Amish Tripathi on his new book Raavan, ancient Indian philosophy, research and writing processes
In an interview with Firstpost, Amish Tripathi talks about the liberal nature of ancient tradition, clarifies misconceptions and discusses the function of philosophy and stories
Amish Tripathi’s seventh book Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta, the third in his five-part Ram Chandra series, was launched earlier this month
Raavan is a fast-paced character study, complicating and showing the complexity of someone long considered a great villain
In a conversation with Firstpost, Amish talks about the functions of philosophy, his writing process, and more.
Amish Tripathi’s seventh book Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta, the third in his five-part Ram Chandra series, launched earlier this month. The first two of the series are Ram: Scion of Ikshyaku and Sita: Warrior of Mithila. So far, this is the second-fastest selling book series in Indian publishing history, first being the author’s debut series, the Shiva Trilogy (Immortals of Meluha, Secret of the Nagas, and Oath of the Vayaputras).
His latest, Raavan, is a fast-paced character study, showcasing the complexity of someone long considered a great villain, published by Westland. In a conversation with Firstpost, he talks about the functions of philosophy, his writing process, and more. Edited excerpts below:
You use your books, especially Raavan, to complicate mythological characters. In effect, it places a massive focus on our choices as human beings. Do you believe every action of a person is in their hands?
Yes. In fact, that is the traditional Indian approach to life. The only ones who determine how our lives will go is we ourselves, through our actions, through our karma. It’s truly up to us and in some ways some people might find this philosophy scary, because it’s in your hands, no one to look up to for help.
There are people to look up to, there are gods to look up to for inspiration, but what happens in your life is completely in your hands. So this can sometimes be scary, but it is also very empowering.
I like this approach to life. And this is the traditional Indian approach in any case.
[The idea of fate] has come relatively recently. What unites all the Indic schools of philosophy is not ‘having faith’ or ‘not having faith’. It’s about the influence of karma and dharma. Which essentially means cause and effect. Sometimes your choices work out and sometimes they don’t; but you have to make your choices, your life is all in your hands and you have to take responsibility for yourself.
You also use your works to clarify misconceptions about Hinduism, like why women on their period don’t enter the temple. Do you think such efforts translate into a change in attitude or behaviour in your readers?
I’d heard a lot of discussion about Shabri Maharaj ji, and I wanted to clarify that Shabri Maharaj ji is not a gender issue, it is actually about the past of sanyal, the past of sanyasis. It’s like the Buddhist monk tradition — in the monasteries where the Dalai Lama was trained, that’s a male monk tradition, so females don’t go there. And it is the opposite in a female monk tradition, males aren’t allowed there. The Bramhakumaris is the female monk tradition, so men aren’t allowed there. It has nothing to do with gender, it’s about the monk tradition, the sanyasa tradition. Now many of the ancient Indian sanyasa traditions have died out in the last thousand years, with the invasions. And the vast majority of the Hindu temples today are of the grahastra roop, the household temples. So we are looking at sanyasa traditions in the grahastra temple, it makes no sense.
You know the thing is, I guess we’ve forgotten many of our traditions. It’s up to all of us to read as much as we can, and communicate those philosophies. I’m not a fan of people enforcing things from the top. We should, especially in our tradition, convince people one by one and then bring about change. It’s a much better way to have change.
[About the change in readers] I don’t know, that’ll be difficult for me to say, but I know I’m at least trying to do it.
I think that our ancient traditions were very liberal, there was respect for the rights of women, there was respect for the rights of sexual minorities, the caste system was certainly not based on birth the way it is today.
So I try to speak of the liberal traditions of our ancestors and keep telling people that let's try and learn from our ancestors. Because today I think we have forgotten many of those liberal traditions, so I’m trying to speak of them so that we can revive them. It is through our own culture, through our own soil. We’re not being westernised in any way by these liberal ideas, we’re in fact being truly Indian.
Your interpretation of ancient texts is startlingly close to modern psychology, being rational, curious and unconditionally accepting of the self. Where do you think this spirit first started being lost?
There are various theories. Some say it’s from the British or European invasion. Some say the destruction of our universities – the Nalanda university, the Takshashila university, Ujjain, loss of all these led to lack of knowledge. Some say it’s because the caste system became rigid, or that we ourselves committed crimes on our own fellow people, so there are various theories on where this decline began. I’m not saying we shouldn’t study that, we should. Because we should try and find out where we went wrong, so we don’t repeat those mistakes. But equally important would be that lets try and revive our liberal traditions right now.
Time keeps moving, and the only thing constant in the universe is that there will always be change. And time is one of the means of that change. I guess the way to look at it is yes, sometimes the dharma goes down, sometimes the country declines, but what goes down will go up as well, so this could be our time to revive our country. And lot of us can be a part of that movement, and make a truly great, liberal, inclusive, powerful, wealthy country once again.
You’ve mentioned in your acknowledgements that a Sanskrit scholar named Mrunalini works with you on research. Can you please break down your research process in some detail?
When I work with Mrunalini, I don’t do research technically for a book. My job is to keep gathering knowledge. It’ll get used in some book or the other – that much I know.
I gather knowledge because I like doing it. And that’s what I suggest to writers. If you want to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader.
My rough ratio is that for every page that I write, I must read at least a 100 pages.
I keep noting things down, like ‘this should go in my book’. But when it will go in I don’t know. I’ve learnt to just leave that to Lord Shiva. It’s not like notes for a book; it’s some knowledge, wisdom, some interesting interpretation, these are things that are just there at the back of the mind and in my research.
You’ve said that you visualise a parallel universe and that your writing essentially narrates what you see there. Can you please explain this further? Where do you think these images come from?
I know it sounds strange, but I actually see that world, I see the characters, I hear their words, I can hear their thoughts as well, I can feel their emotions. And I describe what I see, that’s the only way it works for me. Many people tell me that my books are very visual — the reason for that is I actually see it, and I record what I see. It’s not that it comes to me as words, it comes to me as visuals. Which is why I like to read a lot because that’s how I find ingredients for the story. Unless you have the ingredients for a meal you can’t cook the meal.
You describe philosophy as the soul and the story as a wrapper. So do you decide on a topic of debate first and then think of characters? What’s your writing process?
The process begins with the philosophy, and then the story grows around it. At the heart of the Shiva trilogy, for example, is a discussion around the philosophy ‘what is evil?’ and the answers aren’t simple, obviously. At the heart of the Ram Chandra series is a discussion of this philosophy ‘what is an ideal society?’ and again, the answers aren’t simple. Because you have to make choices — at times you may want things that are actually in competition with each other. Like often the rule of law and freedom end up being in conflict, so what balance do you strike? What kind of choice do you make? So there are debates like this that are part of the Ram Chandra series. And the story is a wrapper around that core philosophy that I want to discuss.
You’ve said that in the ancient tradition, stories didn’t have conclusions, but left you with a question, a thought, calling stories thought-starters. What are conversations you hope your books will inspire?
Any kind of conversation is good. The moment you’re thinking and using your mind, that ‘what could be a learning from this?’ and ‘what could I apply in my own life?’ that’s good.
A philosophy should not be just to make you smile and make you feel better. Philosophy should be the art of learning how to live.
I find that the deeper, more philosophical questions tend to come from younger people. Often the older people are aware of the traditional texts, so they’ll get into conversations about interpretation and source. Whereas the millennials tend to approach with an open mind, so their conversations are philosophical discussions between the characters, ‘my interpretation of this is this, Amish what do you think?’ and ‘how can I apply this in my life?’ so it’s more philosophical. I find that very interesting, very inspiring in some ways.
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