Ramayana and Mahabharata

Post R&MA few years back, I was facilitating a workshop on understanding and appreciating cultural differences with participants from the US, Canada, and India. One of the modules within the workshop required each participant to decorate a table with some personal items that would give the audience a peek into his / her life beyond what they see at work. So we had participants putting up their family pictures, books that had inspired them, baseball bats,. ice hockey helmets, football jerseys, their father’s footwear, images of deities that they worship and so on. It was great to see the enthusiasm of people who had carried this stuff all the way from North America to Bangalore and the eagerness of people in India to showcase their background and heritage.

As the facilitator, even I had set up a table with some of my belongings. Some items that described who I am, what has inspired me, what I’m interested in and what I care about. One of the items on the table was a copy of the Mahabharata. I’ve been deeply interested in the Mahabharata and in my opinion it is the greatest story that has ever been told. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the epic here, however,. if you are interested, you could read some of my thoughts here. Continue reading

The Mahabharata: The Conflict Within

krishna_arjuna_conchshellsI developed a serious interest in the Mahabharata about 9 years ago. It is not that I was not familiar with the plot of the epic. A.K. Ramanujan used to say, “In India…no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, always ready.” I think that is a very accurate remark. I had heard the main story and also the minor ‘stories within stories’ from my grandmother. Like many of us, I had watched the television series produced by B.R. Chopra that aired in the late 1980s.

So, when I say, I developed a serious interest in Mahabharata 9 years ago, I mean that I became interested in the multiple messages that the epic was seemingly trying to convey. I became interested in the historical context in which the Mahabharata unfolds. I became interested in the scepticism and dilemma of its major characters. I became interested in looking at the human beings behind the facade of gods and their avatars. I became aware that what I was familiar with, was the Vulgate Mahabharata, the one that was popular among Hindu families across India. The one which is about Krishna’s divinity, and the lila he performs to achieve a pre-determined objective, the destruction of the kshatriya clans to cleanse the earth of their vanity and misdeeds. I began to see that this was a very narrow view of the epic, and the question of ‘what is the epic trying to convey’, started to gnaw at me.

I had never heard of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, put together painstakingly through decades of effort by V.S. Suthankar and his associates. I was introduced to the Critical Edition and the human questions that it posed, through the works of Irawati Karve (1905 – 1970), the renowned anthropologist and an authority on the Mahabharata. Her book ‘Yuganta’, a collection of essays on the various characters in the Mahabharata, is what got me excited about the grand epic. The characters, and their ‘very human’ struggles and dilemmas came alive in Karve’s work. Her piercing insight broke the hard outer shell of the epic and revealed the fruit within. I began to realize that the Mahabharata was not only about the conflict between the sons of two brothers over succession, which resulted in a catastrophic war. I started to slowly become aware of the conflicts within each major character, and the battles that they are fighting within themselves. It is this awareness and its associated reflections that I want to share in this post. Continue reading

Hampi: Frozen in Time

Hampi

I have been in Bangalore for the past 4 years, and ever since I came here, I have been wanting to go to Hampi. Finally, the plan materialized and we decided to go on a week-long vacation there in January. I had read a lot about this UNESCO World Heritage site, and also heard about its beauty and splendor from friends. I went with a lot of expectations and my expectations were not let down one bit. You have to see Hampi to believe it.

The site is on the south bank of the river Tungabhadra, and it is said that Hampi got its name from this river, which in olden days was called Pampa, and was worshipped as a river goddess. While settlements in Hampi and areas surrounding it can be dated back to the early part of the first millennium CE, the city actually reached the zenith of its political power as the capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire between 1336 and 1565 CE. The empire got its name from the capital city of Vijayanagara, meaning ‘City of Victory’, which in those days included the present day Hampi and areas around it. Contemporary chroniclers from Persia, Portugal, Italy, and Russia visited the empire during this period and left glowing accounts of the city, which was unparalleled in India and probably the world at the time. This once magnificent city, pride of the Vijayanagara kings, was ransacked in 1565 CE by the Deccan Sultans, who had formed a unique alliance against Vijayanagara. After defeating the Vijayanagara army at Talikota, some 90 kilometres away from the capital, the marauding Sultanate armies entered the city, plundered and pillaged it for 6 months, and then abandoned it. So thorough was the process of destruction that very few buildings were left intact. What remains at Hampi today are only the ruins of that great, magnificent city. Anyway, we will come to the sad part of the story later. For now, let’s focus on the foundation and growth of this great empire.

As one enters Hampi, the first thing that catches the attention is the landscape, which is lined with granite boulders of various colors, distributed either as hills, ridges or sometimes just piles of boulders balancing precariously against each other. One gets the feeling that the terrain might be a result of a massive earthquake. Archaeologists and authors John M Fritz and George Michell in their book ‘Hampi Vijayanagara’ say:

The terrain is, however, one of the most ancient and stable surfaces to be found anywhere on earth, its unique rocky appearance caused not by earthquake and upheaval, but by some three thousand million years of erosion, first underground and then, when uplifted, by exposure to sun, wind and rain.

The terrain might have been one of the reasons the Vijayanagara kings chose the site for their ambitious capital. The rocky terrain on all sides and the Tungabhadra to the north gave natural protection to the city against possible invaders. Continue reading

The Shore Temple and I

I had studied about the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in school and I remember being fascinated by the description in the book. I pictured it in my head as a majestic structure in black granite against the backdrop of the sea, with the waves lapping against the temple walls. How poetically beautiful! Some time back, I had the opportunity to travel to Mahabalipuram and see the Shore Temple. My wife and I had gone to Pondicherry for a vacation and we learnt that Mahabalipuram was only 100 kilometres away. So, one morning we drove from Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram, covering the stretch in about one and a half hours.

As I entered into Mahabalipuram, I realized that the place is no bigger than a small hamlet. It looked as if the place is frozen in time. My guess is, it wouldn’t have looked very different 300-400 years ago. We asked for directions to the Shore Temple and parked our car in the KSTDC parking lot. We met a guide called David who promised us to show not only the Shore Temple, but also all the other monuments in Mahabalipuram. He was a nice guy and we soon started chatting. He said he was born a Hindu but got converted to Christianity to marry his sweetheart. Heartwarming story, isn’t it? Anyway, I digress. Let’s return to the Shore Temple.

You have to walk a few paces from the gate to get to the temple. From the gate, it is hidden from view but as you walk towards it, it emerges, quite suddenly, and takes your breath away. A beautiful structure of black granite standing against the blue sky and the blue sea in the backdrop. I swear, it wasn’t much different from the way I pictured it in my head, when I was in school. The only difference was that the waves didn’t actually touch the temple walls. Walking towards the temple, I got the feeling that I’m walking back in time, years, centuries, millenia, to the 8th century when the temple was built by the powerful Pallava kings. The structure arrests your imagination and you just walk towards it, dumbfounded at its beauty. It becomes obvious why it has been chosen as  a UNESCO World Heritage site. I clicked this picture from some distance. I know it has come a little tilted to the right, I’m not a great photographer, you see. Continue reading

A Hero’s Hero – Alexander and Achilles

Alexander

Alexander conquered most of the known world of his time. His empire stretched from Macedonia to Persia to Egypt to the North-Western border of India. He was a legend even during his time. There was speculation about whether he was god or demon, because of the kind of superhuman feats he performed. He himself believed that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon, a thought that was probably reinforced and kindled by his courtiers. It probably started as a mere whim in the oasis of Siwah, however, it later took roots in the depths of his being, and his self-aggrandizement  blinded him to the reality that after all he was merely human. And it is this fact, that he was after all a mere human being that makes him stand out; that makes you take notice of his unbelievable achievements. Here was a man, who walked in flesh and blood, a man who went on to conquer the whole world before he was thirty-two.

Such has been the impact of Alexander’s influence on the world that his legend lives on. Even today, 2300 years after his death. He appears as a character in epics and fables across various cultures in Asia and North Africa, sometimes as a god, sometimes as a two-horned demon, and sometimes as a beast. In India, he is popularly referred to by the name ‘Sikandar’, and his name is synonymous with being the best, the ace, the invincible. There is a proverb in Hindi, which loosely translates to ‘The one who wins is called Alexander’. Whether you view him as a hero or a bloodthirsty villain, who brought death and destruction to wherever he went, you will find it difficult to argue against his magnetism. His magnetism is probably a result of his skills as a warrior, his leadership, his unbending will and determination, his unbridled curiosity, his passion to be the best, his passion to emulate his hero, Achilles! Continue reading

A Lesson in History

Let me start by drawing the boundaries once again. I’m not a Historian. I don’t even claim to have an extensive knowledge of History. However, I can safely call myself a History enthusiast. Reading about the past gives me a lot of pleasure and an understanding of who we are and how we got into the circumstances that we find ourselves in today.  While I like History in general, what I particularly enjoy reading are ancient and medieval Indian history, the Indian epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, ancient Hellenistic history, and various views on religion and spirituality. I also love discussing the above mentioned topics with friends and family.

Buddhist Monks

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to discuss Indian history with a historian. Among other things, we talked about Buddhism and its influence on Asia in general and India in particular. I have always been curious about the decline and almost complete disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. I find it difficult to fathom that this inclusive and inherently democratic faith fell out of favor with the Indian populance. So, I asked my historian friend, if Buddhism was ‘stamped out’ of India. Continue reading