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A quester and his play

Print edition : Dec 09, 2016 T+T-

Raja Rao, Indian author. Books include: Kanthapura, Cow of the Barricades, The Serpant and the Rope, The Cat and Shakespeare. Born in Mysore, 1909, educated in Madras University, University of Montpelier and the Sorbenne, Spent the war years in India, but now lives in Paris. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

There is a critical need to free Raja Rao from the constricting political interpretations that have been imposed on him and see him for what he really is: a poignant quester who delights in the play of ideas and words.

IN 1988, after receiving the Neustadt Prize for The Chessmaster and His Moves at the University of Oklahoma, Raja Rao said: “I alone know I am incapable of writing what people say I have written.” It seemed to him that there was some force that he was not able to apprehend himself which flowed through the agency of his words, revealing itself.

These words, uttered much before Raja Rao began to suffer memory loss, come to one’s mind while scanning the astonishing ways in which this writer, questful and surrendering as he was, has been branded and appropriated, criticised and dismissed.

The caste and academic markets in India have always had a multipurpose resource in Raja Rao—he has inadvertently served the polemical ends of all echelons of casteism and literary criticism in India for a long time now. This, I must hasten to add, has been caused not by any duplicity or purposiveness in the writer’s own use of language, but owing to the resonant ambiguity inherent in the work of a quester such as him, for whom the search of the self was primary and much more significant than its confusing, even contradictory, expressions.

A well-known story of a meeting between E.M. Forster and Raja Rao is an early intimation of how the latter thought of himself. In 1945, Forster came to Bombay and demanded to see Raja Rao, who responded thus in a letter: “I have abandoned literature for good—and gone over to metaphysics; I am not a writer anymore, and I do not know on what grounds I could come to see you.”

That Raja Rao continued to write fiction in one form or another for the next half a century since that pronouncement of abandonment of literature must puzzle his appropriators and renouncers alike. But it might help a curious researcher and a keen reader to listen to him closely: “I love to play with ideas. It is like a chess game with horses, elephants, chamberlains and kings, which might fight with one another. The game is not for winning. It is for rasa —delight.” If one did not see this “play” in Raja Rao, one has missed him largely. But, of course, in the contemporary marketplace of ideologies and power, one does not mind losing the subject itself; it is ample value if a stock readily serves a convenience.

Owing to the reflective nature of his writings, it has been widely propagated that Raja Rao was soaked in Advaita. The Serpent and the Rope , the most celebrated and the most damned of his works, a revolutionary game of style, is often read too perfectly and understood too easily within a monistic philosophical frame. The divorce of the protagonists of this admittedly autobiographical novel, Ramaswamy and Madeleine, is regarded as a sure symbol of the divide between monism and dualism, spirituality and materialism, the Eastern need for surrender and the Western insistence on independence, and many such polar constructs. It is hardly ever seen as a simple case of two individuals who are incompatible despite their mutual love.

Why do we take Raja Rao so seriously? Why do we ignore him when he says over and over that he was just playing with ideas? Why do we superimpose our contrived academic and political resolutions on his deeply subjective seeking? It seems to me as imperative at this point in the political history of India to ask these questions, for, there is an urgent need today to let a mind like Raja Rao’s be in its original horizon of freedom; it has abundant uses for the future beyond our myopic age and its polemical intrigues.

Through subtler and lighter engagements with his texts, one finds the core of what Raja Rao wrote to Forster. Then, he comes across as less of a novelist and more of a lyricist; more of a player of ideas and words than a plot constructor. His works are neither existentialist nor essentialist; they are not novels of ideas proposing or attempting to establish the primacy of a particular view of life over others.

Look closely: Raja Rao’s metaphysique is satirical, right from the critique in Kanthapura of the unimaginative use of Gandhism to the absurd battle of philosophies played out between two people who loved each other in The Serpent and the Rope , from the parody of communism in Comrade Kirillov to the outlandish attempt to expiate the Holocaust in The Chessmaster . His characters could be caricatures, laughing at our straitjacketed sense of spirituality as well as constructed experience of reality. They could be mocking their complex-minded author himself. Raja Rao provides us with ample alienation effects within his narratives to help us see his quiet laugh even as we are offered thrilling passages full of lush expressions reminiscent of the wistful Sanskrit and French romances and fantasies, lost-and-found lovers, and exhilarating season sequences. Lo and behold, the irregularly large Raja Rao transcending the regular one mixed in India in our day:

“Then the wind comes so swift and dashing that it takes the autumn leaves with it, and they rise into the juggling air, while the trees bleat and blubber. Then drops fall, big as the thumb … the earth itself seems to heave up and cheep in the monsoon rains. It churns and splashes, beats against the treetops, reckless and wilful, and suddenly floating forwards, it bucks back and spits forward and pours down upon the green, weak coffee leaves, thumping them down to the earth.” ( Kanthapura )

“To be orthodox, to be a smartha , I said to myself, is to accept the real. Stalin is orthodox; he is crude and smelly like some Jesuit father, he the product of a seminary. But Trotsky promised us beauty, promised us paradise. There is a saying that when Trotsky was talking of the beautiful world revolution, Stalin was making statistics of the bovine riches of Soviet Russia.... But the smartha —some Innocent III—knows this world is intangible, and all worlds therefore are intangible, and turns his vision inwards...” ( The Serpent and the Rope )

“Fortunately there are wars. And rationing is one of the grandest inventions of man. You stamp paper with figures and you feed stomachs on numbers.” ( The Cat and Shakespeare )

“Suicide is your end—or the Buddhist Royal robe.” ( Comrade Kirillov )

“‘But do you know Brahman?’

‘No. Not yet! For to know Brahman really one has to become Brahman, to become it.’

‘Yet, It,’ he smiled as if he’d found a new idea to play with.’” ( The Chessmaster and His Moves )

Is this Raja Rao your agenda-driven spiritualist, who was accused of stereotyping India in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism ? Did our media and the academia have to readily and necessarily forsake Raja Rao in order to welcome Salman Rushdie’s keen political voice in Midnight’s Children ? Where has this separation between the seeking and the pragmatic led us to—where is the Indian novel today? Where is the idea, the hunger, the irony, the play?

At his 108th birth anniversary (such a nice Vedic-type number!), on the one hand, some of us harbour very legitimate nationalist aspirations to make Raja Rao more relevant in today’s India. On the other, the dim quasi-secular plots are as ready as ever to mundanely dismiss him as a Vedantist propagating Brahminical elitism through his works.

We have now come to the point: there is a historical and critical need here and now to discover Raja Rao beyond all manipulative attempts to expunge his imaginary of all its politically inconvenient questionings, free movings of characters, and playful seizings of words. The self-dissipating secular mix in India must begin to see Raja Rao beyond redundantly countering the floating Advaitic interpretations that rather ludicrously and short-sightedly homogenise the tragicomic inquiries and poignant philosophical puzzles that his texts raise.

While he lived, he never claimed anything more than a quester’s simultaneous intensity and play. Post-mortem, he offers no ready-to-use solutions. Hence, for the survival of imagination in our times, we must not superimpose on a writer like Raja Rao any system of thought or counter-thought with a fundamentalist ontology. Lest such interpretations drain his imaginary of its beauty, sensuality and play, one must alternatively attempt to excavate the multiple aesthetic, political and philosophical possibilities of Raja Rao.

The prism of Sankhya

In this regard, it might be rewarding to look at a much-appropriated text like The Serpent and the Rope through the prism of Sankhya, the dualistic Indian darsana , the preposterously positioned anti-thesis of which is Vedantic Advaita. The terms prakriti and purusa , embodying the basic dialectic offered by the Sankhya system, are very much present in the said work, and that serves me as a take-off point.

The novel tells the story of Ramaswamy, an Indian student who comes to France to research the Albigensian heresy, and Madeleine, a French woman, whom he meets at the university, gets married to, and gets divorced from.

Rama tends to identify the biological male as “man” and thus purusa , the Lord of Creation, and the biological female as woman, and consequently prakriti . This view comes into conflict with Madeleine’s dualistic emphasis on herself as “independent”, a bare unity in herself as different from Rama, another independent bare unity. It is Madeleine’s interest in the dualistic theology of the Cathars and her knowledge of the Albigensian heresy that initially connects Rama and her. Before we analyse the spiritual perspectives of Rama and Madeleine, let us dwell a little on the pages of history to find out what happened to the Cathars, or Albigensians as they were called because of the city of Albi where they were settled.

By the 12th century, organised groups of Cathars were appearing in the newly urbanised areas of western Mediterranean France. Soon, with their dualistic theology and puritanical outlook, they began to become a dissident mass movement. The Cathars believed in two equal and comparable transcendental principles: God, the force of good, and Satan, or the demiurge, the force of evil. They held that the physical world was evil and created by the demiurge, whom they called Rex Mundi, the King of the World. Rex Mundi encompassed all that was corporeal, chaotic and potent. The Cathar understanding of God was disincarnate: they saw God as a being or principle of pure spirit, untarnished by matter. It was the God of love, order and peace. Jesus was an angel with a phantom body, and their reading of the gospels was allegorical. As the physical world and the human body were the creation of the evil principle, sexual abstinence, even in marriage, was encouraged. The civil authority had no claim on the Cathars since this was the rule of the physical world which they did not heed in their puritanical fervour.

The Cathars annoyed the Church Council, which declared their doctrine as heretical in 1176. In 1198, Pope Innocent III sent a delegation of friars to assess the Cathar situation, and it was brought out that the Cathars did not respect the authority of the French king or the Catholic Church and that their leaders were being protected by powerful nobles who had a clear interest in independence from the king. So King Philip II of France decided to crush the nobles who permitted Catharism within their lands, thus undermining regal authority. An intense crusade followed, which lasted only two months. But the internal conflict between the north and the south of France continued for nearly 20 years until the Treaty of Meaux-Paris was signed in 1229. Resistance and occasional revolts continued, until the military action ceased in 1255 with the complete erasure of Catharism.

Cathar dualism is a puritanical moralistic philosophy and theological framework which clearly distinguishes between God’s goodness and spirituality and the demiurge’s worldliness and materiality. Madeleine’s dualistic belief and spiritual practice are possibly influenced by the Cathar theology, the dualistic world view of which suffered a violent death and complete erasure at the hands of the monistic Church Council by the mid-13th century. Her deep engagement with and belief in this theology might have had a subconscious role to play in effecting her separation from Rama; it seems her growing physical aloofness from Rama cannot be attributed entirely to her apparent Buddhist devotion.

Sankhya Dualism and Rama

Rama, coming from India, has a strangely mixed-up understanding of, and relatedness to, terms such as prakriti and purusa . His use of these words is replete with the moralistic and subjective remnants of his upbringing. In him, India is mixed, as in anyone in the Indic space, exposed to the intimations of myriad thought systems and traditions while also being trapped in specific social and cultural contexts. He erroneously places the concepts of prakriti and purusa within a monistic thought frame that potentially legitimises the suppression/submission dialectic in sociopolitical contexts. This, in turn, leads him to identify with stereotypical gender roles for himself and his wife.

Rama’s gendered perception of prakriti and purusa is starkly different from the original Sankhya use of these terms, which is amoral, epistemological and cosmological in its intent. Sankhya, a system of thought with no moralistic content or agenda, teaches that reality is twofold: prakriti (the material principle) and purusa (pure consciousness), which are bare and everlasting independent unities as well as manifold and changeable entities.

Prakriti has two attributes, an essential capacity to remain an uncaused principle and the other, the capacity of multifariousness. In other words, prakriti ’s oneness includes the ground and condition of manyness, and it evolves into multifarious forms following some laws—the evolution begins at subtle levels and then goes on to create grosser matter. Sankhya holds that prakriti is a complex unity of three substances, the guna s— satva , rajas and tamas —which lend buoyancy, activity and density in differing proportions to all beings. In the pre-evolution stage, these three guna s are balanced in prakriti . It is through the proximity with the illuminating consciousness, or purusa , that prakriti ’s balance shifts and begins to evolve gradually.

Purusa , the other principle, is in a state of bondage in prakriti ’s creation/evolution. Its bondage comes from the misconception that it is one with prakriti . Its unity of consciousness shifts and it becomes susceptible to a gradation of consciousness rather than possessing its original unified consciousness. This is possible because purusa too contains the ground and condition of multifariousness. Its transcendent, or nirgunah , aspect and its immanent, or sagunah , aspect are simultaneously present. A cosmologically determined proximity between prakriti and purusa makes it possible for each of them to be at once One in itself and Many in its togetherness with the other. Liberation is when purusa realises its difference from prakriti .

The being resulting from the investment of prakriti ’s guna s on purusa is neither prakriti nor purusa but a self, a personality affected by dukhatraya , the threefold misery. The created self/selves, each exhibiting a particular combination of the guna s, is/are always transforming itself/themselves towards liberation, even as it/they is/are constantly being pulled back into the sagunah state. Life is, thus, a cooperative, corporate yet competitive activity of the guna s: satva , which illuminates, rajas , which actuates and moves, and tamas , which restrains and gives mass.

Madeleine and Ramaswamy

Let us consider this complex of ideas vis-a-vis the personalities of Ramaswamy and Madeleine and their relationship. Madeleine’s independence and Rama’s expectations of her as prakriti might, on the surface, look like a cultural divide between an educated Western woman and an Indian man. But it might serve us better to look at them both as evolving personalities.

Rama, coming from a Hindu household in India, has a mixture of divergent philosophical, religious and cultural influences on him. It makes him at once confused and proud. We see him recounting the works of everyone from Yagnyavalkya, Maitreyi, Shankara and Madhava, and poets like Kalidasa, Bhartrhari, Kabir, Tulsidas and Mira with a great sense of pride, but without making any attempt to look at the nuances of their philosophies and their methodological differences. He seems to assume that as purusa , “man” has the inherent power to create. Woman’s function is to submit herself to man, and help him reach his realisation. Such assertion of gender roles in a modern relationship comes into conflict with Madeleine’s idea of being. She is a firm believer in the independent, individual entity of the woman, and the duality of the self and the other. It is Madeliene’s dualism vis-a-vis Rama’s rather unstudied identification of their selves, without being mindful of the dialectic of suppression/submission presupposed therein, that results in their separation.

The Sankhya prism helps us see Raja Rao’s protagonists as not-monolithic entities who are so sure of themselves, their ideologies, and their spiritual practices, but as people who are made of changing guna ic proportions, and are constantly being transformed. Such a reading could free Rama from his confused identification of the self and the other and Madeleine from the effect of puritanical dualism on her. It would not push Rama into a befuddlement or guilt about his experiential attachment to the myriad Hindu gods and to sensual pleasures despite his intellectual curiosity and spiritual proclivity. For Madeleine, too, this view could give her another amoralistic/transmoralistic means of believing in dualism. Because now it is possible for them to contain the “other’s belief” in themselves. And that would explain to them and to Raja Rao’s readers why even at the moment of their parting they avow that they love each other. It allows us to think that that which moves away from one is an element of oneself, but it is also different from one’s self, and must part ways.

I employ the Sankhya reading of The Serpent and the Rope only to propose that it may be worthwhile to look at Raja Rao not as someone who was so sure of what “India” meant to him. We could let him and his characters be vulnerable, but not dismissible. His “Indian” values are often speciously seen as deriving from Advaita alone. Maybe he was just trying to understand, and only trying to understand… and never really understood it all. He was never proposing the supremacy of any stream of philosophy but was searching until the end of his life. That is what the numerous unresolved philosophical issues in his voluminous work, including fiction to class notes, collected at the Perry Casteneda Library at the University of Texas at Austin, seem to be telling us.

The appropriation of such a multi-dynamic quester as Raja Rao into a monistic ideology or political plot is unfair to both the writer and the intensely subjective search of Advaita itself. Such exclusion of other readings and interpretations may lead to a situation like the Cathar extermination at the hands of the papal authority.

India cannot afford that level of ideological violence today, and we must avert it with the best of our intelligence, most importantly through open engagements with our branded and appropriated thinkers and writers such as Raja Rao. In that endeavour, we may have to turn ourselves into baby monkeys playing out their markada nyaya and let go our assumption of ourselves as well-cared for kittens enjoying the marjara nyaya in a caregiving state of affairs.

© Rizio Yohannan Raj, 2016  

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