Jayary Newsletter #45

One Word

Capricious. I like the word "capricious," it sounds like what it means. There's so much capriciousness in the Jaya. Sarama's son passes by the brothers of Janamejaya and is beaten up for no reason. The injured dog runs back to his mother, who curses Janamejaya's family. Now Janamejaya is worried and he starts looking for a rishi who can revoke the curse. Capricious brothers. Why did they have to beat up an innocent dog? Try explaining that to anyone in power.

Way back when, I desired to own a pair of tinted glasses, the kind that are dark in the sun and transparent in the shade. After much cajoling, my parents got me one. I wore it to school thinking I was an order of magnitude cooler than before. Soon afterward, a much older boy who had never noticed me before walked over and said "Your glasses look a lot like mine. Why are you copying me?" Then he grabbed my glasses, threw them on the ground and stepped on them.

What do we do in the face of such capriciousness? We pray to the gods. What if the gods themselves are capricious? Here you are, enjoying an evening of faith, celebrating a god your family has worshipped for generations and before you know it, your entire ancestry has been condemned by the deity's jealous brother. Or you unwittingly insult a rishi passing by and find yourself a toad. Uncertainty causes ulcers.

Instability is a gnawing worry, which is why I understand the charms of monotheism. When there's one god to rule them all, you don't have to make deals with all the middlemen. No bargaining - there's a fixed price for salvation and once the One God blesses your efforts, no one else can spoil the party.

One God, One State, One Law. Except when that one god disappears, the one state tortures you and the one law sides with the torturer. Then you're in real trouble.


Continuing my reflections on one-word themes.....

Bondage. Bandhan. Who talks about bondage today? We live in a world of freedom, of making choices and exercising autonomy. Why would anyone want to submit either to another person to some higher authority?

The rishi Dhaumya had three disciples; Aruni was one of them. When Dhaumya was out surveying his fields, he noticed that an irrigation channel was breached. He asked Aruni to fix him. Finding himself unable to fix the leak and bound by his guru's command, Aruni did the next best thing - he lay down between the two sides of the breach to stop the flow of water with his own body. Better to die of pneumonia than to deny his guru's wishes. Like Aruni, many others have submitted themselves to their teachers and lived lives of great happiness and glory.

That was a long long time ago, but bandhan was a fact of life even in the eighteenth century. I recall the story of Banda Bahadur who submitted himself to Guru Gobind Singh and became the head of the Sikh panth after his guru's death. These men and women who submitted themselves to their faith weren't stupid or cultish; they saw great value in being bound to each other and the promise of a better life in this world and beyond.

Solidarity is hard to create without submission, without the setting aside of one's smaller self in the service of a larger vision. However, submission sits uncomfortably within a rational idea of freedom grounded in life in a rationally ordered society. But aren't we submitting to the god of reason? Why else would we voluntarily agree to the service of facts and logic? Our worship of reason strikes me as an interiorization of a submission to faith or guru.

Then there's the undeniable fact that we aren't rational creatures. We are creatures of emotion and emotion works through the body; even the transmission of rational understanding is smoothened by the bond between teacher and student. When that emotion isn't available in a liberative context, it's captured by fascists and nativists. That's real slavery.

Philosophy as Literature

About a decade ago, I attended a talk by U.R. Ananthamurthy, the well known Kannada writer. While he wrote his novels in Kannada, he was also a professor of English and was clearly very well versed in classical Indian literature.

After he gave the talk I asked him a question - it's content isn't germane - about why he hadn't included Nagarjuna (the well known Buddhist philosopher) in his exploration of the issue, seeing as Nagarjuna had made similar arguments. Before Ananthamurthy could answer that question, a scholar sitting behind me dismissed the question with derision, saying that invoking classical Indian texts without appropriate precedent is ahistorical - while invoking Derrida or Foucault is perfectly reasonable.

It's a strange argument, for one can counter history with geography and ask why one unthinkingly accepts the validity of Frenchmen in India. Why can we annihilate space but not time? Or is it that the history of the west is universal history while Indians are barely within history, let alone have universal lessons to impart to anyone else.

I think back to that debate whenever I ask myself how to approach Indian philosophical ideas today. Time hangs heavily upon philosophy while space is barely acknowledged, or worse, it's used to put non-western cultures in their proper place. We talk about Asian philosophy even when it's as analytic as Bertrand Russell, but proper analytic philosophy needs antecedents in Oxford and Cambridge.

There's only one alternative as far as I can see: to invoke the spirit of Indian philosophy as literature, to deliberately flout the language of precedent and historicity. After all no one condemned Joyce for rewriting Ulysses the way he wanted. What kind of literature should it be?

My answer is obvious: itihasa is where we should focus our efforts.


Every story has a backstory, a white cloth hung on the walls of an empty room. It's blank slate is deceptive, making you feel that you can write whatever you want on it, but look carefully, it's forcing you to write on its surface; you're trapped within its four walls.

The backstory is made out of facts, but it's also made out of emotions. The facts are dispensable but the mood is essential. As I reread the epic starting with the Adi Parva, I am beginning to discern the elemental moods that form its background. Loyalty is one of those elemental moods and the bondage that comes from loyalty animates much of the epic.

Anger is another.

What do you do to the person who thwarts your progress? How do you show your anger?

The ancients were bound to their promises and curses await the man who fails to keep his promises. Having promised my guru's wife that I will bring a queen's earrings to her by sun down, I can't rest until I bring her my offering. When the snake king tricks me and steals the jewels, I have to chase him down to the bottom of the earth.

The flip side of loyalty is anger and rage at broken promises and unfulfilled vows. That anger is so sharp, even its residue is enough to demand a snake sacrifice.