Restarting the Jayary
Think of the Brother's Grimm. Or the Arabian Nights. Books where the foolish are swindled and the careless are eaten. Books that spin a web of delight out of the terrors of existence. That's what I am thinking.
Whether the Arabian Nights or the tales of Birbal, haven't you noticed that these stories are among the most philosophical treatises we have on our shelves? Remember when Akbar asks Birbal to find the ten stupidest men in Agra upon the pain of death?
A day later, Birbal comes back with eight buffoons. When the arithmetically challenged emperor ask his minister “where are the remaining two?”
Birbal points a finger at himself and then another finger at the sovereign himself. Can there be a better illustration of the follies of power? Birbals tales, like Aesop's Fables before them are fictions that reach out to the truth.
Official philosophy falls under castle metaphysics. The wise words in the official doctrine are usually spoken by people of power and recorded by adoring disciplines. Castle metaphysics is propagated by the official media: it's taught in schools and colleges, summarised in textbooks, and quoted by other powerful people when they want to buttress their point. Reason issues forth from the mind of the castle just as arrows issue forth from its arms. The intellectual market of the castle trades in theories and hypotheses.
Then there's street metaphysics, words spoken by people with far less power. Street metaphysics isn't found in textbooks. It's spread informally, from delighted ear to delighted ear. It lives on through stories rather than arguments. Street metaphysics is fun to hear and fun to recount. It's goal isn't to persuade or win but to probe and evoke. The intellectual market of the street trades in metaphors and images.
Don't get me wrong, I have no intent of disparaging the castle. We can't investigate atoms and quarks without official patronage and technical expertise. That costs money, and money needs patrons, whether that's the king or a national foundation. But we also need the subversive, low cost knowledge of the street; it's far too easy for the powerful to believe their own propaganda.
Every profound tradition of knowledge has representatives in the castle and in the street. If Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamikakarika is castle metaphysics, the Jataka tales are street metaphysics. We can't and shouldn't set them apart.
In fact, let me make a stronger claim: that the topsy turvy world we live in needs the right hand of the castle to work together with the left hand of the street. If that reminds you of right handed and left handed tantra, then bravo: you have read my mind. If that didn't remind you of right handed and left handed tantra, then go read them up on Wikipedia.
Horizontal and Vertical Transmission
Time, as we know, can be divided into the past, the present and the future. In the real world, we live in the here and now even as history casts a huge shadow on the present. The future is barely visible. The scholarly world mirrors the real world. Most scholarship is in the present; researchers address problems raised by their contemporaries and in turn, their solutions are fodder for their peer's investigations.
The sciences don't care about the past; it's the rare scientist who reads papers over a decade old, let alone those from a previous century. Even those who do, don't refer to the older papers in their cutting edge work; the edification of the past is usually reserved for memoirs or monographs.
Philosophy is one of the few disciplines that engages with the past, and that too not to put it in its place. Unlike history which situates the past in the past, philosophy tries to bring the past into the present. In fact, that's why philosophy is so important, for it serves as a cultural genome: one the one hand, philosophical texts of the present are descendents of their predecessors; one the other hand, they go out into the world and help shape the present and in doing so, bring the contemporary world back into the textual corpus.
Consider how John Rawls' moral arguments expand upon the Kantian tradition of ethics and also inform contemporary ethical and legal doctrine. Or how Chomsky's work expands upon the Cartesian inheritance of philosophy of mind while influencing contemporary linguistics and cognitive science.
While the sciences are horizontal, i.e., caring mostly about the present, Philosophy is unique in having a vertical as well as horizontal dimension. I am not fond of the notion that ideas are memes, spreading from one mind to another like a virus, but there's some merit to thinking of philosophy as a memome, i.e., a central repository of ideas out which individual ideas sprout, are tested in the world and either die out or are reabsorbed into the memome.
By the way, this genetic function isn't in the realm of ideas alone – it's supported by a vast material structure of libraries, publishers, books and journals, university departments, curricula and so on. Go to any university library and see the distribution of books: the closer you're to the present, the more you see the hand of science but as you dig deeper into the stacks and look at what's on the shelf, you'll see a pattern: the older the book, the more likely it's philosophy or literature. We read Plato but we don't read Galen.
That's where the troubles start for Indian philosophy. Its vertical function is too narrow and its horizontal function is nonexistent. We can't separate a knowledge tradition from the means of its propagation. Mathematicians learning how to think like one from the previous generation of mathematicians. The vertical transmission of Indian texts is through the guru-shishya tradition. Apart from a few schools of Brahmanical learning, who adopts the guru-shishya model anymore? In memetic terms, the Indian philosophy niche is too narrow to support a range of subspecies.
There are several ways to solve the problem of history. Let me count the ways:
The first way is to deny it, or rather, to assert that Indians are the inheritors of a continuous four or five thousand year old civilization. The denialists have been – by far – the most powerful camp, since it was the official position of the freedom struggle and of the various fundamentalisms that dot our landscape. Gandhi gives voice to that idea in Hind Swaraj, but his is not the only interpretation. The idea of India animates such opposing views as Nehru's Discovery of India and Savarkar's Hindu-Pad-Padashahi.
Unfortunately, the idea of India suffers from problems of its own. The first and most obvious one: what about Islam? Are Muslims within the idea of India (Nehru) or rejected by it (Savarkar)? The creation of a unified, continuous civilization also makes it possible to create enemies where none existed; to create a clash of civilizations before that term was invented. Like the death star in Star Wars, the idea of India also has a flaw at its core: what if the idea is evil? What if Indian civilization is built on an ideology of caste that has oppressed most of its people for millennia? We should all thank Ambedkar for turning the problem on its head and revealing the misery of those at the bottom of the pyramid.
The idea has other flaws too, also pointed out by Ambedkar: how does the idea account for the incredible diversity of cultures and beliefs, especially when those beliefs are in opposition? Where's the unity in diversity? Then there's the additional twist that there's no obvious continuity between an ancient civilization – assuming that existed – and a modern nation state. Britain, France and Germany are self-confessed members of European civilization but they're distinct nation states, states that have done their best to kill each other even as they colonized everyone else. While the European Union is a response to the violence of European nationalism, it's not that easy to turn cultural affinity into political unity.
Then came the retreat from the idea. The retreat has a marginal life: it mostly lives in universities and scholarly texts. Academics are scared of pathologies. They want their arguments to be the healthiest, error free arguments that anyone can make. Instead of rejecting history, they tried to embrace it; perhaps too much.
Which is when the trouble started, for if you unpack what Indian means to most people, what Philosophy means to most people and what Indian Philosophy means to most people, and if you're most people you're probably filled with a longing this book will not satisfy.
Let's start with the first of three terms: Indian. Close your eyes and tell me when what you see when you imagine that term. Does it call up images of loud weddings and bollywood songs? Do you see saffron clad gurus and smiling monks? Or do you see rigid hierarchies, both ancient and modern, emaciated children and beggars lining a temple road? The urban Indian imagination is so compromised by its unequal encounter with the west that it can only conceive itself along western lines. Computers and caste. Books about India, especially those written in English, are either full of rowdy families and fantastic images or narrations of wretched lives. Unless they're about a perennial philosophy that's never been corrupted by materialism. Nothing wrong with the west, by the way. It's only when it robs us of our autonomy that we should start worrying.
Let's go to the next term now: philosophy. If India is a multitude of voices, the philosophy bookshelves in our stores mirror that chaos. I made it a habit of looking at philosophy bookshelves in every store that had one and the random assortment of books on street path bookstores. The good news is that philosophical ideas have much more currency in India than anywhere else. They're a staple of the sidewalk along with religion and self-help. You will find Bertrand Russell, Dale Carnegie and Ramakrishna sitting cheek to jowl in almost every shelf or tarpaulin that plays host to the written word.
That indiscriminate array also reveals a confused terrain. What mind classifies astrology, cosmology and logic in one pile?
There was a time when I would condemn the barbarians and walk away. As it turns out, I was wrong, not them. I was too caught up in my own academic classification of right and wrong, of blindly accepting modern – and by modern, I mean western, and so do you – scholarly values without asking whether they are the right values for Indian society today.
Do read carefully though. The opposition between western and Indian I am outlining is in the realm of ideas. I am not talking about a clash between western values and traditional values, about keeping women at home and men at work because that's the traditional way. The key difference is between the rigorous, peer-reviewed professional literature of modern scholarship and the haphazard array of influences you see on the street. Today's India needs more of the street and less of the ivory tower.
The reason is simple: we are in the early stages of re-forming ourselves as a nation and a society. There's no doubt that modernity has disrupted if not destroyed all of our traditional structures. It wasn't just political domination that started in 1757 and ended in 1947. Conquerors come and go; some are absorbed and others are driven out. Modernity is something different: it's stripped us of our clothes and left us naked and shivering. That's the adult view, that we have been robbed of our dignity and freedom and forced to roam the countryside like feral children. An enterprising child might have a different view, that there's opportunity lurking behind the loss. In our second infancy, we need to behave as children do: have a rich imaginary life, be curious about everything and everything, ready to learn from errors. In contrast, western societies have settled on a comfortable adult pattern, where they can put on their suits and go to work as professionals and experts.
We shouldn't switch to suits from our shorts quite yet. Even if the western patterns – with an Indian twist – are the right adulthood for us, there's no reason for us to hurry to get there. Easier said than done though, since every child wishes to be an adult, just as every adult misses the romance of youth. We Indians want to play with the bullies, to be seen as a superpower. Invade a couple of countries and make the rest sing to our tune.
Philosophers try not to invade other countries but they too want a seat at the grownup table, even as their strategies for achieving superpower status have changed over time. For a while, Indian philosophy was burdened with the accusation of softness, of an unmanly irrationalism better suited to women and children than the manly imperial ideas of Europe. It was a hard accusation to rebut, especially when those manly Europeans were ruling over us. Then someone realized that the men of Europe were desperately unhappy, that spiritualism had a market precisely because it was opposed to the dominant militarism of the west.
While spiritualism of every kind flourished in the Victorian era, Indian spirituality had an additional ace up its sleeve: it wasn't Christian. In other words, however traditional it might be in its home country, Indian ideas weren't anti-scientific (how could they be, when science itself was formed in opposition to Christianity!) and therefore, they could be embraced by liberal westerners as fresh, progressive alternatives to the twin horrors of militarism and rationalism. We ran with that horse for a while, didn't we? Even now places like Dharamsala and Puttaparthi glow from the reflected glory of the white sun.
Unfortunately for the spiritualist, rationalism is joined at the hip to adulthood. In one version of western mythmaking, the ancient Greeks were the first adults since they set aside the gods of their forefathers and embraced the laws of reason. Socrates is their hero, the man who starts his journey by questioning pompous devotion. Since then adulthood hangs over the philosopher's castle like a thundercloud, ready to shoot bolts at anyone who steps outside the house of reason. The spiritualist can claim access to truths beyond the reach of reason, but we suspect that his rejection of rationality is a sign of powerlessness rather than a principled choice. Our leaders scream about Vedic spaceships at their political rallies but buy expensive weapons from France and America. Do we need to say more?
Independence unleashed a new set of ambitions for achieving adulthood. Once political power was within grasp, it was natural to imagine oneself in the halls of intellectual power as well. While the colonial guru-philosopher could only cast himself as an alternative to the west, touring Europe and America to dispense ancient wisdom, the postcolonial philosopher had imperial ambitions. He wants tenure at Harvard. He wants Indian philosophy to be taught to undergraduates just as western philosophy is. Most importantly, he wants philosophy to stop being western philosophy. It's not a terrible ambition, for surely philosophical thoughts have been thought by people throughout the world. Shouldn't we recognize wisdom wherever it's to be found?
I couldn't agree more, but my suspicion is that the Indian philosopher and his Chinese, Japanese and Islamic counterparts don't want a democracy of philosophy. They only want four more seats at the bully pulpit. It's no different from the Security Council at the UN. We aren't saying “abolish permanent membership!” Instead, we are demanding that our name be added to the roster of veto powers.
Whatever we call it: superpower, grownup table, permanent member, the Indian philosopher wants his ideas to receive that status, exactly at the time that philosophy is being relegated to has-been status. It's a bit like baseball in America. There was a time when every town had baseball leagues and soccer (i.e., what we call football) was a sport for losers. Now every town has a soccer league and baseball struggles to find players. If you're an up and coming Indian sports promoter, which sport would you invest your ambitions?
Anyway, that's the ever sordid story of adult control: find a way to climb the ladder and then kick it away so that no one else can follow you to the top. Even the magic of power can't change the fact that the adult table is boring. We have the opportunity to play and experiment in ways that are impossible in London and New York. Why miss that opportunity?
These subversive thoughts were buzzing in my brain as I started sketching my book outline. Suddenly, an idea struck me: why not write a children's book, or more accurately, a book written in children's style?
The spiritualists were right in rejecting the aggression of the modern world but their rebellion was one of shame, a conquered people dressing up their house in a fresh coat of paint while the beams are being eaten by termites. Adults too ashamed to admit that they were powerless.
When slaves from different parts Africa found themselves on plantations in the Caribbean, they couldn't talk to each other. Their native tongues were radically different. Their children were more inventive: they created a hybrid language out of their parent's incomprehension. While adults lament their loss, children make up a new world.
Don't get me wrong: the Indian loss is real. We should give what aid we can to those who resist. At the same time, we should open up to the possibility that a new world is waiting to be created and that in order to do so, we should reject all adult games and start afresh.
There are literary advantages to a child's innocence: we don't have to stick to the dreary prose of the adult philosopher or even the strictures of argument. Imagination becomes more valuable than knowledge. Once we acknowledge that, a vast array of imaginative tools such as pictures, myths, tales, games are at our disposal. Remember, having fun is as important as telling the truth.
Of course, there's a downside as well: by becoming childlike, I run the risk of becoming childish, a grown man throwing a tantrum instead of putting forth a sober argument. Men never do that do they? They're always being reasonable. If only. Better to err on the side of unseriousness than pomposity.
My extensive travels in Indian Philosophical territory revealed a rather confused terrain. There's the Indian philosophy of unimpeachable ancient wisdom, a continuous stream of insight that floods down from heaven and issues forth into the world from the mouths of gurus both dead and alive. There's the Indian philosophy of the pandit, reading and writing commentaries in a long tradition while arguing with opponents in a long tradition of their own. More recently, there's the Indian philosophy of the Harvard professor, the painstaking footnoted comparative study of Indian and Western texts written for a scholarly first world audience.
However, academic philosophy is not the only way to articulate philosophical ideas. The genres of modern academic writing are only one among an infinite number, with many yet to be discovered. We can borrow a lesson from Robert Bringhurst who talks about how myth is a theorem about the nature of reality. What he says about myth is truer of itihasa. Itihasa is exactly the right genre for continuing the Indian philosophical tradition, combining as it does tale and technique, knowledge and narrative.
There’s no point in adopting the imperialist’s style – we need to reinvent our own. But how?
Before I read Hind Swaraj, I started dozens of other books: analytical treatises on the nature of knowledge, the sayings of the Buddha, comparisons between Indian and Western philosophies of physics, essays on the unique contributions of India to world culture, academic books on language, grammar, mind, knowledge, nature, self and consciousness plus any number of discourses written down by adoring pupils of various gurus, both ancient and modern.
Wait, how can that be a book on Indian Philosophy? It's not spiritual. It has no discussion of Atman and Brahman. It has no discussion of Nirvana. It doesn't have images of smiling monks on the cover. It's not punditry either – Hind Swaraj isn't a book by a Naiyayika or an Advaitin. No lineage certifies Gandhi's understanding. And it goes without saying that writing a book like Hind Swaraj will not get the author tenure at a minor US college, let alone Harvard.
Plus, the book was written by a man dressed in a suit traveling from London to South Africa; where was India in that journey? The quintessential Indian wrote a philosophical book that was about the modern world, not ancient India. Yet, it's an Indian Philosophical book. A book that never spawned a genre.
By the way, I didn't finish a single one of the other books on Indian philosophy. Some were too wrong. Some were not even wrong. Some were too long. Some were never meant to be read cover to cover. I wanted to finish all of them – except for the not even wrongers – but I couldn't.
I once received excellent advice about how to deliver an academic lecture: the first ten minutes should be understandable by a man who walked off the street. The next twenty minutes for people who're broadly in the same area of study. Then twenty more minutes for the experts in the same field and the final ten minutes should be understandable by no one, so that they recognize that you have conquered new territory that no one has seen before.
I took that advice to heart, not only for delivering lectures but also for reading books. The academic treatises were too narrow: written for a specialized audience working in western universities.While I learned a lot from them, I felt no compulsion to read the whole book. The first thirty minutes were enough.
I had a different impression of the guruvanis. They were written for everyone. The good ones bristled with insight, convincing me that the origins of philosophy aren't in argument but in wisdom. There are passages in those books that I return to again and again.
But I still didn't finish them.
The classical texts were too anachronistic, layered with social and political assumptions that I couldn't agree with. Also written in a style that predates widespread literacy, full of repetition and other aids to oral memory.
The modern guruvanis had a bigger problem: they had internalized the division of power set down by the imperial power. They were solely concerned with matters of spirit and inner experience and left matters of the external world entirely to the dominion of modern disciplines: the natural and social sciences and the brutalities of politics and war.
They had simply ceded too much of the world to the colonizer in the hope of preserving a little portion for themselves. They were philosophies of retreat.
In contrast, Hind Swaraj felt different. It was short. It was bold. It was about the modern world.
Short enough that I could read it in one sitting and that's what I did. It was bold in its assessment of all of modern civilization in a hundred pages. Hind Swaraj didn't concern itself with the true nature of the self or the mysteries of consciousness. Instead, it took as its subject the structures of modern life: parliaments and lawyers, machines and gadgets. The world which we continue to inhabit today. Except that Gandhi saw that world from outside the cognitive sphere of the west. He was not a liberal or a marxist; instead, he paced the rhythms of modern civilization using his intuitive understanding of Indian civilization.
How could someone dare to do so? From where did a man from a mofussil town living in a mofussil country get the gumption to challenge the tenets of the world that held sway over him? That's what I wanted to know then and what intrigues me to this day.
Hind Swaraj convinced me that radical innovation is possible within a broadly Indian sphere. In doing so, it represents an advance not a retreat. It also convinced me that the real opportunities for creative thought lie outside the traditional concerns of the academic philosopher. The latter might conduct a comparative study of mind in western and Indian philosophical traditions, adding a dash of modern cognitive science or neuroscience to leaven the bread.
Those books need to be written and more and more are being written today. Nevertheless, they are contributions within a niche defined by the concerns and priorities of western academia and that too a parochial part of western academia. At best, they're icing on the cake. We Indians are still kneading our dough; we should be looking for healthy grain first; others can worry about the icing.
Plus, I think philosophy is in a lot of trouble even at Harvard. Not a single scientist I know – and I know a lot of them – pays close attention to philosophy. A few read the classics – they will crack open a Plato or a Kant and set the book down after a few pages. Nothing wrong with it, especially if the scientist gets an idea or two after reading the ancients.
None of the scientists read contemporary philosophers; why would they, when philosophy is styling itself as a professionalized discipline like one of the sciences. After all, metallurgists don't read papers by organic chemists. A professional philosopher who bases his work on the advances of science is a leech. That's true of much of what we might call analytic philosophy. A professional philosopher who sets himself in opposition to science – common in the continental tradition – is running uphill against a well funded scientific mountain. Whether collaborators or resistors, professional philosophers are dead to every other profession besides their own.
Why should contemporary Indian philosophy model itself on a dying breed in its home country? Having spent a few years trying to reconcile Indian philosophy with the modern sciences of the mind (and having endured any number of retired Indian scientists discuss their not even wrong theories of quantum consciousness), I am firmly convinced that there's nothing to be gained from claiming that Indian philosophy is better/similar/compatible with modern science. Modern science is doing fine without any philosophy; along with technology, science is the driving force of the globe, the very object I want to interrogate in this book.
That's why I consider to Hind Swaraj to be a better model than books written by Oxford dons. It showed that there are resources within the Indian cosmos capable of responding to the modern world in its own idiom. Even better, the response came from outside the Sanskritic world with its own hierarchies and concerns. Its boldness is marked by its distance from both sources of power: the brahminical world of the pandit and the imperial world of the colonizer.
Boldness and courage are virtues, but surely philosophy needs to be true for it to be valuable. Was Gandhi right? Was his assessment of modern civilization on the mark?
Even if it's not original to him, Gandhi's assessment of machinic civilization seems on the mark today: it's rapaciousness and constant imperial expansion are there for all of us to see. Even more insightful is his claim that the colonizing power of this machine is independent of British rule, that they are merely the agents of a system that will easily shift from white to brown ownership. Aside from the insight, what gave me hope was that Indian civilization had resources that could respond to the machine; that William Blake and Henry Thoreau could only write books while in India someone thought and almost succeeded in building an entirely different society.
Almost, for not only did Gandhi fail, but contemporary India has embraced the machine with a vengeance. As far as I can tell, none of his peers in the independence struggle took his swarajist ideas seriously – not Patel, not Bose and certainly not Nehru.
Why not? Why were they (and we) in thrall to the machine? Were they stupid? Power hungry? Macaulayites? What made them incapable of taking Gandhi's ideas seriously, despite acknowledging his leadership of the struggle itself?
It might simply be a matter of timing; that Gandhi was too old at the time of independence to exert influence in the post-British era. If the non-cooperation movement had succeeded and India had achieved independence in 1927 instead of 1947, he would have had twenty more years to shape our future, at the peak of his influence and credibility. In other words, matters could have been otherwise, though the chances were always low.
Another way of saying the same thing: whatever we think of Gandhi's ideas, his successes were in the political arena. Unfortunately, it was never going to be enough to mount a political response to the machine; it needed full throated opposition with moral, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual components. Plus, the opposition to the machine cannot consist of reverting back to a pristine Indian past, since there was never one: too many people were marginalized in our past to support a roll back.
Today, the dominant expression of “the glories of ancient Indian civilization” is the worst of both worlds: a full throated embrace of machinic progress combined with a full throated embrace of retrogressive social values. Thanks, but I will pass.
In fact, despite his insights, I think it's clear that Gandhi underestimated the power of the machine. He underestimated the demand for control and comfort, especially when there's no negative feedback. It's pleasurable to drive a large car down a smooth highway; who cares if the road was built after bulldozing thousands of farms and millions of animals? What if the air isn't breathable – can't I just buy another AC? Who doesn't worship developed societies that have achieved comfort and control for a majority of their citizens?
He didn't predict that support for the machine will often come from traditionalists, not the modernizers. The modernizers thought that mechanical civilization will solve two problems at once: that technology will lead to prosperity and abstract notions of equality will replace traditional hierarchies. Gandhi was critical of the former but didn't anticipate that machinic culture is quite compatible with otherwise traditional thinking. Strictly speaking, there's nothing stopping me from making my slave drive a tractor rather than a cow.
Gandhi's instinctive conservatism also downplayed the extent of ancient hierarchies, especially caste. It's hard to tell whether Gandhi's defence of traditional social structures was a strategic or principled choice. He was a politician after all and had to engage with the power structures of his day. Perhaps he thought that caste would prevent unbridled competition for common resources. Instead, caste has embraced capital with a vengeance. Could he have known that both caste and capital are protean structures, quite capable of reaching an accommodation with the other?
It seems obvious in hindsight that brahmins would corner the market on the information society. And that arguments about merit and reservation will be used with a mask of innocence. Remember that the machine doesn't take over by force alone: it subverts, cajoles and seduces us into its vision of wealth and progress. We will be wise to read our Gandhi alongside those who wanted to annihilate the social structures that Gandhi tolerated. Ambedkar, for example.
Most of all, Gandhi didn't anticipate the cult of society. The crown has been defeated and turned into a ceremonial post and the people are sovereign. But who gave people their sovereignty? What legitimizes their power? Gandhi didn't (and couldn't) question the the idolatrous worship of humans and the human sphere over all other domains, of a conception of human welfare and human rights that prevents us from seeing the suffering of nonhumans. Indeed, such is our thrall to the cult of society that debates about the eating and non-eating of beef are about the culinary practices of different ethnic groups rather than a negotiation of human interests vis-a-vis the interests of other creatures.
One of the arguments I am going to make in this book is that the machine is the ultimate reduction of the nonhuman to the human, of turning a world that exists on its own into a world for us. Gandhi – and many who have come before and after him – thought that machines are inhuman. Actually, they are the logical conclusion of being human. The developmental society goes hand in hand with the reign of machines.
Of the two itihasas, I much prefer the Mahabharata. I don't recall a time when I wasn't fascinated with the it, it's multiplicity of stories and insights and the immense synthesis of an entire civilizations understanding of life, the universe and everything else. I have some facility with Sanskrit and my bookshelves are lined with translations and transcreations of the epic. Ganguli's five volumes from the late Victorian era to the Gita Press version in Sanskrit and Hindi, Van Buitenen's unfinished translation from Chicago, Masoom Raza's script for the B.R Chopra T.V version, the unfinished Clay Sanskrit Library translation, Purushottam Lal's transcreation in the Writer's Workshop (one of my most cherished possessions: fifteen handbound volumes signed by Lal himself with his exquisite calligraphy and illustrated with Patra paintings commissioned just for the purpose), and more recently, Bibek Debroy's ten volumes from Penguin and Carol Satyamurti's blank verse rendering from Norton.
Then there are the great abridgments from Rajagopalachari where I first read it (but as A.K Ramanujan said, no Indian ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time – I heard the stories from my grandmother before I could read a word), R.K Narayan and K.M Munshi's Krishnavatara.
Still, I find something missing. After all, the MbH is not just a story, though it's a gripping tale, it's not just a philosophical treatise, though it's filled with philosophical insights, it's not just a religious treatise even though it's of immense importance to Hindus and it's not just a history though it's depicting life of a certain time and place. In it's own words, what's not here is nowhere else; it's both the map and the territory.
My first task is to convince myself and then you, the reader, that the ideas, the mood and the insights of the epic are still important today. Shouldn't take much convincing – there's no other major work of literature I know that starts with millions of people and ends with exactly seven survivors. Everyone else dies in a battle over power and control over nature, a zero sum game with a vengeance.
Seems familiar doesn't it?
Among its many names, the Mahabharata's called Jaya. I suppose just reading such a massive text is a sign of victory. I am not sure if I will be able to read it all in a year or ten or ever, but it's not a linear text; digressions are central to the story and I plan on taking several digressions. Don't be surprised if there's a sideshow on big data or mathematical logic; they too need to be dissolved into this ocean. Think about it as an explorer's diary, or as I call it, a Jayary.
The Jayary is the Mahabharata for a networked age. In a previous yuga, the Jaya claimed “what’s not here is nowhere else.” Let’s modify that a bit, shall we? Let's say our goal is “what can’t be reached from here can’t be reached from anywhere else.” The new Jaya is a circulatory system of knowledge that nourishes the whole world with its arteries and veins and capillaries, and of course, with a heart that pumps dharma into the world.
I started the Jayary three years ago this July and wrote it every single day in 2016. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. As I return to the project after almost two years, my first goal is to get back into the rhythm of the project. How? Easy: by cleaning up what I have written. In doing so I want to meet the need that prompted the project: “to convince myself that the ideas, the mood and the insights of the epic are still important today”
I should be done with the convincing by the end of 2018. Then, who knows?