On Amish Tripathi's attempt to connect India's past, present, and the Brahminism of his Ram Chandra series
If Amish Tripathi’s enormous popularity means that a sizeable part of the educated class shares his attitudes, it could be a cause for alarm | #FirstCulture
Amish Tripathi is India’s biggest selling author, and his six books have together sold four million copies. This means that his writing touches a chord with today’s educated Indians, and this becomes especially pertinent when we consider that his books are essentially efforts at creating a glorious India of the past — a cultural undertaking which cannot but find reflections in the political life of the country.
The past, as is not recognised widely, is a creation of the present. Historians and those who recreate the past through fiction both do so to emphasise the concerns of the day, either overtly or covertly. After Independence there has been an attempt to interpret the past as leading to a modern India. The narratives pertaining to monarchs like Ashoka and Akbar and duly imbibed by us are products of such reconstruction. All histories may be biased because historians cannot be content with chronicling but must find patterns; still, a historical interpretation of the past should be convincing and supported by argument. There is more freedom involved in fictional recreations of the past, but they should still exhibit the following characteristics:
- Their basic premises about the past need not be plausible like history, but they should be consistently applied
- Pertinent characteristics of the present-day world should be taken into account, since the recreation of the past is basically a projection backward of the present.
Amish Tripathi’s novels are marketed as ‘fantasy’ and compared by fans to JRR Tolkien’s writing, but unlike Tolkien who writes about an imaginary land called ‘Middle-earth’, Tripathi invokes ‘India’. Taking only the two novels of the Ram Chandra series into account he makes an attempt to present Rama, Raavan and Sita as people from the actual past and ‘India’ as a notion stretching back several millennia. Neither the actual Mahabharata nor the Ramayana invoke a political or cultural entity called India. Tripathi eliminates the magic from mythology by providing mechanistic explanations and his ancient India emerges as modern India replete with its ‘problems’; these problems being slight and made manageable. In fact, one finds correspondence between ancient India of 3400 BCE that the writer is imagining and a simplified version of India as presented by someone who is a manager. (Tripathi is an IIM alumnus.)
The Rama Chandra series is eventually intended to become a four-novel retelling of the Ramayana but only the first two (Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku, 2015, and Sita: Warrior of Mithila, 2017) have come out so far. The two novels trace the trajectories of Ram and Sita respectively, both concluding with Sita’s abduction by Raavan. The epics are an entanglement of interconnected, often contradictory stories, which means that it is difficult to make out exactly where Tripathi is being faithful to the original and where he is not. But it is evident that making Sita a warrior in her own right is an original turn on his part, to introduce gender parity into the narrative. The first event in the story of Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku is Dasharath’s defeat at the hands of the Lankan King Kubaer — whose general is Raavan — and one does not know how ‘authentic’ the tale is, though there is material suggesting such an association between Kubaer and Raavan.
In the beginning, Dasharath engages Kubaer and his general Raavan in battle in Karachappa, which I take to be Karachi. Tripathi does not make it clear why the battle should be fought there, far away from both Ayodhya and Lanka. But Dasharath, apart from being king of Kosala is also emperor of Sapth Sindhu, which apparently represents ‘India’. Since trading is not a vocation encouraged in Sapth Sindhu and trading is impeded through a ‘draconian system of licences and controls’ (reminiscent of ‘socialist’ India), Kubaer of Lanka, a trader king, sensed an opportunity and undertook the job of providing trading services for all of Sapth Sindhu against a high compensation. The battle of Karachappa is a consequence of Kubaer (on the advice of Raavan) unilaterally reducing the commission payable for sole trading rights on Sapth Sindhu territory. Dasharath loses the battle because of Raavan’s strategic capabilities, and the commission payable by Lanka is further reduced. Consequently, Lanka becomes rich while Sapth Sindhu faces financial troubles. Ram is born at the moment of Dasharath’s defeat and is therefore taken by his father to be a harbinger of bad luck. It is only when Ram demonstrates his abilities by saving his father’s life — when attacked by a wild beast — that he becomes his favourite, at which time he also demonstrates to Dasharath his wisdom as a potential statesman.
Tripathi, it must be admitted, takes an enormous amount of trouble to make the story of Ram ‘contemporary’. Ram is not an ‘avatar’ of Vishnu since ‘Vishnu’ is only a title accorded to illustrious people (Tripathi does not use the term ‘achievers’); he is only due to become one more in a long line of ‘Vishnus’ and is named after the last bearer of the title, Lord Parshu Ram. Tripathi neglects to mention how ‘Kurma’ and ‘Varaha’ fit into this scheme although there is an attempt to accommodate ‘Matsya’. Much of the ‘wisdom’ Tripathi offers is introduced through conversations led by wise men, often sages. Vashishta, for instance, invokes two great civilizations in India, in an even more ancient past which ended with the ice age – the Sangamtamil civilization which included a part of Lanka which went under the sea with the melting of the ice and the civilization in Dwarka, which also went under the sea. Krishna does not feature since he is due only to be a later ‘Vishnu’, and one wonders what to make of an ancient Dwarka. In any case, Tripathi hastily clarifies that the Dwarkans are not to be confused with the Yadavs around the Yamuna (whose descendants populate present-day Uttar Pradesh).
The effort to make the story of Ram rests on two key devices, of which the first is to give ‘scientific’ explanations for elements like somras and pushpaka vimana, the latter evidently functioning on noisy ‘rotor blades’. Animal affiliates of Ram like Jatayu and Hanuman (who appears only in Sita: Warrior of Mithila) are accounted for as human beings from a tribe of ‘Nagas’ with biological disfigurements: Jatayu has a mouth shaped like a beak and Hanuman has the proboscis of a monkey; both are hirsute.
The second has to do with philosophical arguments on socio-political issues. One of the ‘philosophical conflicts’ is the one between the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ cultures. The feminine principle in politics focuses on freedom, tolerance and compassion with the weak being protected, while the masculine principle insists on society not interfering with the natural law but allowing those with ability to flower. Tripathi evidently favours the latter, which may be equated with a laissez faire system. Another conflict is the one between monotheism (the Asuras) and polytheism (the Devas) and Tripathi tries to see the logic of both sides, perhaps fearing its interpretation as the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Here is Vashishta on the subject: ‘…. rigid intolerance creates mortal enemies with whom negotiation is impossible. But the feminine way has other problems; most importantly, of how to unite their own behind a larger cause. The followers of the feminine way are usually so divided that it takes a miracle for them to come together for any one purpose, under a single banner.’
The free coalescing of ancient India with contemporary issues and current-day dialogue (“You are ridiculously formal,” a tribal girl tells Ram) would be easy to lampoon and dismiss, but I would take Tripathi’s writing seriously, especially given that there is so much issue-based reflection in it that touches his readers. But I would still like to raise issues that point to serious lacunae in his vision of an ancient India.
The first aspect that merits comment is his idea that ancient India was technologically advanced — it had missiles and helicopters; Tripathi also uses the term ‘big bang’ to describe the creation of the universe. An aspect about technology that people who hold Tripathi’s views miss is that technology and scientific knowledge advance along a common front, as it were, and there cannot be isolated inventions or elements of profound knowledge amidst general scientific unawareness. A helicopter would imply the internal combustion engine and liquid fuel; horse-driven chariots and fortresses would hardly be consistent with them. Similarly, socio-political ideas depend on the social organisation prevailing; laissez faire notions could arise only when equal opportunity was prevalent, which in turn implies mass education (rather than the gurukul system) and, quite naturally, the printing press.
In describing ancient India of 3400 BCE Tripathi makes it appear that everyone in society is accommodated within the varna system (that is, the four castes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra). The varna system, he suggests, decides what vocation a person should follow and he adds, generously, that vocation should not be determined by birth but by propensity. The notion that the varna system is so inclusive is a falsehood once propagated and the majority does not fall under it. Some 30 percent of Indians belong to the scheduled castes and tribes which were once not even acknowledged by caste society; there is an even larger number who figure in the OBC group. If ancient India did not have these categories, the issue is where they emerged from. Tripathi acknowledges the ‘poor’, but we are talking about outcastes, not simply those who are not well-off. Travellers to medieval India (like Abdul Razzaq, Nicolo de Conti and Duarte Barbosa) noted the wide incidence of slavery and this suggests a murky aspect of the past glossed over by cultural nationalists. The vast disparities in India have come to us from a hoary past and only the electoral process has made an enormous public visible, but this section still seems invisible to Tripathi and his ilk. If a novel is only recounting mythology this would be unexceptionable but not when the writer is associating mythology with an actual past.
Amish Tripathi’s vision of ancient India is evidently a Brahminical one but more significant is what it makes of knowledge, its creation and propagation. I failed to detect a single instance when Tripathi does not make a sage the ultimate possessor of superior knowledge and when he is surprised by what someone else knows or says. When anyone demonstrates that they have wisdom it is still received wisdom from some scripture or smriti. One misses instances in Tripathi’s philosophical musings in which people learn from experience; it is always as though all knowledge is already accumulated and codified by wise people of the past. The experience of spending 14 years in the wilderness should have taught a prince something, but it is as though Ram has full knowledge of living in a jungle before he goes into exile.
The term ‘knowledge’ could pertain to a large number of things including flying the pushpaka vimana and farming but it is as though the Brahmin is always its ultimate custodian; Ram’s martial skills are taught to him by Vashishta. A superficial response to this attitude is to describe it as hierarchical or Brahminical – as I have already done – but it also suggests serious problems with our view of how knowledge is created. ‘Knowledge’ I would contend, is not something held by the teacher to be merely disseminated, but which proceeds by falsifying what is already known since nothing is certain for all time. No one becomes great without improving upon their teacher at some point.
If Amish Tripathi’s enormous popularity means that a sizeable part of the educated class shares his attitudes, it could be a cause for alarm. It implies that caste hierarchy is alive and well despite the decades in which the state has attempted to eradicate it. But more unexpectedly, I propose, it suggests that the educated public values second-hand knowledge far too much for the country’s good; the independent thinking needed for India to become a leader in its own right may be hard to find.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
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