One of the reasons why Ramayana as a classical literature of India has made a special place for itself in the collective Indian consciousness and imagination is that it is a “lasting transcription of the supraphysical and spiritual, and has the power to awaken an individual or a nation by its uplifting and inspiring impulse; nay, it can even sustain an age through the changing vicissitudes of life by its psychic and spiritual character.” (Reddy, 1993, p. 22). Inspired by the idea that classical literature such as Ramayana has an important role to play in the evolution of consciousness – individual and collective, – in this essay I present an interpretive reading of the two-volume contemporary Hindi novel titled “Abhyuday” written by the esteemed Hindi author Dr. Narendra Kohli (2004).
The title page of these voluminous works, Abhyuday I and II clearly mention — “Ram-kathā par aadharait upanyas” (a novel based on the stories of Rama). Reading the novel one certainly gets the sense that this is a very contemporary humanistic telling of Ram-kathā, fit for our modern times. Abhyuday’s basic storyline comes from the great literary tradition of India, and as such it portrays the higher values of life, shows the potential greatness of humankind and the boundlessness of life. And at the same time as a novel, the rendition is contemporary, progressive, modern, logical, and relies on the reader’s sense of reason for its validity.
Abhyuday, the twentieth century rendition of Ramayana is an apt example of classical literature fit for our modern times, for the present age of Reason. In such times when the young minds of today refuse to accept the status quo without questioning, when the rampant commercialism and meaningless and purposeless individualism have left no ideals intact for the youth to hold on to, there is an even greater need for literature that speaks of the high values and ideals but without alluding to the ‘golden’ times gone by.
The need today is for literature that captures these young minds by showing them the challenges of their times, the problems faced by their generation, and reveals for them how a true hero, an inspiring leader faces the challenges of the time and stands up for that which is true, right and just. Because presently we are going through a mental age, we need literature that speaks to that which is the highest in us – the ability to reason, and a calm intellect. But more importantly, because as a collective, the highest aspiration in humanity at present is more concerned with the welfare of entire humanity beyond the barrier of any social creed or caste or community, signified by the movements like “religion of humanity” or “secular humanism” – which are more mental or intellectual movements instead of a spiritualized religion of humanity that Sri Aurobindo advocates – in that sense too Abhyuday stands as a good example of capturing the state of consciousness we as a collective embody.
For my analysis I have selected a few key examples from Kohli’s Abhyuday to demonstrate how the author has successfully exemplified Rama as a committed humanist and a karma-yogi who deeply believes and works toward creating a society on the true basis of equality, liberty and fraternity (the three pillars of French Revolution, whichaccording to Sri Aurobindo are, in essence, qualities of soul, essential for a true spiritual human unity). This Rama is a revolutionary thinker who in his search for truth and in his fight for justice questions each and every stuck-in-time and dead convention of his time and place, is an idealist dreamer and a meticulous planner who is also powerful and capable of building a utopian society in actuality.
Sri Aurobindo explained the deeper significance of the ideals that the Ramayana was able to create through its central characters like Rama and Sita in these words: “The idealism of characters like Rama and Sita is no pale and vapid unreality; they are vivid with the truth of the ideal life, of the greatness that man may be and does become when he gives his soul a chance” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 353). In modern times when selfish politics and sensationalist mass media have done their full share in making a mockery of the message of the central character of one of India’s greatest masterpieces of classical literature, Rama of Abhyuday comes to us as an avant-garde yet thoughtful social activist, as a revolutionary yet contemplative warrior who is always ready to fight for justice and truth, and as a leader who also exhibits and forcefully articulates that one’s self-centered and selfish interest should not be the motivation for such a fight. This Rama is a compassionate and revolutionary leader who understands both the limitations and potential of human nature and leads by his example to reveal how we may transcend our own limitations and realise our potential. This is the Rama for today.
Through my brief analysis I hope to demonstrate that a modern re-telling of classical literature can serve an important role in giving our younger generations a new insight into an epic that many may have grown up with but without fully grasping the role of such literature in shaping the collective consciousness of a society. I will also argue that a creative and thoughtful re-telling and a carefully sketched portrayal of a hero such as Rama can give him a new birth for the readers of our times.
On a personal note, getting to know Kohli’s Rama has been a much-appreciated shift for me. Ram-bhakti was a key part of the religious and spiritual environment in my immediate as well as extended family. For several years during my childhood my entire family used to gather every night when my father would read for us a few pages from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. I remember we often used to have long discussions about various events from the epic, about the choices made by various characters, about the intricate and complex meanings of selected portions of the text, and about Tulsidas’ bhakti-bhāva which made Rama into a purushottama, the Supreme Being.
Narendra Kohli’s Rama in Abhyuday, on the other hand, is not a perfected God who doesn’t need to deal with personal dilemmas and inner conflicts, but is a yogi who is able to grasp reality with a deep yogic insight. He is someone who with a calm, detached and disinterested reason and a keen intuitive perception can transcend his dilemmas and doubts and actually plunge into the right action. I believe modern minds of today can more easily have true and meaningful reverence for such a Rama. I can see that such a Rama will make many more devoteesamong the present generation Indians than the Rama of Tulsidas or Rama of the famous TV serial by Ramanand Sagar.
What is most interesting is that while Narendra Kohli’s story is certainly based in the times from long, long ago, yet his Rama seems to have taken a new birth for our times. His Rama comes to us with modern, updated sensibilities and sensitivities, whose values, beliefs and actions are not stuck in the times gone by but are guiding lights for how to be in our present-day times. This Rama’s views on gender and jāti equality, individual freedom, societal progress, upliftment of the weakest sections of society, nation-building, international and inter-regional cooperation based on principles of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence are aspects of the novel that will certainly speak to most of the informed and socially aware readers of modern times.
After knowing such a Rama, we may no longer need to rely on what politicians and mass media may say about the significance of Rama for today. Instead as conscious readers, we may be able to discover for ourselves the role played by this hero of one of our greatest epics in the evolutionary path of our individual and collective psychological journeys.
A Few Examples
Rama finds his mission and purpose in life when he goes to the forest with Rishi Viswamitra to protect his maha-yajña from being disrupted and destroyed by the band of rākshasas who had caused many such problems in the past. Viswamitra explains to Rama the difficulties Rishis and other sections of the society are facing at the hands of rākshasas who are becoming more and more powerful because of the cooperation and support they are getting from corrupt and power-hungry kings and rulers who are least interested to know or care about the cruelties being unleashed on the ordinary people. Wherever Rama travels with Rishi Viswamitra, in villages and forests, he sees an absence of will among the people who are too afraid to speak up and have completely lost any strength to fight even for their self-preservation.
But as he interacts more with people, hears the facts from Viswamitra and other Rishis, and learns more about the extreme cruelty and oppression being faced by powerless and weaker populace, Rama finds that people are not lacking in courage or sense of justice but they have lost self-confidence to fight for themselves, to fight for justice. Once they are able to trust that they are not alone in their struggle and that they have the support and leadership of an upright and honest leader who is ready to fight with them and for them, they would be ready to do all which is needed, they would be ready to raise their voices for the truth, for the right.
As the story unfolds in this rendition of Ramayana, we see that people begin to find such a leader in Rama. And Rama finds an aim for his life – to fight against injustice and untruth, to help people become strong and self-confident so that they will have the courage to fight for justice, to not stay as meek victims of oppression, to work towards establishing Rama-Rajya, a kingdom of peace and harmony, truth and justice.
Avatāra as a Leader
In one situation we find Rama asking Viswamitra that since he and his disciples in the ashram had been, for a long time, facing torture and cruelty because of the rākshasas, why didn’t the enlightened sage who was himself an expert in the most rare and advanced weaponry do something for the protection of the ashram, to protect the villages surrounding the Ashram. Viswamitra replies:
“Prakriti or Nature has a strange sense of justice. She doesn’t give any one individual all her powers. The power and ability to think and to act are two different aspects of the personality. To some individuals, Nature gives the ability to think and contemplate, to others she gives the power to act. The thinker who thinks about what is just and what is unjust, who reflects upon the welfare of the society, develops his thinking and contemplative ability and power but may lose out on the aspect of action. The thinker knows what is right and what is wrong, what is in the interest of society and nation, but may not generally be able to convert his thought into action. On the other side, there are others who don’t spend time thinking or reflecting upon these things such as justice, truth and social upliftment but may continue to perform actions solely driven by their self-interest. Action without knowledge, action without reflection has the potential to downgrade a human being into a rākshasa, contemplation and knowledge of justice and injustice, truth and falsehood can transform a human being into a rishi. Extremely rare are those individuals who have both these aspects – essential, complete and unprejudiced knowledge of justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil, and also the power to convert their knowledge into action so they become the dedicated and completely self-less leaders of the people in their fight for justice and truth. And ordinary people begin to revere such individuals as avatār-s, as incarnations of the divine.” (my translation from Hindi)
Thus, we see that Kohli has given readers a new way to reflect upon who may be considered an avatāra in our modern times, what is the role an avatāra plays in the societal consciousness and what characteristics and capabilities should such an avatāra demonstrate. As the readers learn more about the story of Rama in this novel, they begin to appreciate the various nuances in the author’s argument. Rama as a warrior for truth and justice is the most unselfish and unprejudiced leader, one who sacrifices all for the welfare of others, who is extremely sensitive to the layers and complexities and relativity of all truth and yet doesn’t deter from plunging into the rightful action. And that is why he is eligible for avatārhood.
Kohli’s explanation of an avatāra may get a deeper meaning when seen in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s explanation in Essays on the Gita, where he writes that an avatāra descends in human form to give a dharma, a method of inner and outer living, — a way, a rule and law of self-moulding by which a human being can grow towards divinity. But this ascent is “no mere isolated and individual phenomenon, but like all in the divine world-activities a collective business, a work and the work for the race, to assist the human march, to hold it together in its great crises, to break the forces of the downward gravitation when they grow too insistent, to uphold or restore the great dharma of the Godward law in man’s nature, to prepare even, however far off, the kingdom of God, the victory of the seekers of light and perfection, sādhūnām, and the overthrow of those who fight for the continuance of the evil and the darkness.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, pp. 159-160).
 It is important to note that this highest aspiration in humanity may not be fully translated in real ‘on the ground’ action, or may not be in actual force on a large enough scale to make a serious impact on people’s lives. But the fact that the highest collective mind of humanity repeatedly brings this ideal for the world to rise up to tells us of the widespread appeal of this ideal. Also, we need not always maintain a sceptical or cynical view of all calls for such higher ideals simply because we may have a certain mental bias for or against such ideas, for example, in this case “secular humanism.” Our concern here is with the truer meaning of the words ‘secular’ and ‘humanism’ – not their politically distorted or corrupted meanings that have been the bane of much of Indian recent socio-political experience.