Jayary Newsletter # 87

Coming into History

I guess what I am trying to do is to bring Agastya into history. It's a hard problem - Plato barely managed to bring Socrates into history and the author of the Republic was the wise man's student.

I don't mean history as a generic term which means anything that happens in the past. We'll call that calendar history and dismiss it without a second thought. I am using the term history in a specific way, of continuity in time that cognized through the written word (or an analogous mode of oral transmission) and in doing so, privileges reason over speculation and facts over belief.

Why history, why not leave the mythological sage where he belongs? Obviously, the ocean drinking can't be brought into history - that would run into our incapacity for disbelief. He can be transported into the future, as an ocean drinking spacefarer, but that's because the modern era treats the future as the ancients treated the past: as the natural repository of speculation and myth.

But, as the case of Socrates shows, bringing a mythical figure into history makes for a heady mixture. Socrates is powerful precisely because he goes into trances and receives wisdom from the muse and he demolishes the arguments of his fellow city-men. A pure mystic would be left alone to his devices - he can't harm the political order. A purely rational man wouldn't be the subversive that Socrates manages to be; plus the rational man would have escaped from the city instead of drinking hemlock - that's exactly what Aristotle did.

Historicism and Humanism

Historicizing someone is often conflated with humanizing them.

We like to humanize our heroes and villains today. Even Hitler was in diapers at some point. Combine that with aunts, girlfriends and other relatives and we have the makings of a biopic, the kind that's advertised before late night shows.

The ancient world seems to have taken the opposite tack. When introducing a hero, the epics tell us how awesome he was, how he defeated a tiger with his little finger when he was an infant - no diapers for him! - and at every stage building up the hero's supernatural resume.

Humanism and secularism have gone hand and in hand; we expect that the richest among us live lives that the poorest can understand, even if they can't enjoy such a luxurious life. No special connection to divinity, with the only exception of the artist or genius. Even that's gone now, as the most important art forms are clearly collective endeavours.

History is more objective, less about the human individual and more about the collective forces that shape our lives. For example, it's possible to talk about how rationality emerges at a certain point in history. Not rational behaviour by this person or that person, but rationality per se. While this isn't a watertight distinction by any means, novels are humanistic and non-fiction is historicist. Of course, the historical and the humanistic perspectives aren't disjoint; one and the same person could be explored through the lens of character and through the lens of material forces.

So when I say I want to historicize Agastya, I am thinking about a material world that makes him plausible.

The Keystone Event

While life isn't so neat, the lives of fictional characters often revolve around a key event; a fatal accident, a chance meeting or a fate foretold. Those events are the engine for the rest of the tale. Let's call such an event a keystone event.

The keystone event in Agastya's life is easy to identify: it's when he runs into his ancestors as they are hung upside down. That event sets up a clash between two values: the rishi's duty to his ancestors and his individual desire to pursue knowledge at all cost. Ancestor worship wins in the short run, which then forces him to find a bride - create a bride, really - and then the bride forces him to look for money and that starts him on the path to being the great digester.

Why am I saying all this?

Because the keystone event is also the key to turning myth into history. The epic doesn't say so, but Agastya is clearly at the juncture of two historical conditions: an old world in which one's duty to one's ancestors is paramount and a new world in which a rishi is free to go out and pursue knowledge for its own sake. The Buddha lies at the end of that transition.

In other words, Agastya is already within the realm of history; we just haven't seen him that way yet.

Inheritance

Agastya's predicament should be familiar to everyone who's been pressured by parents and relatives to get married. That's only the first step: once married, children are the next item on the list. "When are you going to have babies?" "You know, the house will be so full of energy." The gentle queries and the insistent questioning go hand and in hand.

Except that Agastya is blackmailed by his ancestors, not his parents. If you think your aunt's nagging is bad, it's a lot worse when the weight of time is on your shoulders. It's a metaphysical weight, for entry into heaven depends on the current generation propagating the lineage.

How can we transplant that metaphysical pressure into the mundane pressures of history? I don't think it's OK to replace ancestral responsibility with parental pressure, especially not in our liberal age when it's easy to evade or flout that pressure. Something bigger has to be at stake.

Money is the obvious solution. Power is a close second. Let's turn the obligation to the past - one's ancestors - into an obligation to the future. Make it into a matter of inheritance. What if Agastya was a scion of a wealthy family? Or worried about passing on his political power? It's a fact widely appreciated that a man wishing to pass on his wealth is in need of children.