in all major book stores across India and at online outlets.

Praise for Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold:

I found Shambuka Rama very interesting. Has anyone dealt with this Rama? And so familiarly? The slow pace of the story works wonderfully well. I also was fascinated by the Valmiki-Rama-Shambuka conjunction. It is a most unusual story. Another Bheema also held me. Again a story of great credibility. Vyasa entering as the creator, the dramatist and his characters getting away from him? Fascinating!

-Shashi Deshpande, award-winning novelist

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‘In Mukunda Rao’s Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold, we confront several fundamental issues that are at the same time philosophical, political and existential. In Shambuka Rama we behold a Rama who is exhausted by the demands of the public sphere, confused by the twists and turns of life that leads to deep self-doubt, unsettled by philosophical questions surrounding the idea of Truth, and, above all, disturbed by what constitutes his self as a human being. The wanderings lead Rama from experience to experience and ultimately to disturbing yet cleansing realisations.

‘In several ways the Shambuka Rama connects with the spirit of our times in a radical manner. The consolidation of the caste system, the increasing brutality of the ruling State and the incorporation of philosophical traditions by communal forces masquerading as protectors of culture and social values, the agony of sensitive individuals concerned about the welfare of human communities are all foregrounded through the utter helplessness of Rama who, after listening to Sita, begins to lose faith in Kshatra—of resorting to violent action to protect dharma.

‘Mukunda Rao’s Shambuka the tapasvi is a terrific combination of a maverick and a wise sage, who offers the exiled ruler a new vision of life. He leads Rama to understand that there is no single truth that can be upheld as the ‘Truth’ of the universe or of life itself. This radical view of life, though not new to Indian thought, the story projects most effectively by working from within the plural philosophical Indian traditions, which eventually enables Rama to reach a position that maybe termed as anti-masculine, anti-State and anti-singular truth.’

Manu Chakravarthy, noted author and critic.

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Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold are truly “most unusual stories” and what an imaginative revisioning of Bheema, Duryodhana, Vyasa, Valmiki, Rama and Shambuka! I am still in that mythopoeic world and I must say it was a very enriching experience. A veritable cornucopia of revisioned stories from two of our great epics.’ Vaishali K.S, noted teacher and translator.

Reviews for Shambuka Rama

Book Review: Shambuka Rama by Mukunda Rao

@aesthetically_booked

Name of the book- Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold

Author- Mukunda Rao

Language English

Genre- Mythology

Pages- 199

Publisher- HarperCollins

Format- Paperback

Synopsis

After their miraculous escape from the House of Lac during their exile, The Pandavas along with their mother, Kunti, take refuge in a forest which is the residence of the tribes and the demons. It is in these same precarious lands that Bheema falls in love and marries Hidimbi and conceive Ghatotkacha. Finally, he questions himself and everything around him, deciding to stay back. Nothing anybody says is enough to move him to leave them, not even Kunti. Will he neglect the duties everyone expects of him or will he be convinced otherwise?

Duryodhana lies dying on the battlefield, being unjustly defeated by Bheema, while he contemplates all that culminated to the great war, all his actions and those of his enemies and allies. He reflects on dharma and adharma and on the truth. Meanwhile, the final leg of the battle brews and the clash of the ultimate weapons might destroy the world and everything in it.

Rama, on his exile from Ayodhya, comes across Valmiki’s ashram in the forest. There they encounter Shambuka, a shudra, who has exiled himself after he had been held accountable for his guru’s death. In the final story, Rama indulges in self-reflection, aided by the great Shambuka.

Shambuka Rama by Mukunda Rao is an assortment of three tales from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The stories are individualised. Rao narrates them masterfully from various perspectives, delving into details unfrequented by most other previous narratives.

Review

There are hardly any supernatural aspects to the three tales. Mukunda Rao ushers his readers to share a perspective which brings out the humaneness in some of the grandest characters in mythology. He discusses their dilemmas, the continuous mental conflict and he proves that at the end of the day they are all humans. The stories are narrated with gusto, Rama, Bheema, Duryodhana and all the title characters sharing their depression, feeling of worthlessness and incompetence, which makes the book a work of realism.

Secondly, the book narrates the stories from various perspectives; we find the characters painted in different shades and colours, allowing us to form our own opinions about them. The three stories, apparently singular, are linked by their quest for the absolute truth, understanding the thin line that distinguishes dharma from adharma, right from wrong.

The woman characters in the stories are unremarkable. Compared to the males, they are meek, almost with no opinions, who accept the unjustified forms of society willingly. However, Rao sheds new light, asking his readers to question and assess them. There are hints of Kunti and Draupadi having a more negative impact on the Mahabharata war than normally surmised. Though Sita is supposed to be a crucial character in Ramayana, she is just a minor support in the story which revolves around the moral dilemmas faced by Rama and the way he recovers from it. Her personality undergoes a change in the story- from being mild and submissive to strong- but not enough to impress.

Here is an excerpt from the book that brutally summarizes the situation of the world even today, something that really struck me:

“Listen sisters, listen brothers:

When they see breasts and long hair,

They shout ‘woman’.

When they see moustache and beard,

They call it ‘man’.

What do they know?”

This is a book that progresses through the road of mythology, literature, philosophy, proving that everything comes to nothing and that right and wrong and dharma and adharma are in fact two sides of the same coin.

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Review #706: in Bookstop corner blog

Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold by Mukunda Rao

BY ADITI SAHA   

“If you are unable to find the truth right where you are,

where else do you expect to find it?”  — Dōgen

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Synopsis:

Rama, Lakshmana and Sita chance upon Valmiki’s ashram in the forest. But what is the shudra Shambuka doing there? As Duryodhana lies dying on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he reflects on all that brought the world to this pass, his guilt and that of his enemies, his loyalties and those of his friends and allies. As the story flashes back and forth on the last moments of the Great War, dharma and adharma merge and blur. In the forest, during the exile of the Pandavas, Bhima, married to Hidimba, compelled by his love for his son, Ghatotkacha, decides to stay back. Even his mother’s anger and his elder brother’s command will not sway him. Mukunda Rao tells three classic stories from the epics, shedding new light on them, illuminating corners that we haven’t looked at before. Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold is a powerful blend of spiritual search, philosophy and mythology.

The five brothers and their mother have narrowly escaped from the murder attempt on their lives by their cousin brother, and is walking towards the forest of Maya, where they are advised to hide for a few days. But in this very same forest, amidst of life-threatening dangers and monsters, the second Pandava brother, Bhima, loses his heart to a former monster turned into a divine woman named Hidimba and eventually their love story blossoms, and finally resulting in the birth of their son, Ghatotkacha, that compels Bhima to stay back in that forest.

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Mukunda Rao, an Indian writer, has penned a compelling mythological book of short stories called Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold, inspired and taken straight out of the great Indian epics namely, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The stories are about Bhima who chances upon the female rakhshas (monster), Hidimba and decides to stay back in the forest of Maya, Duryodhan who ponders on the Great War and the pain that it brought upon the world and about Rama who during his exile meets Valmiki and Shambuka Rama, forcing him to quench for the truth.

Duryodhan is pondering over adharma and how could the Great war in the epic Mahabharata could have been avoided. Even Yudhisthira wonders on whether evil can only be fought with evil. Whereas in Ramayana, Rama is pondering about the real meaning of truth with the help of Valmiki and Shambuka Rama. The deeper meaning of truth will set him free, but why is a Shudra man lurking in a village of hermit is what is bothering Rama more than the truth.

The three classic tales are spun really tastefully and interestingly by the author, that will provoke the readers to think beyond the concepts of truth, love and evil. The philosophy of life is explained in a simplistic and realistic manner that will not only leave the readers engaged but will also enlighten them about life. The author strikingly portrays the three stories under different life and through a different approach, hence it becomes easier for the readers to look between the lines for its true meaning.

The writing style of the author is quite coherent and is laced with deep, moving emotions. The author’s narration of the great Indian epics are done in a vivid manner, as the dialogues between the characters are not only realistic and thoughtful, but are also extremely captivating enough to keep the readers glued to the book. The considerably fast pace keeps the story flowing through the meaningful stories of some of the great mythological characters.

The characters from the book are very well etched out by the author in this book. From Bhima’s convincing demenaor towards his family and son, Rama’s confusing demeanor about truth and the real reason behind Shambuka Rama’s presence in that village and Duryodhan’s regretful consicence towards the war and pain he caused to his cosuin’s family. Even the supporting female characters are also strikingly portrayed from Draupadi to Kunti to Sita, in this book.

In a nutshell, this is a must read book for all the mythology loving freaks, as the stories in the book will satisfy you to your very core.

A very enlightening read!

THE HINDU

‘Shambuka Rama’ review: epics brought down to earth

R. Krithika

MAY 26, 2018 16:00 IST

Vyasa and Valmiki watch their creations take on lives of their own

Mukunda Rao’s Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold is not the usual retelling of episodes from the epics. Instead it asks the reader to look at the choices people make. Three simple stories that leave the reader’s brain buzzing with queries, thoughts and more.

‘Another Bheema’ portrays the second Pandava not as a man as ready to eat as he is to kill. In Rao’s hands, Bheema is a sensitive man, capable of great anger and violence but also of great tenderness. After the Pandavas escape from the house of lac, Bheema finds some measure of peace in his marriage to Hidimba. When it’s time to leave and go to Ekachakra, Bheema decides that he does not want to leave his wife and son.

In ‘Sanjaya Speaks’, the battle may have ended but the war continues. Duryodhana lies battered and dying. Unable to say a word to his parents or wife, he finds he cannot stay silent when his son, Durjaya, swears to kill his father’s killers. But he has already unleashed Ashwattama, Kripa and Kritavarma to take revenge on the Pandavas.

‘Shambuka Rama’, the titular story, features an anguished, disillusioned Rama. At Jabali’s ashram, he is told to “go southwards for 10 yojanas. You will find what you have been seeking for. Trust your instincts.” Soon after, he meets Narada, who warns him to “beware of sceptical thinkers and wild cats. Think twice, think thrice, do not trust your instincts.” What Rama, Lakshmana and Sita find is a hermitage, but the people are not what they expect. Sita and Lakshmana settle down quickly among the renegades and heretics, but Rama struggles with views that seem to go against all that he has been taught.

Given the veneration with which the epics are treated, it is interesting to see Vyasa and Valmiki as authors watching their creations take on lives of their own. Vyasa is anguished that his years of hard work will come to naught if Bheema walks out. Valmiki, on the other hand, is watching his character Rama evolve. At the end, I wonder: what would have been if these had been just stories and nothing more?

krithika.r@thehindu.co.in

Shambuka Rama; Mukunda Rao, HarperCollins, ₹299

 

BOOK REVIEWMYTHOLOGY

Book Review: Shambuka Rama by Mukunda Rao|The trivial details we all missed|

May 16, 2018Mridula Gupta

 Blurb (as on Goodreads):

Rama, Lakshmana and Sita chance upon Valmiki’s ashram in the forest. But what is the shudra Shambuka doing there? As Duryodhana lies dying on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he reflects on all that brought the world to this pass, his guilt and that of his enemies, his loyalties and those of his friends and allies. As the story flashes back and forth on the last moments of the Great War, dharma and adharma merge and blur. In the forest, during the exile of the Pandavas, Bhima, married to Hidimba, compelled by his love for his son, Ghatotkacha, decides to stay back. Even his mother’s anger and his elder brother’s command will not sway him … Mukunda Rao tells three classic stories from the epics, shedding new light on them, illuminating corners that we haven’t looked at before. Shambuka Rama: Three Tales Retold is a powerful blend of spiritual search, philosophy and mythology.

Shambuka Rama contains three tales- 2 from Mahabharata and 1 from Ramayana. The book gives a philosophical touch to these mythological tales and poses some basic and valid questions to its readers.

The first story is about Bheema, who has married Hidimbi and has a child Ghatothkach. But Bheema can’t live with them forever in the forest because of his ‘Dharma’ as the prince of Hastinapura. But is it ‘dharma’ to leave your wife and child in the forest, alone and to fend for themselves? Kunti is incomplete without her sons and hence, isn’t it unfair for her to ask Bheema to live without his son? While these might be tiny developments in a huge saga, these events are what shaped the characters, who are mere pawns in the “Mahabharata”

The second story talks about Duryodhana, lying half-dead near a lake and thinking about his decisions and ‘karma’. Pandavas are proud of their win and Krishna- the one loved by all is provoking them to destroy the Kuru clan. Each soul is in a dilemma and everyone wants revenge. But what does revenge bring with itself? Mass destruction. Loss of lives at a level that is unimaginable and unfathomable.

The final story has been taken from Ramayana and it a part of the first year of exile. Rama, Sita, and Laxmana come across Sudra Shambuka, who knows the religious texts by heart but was driven away from his own city- Ayodhya because he was born of a Shudra Womb. On the other hand, Rama has identity issues and he continues questioning himself and his life as a Prince. All of this makes a great tale about the understanding of “Brahmins” and the reason for their existence.

Shambuka Rama also gives you an overview of these epic events along with the standard thought of existential and identity crisis. Written in simple language, the text is capable of making you ponder over events that were once considered insignificant, but these same events shaped the personalities of there great Kshatriya warriors.

A mythology lover’s paradise, this book is all you need to understand the depts of mythology and that, it is more than a tale of good and bad.

 

Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi

Sky-Clad

The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi,

by Mukunda Rao, was published by Westland Publications, Chennai,

was launched on 15th April 2018.

 

 

Inner voice was her guru

DEEPA GANESH

APRIL 12, 2018 16:23 IST

Speaking of his recent work Sky Clad on the 12th century saint poet Akka Mahadevi, author Mukund Rao says it is more an intuitive response to this extraordinary figure than a historical narrative

“Among the 12th century Shiva Sharana poets, I always have been moved and fascinated by Allama Prabhu and Akka Mahadevi. If Allama quickened my understanding of advaya or non-dual philosophy, Akka had me wishing I was born a woman,” writes Mukunda Rao, the author of “Sky Clad: The extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi”, in his Preface. To Akka Mahadevi, he further says, the body was a fundamental truth unfortunately ignored in most narratives on spirituality.” His earlier book, “The Buddha: An alternative narrative of his life and teaching”, also emphatically argues that “the concept of the body is altogether missing in the discourse of spirituality”. Continuing from there, this work on Akka brings body to the centre of his narrative, yet again. With two plays, two novels, a reader on the most influential thinker U.G. Krishnamurti, Mukunda Rao has written eight books in all.

Excerpts from an interview with the author:

In the huge pantheon of Vachanakaras, you chose to write about Akka Mahadevi. What drew you to her?

She is the most compelling figure, not only because she walked naked, ‘breast to breast with the cosmos’, but also because she opened up a radically new dimension to our understanding of spirituality, which, unfortunately, has been lost in traditional translation. To Akka body was not a prison of the soul, rather, it was the seat of Divinity, the crucible of truth. This should make us review our traditional religious discourses where the body is seen as an enemy of spirituality.

And, I must also point out that, although the vachana movement forms a compelling background of her life. We also need to see her outside the framework of vachana movement to be able to appreciate her extraordinary journey, which, according to me, puts her up there on the spiritual map of the world.

The body is central to Akka Mahadevi’s spiritual quest. As you write, she doesn’t live in a denial of her body, but celebrates it. How did the other spiritual traditions respond to the idea of body as a seat of spirituality?

With the exception of certain streams within Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the Tantra school of thought, almost all the religious/spiritual discourses—including Christian and Islamic traditions—are hopelessly caught in the dichotomy or dualism between spirit and matter, body and soul, soul and God, male and female (wherein the male principle is privileged), spirituality and materialism and so on.

In these religious discourses the body is seen as a sort of ‘enemy’, a dangerous customer, who needs to be controlled and disciplined in one’s spiritual enterprise. However, the attempts made either in the past or in the present to overcome this duality, to remedy this defective view, have been unfortunately subsumed under discourses which were and are mainly framed in psychological terms, so much so that the body continues to be regarded as an obstacle to be overcome in one’s spiritual quest. This must change. But I tell you, when you knock off these dualities or binaries—which produces false consciousness — most of these religions or spiritualities would collapse and the religious gurus would be unemployed.

There were 30 other women Vachanakaras during her period, and those like Bonta Devi who were considered to be on par with Allama. What made Akka so special?

Unfortunately we don’t know much about Bonta Devi and other women saranas of the times, certainly not as much as we know of Akka. However, in hindsight, we might say that she was the most remarkable one among the Shiva saranes, who blazed a path all her own. She was the kind of light you could not hide under a bushel!

Akkamahadevi was born with an instinct for the absolute, and her entire life’s journey, if one may say so, is a movement towards attaining it. Often, we tend to read Akka as a rebel against patriarchy, as a radical feminist etc. Are these readings complete?

Yes, she had an instinct for oneness, unitary consciousness. And she was certainly a rebel of an extraordinary order and there’s no problem in calling her a radical feminist. A genuine spiritual person is the ultimate rebel! For she rejects all man-made social norms, even the cumbersome clothes. Patriarchy is not only oppressive of women, it has been the source of fictitious binaries that divide up life into almost irreconcilable conflicts. It continues to be the bane of humankind. Patriarchy is rank bourgeois and radical feminists identified it as such. Akka knew it in her bones, as it were, and challenged the monster by walking naked. And, eventually, went beyond gender.

What does the term “brahminical order” encapsulate?

By the term ‘brahminical’ we don’t necessarily refer to Brahmin caste or those born in Brahmin family. That would be silly and incorrect. It only means an ideology, such as, for instance, the terrible caste system, pancha-sutakas, or the five kinds of pollution or impurities associated with women, temple worship and priestly class, and spiritual authority linked with Brahmin caste and the Vedas. Over several centuries, kings, rulers, and even people cutting across all castes have been aggressive supporters of this ideology.

Is God as husband belief very typical of Veerashaivism?

It is typical of the way of bhakti. Even men bhaktas take on feminine roles, speak through female personae and yearn for their male god as women do for their lovers. The strong sexual imagery in their compositions — of both men and women — is actually indicative of the deep yearning for mystical union, the great urge to self-transcendence in physical terms. The physical becomes the soul of the ‘metaphysical’. In the way of bhakti, the poet joins the bodily experience with the transcendental so that the spirit speaks through the ‘flesh’.

Women saints perhaps occupy a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they reject patriarchal values, but within their spiritual quest they seem to pursue them. For instance, they call themselves sharana sati, or the brides of God etc. But there is also a point where they cross this binary. In saints like Akka and Meera you can actually miss this transcendence. Akka writes in worldly language, as in “Ganda Neenu Hendatiyaanu Mattobbarillayya” and with equal intensity writes of surrender and aikya, as in “Teraniya Hula”. Would you explain this process from the bhava to the anubhaava?

Tradition talks of varieties of bhakti, but mainly there are two strands to it: seeking and being with God within the circle of bhava. It is a devotional relationship between devotee and God and remains so till the end. The bridge is never crossed, the relationship is never transcended, although there may be sometimes a flash of an urge to transcend the separation.

Mira, Avvaiyar, the Alvars, and the Dasas are good examples of such bhakti immersed in smaranaarchana and sakhya. Then there is the other kind of bhakti, what you call seeking and becoming God. This may start as intense love for a personal God, characterised by viraha, forlornness, or an acute sense of separation, which eventually ends in absolute surrender, and finishes in the dissolution of the relationship and realisation of oneness. Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, Lalleshwari and Kabir exemplified this kind of transcendental bhakti. In short, it is the journey from bhava, emotions, relationship, to anubhaava, unmediated vision of reality or truth, where there is no more seeking, no separation, and duality disappears. We don’t know how exactly this happens and therefore, you can never explain this phenomenon in definite terms.

As regards women saints rejecting patriarchal values and yet pursuing them does appear to be a paradoxical situation.

You have to live and move in a society shaped by patriarchy. But render patriarchy toothless, it can’t bite you anymore, because you are inwardly free of it. Akka and Lalleshwari are typical examples here, and eventually they moved beyond all binaries.

So much has been written about Akka in Kannada. What were your fears when you set out writing this book?

Writing about someone who was an embodiment of fearlessness, I could not afford to be bothered by any kind of fear or anxiety. I have taken firm positions; for instance, I do not think you would want to see Akka as belonging to Virashaiva faith.

Like Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi, too, just cut loose from religious initiations and stages of becoming and came upon that which has no name and form. Her bhakti was the path, her inner voice the guru, and she promptly moved from bhakti to arivu – awareness that all is one. To read and narrate the story of Akka Mahadevi within the framework of Virashaivism, therefore, would be analogous to writing about Gandhiji within the framework of the Congress Party.

By the way, Basavanna didn’t call himself or his fellow bhaktas as Virashaivas or Lingayats. The term ‘Virashaiva’ was first used by Bhimakavi in his Basava Purana, a 14th C text, and then later by the authors of Shunya Sampadane. And the name stuck.

Your research is exhaustive… how long did it take to complete the book?

I had to of course read several books in the original, in Kannada, especially the different versions of Shunya Sampadane. But I am more an intuitive writer than one steered by the study of books. It took a long time to finish the book. Sky-Clad is more an inspired narrative than a studied historical work. There was joy, and agony, too, because you wanted to get under the skin of Akka and become her.

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A book on Akka, as Lingayat row rages

Rajitha Menon, Apr 13 2018, 19:03 IST

Bengaluru-based writer Mukunda Rao’s latest book ‘Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi’, tells the story of one of the foremost feminist and spiritual icons of Indian history.

It is a comprehensive new reading of her story, “one where the body is seen not as the prison of the mind or soul, but as the ground of intelligence, creativity and enlightenment.”

Mukunda Rao, who taught English at a college in Bengaluru for about three decades, has written novels, plays, and books on Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Buddha and philosopher U G Krishnamurthy.

Ahead of his book launch on Sunday, Rajitha Menon asked him about the subject of his latest book.

Why Akka Mahadevi?

Akka was a fascinating person. Unfortunately, not many people know about her outside Karnataka. Her life, her journey and the potential she was able to realise are remarkable.

Which books provided the material for your novel?

Many, some dating back to the 15th century. A more important source is ‘vachana’ poetry, which gives you a sense of the kind of person she was.

Akka is worshipped and revered by the pious, and at the same time seen as a symbol of rebellion and defiance…

Many like Akka and Allama Prabhu, even Ramana Maharshi, continue to be put in the religious frame. Within that, there is very little you can understand about them. Their writings indicate the possibility of realisation of great human potential. That is how they should be approached, and not through the confines of religion.

How do you separate myth from history when it comes to Akka?

The so-called history is also largely fictional (laughs). There are different perspectives on history. When you look at it that way, this question doesn’t arise.

Which of Akka’s vachanas do you like the most?

There are so many, I can’t pinpoint any unless I open a book and read. Her vachanas show her evolution; there is bhakti, love, a sense of wonder, and ultimately you see her going beyond the binaries.

What about the 12th-century poet would you say is relevant to today’s young people, especially the millennials?

Relevance is also politicised from time to time. Human beings have been the same for thousands of years, everywhere in the world. I think these writings speak to us even now. An Akka Mahadevi, Buddha or Ramana are more relevant today than some of our cultural and political leaders. Religion has become dictatorial, it is spirituality which is democratic and pluralistic.

What challenges did you face while writing your book?

Most of the old texts are hagiographies; they put their subjects on a pedestal and make them totally irrelevant to your life. This disconnect should be overcome and we must look at them as human beings – what they tried to achieve, what their aspirations were, what they experienced, what kind of life they led.

What is your take on the separate religion status for Lingayats, since Akka is one of the leading lights of the faith?

This is controversial. In the vachanas of the 12th-century vachanakaras, you don’t see any mention of the terms ‘Veerashaiva’ or ‘Lingayat’. I believe a group called ‘Veerashaiva’ existed at the time of Basavanna; he didn’t have a very high opinion of them as they accepted the authority of the Vedas. I asked an elderly woman born in a Lingayat family what she thought of the controversy, and she said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything to me; I am a Shiva devotee’. That’s how the vachankaras saw themselves.

Poetry of intensity

Akka Mahadevi is a revered figure in Indian literature. She lived in the 12th century and wrote vachanas, spontaneous mystical poems that defied literary and social conventions. She was one of the most inspiring voices of the bhakti movement led by Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. Akka shunned clothes and celebrated her body as a seat of divinity. Her poetry is intensely lyrical, and she is studied across the world for her radical approach to life and spirituality. Her poetry is available in English translation. A K Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (Penguin) features lovely translations of some of her verses. Mukunda Rao’s Sky-Clad is a rare attempt to tell her story in English. Women poets in languages across India cite Akka as a prime inspiration.

Launch on Sunday

Film director Kavitha Lankesh releases the book ‘Sky-Clad’ at 10.30 am on April 15 at Ranga Shankara. The book is priced at Rs 299 and is also available online.

 

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Mukunda Rao’s book Sky-Clad is an extraordinary tribute to one of the greatest women saint poets in Kannada, Akka Mahadevi. 

Growing up in a Kannada-speaking home, it would have been nearly impossible for me not to have heard of Akka Mahadevi, even if it was only through Pt Mallikarjuna Mansur’s mellifluous rendering of her vachanas. But if anybody had asked me who exactly Akka Mahadevi was, I would have given you just the standard, obvious answers. A 12th century sharane (devotee). The composer of lyrical vachanas (prose-poems). A spiritual icon of the bhakti movement.

But now, thanks to Mukunda Rao’s Sky-Clad: The extraordinary life and times of Akka Mahadevi, I have a much deeper sense of Akka Mahadevi. She was much more than I thought. A rebel. A radical feminist. A free spirit who broke with tradition, challenged existing notions, fought against patriarchy and walked her own, blazing path.

Engrossing and well-written, the book takes a close look at Akka Mahadevi’s life and times. It sees her not as just an icon, but as a person — an extraordinary one, perhaps, but still human.

The author Mukunda Rao, a former teacher, is the author of acclaimed books of fiction, philosophy, and plays. In his introduction, he says that while working on his book In Search of Shiva, published in 2010, Akka Mahadevi gripped him and wouldn’t let him go until he wrote a full-length book on her. Sky-Clad is the result.

Akka Mahadevi was born around 1130-1150 CE, in Shivamogga district of Karnataka. She was a beautiful woman, who, very early in life, had discovered spirituality and had “chosen” Lord Chennamallikarjuna as her husband. But King Kaushika, besotted with her, forced her into marriage, threatening her family with dire consequences if she refused. She agreed, on certain conditions – that he wouldn’t stop her from living as she wished to. When Kaushika broke his promise, Mahadevi shed her clothes, and walked out of the palace, naked, in search of spiritual realization. She walked 800 kilometers through forest and villages to Kalyana, the home of the Shiva Sharanas, including stalwarts like Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. She was welcomed, and she participated in the “Anubhava Mantapa”, an open platform to discuss and share experiences – caste and gender no bar. Around this time, she started being referred to with the honorific “Akka” – elder sister.

Later, Akka Mahadevi went to Srishaila, and there, she attained aikya (oneness with Chennamallikarjuna) in the hill-caves of Srishaila.

In the book, the author traces Akka Mahadevi’s journey, and her life and outlook, in the background of the spiritual movement of that period, a time of great ferment and revolution, which provides a context to Akka Mahadevi’s life.

Akka Mahadevi’s spirituality was unique in that she wasn’t influenced by anyone, and nor was she a mentor to anybody else. Her spiritual journey had always been her own, it had come from within her.

She composed about 355 vachanas in praise of her Lord, and they are considered to be one of the finest examples of lyrical poetry in Kannada. The author traces Mahadevi’s spiritual journey through her vachanas.

For instance, the author points out that some vachanas speak about her Lord in physical terms – “white teeth and small matted curls” implying that she saw him as “saguna” (with form). And then, it moves on to formlessness (nirguna).

Like the colour in the gold
weren’t you in me?
I saw in you,
O Lord Chennamallikarjuna,
the paradox of your being in me
without showing a limb.

Finally, some of her vachanas imply that she started seeing herself as one with the Lord, and she has no words to describe that state.

I do not say it is the Linga.
I do not say it is oneness with the Linga.
I do not say it is union,
I do not say it is harmony.
I do not say it has occurred.
I do not say it has not occurred.
I do not say it is I.
I do not say it is Thee.
I do not say anything,
for there is nothing to say.

Sky-Clad is not just the story of Mahadevi. The author has also delved deeply into the Bhakti movement, and about Bhakti as a path to liberation. He speaks about Bhakti itself, the devotion and the surrender, and the different forms of Bhakti. For instance, devotional Bhakti, the kind that Mirabai, Avaiyyar and others practiced. On the other hand, there is transcendental Bhakti – where the seeker becomes one with the Lord, there is no duality, as practiced by Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, and Kabir.

There is also a wealth of information about the adherents of the Bhakti movement – Allama Prabhu, Basavanna, Avaiyyar, Kabir, Lalleshwari, and many more. He compares and contrasts their lives, and their beliefs, the nature of their Bhakti and how they approached life. It is an enlightening account and gave me a very clear picture of the Bhakti movement, one that I had never had before.

The book also answers the question that I always had about Akka Mahadevi. Why did she shed her clothes? Why was she “sky-clad”?

The author deals with this in fascinating detail, but in short, Akka Mahadevi believed that the body wasn’t shameful, not the prison of the mind or soul, but a source of creativity. This, says the author, throws open a new dimension to the understanding of spirituality, which usually implies that the body is the enemy, that it comes in the way of achieving spirituality.

The book leaves us with the translation of a few of Akka Mahadevi’s vachanas at the end, and I’ll leave you with one myself, taken from the book. This vachana is one of her more popular ones, the advice in which, says the author, she likely followed herself as she walked naked among villages and forests.

Having built a house on mountain top
can you be scared of wild beasts?
Having built a house on seashore
can you dread the waves and froth?
Having built a house in the market place
can you fight shy of noise?
Listen,
being born in this world
when praise and blame follow,
shunning anger
one must keep one’s calm.

Shruthi Rao

Women’s Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views. Individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform’s views and opinions at all times. 

Gender, Identity & the Culture of Change: A consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

A consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

There were many Gandhis in the Mahatma: the Gandhi of England, of South Africa, the rebel Gandhi of 1920s, the non-violent revolutionary of 1930s, lastly the Gandhi of Noakhali period, during which time he launched into his last and most controversial experiment, namely, ‘Yajna’, while the nation thrashed about in its birth pangs. 

Also Gandhi was many things to many people. If some were drawn by his ideas of village swaraj and trusteeship, some by his philosophy of non-violence or satyagraha as a distinct yet creative and effective instrument of social and political change, some by his integral spirituality.

At a time when the one-time established narratives and discourses are being questioned, when the major political ideologies have failed to deliver their promised goods, it is not surprising to see thinkers and activists relooking at these different Gandhis, so to say, in their search for alternatives, for different, peaceful, non-violent and non-exploitative ways of being and doing things in the world. I believe this workshop is an attempt to explore those possibilities by way of discussing his economics, his notion of swaraj, his technique of dealing with political issues and so on. However, I wish to focus on a much less discussed subject, namely, Gandhi’s concept of man, his understanding of human sexuality and spiritual transformation, and consider their social implication today.

*

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher who had considerable influence on Western Thought, is believed to have thought of woman as a sort of incomplete man. Thomas Aquinas, it is said, regarded woman as misbegotten man. If Quran deems woman inferior to man, the Book of Genesis gives notice to women thus: ‘And thy desire shall be thy husband and he shall rule over thee…’ And Corinthians declares: ‘The head of every man is Christ; and the head of every woman is man.’ Our own Manu of Manu Dharmashastra warns that women are fickle, capricious and unfaithful, therefore they need to be engaged and controlled by man.

In Gandhian world view, however, man is seen as an incomplete woman, and woman an incomplete God.

If we can identify roughly three phases in Gandhian spiritual experiments, not as disjointed but as a continuous process, then,

  •     the first phase could be interpreted as a phase of ‘discovering woman’, or discovering the ‘other’ in oneself;
  •     the second as of becoming a complete woman, rather a mother to one and all;
  •   the third and final one, called yajna, was the final oblation of all traces of sexuality and identity to become ‘god-eunuch’.

Gandhi called his life an open book. In his scheme of life there was no such thing as a purely private or public space. The two interpenetrated to become one unified field of action. Spirituality was not something purely personal or private anymore than politics was strictly social and public. The spirituality of politics and politics of spirituality came together in Gandhi’s life to form a dialectics of growth and freedom. ‘What I want to achieve,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘what I have been striving and pinning to achieve these 30 years, is self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.’

One might think that there is nothing original in the way Gandhi lived and in his ideas, that many of his ideas and practices could be traced to some Indian tradition or the other (not to discount the inspiration he drew from the works of Thoreau, John Ruskin, Tolstoy, and the Sermon on the Mount; though it was Indian philosophy that formed the bulwark); still, the way he conducted his life in the open, the way he articulated these ideas and redefined some of the classical Hindu concepts (almost turning some of them on their head) and projected them on to the social and political realm was something unique and his own.

Before we go into the details of how Gandhi conducted his politico-spiritual experiments, how out of his spiritual struggle to become woman and then god-eunuch he tried to develop a new cultural politics of change, we could briefly consider here how some of the Indian leaders perceived British Imperialism and their idea of a resurgent India.

Several nineteenth century Indian leaders believed that India had fallen prey to waves of foreign invasions because Indians had become passive, effete, inert, degenerate, and that they were in deep slumber, profoundly apolitical, devoid of patriotism and so on. And all of them encouraged a selfless devotion for the country, advocated new principles of morality and social organization, new national character. Among these leaders and religious reformers there were many who thought the Indians had become passive and weak and devoid of energy largely as a result of their sensuous and self-indulgent life style. Even a mystic-reformer like Vivekananda contended that the loss of sexual purity and discipline and the weakening or loss of faith in one’s own spiritual traditions was the central cause of the downfall of Indian civilisation.

Gandhi too shared these concerns and was keen to harness sexual energy for political purposes, to channelize the fire of sexual passion into a cultural and political action for freedom and growth. However, unlike some of the religious reformers of the period who stressed ‘masculine’ virtues and wanted Indians to become ‘manly’ in the manner of their colonial master, both to achieve freedom and recover the ancient glory of Bharath, Gandhi’s strategies for change and his idea of a healthy and dynamic civilization was quite different. His concern to integrate man and woman to become a ‘whole’ person, his attempt to feminize politics and develop a new yugadharma based on principles of truth and feminine virtues, and maternal principles, in particular, was something radical and new. While most of his views or ideas were borrowed from traditional sources yet the way he charged them with new meanings and projected them on to the social and political realm marked at once both a departure from and an extension of certain ancient values and vision of integral life. For instance the idea or value of ahimsa which traditionally meant avoidance of violence or refusal to inflict violence on others, in the hands of Gandhi it gained an activist’s meaning: it meant intervention, or engagement with the world to free society from all forms of violence.

His ideas of sexuality and brahmacharya were certainly derived from Indian traditions. He accepted the widespread belief that sexual activity was the most energy consuming and enervating of all human activities. However, with appropriate practices this sexual energy could be channelized or made to move upward through the spinal cord into the brain and get transformed into ojas or spiritual energy. Gandhi accepted this theory yet he differed from the tradition in the sense that he believed that this spiritual energy enabled one not only to attain supreme consciousness or moksha, but also released tremendous revolutionary power to transform society. For Gandhi the personal and social were not segregated spaces just as the political and spiritual were not two separate activities. Freedom or swaraj was multidimensional: the social, political and spiritual freedoms led one to the other and depended on each other.

His understanding of brahmacharya was also different from the popular traditions. These traditions expected a brahmachari not only to eschew sex but avoid all contact with women. Gandhi thought of this view as cowardly, narrow, hidebound and retrograde. It betrayed a deep fear of woman and could only lead to suppression of sexuality and not to its sublimation or transcendence. A genuine transcendence of sexual desire or sexual impulse could be achieved not outside of society or with total avoidance of women who form an integral part of our lives, just as the search for and realization of truth and ahimsa could not be transacted outside society but within society, in the thick of samsara.

We should note here that the notions of truth and non-violence, or satya and ahimsa are central to Gandhi’s philosophy. Almost all his other ideas, as for instance his ideas of personhood, wholeness, moksha, as also his idea of a new moral and social order is related to or emanates from these two master concepts.

On the level of faith, Truth according to Gandhi was pure consciousness, the power that holds the universe together, it is God, Nature, Cosmic order, names are secondary. But in the phenomenal world this supreme reality is revealed through ahimsa and love; it is in fact the centripetal and cohesive force immanent in all of us and in the world. But, man, according to Gandhi, is not given to know this absolute truth, for absolute truth would mean absolute ahimsa, incarnation of truth in totality. Relative truth is all that is given to us, hence we can but move from truth to greater truth and in the light of this dynamic, progressive knowledge manage and resolve human problems and conflicts. ‘As long as I have not realized this Absolute truth,’ he said, ‘so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must meanwhile be my beacon, my shield and buckler.’

So then, in Gandhian philosophy and praxis, history, our past, present, our experiences  and hopes and ideas of future become relative truths, consequently society or world become the functional standard of objective truth. And the individual’s search for truth naturally has to take place in terms of the community of which she or he is a part. Outside society individuals cannot be good and realize the truth; rather, within the praxis of continuous, tireless search for truth, individual and social health and happiness is made possible. Further, in a world of conflicting theories and ideologies, a world in which violence has become a creed and is justified not only politically but even on moral grounds, the means by which we pursue truth shall be non-violence. In other words, living in a world of relative truths and in an imperfect, evolving society where man is not God or in possession of absolute truth, he is not competent or cannot posses any right to punish or kill or destroy. Hence only non-violence will be the means to resolve conflicts, for only ahimsa can create the creative possibilities for both the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘victim’ to realize their common humanity and achieve their freedom and happiness.

It is from such an understanding of satya and ahimsa, and out his own experience of insult and indignation that Gandhi forged his technique of Satyagraha to challenge and fight against the black laws during his stay in South Africa. But it was only after his return to India and after his rigorous experiments in social change and fight against the British Imperialism that he was to discover the greater and profounder implications of his twin concepts. And he developed a theory of liberation, so to say, which entailed liberation from not only the historical, political and social oppression and injustice but also from all forms of violence within and without. In effect, it was a critique of modernity and western ideologies of normality, masculinity, adulthood, and rationality, all of which, in the words of Ashis Nandy, ‘have been crucial planks in the various secular theories of salvation and progress, which have been popular during the last one hundred and fifty years of western hegemony.’ In other words, Gandhi’s theory of freedom offered a critique of the grave errors in the western epistemology, rooted as it was in dualistic or binary thinking as found for instance in the cultural disjunctions between the male and the female, the young and the old, between man and nature, good and evil and so on.

*

Now, what is of interest and significance for our deliberation here today is to know how Gandhi tried to resolve the deepest conflicts about or between femininity and masculinity, how through a redefinition of womanhood and the concept of man, he struggled to develop a new cultural politics and spirituality to counter modernity based on patriarchal values.

Gandhi associated (man’s) sexuality with aggression and violence. His vow of brahmacharya was backed by a conviction that sexual act was grossly selfish and exploitative and it used up excessive energy which ultimately damaged bodily regeneration. It was like partial suicide. And it made man incapable of spiritual growth and transcendence.

More importantly, the conventional notion of sexuality bifurcated the human species and stood in the way of human unity and a non-oppressive world. This bifurcation encouraged the hopeless and false division of human qualities into purely masculine and feminine. If men were conditioned to be rational, tough, competitive, aggressive and strong, women were expected to be emotional or sentimental, soft, tender and so on. This way each sex was condemned to remain only ‘half’ of a human being excluding qualities associated with the other. Therefore the sexual bifurcation needed to be overcome if one aspired to be ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. And this, Gandhi suggested, could be done by internally appropriating the ‘other sex’ and the qualities associated with it. Way back in 1921, speaking to the Ashram women, he said: ‘My ideal is this: A man should remain man and yet should become woman; similarly a woman should remain woman and yet become man. This means that man should cultivate the gentleness and the discrimination of woman; and woman should cast off her timidity and become brave and courageous.’ In practical terms this meant that men should also perform women’s work whether it was cleaning, washing, or even cooking. And women should learn to do men’s work, and even participate in satyagraha. Gandhi of course didn’t go the whole hog and encourage women to literally perform all tasks hitherto done by men. Still, the implication was tremendous, particularly with regard to men appropriating women’s qualities. If we have to quote Ashis Nandy again: ‘Here the assumption was that femininity in men, especially in the form of maternity, provided a self-critical masculinity which could subvert the values of the modern civilization.’

In mid thirties, Gandhi’s equation of violence with masculinity became more pronounced. He may not have used terms such as ‘phallo-centric’, ‘andro-centric’  and so on which are used by feminists today, not even the term ‘patriarchy’, but he was more than convinced, particularly after his own personal ‘failure in brahmacharya’ in 1936 & 1938, and after witnessing increasing violence in the country, that the root of ‘evil’ lay in man, that this aggressively evil civilization had come out of man’s domination, his self-assertion, his dangerous sexuality, aggression and brutality. In contrast woman seemed all positive, creative and life-affirming. And womanhood an anti-dote to man’s illness. Woman exemplified non-violence, sacrifice, tenderness, giving, loving: qualities he believed would ultimately save the world and can become the basis of a new yugadharma.

During these years, at some point, he moved from the position of ‘discovering woman’ or appropriating woman’s qualities, to the position of becoming a full or complete woman. Writing about this phase in Gandhi’s life, Bhikhu Parekh says: ‘So long as he was conscious of himself as a male, elements of aggression and violence were bound to remain, even if he was not conscious of them. The only way out was to cease to be a male, to become woman.’

When translated into politics or projected into the socio-political arena, it meant that if the world had to be cleansed of aggression and violence, the world had to be reconstituted on the feminine, especially maternal principles.

So now he tried to become a complete woman, rather a mother to the people in his ashrams, to his close female associates, especially to Manu Gandhi. This was of course not an entirely new development, but only an extension and intensification of what he had been doing for many years. As a public servant, a political leader, and a spiritual seeker he had been living and working in close proximity with his female associates. Not only political and intellectual work, even mundane activities such as taking a bath, oil massage and so on were conducted in the open. The female co-workers used to even sleep beside him during the nights. At times Gandhi would even oil and comb Manu’s hair like a mother. All his female co-workers and many other women too who had come in contact with him or worked with him, openly spoke to the effect that they could relate to him as they would to other women and felt totally at home in his presence. There were of course some women who did become possessive of him and his love; for instance, persons like Mira Behn, who, on a couple of occasions, had to be sent away to work in other places. Analysing this relationship between Gandhi and his close female associates, Bhikhu Parekh says that it ‘had some elements of Krishnite love’.

It is of importance to note here that womanhood as a symbol and womanliness as a subject have played a major role in the creative consciousness of several forms of art and in the philosophy of many Hindu traditions. In modern times, not only in Gandhian spirituality, as Ashis Nandy would say, even in some of the religious reformers after the beginning of British rule, the concept of womanhood and femininity have played a major role. In particular, to quote Nandy again, ‘Ramakrishna and Aurobindo found in motherhood the supreme concept of a new godhead, rooted in tradition on the one hand and capable of balancing the over-emphasis on masculinity in the Semitic religions on the other.’

It was not as if Gandhi was ignorant of all this; in fact, as we have said earlier, several of his ideas were borrowed from traditional sources. But the uniqueness of this womanly man lay in the fact that he enlarged them with new socio-political meanings in order to transform and empower a defeated people and their traditions. He was no mystic yet a seeker of supreme consciousness, he was no philosopher but a thinker who worked out his concepts and values from his experience of day-to-day living and confrontations with the realities around him.

The last phase of Gandhi (1940s), however, offers a fascinating, disturbing yet challenging story. During this phase he was no more satisfied trying to be a complete woman or mother, he sought to go beyond, to lose all sense of sexuality, rather to transcend sexual consciousness and become a god-eunuch.

I understand that the term ‘eunuch’ would sound derogatory today; even tend to demean the people of different sex. However, the terms like non-sexual, bisexual, androgyny and so on may not adequately convey the intended meaning; moreover it will not serve the purpose of this discussion to replace the term, so we’ll stick to the expression used by Gandhi.

Before we go into this phase, it is necessary to consider the historical circumstance under which he undertook his Yajna. The 1940s was a traumatic period, a period of great upheavals, unprecedented tragedies and irrevocable historical changes. It so happened that during this period, now and then Gandhi was thrown into disagreements with the leaders of the Congress Party over the issue of civil-disobedience and interpretation of non-violence. On December 30, 1941, in a letter to the Congress President Maulana Azad, he wrote: ‘… it is my certain belief that only non-violence can save India and the world from self-extinction. Such being the case, I must continue my mission, whether I am alone or assisted by an organisation or individuals. You will, therefore, please relieve me of responsibility laid upon me by the Bombay resolution.’

In 1942 the World War II broke out, the same year Quit India movement was launched and Gandhi was imprisoned till 1944, during which time his close associate Mahadev Desai and his wife Kasturba died, leaving him feeling alone and in despair. After his release from Aga Khan Palace, all his attempts at negotiations with the British Government, with Jinnah and even CWC members to prevent the partition failed. The division of the country would be only on the vivisection of my body, he had said, but now, he was unable to prevent the division and the coming holocaust. In 1946 the great Calcutta killings took place leaving behind 5000 dead and nearly 15000 injured. Soon the bloody riots spread to Noakhali and other places. He undertook what is considered to be his greatest fast to stem the tide of violence. But there was no final solution and the future looked dim and gloomy.

He felt unwanted, betrayed by his own one-time close co-workers, his non-violence rendered weak, his spiritual power waning, ineffective. Hitherto he had been exploring ways of releasing, conserving, mobilising his own as well as popular energy, to convert, to transform a beleaguered society, but all that seemed to have come to a naught. Yet, at times, he would think: ‘I do feel that I have come nearer to God and truth…’ Still, something was missing. It seemed he had now reached the last stage of his life. He was now on a ‘do or die’ mission to stop the raging flames, the spreading madness, and transform himself completely so as to come upon moksha and the spiritual power the likes of Mohammad, Christ and Buddha possessed. Didn’t the Patanjali Yoga Sutra say that a realized person would come to posses the spiritual power to tame even the wildest animals, let alone win over the most implacable enemies? Gandhi believed in the sutra and in himself as having the potential to posses the spiritual power to change the course of history. Indeed, he is believed to have said that if he could ‘master’ his sexuality, that is, become a god-eunuch, he ‘can still beat Jinnah’, and prevent the partition.

Gandhi had subjugated the palate, the senses, he had conquered anger, but there seemed to be still traces or vestiges of sexuality left in him which seemed to be blocking the flow of spiritual energy. But he felt he was close, only he needed to take the final step, which involved going beyond even the woman in him and becoming completely sexless, a ‘god-eunuch’. He called this final experiment in brahmacharya a yajna —meaning sacrifice, total surrender. He had done everything possible by him, there was nothing more left except giving himself up totally and waiting for the divine grace to descend upon him.

The idea of sexlessness or freedom from sex consciousness, or attaining the state of ‘god-eunuch’ can be found in several religious traditions, including that of Islam and Christian. In Islam, there is the idea that the one who gets closer to khudda or receives the grace of God is the one who has become a god-eunuch not through surgery but by prayer. And in Christianity, Jesus is believed to have said: ‘…there are some eunuchs, who are so born from the mother’s womb, some were so made by men, and some who have made themselves so for the love of the Kingdom of Heaven’.   

In Hinduism, bisexuality or trans-sexuality, even sexlessness or asexuality, have always been considered as a mark of saints, yogis and sages. Sukhadeva, son of Vyasa, is believed to have been born without sexual impulse. Tantric tradition seeks unity of female and male, prakriti and purusha through passionless sexual act. In the bhakti tradition, we find some of the male saints, for instance, Basavanna, singing in female voices, taking on female personae. A male saint-to-be not only sheds his caste and samsara he ‘drops his masculinity, becomes a woman, so that he can open to the lord’. To quote A.K Ramanujan, ‘Thus, in the course of constituting or reconstituting themselves in this new ways of being, men may take on feminine roles, speak through female personae and yearn for their male god as woman do for their lovers.’

In effect, it means that by taking on female personae one ‘becomes woman, whole and androgynous like the gods themselves (Purusa, Shiva, and Vishnu).’ In the symbol or image of ardhanarishwara we have the idea of bi-sexuality permanently etched on Hindu consciousness. However, we may note here that generally the Hindu tradition considers sex a beautiful, even a divine impulse, and it occupies an important place among the four purusharthas. Jayadev’s Gita Govinda celebrates sexual love, and there are Puranas that narrate sexual adventures of gods with great relish. What is generally warned against is attachment to sex. Krishna who is considered to be an embodiment of love, is also considered an eternal brahmachari, while Narada, unmarried and a brahmachari has to overcome the delusion or the illusion of sex by becoming a woman and experiencing sex and samsara. However, there is a general agreement among almost all Indian spiritual traditions that sexual energy/urge is not only meant for procreation, but, equally, for self-creation.

According to Advaita tradition, ultimately a human being is neither male nor female. The sexual distinction or differentiation is only a maya, a socially conditioned perception, or, a social construct, if you like. In this context, one is reminded here of a vachana from Devara Dasimayya, an eleventh century vachanakara. Expressing the non-dualistic vision, he sang thus:

If they see

breasts and long hair coming

they call it woman,

if beard and whiskers

they call it man:

but, look, the self that hovers

in between

is neither man

nor woman

O Ramanatha.

A hundred year later, in a strikingly similar language and expressing a similar vision, saint Goggavve sang:

They call one woman if one has

breasts and a braid;

They call one man if one possesses

moustache and a loin cloth.

Is knowledge of these twain

male or female?

O Nastinatha.

Given this background, Gandhi’s ideas of sexuality and his idea of god-eunuch, therefore, mark at once a continuity and departure from traditions. He was like an acharya who did not merely follow the scriptures or tradition but offered his own commentaries of the texts. And like a scientist he sought validity or otherwise of ancient ideas in his own body-mind, looking for the materiality of his spirituality.

Now, Yajna involved lying together (not sleeping together) with a woman, to test himself, to know if he has transcended sexuality completely. This art of self-temptation is known to several traditions, including the Christian. To use Bhikhu Parekh’s words, this ‘“homoeopathic” principle of purifying desire by intensifying it’, was practiced by Ramananda, a disciple of Chaitanya’. However, this experiment in brahmacharya was not an entirely new development in the 40s, a number of women had taken part in it with Gandhi at some time or other in the past. But now, while touring the riot-torn Noakhali, with Manu Gandhi as his partner, the experiment, something like the tantric yogic practice, reached a feverish pitch. And he talked openly about it in his prayer meetings. For every article on the political situation he wrote for Harijan, there were two or three on ‘brahmacharya’ which shocked and upset many, including his close associates and several Congress leaders. In one of his letters to a close associate he wrote: ‘One who never had any lustful intention, who by constant attendance upon God has become capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they might be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited…’

Some called it immoral, and many felt it had no basis in Hindu tradition. Several of his close political associates and friends, including his son, Devadas, dissented to his ‘yajna’ and tried to dissuade him. But Gandhi stubbornly defended himself saying that it should in no way mislead people or weaken the moral basis of society as the experiment was not an invitation to promiscuity but the opposite. What he was doing was only to test, enlarge and revise the current understanding of brahmacharya in the light of his observation and experience; rather, by exploring new areas of experience he was in fact extending the boundaries of available knowledge. Therefore, even if his friends left him, even if the world went against him he would not stop the experiment. But then stop he did, when pressure mounted against him from several sides and when Manu Gandhi, who was his partner in the ‘yajna’, was asked to tell Gandhi to suspend the experiment.

We do not know if through this experiment Gandhi attained to the state of being he desired. Years later the experiment came under much criticism. Without accounting for the ‘self-temptation’ as a method practiced in certain religious traditions to gauge one’s spiritual progress, some psychologists declared the ‘yajna’ as a case of regression to childhood. Even, the great psychologist Erik H. Erikson, who has made some penetrating and insightful analysis of Gandhi’s experiments, especially of his concepts of satya and ahimsa, wondered ‘weather the whole arrangement expressed a senile and eccentric self-testing, a belated need for younger women, or, indeed, a regression to an infantile need for motherly warmth. It could well have been all of these’.

As we have already said, for one thing, there is a long tradition among certain religious groups to back Gandhi’s experiment. That is not to say a tradition is sacrosanct and unquestionable. At any rate there seems to be a deep flaw in the ‘self-temptation’ method itself. According to tradition it is a upaya, something like trying to remove a thorn with a thorn, like using the mind to still the mind in meditation, like trying to attain the desireless state by subjecting oneself to the temptation of desire. One is not sure if this method works, or has ever worked.

However, what needs to be appreciated is that there was no secrecy involved in Gandhi’s experiment. And it is to the credit of this extra-ordinary man, who lived and wondered aloud, who, however flawed his experiments might have been, carried them out openly and honestly and strove ‘to extend the boundaries of available knowledge’.

Crucially, by questioning sexual bifurcation or unitary conception of sexuality, and by trying to through his experiments become ‘woman’ and then ‘god-eunuch’, Gandhi, whether unwittingly or knowingly, was reasserting and trying to bring into the public space the great insights of the enlightenment traditions.

From Tantric philosophy, Kundalini Yoga and lives and teachings of sages such as the Buddha, Anandamayi Ma, Ramana and U.G.Krishnamurti, what we learn is that there is a state of being, whether we call it the state of enlightenment or the natural state, which is beyond sexuality, which is not to be confused with the state of a sexual eunuch. Most likely that is the truth concealed behind the image of Ardhanarishwara.

The terms hermaphroditic and androgynous do not adequately explain that state. It is a state of being a sage comes into when the bodily changes occur. Such an individual is then neither purely man nor woman, rather both qualities of man and woman coexist in the body. A perfect union of animus-anima, man-woman in union, pictorially represented by the image of ardhanarishwara: one half or the right side of the body as Shiva and the other half or left side of the body as Parvathi. This is the undivided state of consciousness, and one who is in that state, a sage, therefore, cannot make love, for love needs two and there is no two in that state of being.

In the case of Gandhi’s yajna, it seems to me that it was like putting the cart before the horse. It is doubtful if one could become a ‘god-eunuch’ or attain the state of ardhanarishwara (though they are not exactly the same thing) through sadhana or experiments. In other words, as I understand, the state of ardhanarishwara is an attribute of the natural state of being or enlightenment; that is to say, when one is enlightened, one naturally, with absolutely no effort, comes into that state of being.

However, the many ideas and values Gandhi generated during the course of his several experiments carry tremendous significance, both politically and culturally, for our times today.

I believe that his notion of relative truth and satyagraha have particular relevance in our increasingly violent world today. His philosophy of non-violence, among other things, was an assertion of the pacifist culture of women and an ecological outlook to life, which we need to reassert and bring it to the fore. In other words, his non-violent struggle not only challenged the colonial project driven by masculinist values, it was also an attempt, a method, to feminize politics hitherto dominated by masculinist thinking, to restructure society based on maternal principles/values.

Interestingly, some of the ‘Second Wave’ feminists, without of course making any reference to Gandhi, do think and argue that through their maternal experience and thinking, it is possible to construct a new politics and ethics grounded in feminine values of caring and nurture. However, there is a fear that ‘maternal thinking’ somehow reifies the dichotomy between sexes which is at the root of the oppression of women, and that, far from replacing the male order, by privileging women over men, could perpetuate the dichotomy inherent in the male discourse.

The middle-path would be to reject the exclusive association of the feminine with woman, the masculine with man. To work out a more fluid, plural understanding of man/woman, a more plural, non-unitary conception of sexuality, which will be closer not only to what the deep spiritualities of the world have tried to indicate and what Gandhi tried to actualize through his experiments, but is closer to our own lived experiences which should replace the unitary conception of sexuality which has been the cause of much mischief and harm. In other words, to construct maleness which is inclusive of femininity, and of femaleness that does not pre-empt or exclude masculinity. This could be done without jettisoning the notion of difference not only between men and women, but also between men and women themselves.

Not surisingly, there are also feminists who believe in unisex norm as an ideal norm. Arguing for Androgyny as an ideal for human development, Ann Ferguson, says, ‘…it seems more plausible to assume that human nature is plastic and moldable, and that women and men develop their sexual identities, their sense of self, and their motivations through responding to the social expectations placed upon them.’ Further, she claims, ‘There is good evidence that human babies are bisexual, and only learn a specific male or female identity by imitating and identifying with adult models …on this analysis, if the sexual division of labour were destroyed, the mechanism that train boys and girls to develop heterosexual identities would also be destroyed.’ 

In certain communities and sections of modern societies today there may not be clear-cut sexual division of labour but that alone cannot make us transcend the age-old unitary conception of sexuality.  It is deeply ingrained in our minds, it is there in our narrow view of nature, in our conception of human nature, our notions of masculinity and femininity, therefore, unless these hardened ideas are replaced by a holistic understanding of nature and life it would be like scratching the surface of the problem and that wouldn’t help.

Moreover, the unitary conception of sexuality is related to what Amartya Sen calls a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity in deep, complex ways, which sees human beings as members of exactly one religion, one language, one caste or community. Needless to say that these conceptions of exclusive identity, this partitioning of humanity, deeply influence our thoughts and actions in many different ways and are responsible for what we are today, for living poorly and defectively within the narrow confines of our singular identities. Indeed, as Amartya Sen would say, ‘…many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity. The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have. The result can be homespun elemental violence or globally artful violence and terrorism.’ But it is not within the scope of this paper to go into the whole gamut of this politics of identity, but that should be for another time.

________________________

References

  1. My Days with Gandhi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1974.
  2. My Experiments with Truth, M.K.Gandhi, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1976.
  3. Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire, Rajmohan Gandhi, Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 2006.
  4. Gandhi’s Truth, Erik Erikson, Norton, New York, 1969.
  5. Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography, B.R.Nanda, OUP, New Delhi 1996.
  6. Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Bhikhu Parekh, Sage, New Delhi, 1989.
  7. Mahatma Gandhi: Last Phase, Pyarelal, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1986.
  8. Mahatma: Vol-7, Tendulkar D.G Publication Division, 1994
  9. Reader in Feminist Knowledge, edited by Sneja Gunew, Routledge, London, 1991.
  10. The Collected Essays of A.K.Ramanujan, Edited by Vinay Dharwadker, OUP, New Delhi, 2001.
  11. Speaking Tree, Translated with an Introduction by A.K.Ramanujan, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 1973.
  12. The Biology of Enlightenment, Unpublished Conversation with U.G.Krishnamurthi, edited with an Introduction by Mukunda Rao, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2011

Gender, Identity & the Culture of Change

—A Consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

-a paper presented on 30 March 2013 at Gandhi Adyayana Kendra

National Law School, Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru-560242

Mukunda Rao

Kote Mane, Hale Kote

Durgadahalli, Devarayanadurga

Urdigere Hobli

Tumkur Taluk/District

Pin Code : 572140          

Email: mukunda_r@yahoo.com

Contact Ph. No : 91-8756216171 

 

Forms of Religion, Identity & Violence -a brief consideration

At the outset I must declare that I’m not against religion, I’m not an atheist and I don’t believe in violence. The old adage that violence cannot be vanquished by violence is an absolute truth.

Conflict is inevitable in a relationship, it could be between any relationships, be it between parents and children, husband and wife, between people of different religions and political persuasions, or between nations. This conflict is because we think we know the right way, our religion is true, our values are the best, and, each one of us has such absolute views and that is the problem, the source of conflict.

But, as Gandhiji would say we do not know the absolute truth, we cannot claim that our view is the best and it must be good for everyone and for all time. Relative truth is all that is given to us: History, our past, present, our experiences and hopes and ideas of future constitute relative truths. So, living in a world of relative truths, and in a world of conflicting theories and ideologies, the means by which we pursue truth shall be non-violence. In other words, living in a world of relative truths and in an imperfect, evolving society where man is not God or in possession of absolute truth, he is not competent or cannot possess any right to punish or kill or destroy. Hence only ahimsa shall be the means to resolve conflicts, for only ahimsa can create the creative possibilities for both the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘victim’ to realize their common humanity and achieve their freedom and happiness.

Or, as Dr. Ambedkar, who too was a firm believer in ahimsa, showed, it is possible to deal with human conflict creatively and successfully through democratic process, through education, dialogue, even protest (but in democratic and non-violent ways), and by developing public awareness.

With that cautionary note, now let me take up the subject for which I have been invited to speak. That is, the nature of religion, its different forms, the problematic forms of identity, and if there is a way out of conflict and violence.

All religions have two sides to them: one that inspires most ennobling art and great architecture, and is a source of liberating wisdom and transcendence.

The word religion is derived from the Latin re-ligio, which means ‘to link back, to bind’, to return to the source, to our natural state. The Indian notion of Dharma, derived from the root dhr, which means ‘to hold up, support or bear, sustain’ is sometimes used to mean religion, but it is not same as religion; rather, the concept of Dharma is quite complex, signifying many things. It is in fact the notion of Yoga (though a clichéd, much abused term today), derived from the verb yuj, meaning ‘to yoke, join, or ‘to bind together’, that comes close to the Latin re-ligio.

What we call the religious quest is propelled by this urge to ‘link back’, ‘to bind’, to return to the source, that sets up the journey, the inquiry, the search for truth. Not only the lives of sages and saints, such as the Buddha, Basavanna and Ramana Maharshi, to name only a few, but also the lives of thousands of people embody this facet of religion, which is a sacred, private affair, which is a quest for and realization of truth, of that which is ineffable and inexpressible.

Then there is the other side of religion, which is the opposite of the first one, which manifests itself in majorly two ways,: one, it functions as a system of faith that is based on the belief in and worshipping of God, and related to it, following a set of ‘moral principles’ or ‘commandments’ or ‘laws’ in order to realize a specified (religious) goal; two, which is the diabolic side of religion, that is organisational, structured, authoritative, political, divisive, oppressive and violent. Forceful conversions, oppression and killings of people the world over in the name of religion and God are the worst manifestations of this diabolic side of religion.

So, to reiterate, religion as an inquiry into meaning of life, as a quest for transcendence, as love and kindness towards all life forms, is indeed most ennobling and beautiful aspect of our existence, but that should not detract us from understanding and accepting the fact that religions, or, certain interpretations of religions, if you like, have been a source of great conflict, fear, hate, division and most appalling crimes committed in the name of God.

The ideas of God could have inspired many to turn inwards and mature into great artists and poets, into mystics and compassionate human beings, but they have also been a source of great violence, of most heinous crimes in history. The Mumbai blasts, Gujarat carnage, bomb blasts in London, in Paris, and the recent killings in India in the name of dharma have yet again exposed this dangerous side of religion.

It would be simplistic and naïve, therefore, to believe that religion is basically good, that these killings are only aberrations, that the massacres are the handiwork of only misguided people or fundamentalists. It would be a grave error if we fail to reckon with the fact that religions have emerged out of separative consciousness and thereby create the urge to transcendence, and also frontiers both within and without and make killing people in the name of God easy and guiltless.

It seems the trouble with us is not an excess of aggression, but an excess capacity for fanatical devotion to ‘selfless’ ideals, be it religion or religious identity, or some political ideology either of the left or the right. We are easily driven not so much by hatred as by loyalty to whatever persuasion, which turns us into butchers. In point of fact, ‘hate’ or ‘hatred’ has no independent existence of its own except in relation to ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’. Rather, ‘hate’ is born of the womb of ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’.

A close look at riots/massacres/genocide should reveal that people indulge in destruction of property and kill because they feel threatened, humiliated, because they feel they are treated unjustly (by whatever authority or power), or because the ‘other’ interfered with their great wishes and grand designs. This destructive streak in man, therefore, one would argue, is more of an ‘impulse to protect’ rather than the ‘impulse to destroy’ or ‘death wish’.

Now, one might ask: to protect what? Is there any real danger or is it all imagined or exaggerated? Most often it is exaggerated if not an entirely imagined sense of danger. Many factors together contribute to this neurotic state: a false consciousness produced by a biased reading of history and exclusive, (untenable) identities, submerged prejudices whipped up by fanatical forces, unqualified identification with social/political groups and uncritical acceptance of their belief-systems or ideals. In this context, even a notion of justice could become a self-transcending ideal which could drive individuals and groups to indulge in acts of revenge.

Revenge is the grand yet macabre theme of the theatre of war we play often. And the theme: an eye for an eye is the moving, often spellbinding motif of most of our popular cinema, of action-bound films from Hollywood to Bollywood, of Gujarat carnage, of the one-sided war fought in the name of ‘eternal justice’ by America on the desert sands of Afghanistan, occupation of Iraq, 9/11 attack, and now the Paris blasts.

In effect, these killings or acts of revenge point out that the most dangerous trait of man consists not so much in his selfishness, or his alleged aggressiveness, as in his chauvinist lifestyle, and in his loyalty to transpersonal ideals. As Arthur Koestler would argue: ‘No historian would deny that the part played by crimes committed for personal motives is very small compared to the vast populations slaughtered in unselfish loyalty to a jealous god, king, country, or political system’.

To put it differently, a person’s identification with a group or an identity, be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or some political ideology, becomes a self-transcending act which reinforces his self-assertive or aggressive tendencies and prepares him to injure and kill, and also die for the cause. And when the person kills, which is often done in groups or collectively, it is not seen as murder, but as ‘sacrifice’ which is not very different from a tribal practice of offering human blood for a jealous god. Further, the act of killing is not seen as an immoral act, rather it is experienced as a supremely moral act for a higher goal. An idea of morality informed and inspired by a sense of loyalty, duty, discipline, by transpersonal ideals. Therefore what is problematic here is not immorality, but the very notion of morality; it is not injustice, rather the danger here is the notion of justice itself. Justice that demands human sacrifice! 

*

Religious scriptures (not necessarily all philosophical or spiritual texts or mystical literatures) whether of the east or the west continue to suppress and prevent a free and open enquiry into the predicament of human existence. These scriptures as answers and solutions to the problems of life have failed, still we are not prepared to view them with a healthy scepticism. It becomes quite tricky therefore, if not blasphemous and provocative, to say that these scriptures have not only failed as solutions to our problems but have become a major part of our problem.

With the growth of new consciousness whether in the field of science or politics or humanities, it seems rather easy to argue and show how for instance feudal system, caste practices or slavery, early marriages or widow burnings are human creations that violate a humane sense of justice and freedom, how cultural practices or social structures are man-made and could be changed (without god’s intervention), while it seems almost impossible to show that these religious scriptures are human constructs and it is possible to go beyond and reconstruct a better world without these exclusive, antagonistic identities.

Freedom to question the scriptures or even to reject its tyrannical authority and dump religious beliefs and practices that violate our sense of dignity and freedom does not mean we embrace atheism or some hopeless nihilism, it does not mean destroying temples and churches, or burning religious scriptures, it does not mean rejection of the mystery of life, the wonder of cosmos, the beauty of earth, or the cleansing and transforming quality of compassion. The sacredness of human life and relationship and life affirming tenderness need no validation from scriptures however ancient or profound. In fact, it is the scriptures whether of the east or the west that need validation from the standpoint of our growing understandings and experiences.

But seriously, can religion be changed? Is it possible to overcome its dualistic and oppressive elements and benefit from its liberating wisdom? Can it really change the violent structures of our society? Can the appointed leaders and gurus start living the teaching and stop lecturing and leave people alone? After all, isn’t religion deeply personal and sacred? Or, are the secular notions of freedom, equality, human right, justice, dignity and self-determinism sufficient to challenge and transform the patriarchal and violent structures of the world?

But then, it’s important to note here that most of our secular ideas too are but an extension and modification of religious ideas, and geared towards social engineering. Secular and political notions of revolution, progress, order, reason, law and utopias did not emerge in an intellectual vacuum. They grew out of the religious ideas of good and evil, sin and redemption, reward and punishment, divine order and salvation; in short, our religious thinking, which, in the first place, put humanity on the wrong path, or, on what maybe called this most absurd yet vicious merry-go-round! Therefore, the religious roots of our ideas or ideals need to be understood. It is inevitable, for religion has been the mother of all our ideals and ideologies. To understand religion, therefore, particularly its neurotic side, is to begin to understand our problems and the endless troubles we have created for ourselves and others.

Notions of Identity

This leads us on to a consideration of the notion of identity which has a bearing on things we have discussed so far.

Identity is not a given, it is unlike the natural attributes like your eyes, nose and mental dispositions you are born with. After your birth, as you grow up in a family, in an environment, you acquire an identity. So it is something you put up, construct and it has a tremendous, historical momentum behind it.

That is to say, the identities we build or construct for ourselves through living have only a functional role and value, which is necessary to communicate, to make sense of certain things, to function in the world, but we behave as if we are born with identities, like the skin on our body, or as if they are solid, natural, unchangeable and permanent, and that is an illusion. For all identities are fluid, relative, a social construct and functional, whether you are a man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, auto-driver or a professor of English.

Identities can bring people together to live together, work for a common cause but it also firmly exclude many people, divide society, and easily lead to ‘othering’ people who do not share your identity and wage wars against them.

Amartya Sen calls it the ‘miniaturization of human beings’, which is unnatural, nevertheless it unfortunately conditions people to see and experience themselves and others in terms of their little identities and thus impose grave limits on human possibilities.

This kind of thinking in terms identities, categorizing and analysing people and groups in terms of religion, of singular or communal identities, is counterproductive, instead we should work against the sharp separation of people along one single hardened line of division or identity and bring into focus the pluralities of human identity and its functional nature.

We are all affected by desire, hunger, fear, worry and sorrow, whether you are a Hindu, an American, an industrialist, economically poor or rich or belong to the other gender. You may call yourself a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, an African or a Soliga, but you experience the same anxiety, the same joy and sorrow, through your religion or faith, you are searching for the same psychological security, the same permanent happiness in your beliefs and rituals and gods.

The expressions may differ but the content is always the same. E.g. notions of God, heaven, afterlife and so on may differ. One may say there is no rebirth, souls go to heaven and God after death, another may say that after death, souls come back to earth and take a new form of life, but the nature of the mind that seeks different forms of escape from the fear of death, and an anchor to rest, is the same in both cases.

It is this content which is same in all of us that binds us all as human beings living on this planet, the different identities are only a veil thrown over these basic emotions that makes us human, and propels us to live the way we do. It is in that sense, we need to understand that identities have only a functional meaning and purpose, to assume anything beyond it is false and an illusion.

Now, to sum-up:

-identities are robustly plural and the importance of one identity at a given point of time need not obliterate the importance of other identities. E.g.-the economic side that sustains one’s living.

-study of individuals and communities in terms of identities becomes a major intellectual barrier to focussing more fully on the nature of problems, on prevailing social conditions and politics. E.g.-inter-religious dialogues or harmony events have limits, etc.

-Understanding people in terms of identities lead to stereotyping people and that becomes a singularly major obstacle in understanding the fundamental problems of a society and its people. E.g.-Identities within the general identity, not monolithic. ‘Othering’!

-We are always and already different and much more and larger than our identities, much more and larger than our religion, culture and politics. E.g. – identity is fluid, contradictory, deconstructs itself, etc.

-Indeed, in the last analysis, an individual cannot be capsuled, held within an identity, for a human being is more than his culture and religion. Perhaps we could say that a human being is a child of the cosmos, of that mystery which probably can never be understood conceptually, and that is a tremendously humbling factor that should enhance our sense of being on this planet.   

~

Mukunda Rao

Email ID: mukunda53@gmail.com

Ambedkar & Gandhi

A brief consideration of their approaches to the problem of caste

In 1915, when the 48 years old Gandhiji arrived in India from South Africa, he was already famous as the one who had challenged the mighty British with his spiritual weapon of satyagraha. For about a year he was to travel to different parts of the country, especially the countryside, in order to familiarise himself with the problems of this vast country, before launching his non-violent fight for India’s Independence. His non-violent battle against British imperialism is a significant part of the story, the larger part consists in his systematic, rather calibrated fight against the proven social ‘evils’; that is, he spent greater part of his time and energy in addressing the socio-economic and cultural problems of the country .

In 1915, when Gandhiji arrived in India the 24 years old Ambedkar was still in America studying for his MA degree and Ph.D. It was as a student in Columbia University that Ambedkar read a paper on ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis & Development’, which marked the beginning of his critical and political engagement with the caste system in India, which was to last until his death in 1956.

The 1920s was a decade of great political ferment; in particular, during this period, socio-political trends with far-reaching consequences began to develop. It was the period of great political mobilisation of the oppressed and the exploited sections of the society. The peasants, depressed classes, even women began to organise themselves into unions, sanghas or sabhas to voice their protests against injustice, and fight for their freedom and dignity. It was also the period when Hindu nationalism began to consolidate its support across the country.

Around this time, the Congress Party too, under the leadership of Gandhiji, made the removal of untouchability and the amelioration of the depressed classes an integral part of its movement. For, in Gandhiji’s view, political swaraj or freedom would be meaningless and empty without freedom from social tyranny and economic poverty.

Dr. Ambedkar, who was trained in Western Political Sciences and was quite familiar with the political, historical struggles of the oppressed people the world over, and an insightful understanding of Indian history, was somewhat cynical about the social movements started by non-dalits. He suspected, not without reason, that these movements were not geared towards bringing about changes in the power structures of the Hindu society, which should put a Dalit on equal footing with a caste Hindu. The social reform movements started by persons such as Dayananda Saraswathi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, even Ranade, Gandhi and several others, were all right when they tackled the problems related to remarriage of widows, women’s right to property, education of women, education and general amelioration of the economically poor and so on. But when it came to tackling caste tyranny, removal of all forms of caste discriminations, they were not radical enough. They all began at the top and not at the bottom. The urgent task, however, was complete abolition of the caste system, and the reconstruction of Hindu society on the basis of equality.

More importantly, Ambedkar hated the dalits dependency on caste Hindus for their betterment. He knew from history that saints through ages had propounded philosophies and notions of bhakti according to which all human beings were equal before God, but that could not lead to the creation of an egalitarian society. Mahatmas had come and gone, but the conditions of the dalits had not changed. All this only showed that ultimately, injustice or the problems of the dalits could not be removed until the dalit, the victim and the sufferer himself did away with it by his own exertion and action. So long as the conscience of a slave did not burn with hatred for his victimhood or slavery, there was no hope for his salvation. Self-help, Self-elevation and Self-respect were the mantras Ambedkar offered to his people to goad them into action. And he gave yet another rallying call to his people to ‘educate, organise and agitate’ if they had to truly free themselves from the centuries-old religious, social and economic oppression by the caste Hindus and the upper classes.

Among the several socio-political activities and protest movements initiated by Ambedkar, the Mahad Tank Satyagraha and the burning of pages of manusmriti are most notable, for the kind of impact they had on the cultural politics of the country, and for galvanizing the dalits in a way never seen before. And these protest movements made Ambedkar the unquestionable leader of the depressed classes.

In seven years time after his return to India (1923), Ambedkar became a force to reckon with. In 1930, along with political bigwigs, he too was invited to London to attend the First Round Table Conference. As was expected, he drew the attention of the British Government and the world at large to the terribly inhuman condition under which the dalits lived in India, which was in many ways comparable to the racial discrimination the Black community suffered in America. Indeed he made the British Government become more acutely aware of and recognise the problems of the depressed classes, and thus prepared the ground for securing the rights of the depressed classes and their representation in legislatures, in the cabinet, and in government services.

The same year, he was once again invited to participate as the representative of the depressed classes in the Second Round Table Conference. Before he left to London to attend the conference, he met with Gandhiji. This was his first meeting with Gandhiji. Till then, it seems that Gandhiji was under the impression that Ambedkar was a non-dalit who took up the cause of the depressed classes a little more passionately than required. Only after the report of Ambedkar’s good work at the First Round Table Conference reached Gandhiji, did he come to know that Ambedkar was actually a Dalit.

However, the first meeting between Gandhiji and Ambedkar would have ended in a disaster if Ambedkar had not held on to his patience and waited for Gandhiji to finish his long chat with his party members. When at last Gandhiji turned to Ambedkar and straightaway asked him why he did not support his work and the Congress policy regarding the removal of untouchability, Ambedkar was brutally frank in stating that the Congress was not genuinely interested in changing the power structure of Hindu society which was based on caste hierarchy. Reportedly the meeting ended on a note of disappointment and disagreement between the two masters with regard to the issue of separate electorate for the depressed classes.

The Second Round Table Conference (1930) marked the first among many battles between Ambedkar and Gandhi, in which Ambedkar used all the weapons in his armoury to attack Gandhiji’s position. The impression one gets of Ambedkar is that he was passionate, angry, even arrogant and rude, but always deeply concerned about the fate of the depressed classes in free India. And that of Gandhiji as one who was not at his best, a little wily, quite out of wits, yet deeply disturbed and sad to witness the polarisation of Indians into almost irreconcilable groups on the basis of caste and religion.

We do not know but can only speculate as to what could have been the possible impact on Indian politics had Gandhiji and Ambedkar cooperated with each other and worked as co-workers at the Second Round Table Conference. It was not to be, and it marked the beginning of the battle between the two masters which in many ways affected and involved the nation in its tortuous march towards political freedom and abolition of untouchability.

Months later, Gandhiji’s fast, against what was called the Communal Award or Separate Electorate for the depressed classes, deepened the quarrel between Gandhiji and Ambedkar. Later on, Ambedkar regretted his compromise with Gandhiji and for signing the Poona Pact; however, it was historically significant in two ways: one, by signing the Poona Pact Ambedkar saved Gandhiji from possible death, which would have had disastrous consequences as far as the dalit issues were concerned. Two, it forced Gandhiji to address himself to the problem of caste system with a greater sense of political vigour and urgency.

Gandhiji started Harijan Sevak Sangh aimed at the total removal of untouchability, education of the dalits, promotion of inter-dining, temple entry, and the economic development of dalits. But with most of its executive members being non-dalits, the Sangh had certain inherent weakness and lacked the radical thrust to initiate revolutionary changes. Actually, Gandhiji had envisaged it as a way of cleansing caste prejudices on the part of the caste Hindus. But Ambedkar, who had willingly become a member of the Sangh, resigned on the ground that the Self-purification approach of the Sangh could hardly initiate the much-needed social revolution he desired. It seemed a mere pious wish and gesture which failed to combine within its approach the fight for civil rights and political empowerment of dalits.

However, in late 1930s, Gandhiji began to realise the importance of inter-caste marriages to break the caste hierarchy, but still did not take up the issue with the seriousness it deserved. Ironically, his anti-untouchable programme, just as his efforts at building Hindu-Muslim unity, won him more enemies among the caste Hindus. If the Hindu fundamentalists hated him for what they believed to be his pro-Muslim stance, now the caste Hindus turned against him for his anti-caste activities, and both the groups saw him as an enemy of Hinduism.

Still, Ambedkar was not impressed, for he thought Gandhiji was not radical enough. At this time, one of Ambedkar’s undelivered speeches was published as a book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (1936).  This cogently argued book against the evils of caste system pushed Gandhiji to react yet again in defence of varnashramadharma. Ambedkar’s response to Gandhiji was long and ruthless, which exposed Gandhiji’s defence of chaturvarna as unrealistic, spiritually untenable and politically retrogressive.

It took almost another ten years for Gandhiji to realise that ‘the evil’ was far greater than he had thought it to be and completely give up his defence of chaturvarna and accept not only the need for but the inevitability of the annihilation of caste if India were to reach anywhere near his idea of ahimsa, truth and swaraj. In this context, Gandhiji’s association with Ramachandra (Gora, the atheist, who was a champion of inter-caste marriages) probably helped him make the radical shift in favour of the total abolition of caste system. In 1946, he began to directly support and even preside over inter-caste marriages. In his reply to a correspondent, which was published in Harijan, he said: ‘It is certainly desirable that caste Hindu girls should select Harijan husbands. I hesitate to add that it is better. That would imply that women are inferior to men. I know that such an inferiority complex is there today. For this reason, I would agree that at present the marriage of a caste girl to a Harijan is better than that of a Harijan girl to a caste Hindu. If I had my way I would persuade all caste Hindu girls coming under my influence to select Harijan husbands.’

When Gandhiji was assassinated on Jan 30, 1948, by a Hindu fundamentalist, Ambedkar maintained a conspicuous silence. He issued no statement either against the killing or about Gandhiji. Eight years later, on the day he decided to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism, he remembered Gandhiji. To the press reporters he said that once he had told Mahatma Gandhi that though he differed radically from him on the issue of untouchability and chaturvarna, when the time came for him to renounce Hinduism, he would ‘choose only the least harmful way for the country and that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism, for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bharathiya Culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.’

The unity of purpose between the two approaches

Dalit groups all over the country continue to draw inspiration, ideas and strategies from Ambedkar’s life and work for their political struggles against caste prejudices, against the collusion of the Law, Police, Bureaucracy, the landlords and upper castes in the oppression and exploitation of the dalits. But what is unfortunate about their struggle is not only the ideological divide between Gandhiji and Ambedkar, but a certain self-conscious hatred and rejection of Gandhiji. This has not helped the cause of the dalits.

As we have seen, however briefly, history shows that both Ambedkar and Gandhiji affected each other deeply and cured each other of their excesses. While the question of untouchability was a civil rights issue and required legal measures against it, to Gandhiji untouchability was a problem of the Hindu self, and it needed to be cleansed and transformed inwardly and totally. Although the Self-Purification approach and Self-Respect movement may appear to diverge, they do merge at a deeper level and strengthen each other. The spiritual and political, and the moral and legal are not necessarily exclusive or cancel each other, rather they profoundly complement each other. And as we have seen, the intense debate and confrontations between Gandhiji and Ambedkar that spread over for more than two decades changed each other radically. As a result of this, in the words of the late D. R. Nagaraj, ‘Gandhiji took over economics from Babasaheb, and Ambedkar internalised the importance of religion.’

Gandhiji’s Khadi programme, his idea of Village Swaraj or Village Reconstruction was geared towards the welfare of village as a whole, but they were intimately related to the problem of the Harijans as well. Eventually, Gandhiji shed much of his ambiguity regarding caste as he realised that ‘the evil’ of chaturvarna was far greater than he had thought it to be, and he unreservedly supported and argued in favour of inter-caste marriages.

More importantly, it must be understood that much before Ambedkar arrived on the political scene, Gandhiji had made untouchability one of the crucial issues of Indian politics. And his effort at the removal of untouchability, both directly and indirectly did complement Ambedkar’s efforts to bring about structural changes, and in working out the constitutional safeguards for the depressed classes. It is not as if the conflicts and differences between the two leaders cannot be resolved; rather, the differences in their approaches should enrich and sharpen our understanding of the problems faced by dalits, women and other marginalized groups, and enable us to develop an alternative cultural praxis to fight against all forms of discrimination and social injustice. This is not to say that such understandings and efforts have not been there at all, but only to stress the point that the work must be carried on, and the deep-seated animosity transcended.

In other words, Gandhiji’s experiments and Ambedkar’s trials with truth are far from over; rather, the underlying unity of purpose between the two and the historical necessity of the present should make us appreciate the need to creatively combine the two approaches in the search for an alternative cultural politics in the cause of the marginalized, dalits, women and the rural poor.

The Body Unites, the Self Divides — a brief analysis

At the outset we need to be clear what we mean by body, mind, self and soul or spirit. By body we mean the human body and by mind we mean the intelligence that is embedded in the body. So when we speak of the body, we include the mind as intelligence, as an integral part of the body. Rather, the body-mind is a continuum. There is no duality there, no separation: all inextricably connected into a seamless whole.

In point of fact, mind in the sense of intelligence is life itself and is everywhere. It is present in the seed of a plant as much as in a mosquito. It is there in matter, in every particle of the universe, in every cell of the body. When it is said that photons can think, or matter has properties of mind, or that ‘hyperspace itself is consciousness acting on itself’, we are, in point of fact, saying that mind as intelligence is immanent in matter at all levels of life. In this sense the whole universe, the manifested world is a seamless body-mind.

‘Within this fathom-long sentient body itself,’ the Buddha maintained, ‘is the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.’ That is to say, the arising of the world, samsara, the self and the cessation of the self and thereby dukkha are all within the body.

Extending the metaphor we may also add that within the body is the cosmic dance of life; rather, the cosmos itself is the body. Here, the portrayal of the vishwa rupa or the universal form of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita may serve as a brilliant metaphor for the body.

After a rather lengthy discourses on the different forms of Yoga, and on the nature of Brahman and Atman, Lord Krishna bestows on Arjuna a vision of his Universal Form. And Arjun beholds the whole cosmos reflected in the seamless body of Krishna: Everything, all the innumerable forms of life exist there, and in the centre is Lord Brahma resting on a lotus, surrounded by sages and heavenly serpents. The Sun, the Moon, and the heavenly planets blaze along, worlds radiate within worlds in a never-ending kaleidoscope, torrents of rivers flow relentlessly into thunderous seas, and behold, the flaming mouth licking up, devouring all worlds, all creatures; it is the body, boundless, with no beginning, middle or end, burning, devouring, yet recreating itself in an endless maya of destruction and creation. In effect, what the text reveals is that it is not the soul or spirit but the body that is immortal.

If the universe, including the human body, has no beginning or end and that it is immortal, what then is the spirit or soul?

Etymologically speaking, it is said that atman in Sanskrit, psyche or pneuma in Greek, anima and spiritus in Latin, ruah in Hebrew, mean ‘breath’. If spirit or soul means ‘breath’, perhaps there isn’t much to say about it except that prana or spirit or ‘breath’ is the defining characteristic of all life forms. Or that it is the source and ground and sustaining force of all forms of life. 

However, the notions of spirit or soul as found in the belief systems of the major religions and even mystical reports are quite complex and different from each other. The Hindu notion of Atman or Self is not the same as the Christian or Islamic Soul. But the one common defining characteristic of these different narratives of the soul is that it is regarded as an independent or separate entity and that it is non-physical; not to speak of its relationship with God, mind and body, wherein the soul is always privileged over the (corporeal) body.

The soul is pure and transcendental. The body is impure, mundane, subject to decay and death. The body is something to be rejected, abandoned, transcended in order to come upon or realize and experience the soul. Despite the hermeneutical attempts to overcome the dualism of body-soul, soul-god, one has to concede that this dualism between the body and soul is the bedrock on which all religions are built, and it continues to be the core of all their discourses.

The body is born and it has death, it has originated from the impure secretions of the mother and father; it is the abode of sinful actions, transitory and diffused with agitated feelings… It is built up of primary fluids, subject to grievous maladies… It is a boil, whatever would ooze out from it would be an uncleanliness oozing out, a stench oozing out, a disgust oozing out. Whatever would be discharged from it would be an uncleanliness discharging, a stench discharging, a disgust discharging. Viewing the body as ‘I’ and mine is like smearing oneself with faeces and urine in the place of cosmetics. 

The above lines summarized from texts of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions should more or less sum up the prevalent view against the poor body: an obstacle in the path of spirituality, a troublesome burden and foe to be overcome or vanquished in order to attain higher states of consciousness and enlightenment. Despite Kundalini Yoga and Tantra Yoga offering a radically different understanding of the body, both as a field of energy and as a channel of ‘divine power’ or as the seat of intelligence and the principle of enlightenment, the dominant trend for centuries now has been to regard the body as a sort of ‘enemy’, a dangerous customer, who needs to be controlled and disciplined in one’s spiritual enterprise. It is not as if there have been absolutely no attempts in the past to remedy this defective view, but all these attempts have been subsumed under spiritual and psychological discourses which were and are predominantly framed in psychological terms which continues to implicate the body as an enemy of enduring joy, freedom and enlightenment.

This classic conflict between ‘flesh and spirit’, spiritualism and materialism continues to haunt and sap the energy of the believers, creating irreconcilable conflict and contradictions in their living and rendering them into rank hypocrites, if not into schizophrenics.

This division is false and has to go.

There is no such thing as spirituality per se, as against so-called materialism. Whatever we seek, desire, even the so-called spiritual goals, is materialistic in value. The instrument we use to achieve materialistic goals as well as the so-called spiritual goal happens to be the same, namely thought. Thought is matter, its object, whether spiritual or material life, is also matter. So, spirituality, too, in that sense, is materialism.

Indeed, the very notion of matter has undergone radical shift over the last few decades, especially after the advent of Quantum Physics, which ushered in a dissolution of the notion of hard and solid objects, and also of the notion that there are fundamental building blocks of matter. In the study of matter, molecules, atoms, particles, quarks, dark matter, anti-matter and what have you, finally the whole search for fundamental particles seemed to have ended in a blur.

The Body Unifies

All existence is one. There is no two. The earth and all of its species constitute one interactive, living Organism. It is the binary mind, the self, which has ruptured this organic connection.

Talking about this ‘organic connection’, and drawing examples from experiments conducted on the ‘behaviour’ of plants and trees, Lyall Watson, a noted biologist, shows how when a plant is ‘maltreated’, plants and trees close to the injured one ‘empathize’ with the ‘victim’.

When plants or trees are deliberately abused or injured they quickly ‘produce tannin’—their chemical defences against danger—and move these into their leaves, while this is happening the other plants and trees around too go into this protective and sympathetic mode within minutes. For instance, when a hook thorn was deliberately thrashed, it was found that not only another hook thorn hardly six feet away showed a 42 per cent increase in tannin, even a silver oak ten feet away produced 14 per cent tannin within an hour. There was no ‘root contact’ between them, yet somehow they had ‘communicated’, probably with the aid of ‘hormones’ that drift through the air.

What is more revealing and touching is to know how when an animal is injured or killed, other nearby animals and even plants and trees ‘shake or tremble’ with the ‘victim’. These revelations should lead us, says Watson, to a careful reappraisal of some hoary old prejudices—particularly the one which draws a hard and fast line between the plant and animal kingdoms and completely denies the former access to any of the talent and abilities we reserve for the so-called ‘higher’ species. And then he suggests, ‘There is good reason to presume, at least as a working assumption that some kind of awareness is part of the experience of all living things.’

In other words, these revelations should enable us to move away not merely intellectually, but deeply and actually, from individual, linear and analytical process, towards more holistic and intuitive ways of seeing and experiencing the world. The neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, believes that this ‘linear thinking seems to be our default mode of thinking about the world’, while ‘nature is full of non-linear phenomena’. Extending the discussion in neurological terms, he speaks of a special class of cells called ‘mirror neurons’ that allow human beings to empathize with others. He illustrates the point by discussing a patient named Smith undergoing neurosurgery at the University of Toronto.

As is done usually during the surgery, Smith’s scalp is perfused with local anaesthetic and his skull is opened. The surgeon places an electrode in Smith’s anterior cingulated, a region near the front of the brain where many of the neurons respond to pain, and predictably the doctor is able to find a neuron that becomes active whenever Smith’s hand is poked with a needle, but what astonishes the doctor is that the same neuron fires just as vigorously when Smith watches another nearby patient’s hand is poked with a needle. Ramachandran writes: ‘It is as if the neuron is empathizing with another person. A stranger’s pain becomes Smith’s pain, almost literally. Indian and Buddhist mystics assert that there is no essential difference between self and other, and that true enlightenment comes from compassion that dissolves this barrier. I used to think this was just well-intentioned mumbo-jumbo, but here is a neuron that doesn’t know the difference between self and other. Are our brains uniquely hardwired for empathy and compassion?’   

It is not just the brain but the whole body, the secret probably lies in our ductless glands plus something else. Further, it is not just the brain or the body that is ‘hardwired’—plants do not have mirror neurons—but all life forms, the whole universe, which is a living web, a pulsating body of which human beings form an integral part.

We do not know how and why, but, it seems, the emergence of self-reflexive, self-consciousness marked the split in the unitary, primordial consciousness, the separation from the totality of life. And that has brought in its wake not only joy and wonder but also fear, sorrow, insecurity or lack, because of which, also, the deep yearning to return to the state of primordial unity, the state beyond joy and sorrow.

It is what we may call the parallel movement of ‘thought’, the self. The movement of the body is always singular, unitary, in tune with the cosmos. It is the ‘I’, the self, that has snapped this unity and started the parallel movement. Through ideation or mentation it has constructed what may be called a ‘thought sphere’.

According to U.G. Krishnamurti: ‘We are all living in a thought sphere. Your thoughts are not your own; they belong to everybody. There are only thoughts, but you create a counter-thought, the thinker, with which you read every thought. Your effort to control life has created a secondary movement of thought within you, which you call the “I”. This movement of thought within you is parallel to the movement of life, but isolated from it; it can never touch life. You are a living creature, yet you lead your entire life within the realm of this isolated, parallel movement of thought. You cut yourself off from life — that is something very unnatural.’

And since this thought or the self has superimposed itself on the body, even the body is out of gear. The senses function unnaturally in us because we want to use them to get something. That is why we are eternally unhappy. The search for happiness makes us unhappy. Because the mind is always manipulating the senses in terms of likes and dislikes.

We see not with our eyes, experience not with our senses, but we see and experience with our mind, via thought. The self is a squatter; that is, it uses the body, the five senses, for its own continuity, and, over the centuries, it has superimposed itself on every nerve end, every cell of the body. And the thinker uses the senses to frame or construct the world, the samsara. He is the dictator, so to say, who manipulates the senses to seek his continuity. This he does by dividing up the world as good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, in pairs of opposites. This division is the dukkha, also the search and yearning to overcome dukkha, the division.

The way out is to free the body from the stranglehold of the self and let it fall into a rhythm all its own and in tune and in unity with the cosmos.

The realization that the mind, in the sense of the self, is a divisive force, born out of divided consciousness, is the first step towards the dismantling of the destructive structures of the self. All our ideas and ideals, identities and belief systems born out of a bourgeois self can only perpetuate division and conflict and thereby cause sorrow.

How does one put this divisive self in its place and recover the intelligence of the body? Let’s explore. But of course the instrument with which we could explore is thought, for there is no other instrument. This indeed is a paradoxical situation. A critical awareness of this supreme fact could be the beginning…

Murder in My Backyard

Three evenings ago, at around 8 pm, Gauri Lankesh, a fearless journalist, was shot dead by unknown assailants, just as she was getting into her house in Bengaluru. In the last three days now, there have been protest across the country against the killing, against forces that silence those who are critical of bigotry, communalism, casteism and fundamentalism of various hues, against especially the politics of hate triggered by right wing nationalists.

Gauri was a courageous, energetic and warm-hearted person. She was highly opinionated, too, and raged against all forms of oppression and violence. Firing on all cylinders she worked relentlessly, taking on communal forces and interacting with and trying to knit together what she called ‘like-minded’ people who worked towards building a society free of caste, communal, religious and gender discrimination and oppression: a just and fair and free society. She was a dreamer and she was impatient.

The government has put in place a special investigation team to find the cause of her murder and catch the killers. Meanwhile, two strong theories are in circulation concerning the likely cause of her murder and identity of her killers. The social and visual medias are agog over these conspiracy theories.

  • One, she was punished by Naxalites for having lured some of its comrades into joining the mainstream, so she had to be stopped.
  • Two, she attacked and provoked right wing party members too often and too severely, so she had to be silenced.

The first one is most unlikely. But whatever the cause and whoever the killers we cannot hope to learn about them anytime soon. The murder cases of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dhabolkar remain unsolved to this day. But one thing we know for sure and that is, Gauri, like Kalburgi and the two others, was a victim of ideology. She was a fierce ideologue herself, and was killed by opposing ideologues. Fighting against the politics of hate she became its victim. There is more than a mere irony played out here.

We have become creatures born of ideas. We breathe, eat and live ideas and kill for ideas. Over the centuries we have changed in many ways, but have never stopped killing. If we don’t kill for personal reasons, we kill, slaughter in loyalty to a jealous god, country, political and religious beliefs, what would otherwise be called as ‘transpersonal ideals’; the killing never stops.

When I heard that Gauri was shot dead, I felt I heard the sound of bullets in my backyard and it singed my heart. Killings, murders usually took place in far off places and the victims were known but were not friends. You raged against such killings and did what you could, but never felt this pain, this agony, this unbearable loss. It’s like a wound and it bleeds pain and fear. It’s in my backyard, this thing, that kills and destroys. It may sneak in through the backdoor, or come crashing through the front door. You never know.

No. It’s not as if you never knew or that you were so stupidly ignorant. You knew it all along, but when you see it, this poison tree, grown so huge and intimidating and toxic, you shudder. Just as I was finishing this line, William Blakes’s poem Poison Tree flashed in my mind. Strange, but in many ways the poem seems to summarise my dilemma and anxiety. Or, does it? I remember teaching the poem to Arts Degree students, years ago.

A couple of months back, Gauri was at our place. She wanted a break from her hectic schedule, but her phone kept ringing every now and then. She enjoyed the walk through the trees, though, with her sister and her nieces, climbed rocks, though, at times, she appeared like a little gazelle lost in woods.

Come evening, we sat on the lawns, chatting over a drink. The chat meandered through many different lanes and by lanes of politics and culture and that spilled over well into the middle of the night. She was, as usual, sharp and quick and exuded great confidence and energy. I was troubled by her strong, unforgiving positions with regard to the politics of caste and communalism. The political notion of ‘enemy’ is hugely problematic and so I tried to bring into the conversation the need for Gandhian approach to conflict resolution, along with Ambedkar’s revolutionary politics in the fight against the growing ‘fascist’ trends. When we stood up to go in for dinner, it was past midnight, and only now we felt the tremendous silence of the hills that lay about us like a dispassionate witness.

Her father, the late Lankesh, who was a famous Kannada writer and journalist, who is a house-hold name in Karnataka even today, was my teacher at the Bangalore University. He admired Gandhi, loved William Blake and was fond of D.H. Lawrence. Gauri was like her father in many ways: fearless, forthright, even rude but always truthful. How I wish we could carry on the conversation from where we had left that night, and at some point, discuss Blake yet again. I wonder what Gauri would have said of the poem A Poison Tree today.

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

The Way It Is

We may roughly discern about three phases in UG’s life and ‘teaching’. First, from 1967 to almost late 70s, his approach may be termed as raw, soft, tender and obliging. During this time, the bodily changes in UG were still going on and it was to take another three years for these changes to settle down and let the body fall into a rhythm all its own. The reader will know that these conversations (from 1967-71) are a classic example of that phase, wherein we find UG, referring, though cautiously, to other Sages and their teachings and to certain religious texts approvingly. This was, in a sense, a different UG, unedited UG, who was ‘open’ and persuasive, taking along, or leading the listeners, ever so sympathetically and caringly, on a journey into the exploration of the functioning of the mind and the body, pointing out the irrelevancies of methods and techniques for ‘self-realization’, the unnatural state and its problems, the natural state as a physiological state of being and how it could impact or change the world consciousness and so on.

Second, during 1980s and 90s, he was literally a sage in rage. His words were deep and explosive and cathartic. He was like fire that burned everything into a heap of ash so that a new beginning could be made, without the touch of sorrow. This was also the time when he decided to go ‘public’ by way of giving TV interviews and radio talks in order to reach out to people in the wider world, who may be interested and honest and ready to ‘die’ in order to see things as they are. Some of the statements he made during these days were at once subversive and stunning:

‘Love is war. Love and hate spring from the same source. Cause and effect are the shibboleths of confused minds. Mind is a myth. Feeling too is a thought. Thought is your enemy. Man is memory. Charity is vulgar. Mutual terror, not love will save mankind. Attending Church and going to a bar for a drink are identical. There is nothing inside you but fear. God, Soul, love, happiness, the unconscious, reincarnation and death are non-existent figments of our rich imagination. Freud is the fraud of the 20th century, while J Krishnamurti is its greatest phoney…’

He was like a machine gun that went off every time we tossed a question at him. It was like skeet shooting. He exploded every myth, every frame of thought, challenging the very foundation of human culture. And finally, and invariably, after rejecting and dismissing every idea, he would point out: ‘My interest is not to knock off what others have said, but to knock off what I am saying. More precisely, I am trying to stop what you are making out of what I am saying. This is why my talking sounds contradictory to others. I am forced by the nature of your listening to always negate the first statement with another statement. Then the second statement is negated by a third, and so on. My aim is not some comfy dialectical thesis, but the total negation of everything that can be expressed. Anything you try to make out of my statements is not it.’

It was during this phase that people would call him, especially in the media, a sage in rage, a cosmic naxalite, anti-guru and so on, and this image of him as a raging sage somehow got overemphasized and sort of fixed even in the minds of UG admirers, not to speak of the media and those who had only a vague idea of who he was and his teaching. It only showed, how difficult it was, caught up as we are in a dualistic mode of thinking and being, to understand the non-dual truth (advaya, there is no two) he was trying to convey. The fact, however, is that, like the Buddha, he was merciless yet compassionate. Like the Buddha who knocked off all narratives as mere mental constructs and are a hindrance to come into the state of nirvana, UG, by exploding all our ideas and ideals, not merely pulled the carpet from under our feet, but destroyed the very, apparently secure but false ground on which we stood. He would not allow us to cling to any lie, because a lie is a lie and it falsified our lives. The truth, howsoever hard, shattering and shocking, had to be brought to us.

The last ten years before his death may be characterized as the phase of playfulness and laughter. During this period, he rarely engaged in ‘serious’ conversations; rather, he started to do something else other than answer tiresome questions, for all questions (except in the technical area, which is something else) were variations of basically the same question revolving around the idea of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ which, nonetheless, amounted to the same ‘becoming’ process, that is, seeking continuity of the self. So there used to be long stretches of utter silence: embarrassing, even exasperating; also, mercifully, a great relief from the burden of knowing. And then he would start playing his enigmatic funny little ‘games’, or invite friends to sing, dance, or share jokes. And the space would explode with laughter: funny, silly, dark, and apocalyptic! At last freed from the tyranny of knowledge, beauty, goodness, truth, and God, we would all mock and laugh at everything, mock heroes and lovers, thinkers and politicians, scientists and thieves, kings and sages, including UG and ourselves!

A caveat is in order here. The different phases we tend to see in UG’s life is our own reading or interpretation of things, and it could easily change when viewed from a different perspective. And all perspectives, we know, are informed by our expectations or wishes. However, the essential thrust in his approach was always the same. One, he described the way we functioned in the unnatural state, caught in a world of opposites, constantly struggling to become something other than what we are, and in search of non-existent gods and goals. How we all are thinking and functioning in a ‘thought sphere’ just as we all share the same atmosphere for breathing. How and why we have no freedom of action, unless and until the self comes to an end; and why the self, which is self-protective and fascist in nature, is not the instrument to help us to live in harmony with the life around us. Two, preferring the term natural state over against enlightenment, he insisted that whatever transformation he had gone through was within the structure of the human body and not in the mind at all. And he described the natural state as a pure and simple physical and physiological state of being. It is the state of ‘primordial awareness without primitivism’, or the ‘undivided state of consciousness’, where all desires and fear, and the search for happiness and pleasure, God and truth, have come to an end. It is an acausal state of ‘not-knowing’. And he never tired of pointing out that ‘this is the way you, stripped of the machinations of thought, are also functioning.’

~  *  ~

…..UG loves to put all usual revered symbols and concepts (and money too) in the same basket and have a good laugh at man’s illusion in worshipping them as gods, although these gods have never, and will never, deliver the promised goods.

‘We should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh,’ declares Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

With UG you can have several laughs—keep laughing, if you can—at all ‘truths’ humanity holds dear to itself with the fond hope that they would eventually usher in the much-sought-after freedom and happiness without the touch of sorrow.

‘Comedy’ says Lee Siegel, ‘challenges notions of meaning, strives to undermine all hermeneutics and epistemologies, and exposes the ambiguities inherent in any knowing and feeling. In the world of comedy, absurdity itself is the logos. The senselessness of the universe makes comic sense. Laughter expresses the comic understanding that nothing is ever really understood.’ In other words, hasya or comic rasa mocks heroes and lovers, saints and sages. It delivers us from the tyranny of beauty, goodness, truth, and God.

The nirguna poets, the poets of non-dualism, use the technique of metaphor, oxymoron and paradox in their poetry only to turn language topsy-turvy, and try to break rather than construct ideas and images. Names and forms create illusions, yet they use names and forms to demolish them. Apparently, one might think that UG too uses language in the style of these mystic-poets. But that is not so. The mystic-poets, like the deconstructionists today, deconstruct symbols, images and ideas, but they are not finished with the language, not finished with the need to express the inexpressible. There is still that agony, that sense of separation or incompleteness.

With UG, there is nothing to express, for all expressions are false, even to say something is false, is false. There is only rejection, wholly and totally, and there is laughter. There is in him the delightful giggle of Krishna, the drinker of milk, and the attahasa or apocalyptic laughter of Siva, the drinker of poison.

Everything is laughed at and laughed away and at the end of it all what one is left with is emptiness! A considerable number of men and women show up everyday, and keep grinning, giggling, roaring with laughter from morning till late evening. It seems they come there more in anticipation of having a good dose of laughter rather than to be instructed on the right way of living, or the path to liberation. Perhaps, to them, a dose of laughter is more liberating than a bagful of profound ideas.

Actually, profound or spiritual ideas are an anathema there, to be ridiculed and laughed at. Swearwords are the order of the day. One is welcomed not with grace, tenderness or compassion, but with a barrage of swearwords and laughter. UG says jokingly that he learnt to them from Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It is said that Ramakrishna often swore in his freewheeling conversations with people, and that he laughed a lot, reeling off jokes that inspired much laughter. ‘Laughter was for him,’ writes Lee Siegel, ‘a mirthful expression of freedom-in-bondage, detachment without disinterest, and transcendence-in-being.’

‘Excremental imagery abounds in comedy,’ declares Lee Siegel.  And true enough, UG’s talk is full not only of swearwords, but also disgustingly delightful references to shit, and sex, too. Since we are all shitters from birth to death and are born as a result of sexual intercourse, about which we always appear to be embarrassed and ashamed, the laughter that UG inspires and provokes with his ‘shit and sex talk’ does truly relieve us of that embarrassment and help us realize our humanness. Pray, what else can you be?!

Sometimes, UG refers to our memory (knowledge or data bank) as a ‘shit box’, saying: ‘There are ideas in your stomach… you eat ideas… it doesn’t come out down there but from your mouth as oral shit… There is nothing more to it…’

One evening last September, a charming young director of a hugely successful musical film happened to be present. Somehow the talk veered towards music, and UG suddenly said, ‘When we go to the toilet sometimes we make sound, there is more melody in that sound than all your music put together.’

We all laughed heartily. The film director laughed, too. But I could not say if it was a nervous reaction or one of good humour.

Reference to sex also pervade his talk, particularly when he picks on gods, the messiahs and famous people. The sacred becomes profane, holiness a pile of shit, the virgin birth a dirty joke. Sankara, Buddha, Christ and Mohammed are dismissed in a way that the believers wouldn’t want to hear, even in their dirtiest dreams. ‘God is the ultimate pleasure,’ he would quip. ‘If sex has to go, God has to go first.’ Thus, constantly it seems, he is trying to free us from the ‘burden of the cultural garbage-sack, the dead refuse of the past,’ from the tyranny of religious values and God.

There have been occasions when we have joked and laughed at UG, too. From the heights of Kailash, as Siegel would say, everything becomes comical. What is not generally known is that Sanskrit texts, as much as folk literatures, are full of subversive, comical stories and remarks that provoke laughter at everything we hold dear, at every established, dominant value or idea, at everything considered holy and divine. We laugh at the great triumvirate of Hinduism: Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma; we laugh at the sages as much as the kings, at the so-called idiots or fools as well as the wise ones. And we realize we are actually laughing at ourselves, for we are all that we laugh at, including the gods.

~  *   ~

For more read

The Other Side of Belief: Interpreting U.G.Krishnamurti
The Other Side of Belief: Interpreting U.G.Krishnamurti

My World, My Writing

What is life? Does life have a meaning and purpose? Who or what am I? These are all of course interrelated questions and questions that have troubled human minds from the time the mind, the self or the ‘I’ consciousness emerged on earth.

The various attempts to answer these questions over the centuries may be roughly brought under the disciplines of science and arts. But I’ll talk briefly only about science and literature which has some bearing on the subject at hand.

Both science and literature have created particular images for themselves. While these images may not be antagonistic to each other, yet they are pitched in opposition to each other, usually privileging science over literature.

The popular belief—which is generally propagated—is that science is intrinsically related to the ideas of truth, reality and knowledge, and that it is an objective discipline; while literature is seen as related to fiction, myth and imagination, and that it is a very subjective practice. In effect, science has appropriated the notions of reality, truth and knowledge within its domain and activities.

Literature has been a smug participant in this epistemological game and it seem to have gleefully accepted its role as one dealing with not a real but unreal, fictional world. This idea of literature which stands in opposition to truth is incorrect and needs to be set right.

These ideas or images of science and literature are not only problematic but evidently untrue. The unmasking of these images should reveal that science is in a surreptitious relation with ‘fiction’ and subjective imagination, and it owes a lot to myth and literature which have been the major source of knowledge of life and the world.

As a matter of fact, both science and literature are different modes of describing and understanding the world and both build their discourses on the real, the imaginary and the fictional. The main and only difference between them being that while science is called upon to justify or offer justifications and prove the verifiability of its ideas or theories, literature is not put to such a test.

In other words, literature is not expected to justify what it does, although it is immersed in a complex relation with reality, and it is involved in both producing and perpetuating the knowledge about reality. Hence, as Sundar Sarukkai, a fine thinker, puts it, the writers have to acknowledge their indebtedness to ‘the ideas of reality, knowledge and objectivity, terms which have been excessively appropriated by science. In other words, literature can no longer hide and protect itself within the ambit of the subjective and the fictional, but must take responsibility for what it really does in the space of knowledge.’

What is on literature?

Let’s say literature is all about talking of life, rather, of our living in the world, literature itself being a part of that living, a part of social practice.

Literature speaks in different tongues, different genres, different forms and styles, and over centuries, there have been innumerable, some great, some forgettable, experiments in this process. 

A writer may find the old form—be it in poetry or plays or story telling—inadequate, even constrictive, to say what he or she wants to say; hence the innovations, and the production of new understanding or perceptions of life become possible.

Knowledge is encapsulated in language. And a writer is a fine user of language. Language, or knowledge of reality and the world is not a given, like the natural world, but something humans have produced or constructed through the energies of the body-mind over millions of years. In short, knowledge is a construct. We live, say and do what we say and do within the field of such knowledge.

So then, how does a writer (the writer himself or herself being an embodiment of that knowledge) use this knowledge to talk about the world and living?

Here in comes the question of responsibility, also ability, of a writer.

Whether we write historical novels, poetry, script plays, or produce crime thrillers or science fiction, we are already always talking of life. It is an escapable fact; what else can it be? And, whether we realize and accept it or not we are dealing with notions of reality and truth and through what we write we are constantly adding our bit in the space of knowledge.

If we take for granted the given knowledge as final, unquestionable, then we’ll be reproducing what is already there: the same pictures or images, the same stories of sadness, of tragedy, of joy, relationships, war, murder, love, sacrifice and so on and putting on them the same conventional interpretations, which will be like going round and round in circles, which may be very exciting and even fetch some good money for doing it.

But, when we know that the world is not what it appears to be, that love may not be what they say it is, murder may not be what the legal system says it is, relationship is not what we think it is and fight for, cricket matches or films are not mere forms of entertainment, then, we’ll look for clues, upayas, which should enable us to look at the world differently and talk about it in an open way. In other words, when we see that the world is like a story, rather, a story but a story within a story like circles within circles, and that there are several layers to these stories, some of which may lay hidden, yet to be explored and unfolded, then we would be looking at or perceiving the world differently and writing about it.

Of course, a major portion of our literature is all about the world as it is, but at a superficial level and quite stereotypical or conventional. I have no issues with such literature, simply because that is how things are and they may have a huge entertainment value. But I have in mind writers who think differently and write differently. There are writers, who, like good scientists and thinkers, are involved in the creative process of questioning the given, innovating new forms and styles, and they have produced narratives which have enriched our understanding of life and the world.

It has been my constant endeavour to tread that path, and that in short, has been the burden of my writing: To produce narratives that can offer new insights into life and thereby new ways of experiencing and being in the world.

That said, I’ll end this little talk now by giving you a small passage from my recently published novel: In Search of Shiva.

The fires atop the poles at the four corners of the stage hissed like the mythical seven-headed serpent. In his dark-yellow turban that shimmered like unalloyed joy, Bahurupi stood at the centre, telling his story.

One day, I met Allama Prabhu and introduced myself. Mischief glinted in his eyes when I called myself a storyteller. He already knew about me and I felt truly flattered. And then getting on to my business, I begged him for his story.

He laughed a laugh that was at once mocking and affectionate. He said, ‘Sorry, there’s no story.’

But you know I’m not the type who would take such a reply for an answer. I’m like a gravedigger, who’ll not stop digging until he finds something to play with. So, as I kept persisting and pestering him with questions, at last, Prabhu asked, ‘How will you tell a story? When and at what point does a story begin, eh? There is no point. Forget it. You do not know, you cannot know.’

I said, ‘Prabhu, you are destroying the very ground on which my living is based. You should not be so unkind. Give me a clue or something with which I can begin.’

He stopped me with a wave of his hand, and said, ‘When the sky is the palmyra leaf and wind the story, what will you say and where will you begin?’

I said, ‘Prabhu, that is a beautiful metaphor!’

He said, ‘All stories are metaphors in frames of time and space.’

I said, ‘So at least you agree there are stories, though we may not know where and how to begin.’

Laughing, he gurgled, ‘Stories within stories within stories, eh? You are a charming liar.’

I said, ‘Prabhu, I tell stories to make a living and pass my time. I have no other talent, you see.’

‘That’s all right,’ he said, with an approving smile. ‘Go and tell your stories. But, remember, you really cannot tell the full story of anyone or anything, not even your own, let alone of someone called Allama.’

~ * ~

My World, My Writing

Mukunda Rao

A paper presented in

Writer’s Meet, March 5, 2011.

Trivandrum.

Welcome !!

I was not too sure If I should do this. My friend Atul asked: Why not? After all I write books in order to share my thoughts and communicate with fellow human beings. Yes, and it’s not as if I’m not on social media. I’m on Facebook though not very active. I live on a farm outside Bengaluru where connectivity is poor. It takes ages to download and upload messages and files here. Halekote, hamlet of Durgadahalli, is where my wife and I live, at the foot of the hills of Devarayanadurga reserved forest.

We are surrounded by about 13 hills. We have two four-legged companions, Shambu and Shikari. Leopards, hyenas and wild pigs make their appearance occasionally, just as peafowls kick up rackets every now and then. And there is silence among the hills, deep and palpable, like the tremendous void between notes.

It’s been five years now, this life here, which ought not to be pitched against life in Bengaluru city, where I was born, raised, educated and lived most of my life. Where I taught English in an undergraduate college for 32 years and then took voluntary retirement three years before my superannuation. So did my wife, Renu, who worked as a consultant in the field of water and sanitation and gender issues. Our son, Sumedh Rao, married to Swaha Das Mohapatra, lives in Bengaluru. Occasionally we visit Bengaluru to see them, and to meet with friends or on some work.

On 21 May 2017, my new book THE BUDDHA: An Alternative Narrative of His Life and Teaching was launched in Bengaluru. Writing continues, also part-time farming. 

I post here excerpts from the book to wet your curiosity and go for the book.

Excerpts from THE BUDDHA

The Buddha: An Alternative Narrative of His Life and Teaching
The Buddha: An Alternative Narrative of His Life and Teaching

What was this Buddha like? How was he different from Siddhartha Gautama, the son of King Suddhodana? Was he a superman? Was he a ‘mutant’, an avatar or a sage like Ramana Maharshi and U.G. Krishnamurti? Was he the dry, humourless person he is often portrayed to be in traditional texts? Did he believe in reincarnation? Did he really start the sangha of bhikkhus and encourage conversions?

~

The Buddha was merciless. He did not bring the dead back to life but taught us to reckon with death as a fact of life and not to escape into beliefs that have no basis in reality. He refused to offer false promises, props or sugar-coated pills to comfort us or allow us any childish desires. He would not allow us to cling to any lie, howsoever consoling, for a lie is a lie and it can only produce false consciousness and thereby conflict and sorrow. The truth has to be brought to us, no matter how hard and unpalatable it is.

~

The discovery that aham, ego, is a self-perpetuating substance and will never cease by itself, is a dead end. This is the core issue one has to come to terms with at some point in one’s spiritual quest. The mind is the only instrument we have in order to probe, to delve deep within, even to reduce thought and try to reach a point of stillness by way of concentration on some object or by intense observation. But the self will not disappear, will not fall dead.

~

What transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly? Some inner device or potential! Similarly, there seems to be some inbuilt device within the human which, when triggered, brings in its wake the death of the divided self and the birth of a new human being, now present in the undivided state of consciousness. However, we are not able to identify the cause that triggers this process of enlightenment, although most spiritual discourses are constructed on the assumption that we know the cause that can bring about enlightenment.

~  ~

Ultimately, nirvana is not something that can be known but something to be lived through. It is not an experience that can be transmitted or shared either. One has to discover this for oneself. So we have to stop here. The understanding is that all attempts at understanding nirvana are an exercise in self-defeat. This is self-knowledge in the sense that knowledge cannot dissolve the divided self, the self cannot find entry into that which is not of the self, into that which is vast, boundless.

~  ~

According to the Hindu cosmology, God, humans and the universe are not distinct and separate. All is One, tad ekam. The splitting of one into two, into male and female, life and death, is the beginning of the play, the lila of Brahman. In Buddhism, the origin of things is simply and neutrally referred to as the ‘beginningless past’ or ‘root desire’. However, this play or root desire brings in its wake not only joy and wonder but also fear, sorrow, insecurity and lack, because of which there is also a deep yearning to return to the state of primordial unity, the state beyond joy and sorrow. In other words, one can go on with the samsaric play and taste of the joys and sorrows of life, but one would never know the ‘peace that passeth understanding’. Therefore, if the human being has to be free of sorrow and the sense of incompleteness, and enter the state of enlightenment, one has to move beyond the play of dualism.

All major enlightenment traditions in India teach the same thing: desire and ignorance of our true nature are the causes of suffering and death; human beings are constitutively immortal and each person is always already God/Brahman/Buddha. The human is already divine in the sense that the energy or power that created the world (not that one can posit a beginning to creation) is the same energy that is operating in the human being and in all Creation.

Sages are Human Flowers

Buddhism does not consider Siddhartha Gautama as the only ‘Buddha’ or enlightened one, nor does it view nirvana as an exclusive state of being or ‘property’ of a Buddha. It is not fixed in time and space, an exclusive or single historical event. Instead, it is a continuing process through human history even if, for a single human being, his personal ‘history’ comes to an end. Hence, the Buddha’s coming upon nirvana is generally explained as a rediscovery, and his dharma, a re-proclamation. It is so because nirvana or the Buddhadhatu is a natural state, always already there.

Perhaps this is the way to understand the liberation of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad as well, where these occurrences were not historically unparalleled or one-time events but a ‘rediscovery’, a return to the state of unitary consciousness. And, if one may suggest, Jesus and Prophet Muhammad’s going away to the hills (for about forty days) and what happened to them there can be seen as a ‘death experience’, which is a precondition to liberation. This death, as explained earlier, is the breaking down of the binary self, essential before coming into the state of pure consciousness. Legends and scriptures clothe this event in mystical terms, for example, as a meeting with God or the Archangel.

Like the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad were enlightened masters. There is no need to compare and contrast or even integrate the way these sages lived and what they taught, although one may find several parallels in them. Just as a daffodil or rose gives out its own fragrance, every sage—a human flower, is unique and different in his expression although his essential message is always the same: to end sorrow and lead humanity out of its deeply entrenched sense of separation into the state of undivided consciousness.

~  ~

We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness, Christ consciousness. This is not the historical Gautama Buddha or Jesus Christ in the sense it is understood in parochial terms; this is life, the fundamental state of every human being. This potential to be a Buddha or a Christ, that is, to be free of conflict and suffering, to transcend the divisive consciousness or samsara, is within every individual and the potential for this state is always present. Divinity is not an external state of being or an external agency. The name we give to that state of tranquillity is secondary.

The individual—every individual—is the question, the answer and the saviour. A sage can come from anywhere and at any time. A sage is he who has realized his potential, who has brought suffering to an end. These are human beings who bring home the wonder and mystery of life, indicating the possibility of ending sorrow, ending the thought structure, the self that is the cause of sorrow. It is in this sense that such sages are the saviours or ‘messengers of God’, not in the orthodox religious and exclusive sense of the term, fixed in time and space.

However, by putting them on a pedestal and worshipping them as gods, messiahs, avatars or bodhisattvas (in exclusive terms), we have misread their messages and created structures of belief and faith that have become the source of conflict, violence and sorrow. This is not going to help and it is not the way to consider these liberated beings. As explained above, their presence enables us to understand that there is a possibility of realizing that state of being. Instead, what we are doing is to imitate their lives and to create this imitation all over the world. And as a result, we create Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims and thereby give rise to division and conflict.

~   ~