The Scientific Indian

The suffocating Vedic flatulence

I’d love to see us stop the suffocating Vedic flatulence. Among my country men and women, there’s a tendency to inflate the past beyond reasonable limits. If someone can draw a thread from Vedic literature, Vedic mathematics, Vedic astronomy, Vedic quantum mechanics and Vedic levitation it’s considered a mark of distinction – or so it is assumed. So, let me call it what it is: Bullshit.

I am not an iconoclast. Past casts a long shadow. Without respect for history, without empathy for those who lived before us, we’ll never understand the present. However, getting irrationally and romantically hung-up on a glorified past is just silly. Every culture, given sufficient time, has produced men and women of distinction. Subcontinental culture is not special. History has recorded great Arabs, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Africans, Europeans and many others.

i-fd79cd5373ba790b4aa01768cddb2569-patachitra2006-new.jpg
[Image from depictions of Shakuntala found here]

In the past few weeks I have been reading Arthur Ryder’s translation of Kalidasa. It is fabulous even in translation, especially the Cloud Messenger. However, often when I searched for more material, articles/commentaries by Sanskrit scholars would turn up, and most of them would split Vedic hair and would spin tales of grandeur about the past. Man! I felt nauseous at times!

There’s pride in mastering something, particularly if it is literature in a classical language with exquisite poetic tradition. But, if this accomplishment turns into vanity, it douses off any spark that might have been there. In a pissing contest, nobody comes off clean. This obsession with the Vedas belies the notion that once upon a time on earth there lived gods; and that since that golden period civilization has been going downhill due to human corruptions (the same idea is present in Christianity in a more virulent form – those awful things called Sin and Repentance). Glorifying the past unconditionally is the mark of someone who refuses to engage with the present. All romantic notions of the past are just that: romantic. There is as much tragedy, suffering and folly in the past as there was romance. So, can we please stop talking as if our ancestors were infallible gods.

As part of the sudden (well, not sudden really) interest in classics, I have been searching for re-interpretations of old Indian literature within modern context. I have not found much that’s interesting (probably because I am completely uninitiated in this regard. Help me). My ignorance leads me to ask: Is re-interpretation a problem with Indian literature because of the pedantic and religious nature of most of it? Is it relatively easier to re-interpret/recast Chaucer and Shakespeare than, say, Ramayana?

Oh, I hope not. We really need some fresh air.

Comments

  1. #1 Sunil
    July 28, 2008

    mostly agree with what you have here Selva.

    As far as re-interpretations of old Indian literature goes though, i think there have been quite a few attempts. A very large number of them are not in English. So yes, it is a little harder to find modern interpretations of old Indian classics in English. But even some of these are now available in English translation (try Girish Karnads “Hayavadana” for starters). The Mahabharata though has provided plenty of material (or inspiration) for modern interpretations. Shashi Tharoor did a fair job with “The great indian novel” (at least in the first half of the book). There are plenty of interpretations and versions of the mahabharata in cinema (don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Thalapathi). Given the depth of that epic, and the different directions the stories take, there is plenty in there for re-interpretation in modern contexts. And you stress too much on the religious nature of “most” Indian work, conveniently ignoring a pretty large volume of “secular” work, starting with the Jataka tales and panchatantra. I don’t know how many modern adaptations there are of these, but I seriously doubt “the pedantic and regligious nature” of it was a cause for that.

    And since you are looking for translations of old indian classics, you might enjoy this translation of Kumarasambhava.

  2. #2 Bharat
    July 29, 2008

    Ashok S Banker did a reinterpretation of the Ramayana. Amazon Link

  3. #3 selva
    July 29, 2008

    thanks for the links, Sunil, Bharat.

    I never realized that Thalapathi drew it’s material from an epic!

  4. #4 vishal
    July 29, 2008

    It is naive to compare Shakespears works to Ramayan, better comparison would be with Bible of which re-interpretations have been even lesser. I think Ashok S Bankers Ramayan is a very beautiful work.

  5. #5 Namratha
    July 29, 2008

    Selva,

    You must read the retelling of the mahabharata in the modern context – PARVA – written by renowned Kannada novelist S L Bhyrappa. The English translation is also available and it is very good. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parva_(novel)

  6. #6 selva
    July 29, 2008

    Namratha, many thanks. PARVA is now at the top of my reading list.

    Vishal, what you say is partly true. When I wrote Ramayana I was wondering about the ‘ease of re-interpretation’ and speculated that it may be related to the religious nature of ancient Indian literature (a.k.a “You can’t alter god’s words” dictum). Perhaps, a comparison of Mahabharata with Shakespeare would be more appropriate (or better yet, Mahabharata with ancient Greek literature).

  7. #7 Dhimant Parekh
    July 29, 2008

    You could check out Ramesh Menon’s interpretation of The Mahabharath. A little explicit, but gives a different perspective to the epic in today’s context.

  8. #8 sharmila
    January 19, 2009

    i would not say grandeur or the iconoclast. majority of the vedic literature is like a formula it can be intepreted as per your knowledge, your reading and understanding todaywould be different from another period.
    the very concept of god is debatable. maybe your exposure has brought a disdain to vedic thought that is your experience i have grown out of that to learn that we need to intepret and we have the freedom to apply the intepretation, prove or disprove that and go on, what the later scholars say is not binding, we tend to judge these things from what we read of the mid-way scholars or the westners. — sorry about this monologue,

  9. #9 SV Nagappa
    August 15, 2009

    Every historical book needs to be read for its context and time. The actions of those times would be considered in a different light today due to different social mores and norms. Vedas have some of the most powerful thoughts and are a clear examples of a society moving from a Agrarian based culture in rigveda followed by others with more fluid narrative of a socially changing society and more evolving thought. Simialry Ramayana in a style of a narrative akin to puppetary as a bird Jathayu starts the story of good and evil ( a la G Bush??) followed by Mahabharatha whihc is more direct in its style giving historical account when women were in shortage ( a la punjab), cousins fighting (India vs Pakistan) for land, one set of them not willing to compromise and a whole bunch of politicins ( drona, bheeshma, krishna et al) playing games using these sets of cousins, today violation of droupadhi could be considered as rape whihc is happening in some villages in India, Kunthi giving up Karna being an unwed mother, dharmaraja lame duck leader, arjuna a la Rajeev Gandhi. Why does one need more modern interpretation when Mahabharatha is happening everyday in India when millions are starving? Please dont read books by Bhyrappa as that man cant even get facts straight and people believe him of all the people.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.