Jayary Newsletter # 89

Four Stomachs

While I haven't brought Agastya into history, at least I have an idea of how that's to be done.

The modern Agastya is a semi-socratic, irascible, charismatic figure who falls in love with the wrong woman and pays for his choices the hard way. He also loves teaching, which gives us plenty of opportunities to insert philosophical conversations.

I bet it will be a terrible movie; too earnest for the front benchers and too cliched for the illuminati. Fortunately, this is only the first draft of the script. R.K Studios has given me until 2020 to submit the final version.

In other words, it's time to move beyond Agastya, for I will have to step beyond the interpretive to the fictional to make that story come alive. Some manthan will be required before I can do so. In the meantime, it's time to go back to the future because the year's coming to an end and I need to ask myself what comes next.

The quick answer is that what comes next is what came before, but with a twist. If the four stages of epic gastronomy are translation, interpretation, digestion and assimilation, then what I have done over this year (mostly) is to interpret existing translations. Interpretation isn't enough: digestion followed by assimilation is what's needed.

There's a decent chance that digestion is beyond my capacity but it's got to be attempted: the first stomach is overflowing and the second stomach is full; some of that gruel has to be transferred to the third stomach before it comes out the wrong tube.

With fifty odd Jayaries left this year (fifty six after this one if you're counting), let me spend the rest of the year summarizing the first and second stomach's translation and interpretation; the goal being to send a concentrated core to the third stomach. Also known as 2017.

101


There's one last question worth posing - don't know if it can be answered - before I set Agastya aside: how to combine the philosophical and the literary while making the transition from myth to history?

Let me clarify what I mean. I started this year's Jayary with the intent of articulating what Indian philosophy meant to me through the act of reading the Jaya. While I have read only about a tenth of the epic (maybe fifteen percent) this year, I think I have a pretty decent idea of the epic style, what I have been calling its itihasm.

But translating that itihasm into our world is another matter. The Jaya has been mined for insight so many times that yet another novelistic or filmic portrayal isn't worth the effort. Sure, there are new media forms worth experimenting: I haven't seen a web native translation of the Jaya, but so what?

It's the cognitive diversity of the Jaya that makes it unique: poetry in one section, battle scene in the next, philosophical discourse two sections later and religious exposition soon after. We don't write books like that today, but we can't accept the Jaya as it is either. While we are willing to suspend mythic disbelief, the Jaya feels unbalanced as it jumps from one genre to another (of course, the term "genre" itself is a modern term).

The itihasm has to be reworked and that reworking has to be a tapasya of its own. As I said in the previous Jayary, it's the job of 2017 to begin the digestion process, but in order for that to happen, I have to render 2016 in a form that's acceptable to stomach #3.

That's the purpose of the next fifty odd days: to wrap the enigma in enough clothing that it's no longer a complete mystery. Another way of looking at it: summarise ten months of reading the Jaya in the form of an Indian Philosophy 101.

101 because it's introductory and accessible. Not 101 as in it's a history of the actual subject. That's a task for pandits and scholars. I would much rather write the 101 of a future Indian philosophy that doesn't exist yet. Think of it as speculative fiction meets knowledge seeking.

PTSD

Every Indian I know nurses a grievance. If you don't, you're:

  1. Not an Indian. Congratulations. Or one of those anti-nationals, in which case you nurse a major grievance and you don't want to talk about it.

  2. Not someone I know. Impossible, since I know everyone. With my mind's eye, if not the one's in front of my head.

  3. In denial. Look deeper.

Some of us are angry because the Muslims and the British spoiled a perfect civilization. Some of us are angry because the Muslims and the British didn't destroy it enough. Others complain about modernity and its destructive ways.

The list is endless. I am pretty sure I have ticked off - and been ticked off - by several items on the grievance list. Jayary came out of a desire to turn grievance into gold.

What grievance and what gold?

I believe that all of us have PTSD; the sustained shock of the modern world continues to unhinge us. It doesn't matter whether we think modernity is destructive or liberating; the changes it has wrought in our lives is so deep and so dislocating that we are bound to be traumatized.

You may disagree with me but our intellectual response to this trauma has been fundamentalist. Fundamentalist not in the narrow sense of religious fundamentalism but in the broader sense of unshakeable and rigid belief. It's as easy for us to be fundamentalist about constitutional democracy as it's for us to be about ghar wapsi.

Ouroboros


People clutch at intellectual and spiritual straws in chaotic times. We combine that with a jugaadu attitude about practical matters, showing that we have no principles worth reinforcing. Jugaad leads to interesting innovations but it's mostly hideous; I remember being gifted elegant peepal-leaf plates with a chintzy rose captioned "welcome" sown at the bottom.

Jugaad penetrates our intellectual lives too, so that it's perfectly reasonable for a distinguished physicist to spend his golden years investigating the equality of the quantum vacuum and the vedantic Brahman. I have nothing against either side of the equality, but comparing them in one equation is a sign of atrophied judgment.

Fundamentalism is an alienated modernity. Jugaad is a regurgitated modernity. Neither is a creative response. The question is: what to do about it?

For a while we thought politics was the answer, that independence will cure all our maladies. Turned out to be wishful thinking. We need a new vision. Since I am a romantic - an intellectual romantic to be precise - I believe that philosophy is part of the cure, that the renewed love of wisdom will help us alchemize the shock into our system, or even better, help us make beauty out of terror.

If you have read the last few Jayaries, you know the four stages of alchemy: translate, interpret, digest and assimilate. To make matters more complicated, I am inviting double the labour: alchemize the Jaya and modernity simultaneously.

But actually, doubling makes matters easier: we can use the Jaya to digest modernity and modernity to digest the Jaya. Isn't the Ouroboros - the snake eating its own tail - one of the oldest alchemical symbols?