Jayary Newsletter # 96

Switch and Hold

I could go on and on about the subtleties of causation and inference, but what's the point? Is there a relationship with the Jaya? Or more narrowly, is there a relationship with the four archetypal figures: Jaratkaru, Garuda, Damayanti and Agastya?

The first doubt is easy to answer: the itihasmic style allows for infinite digression as long as the topic is interesting. I think inference and causality are interesting. Don't you? There's a further reason: reading and absorbing a story such as the Mahabharata requires cognitive resources that have atrophied in the literate world.

The Jaya is a special kind of conversation: the entire story is narrated as a dialogue within a dialogue within a dialogue within a dialogue. Ugrasrava recounts to Saunaka how Vaisampayana told the story of the Pandavas to their successor, Janamejaya. In turn Vaisampayana hears the story from Vyasa himself, who, arguably, overheard Sanjaya telling the story to Dhritarashtra.

Oral conversation is fluid; it can switch from topic to topic while maintaining common ground between speaker and listener. The Jaya expands that style enormously; it's a year long, if not lifelong, conversation in which each speaker talks for a month before passing the mike to another speaker.

It's assumed that the audience has the capacity to hold that long a dialogue in memory and switch topics whenever needed. We will need those skills if we are to get grips on the multi-headed hydra that's the modern world. Why not? It's just a matter of training: the average mathematician can hold a book long exposition of calculus in memory.

Plus, that "switch and hold" model is eminently suited to the web, which is a fantastically fluid medium. If I may say so, switch and hold addresses the attention deficit disorder that the web imposes on us all while profiting from the hyperfluidity of the medium.

Which is my way of saying that we need to deal with digressions. What about the four archetypes? Unfortunately, I will not answer the question here. Today's Jayary is the last Jayary of November and like I did in June, I am going to spend December picking out itihasmic snippets.

The story of those four archetypes is for next year. And in book form.

The Hilbert Hotel of Stories

December 1st. I am tired. It's been an exhausting trip through the Jaya. The daily discipline is both freeing and severely restrictive. Reading everyday is hard; writing everyday makes it that much harder.

But today being the first day of the last month, I can look back while peering ahead. The future's never certain, but I know what I want to do next: 2017's project is to write a book introducing the concept of the Jayary as a mutual digestive exercise. This first round will revolve around four important but peripheral characters - Jaratkaru (or his son, Astika), Garuda, Damayanti and Agastya. Mahabharata eats world. World eats Mahabharata.

But how exactly are we going to eat? Is it a one course meal? A buffet? A seventy two hour long South Indian wedding feast?

Fortunately, I have given myself an infinite amount of time to answer such questions. I guess that makes it an infinite buffet married to an infinitely long South Indian wedding, like a Hilbert hotel of stories.

Having said that, there's one idea I want to get out there now: that the protean Jaya is exactly the cognitive tool we need to grasp modernity.

That's what I have learned this year.

Now it's time to go back to the beginning and surface thirty important ideas: one for each day of the rest of this month.

Idea One: Speech

Idea One: Speech. Why does the Jaya have to be (re)told? Why can't it be written?

Note: telling doesn't have to be oral, and writing doesn't have to be on paper.

The Jaya makes much of its "recounted" quality. When Ugrasrava encounters Sounaka in the Naimisharanya forest, he's asked where he's coming from. Ugrasrava says "I am coming from the great recital of the Jaya by Vaisampayana in front of Janamejaya and other great beings."

Sounaka responds "tell us what you heard, O Souti, for this story contains the truth of all scriptures."

From the beginning, the Jaya establishes a lineage of hearers and reciters. By doing so, it also establishes continuity. Is it just the lack of the written word? Would they have simply read the latest installment in a weekly magazine if the epic had been written in the Victorian era?

Perhaps, but that doesn't mean erase the advantages of telling. The oral tale lives in time. Unlike the written text which only lives in space, time being frozen by the act of writing. An oral text is also not a discrete text - it's always been heard before. Recall A.K Ramanujan's famous claim that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time.

You would think that a temporal method has advantages when telling the history of all being. The Jaya needs to be told, even if it's with moving text on a screen.