Jayary Newsletter # 48
Who creates the itihasm? Does it spring forth fully formed from Prajapati's navel? Is it forged word by word, image by image in the factories of Harvard and MIT? Some itihasmic texts have clearly defined authors: Darwin's Origin, Newton's Principia. Others have less definite sources: the Bible and the Jaya being good examples. When I say "less definite," I don't mean the lack of a recognizable human author, though that's also the case with the Jaya and the Bible. I mean that the very idea of authorship is unstable when it comes to these texts.
What does it mean for God to write a text and even if HE did, what kind of being is God that he might even be considered an author? Is it even possible to point to God? There's a reason why traditional Jews don't name God; they call him G_d, for he can't be named. He isn't the reference of any symbol or word.
The argument against authorship is also an argument against anyone who thinks the world is created by God, for what does it even mean for an unnameable, un-pointable entity to be a creator?
In short, G_d cannot be definite, as in neither can he fall within a definition, for that would mean there's something outside the scope of the divine, since a definition marks what's inside its scope and what's outside - a definition without an outside isn't a definition. But surely there's nothing outside G_d, for that would limit his scope. Nor can G_d be outlined like a child's drawing on a sidewalk. How can an unnameable, un-pointable entity be an author?
How can an indefinite being be a creator or author? It's better to assume that itihasms are apauruseya, authorless. Not only is that a better hypothesis for the logical reasons I have outlined in the previous few paragraphs, it's better for experiential reasons as well. To the extent my imagination is my imagination, I own it and I can do with it as I please. The personalimagination is like a teenager's room: it says in bold letters "do not enter." Who wants to live in another person's world? If an itihasm has to make room for everyone, it should be owned by no-one.
The Jaya is a tragedy, at least in the colloquial sense of that term, though it doesn't end in the death of the main character. Arjuna, unlike Hamlet, survives his soliloquy on the battlefield. Maybe we should step outside the literary categories imposed on us by Aristotle; tragedy is driven by the actions of one or more characters. The Mahabharata suggests a different source for the adverse outcome: Dukkha, the great suffering imposed on us by the very fact of our existence. It's a mood befitting an itihasm.
I have a different mood as I confront the task of understanding the itihasm: melancholy. I can't go back in time to consult its makers and the our knowledge of those times is so fragmentary that any attempt to grok the Jaya in its original setting is bound to be an imposition of our prejudice.
The alternative is to recreate the Jaya in the world we live in today, which is an even more sobering task. Information and knowledge have proliferated like weeds; who's going to tame the field? Can we look over the shoulder of Google's deep learning engine as it serves up snake oil salesmen in Tallahassee and love and lust in Bangalore. Can we request that engine to survey the itihasm and extract nuggets for us to munch upon?
I doubt it.
Walking into the Street
Stories are more powerful than dissertations. That's the lesson I have learned after spending several years bringing Indian philosophy into the modern world, both in everyday life and in academia. That's why I shifted my focus from analytical texts to the Mahabharata last year and when I started the daily Jayary on January 1st of this year, I did so with the explicit thought of using my reading to articulate a street metaphysics, i.e., philosophy as a way of life. The itihasm is nothing but a storehouse of street metaphysics.
Of course, one could argue that street metaphysics lies at the heart of philosophy and certainly at its origins both East and West. Socrates accosted his peers on open ground, not in the ivory tower. Pierre Hadot has a wonderful book called (surprise!) "Philosophy as a Way of Life" where he investigates the practice of philosophy in ancient Greece and its lineage holders. You can guess his thesis from the subtitle of the book: "Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault."
I might even be so bold to claim that street metaphysics has a better future than its ivory towered cousin. No one cares about the work of professional philosophers even as we live in a world drenched with - mostly unstated - philosophical assumptions. Isn't itihasm the best place to renew one's connection with a living philosophy?