There is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder and despair.' An all too familiar picture of the fin de siecle? But these words are not from a breast-beating reformer of the 1990s. More than three decades ago, Joseph Campbell, the doyen of mythographers, analyzing the cause of the alarming breakdown of values all around, pointed out that wherever the integral possession of myths is sacrificed al the altar of progress and the past is abruptly sought to be denied, 'there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium, since where these (myths) have been dispelled there is nothing secure to hold on to, no moral law, nothing firm.' Hence, it is indispensable for us 'to be loyal first to the supporting myths of our civilization. That is a prime question of this hour in the bring'ing up of our children' (Myths to Live, 1961).
An engrossing instance of such an attempt is this unusual book*, which seeks to rediscover the re'levance of India's ancient heritage for lighting a candle of hope to shine through the pall of dark'ness cast by the debris of the Ayodhya demolition. Drawing upon the unique personal inheri'tance of having both Gandhiji and Rajaji as grandparents, Ramchandra Gandhi adds to it insights from Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna to create a remarkable myth around 'Sita-ki-rasoi' (Sita's kitchen) in this book which has aptly been subtitled, 'A testimony of faith and inquiry.'
The form Gandhi adopts is it'self an ancient one, with roots in both the East and the West. It is the debating forum celebrated in Socrates' Dialogues and theshastrarth practiced by ancient Indian sages. This is bracketed between a Prologue recounting a surrealistic dream ominously hinting at the Babari Masjid tragedy and a post-demolition Epilogue that puts forward the author's suggestion that rediscovery of an aborigi'nal myth might recreate a new and fruitful harmony. It is his faith that, 'properly understood, read, unmasked, hostility can be defused without hostility'. The thrust of the book is towards correcting the mistaken apprehension of life as dualistic, as essentially dependent on a per'ception of oneself as separate from the 'other'whether it be Nature or another human being'and replacing this by the holis'tic realization of the all-encompassing oneness that envelops and holds within itself all existence: the advaitic experience of unity.
The shastrarth takes place in the context of a myth Gandhi creates out of a Vinayapitaka text, Bhaddavaggiyavatthu, recounting how a party of rich men and women, searching for a prostitute who has decamped with their jewels, enquire of Buddha whether he has seen her. He responds:
Now what think you, young men? Which would be better for you, that you should go in search of a woman, or that you should go in search of yourselves?
The prostitute is turned by Gandhi into a tribal maiden, Ananya, literally 'not the other', a symbol of the Self which is One and Whole. He makes Buddha's giving her refuge the provocation for a challenge thrown to Tathagata and Tirthankar Mahavira by two contemporary nihilists, Ajivikas Ajita Keshakambalin and Makkhali Goshala. Gandhi proceeds to depict a fascinating colloquium in which nihilism, annihilationism and absurdism launch their battalions againstnirvana, ahimsa and advaita. Like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, we have here another forest symposium focused on the encounter between self-forgetfulness and self-realization.
'Only when we misconstrue nothingness as a limitless something, and misconstrue ourselves as limited things', Buddha says, 'does nothingness appear to us as a devouring, annihilatory, malevolence.' He explains that the nihilism and egotism preached by Keshakambalin and Goshala are merely caricatures of. Nirvana and self-realization. Characteristically, Gandhi has Buddha graciously express gratitude to these prophets of nihilism, for 'cynicism and doom-saying are great awakeners of conscience and consciousness and life from sleep and dream and complacency.'
This symposium is enriched by adding to the dialogue between Keshakambalin and Buddha interven'tions by a Brahmin, whom Gandhi turns into a traditional teller of tales incorporating the popular heritage of the Ramayana. Mahavira and Goshala both remain silent; one statuesquely at peace, the other symbolizing absurdism by swinging upside-down from the tree. Keshakambalin virulently attacks spirituality as a hoax and cites the injustice and destruction perpetrated by the supposedly divine Rama and Krishna out of egoistic greed for power. Thepauranika puts forward Gandhi's thesis of ecological harmony which he discovers as the core of the epic. To teach their subjects the lesson that un-ecological killing (as with the golden deer not killed for food) means isolation and privation for the living half of the couple, Rama and Sita accept the agony of separation and the fire-ordeal. He finds in this a pa'rallel to Valmiki's curse on the hunter who shoots down one of a mating bird couple. To fit his theory, Ravana is described as destroying forest fauna and flora, violating the integrity ofaranya ('that which is without conflict'), which is the perfect image of the peace of the self and nirvana. Sita's exile is actually Rama's gifting to the forest divine energy, It is Sita's living in the forest that makes it possible for civilization to flourish in the city under Rama. Her disappearance into the bowels of the earth represents the reality that divinity pervades every atom of this planet of ours.
The pauranika, however, is at a loss to incorporate Krishna in his harmonious vision. This is where Gandhi's myth-making strikes a high note. He takes one of the royal women, gives her Yadava ancestry, and has this Vishvapriya become the spokeswoman. In the stripping of Draupadi he sees the denuding of the earth's resources, the violation of ecological harmony to which all five elements of earthly existence are married. Krishna's intervention is like a miraculous sustained spell of rain to restore forest cover. The self-destruction of the Yadavas warns that, if greed's bluff is not called in time, no supernatural hand will be stretched forth to counteract mankind's headlong race into isolationism and digging its own grave. In Rasalila, she finds a symbol of ecologically sensitive interdependence, in which none is left isolated; each achieves self-realization under the all-encompassing blue sky that characterizes nothingness or emptiness. When the five senses and the mind surrender to Krishna, the ego is extinguished by merging in the Self, and they are able to conquer temptations of the isolationist ego. Otherwise, these selfish tendencies only annihilate themselves, like the blind Yadavas. In the kinship of Krishna and Draupadi, the pauranika sees a symbol of the unity of advaita and Buddha, of the 'dark mysteries of selfhood and the mind of emptiness.'
From this, Gandhi moves on to introduce Ananya and through her his myth-making reaches its acme. Ananya speaks of the aboriginal mystery of Sita's kitchen at Ayodhya, where Sita is supposed not only to have cooked nourishment for all, but where she also disappeared. Ananya narrates the tradition that the secret of this site was disclosed by the aboriginal king Guha to Rama and the belief that Rama and Sita represent the most ancient of unions, 'that of earth's vibrant self-realisation with the endlessly unfurling sky's inclusiveness.' Gandhi hopes that 'a rediscovery of pauranika wisdom in general may close the gap between life and thought, aboriginality and advaita (so that) the embrace of Guha and Rama becomes visible and intelligible and irresistible again.' Mahavira's call is a redis'covery of aboriginality's creed of self-restraint, 'a tribute of ethics to ecology', while Buddha re'states the non-dualist truth of the Upanishads. Through these two great sages the heart of advaita and aboriginality becomes available to all mankind caught in a crisis of survival.
Ananya is the true trustee of all the wealth of manifestation, for all that is manifest is but an im'age of the self. Gandhi has Buddha interpret the mantra AUM:
A stands for ecological restraint of nature and natural life;
U for ecological and ethical sensitivity of regenerate mankind;
M for the restfulness of trust in earthly life and civilization.
All of this is concentrated in the symbol of Sita's kitchen as 'the nourishing power of aboriginal advaita and advaitin aboriginality'. In Ananya's vision, the rolling pin and the board in the shrine, strewn with leaves, flowers and ashes are flanked by Buddha and Mahavira. The guardians of renunciation nurture with compassion and self-restraint the Tree of Life at whose base are the symbols of the 'combination of enveloping creativity and penetra'tive linearity', stressing that life and death are complementary in the eternal quest for self-realization.
For, is there another whom I can deprive of something? Can it be that I shall live and another will die? The appearance of otherness is never disputed. But, should we not ask, with Carlyle, whether appearance is the reality? On the one hand is the suicidal Yadava dance of death; on the other the holistic dance of Rasalila. Superficially, two camps oppose one another on Kurukshetra, but in the revelation all are encompassed in the one Purusha. The clay is the same; but, surreally, it can be molded into 'separate' images of gods as also of demons, of Rama and Sita, Radha and Krishna, and also of Ravana and Kumbhakarna, Kamsa and Jarasandha.
A profound exegesis, no doubt; but unnecessarily bedevilled by jargon. The fascinating and engrossing cut-and-thrust of the symposium is disturbed frequently by Gandhi's penchant for awkward coinage and turgid pedantry: 'uninjurability', 'self's responsibility of adequate self-imaging in idioms of inde'pendence and interdependence', 'dangerousness', 'adversarially', 'inorganicity', 'inclusivist', 'exclusivist'. The high seriousness of the discourses is spoilt time and again by descriptions of Goshala's simian acrobatics and of Shabari's senility, for which Gandhi puts forward labored symbolic expositions.
Nevertheless, what Gandhi seeks to put across is of inestim'able importance today. We are a country flanked on three sides by theocratic states. That is why Gandhi reminds us of what Swami Vivekananda heard in his heart when he was agonizing before the Divine Mother in a Kali temple about the building of mosques over demolished temples: 'What is it to you, Vivekananda, if the invader breaks my images? Do you protect me, or do I protect you?' With this goes the fine insight into the significance of the name Ayodhya: 'beyond conflict'. It is this inner meaning which ought to be the battle cry of all sane elements who wish to hold the nation together. It is time to stress repeatedly that restricting the Divine to a particular place of birth is to denigrate and deny the very essence of Immanent Divinity which is all-pervasive.
In the Postscript, Gandhi puts forward his suggestion for a 'Rama-Rahim Chabootra' honoring the ancient Bhakti-Sufi traditions of the country (some'what like the church-turned-mosque Hagia Sophia that was made into a museum of Byzantine art by Kamal Ataturk), and reestablishing Sita's kitchen. The miniature painting on the cover, representing the spirit of resolution of the crisis, is another instance of using a traditional art form to bring home a concept to modern times.
The book ends with a remark'able evocation which, while looking back and forward, underscores the timelessness of the inquiry into which we have been led by Gandhi. When the colloquium is over, a Shudra stays back to meditate on the wondrous things he has heard and to clean up the ground. As he opens his eyes after the meditation, they fasten on a pair of mating pigeons. He sees in them the love of non-duality which Budd'ha and Mahavira represent. And then a hunter's callous arrow strikes, leaving one bird scream'ing in grief: 'Ethical and ecological insensitivity had divided in time the timeless non-duality of self-consciousness.' Ending on the note on which the Ramayana begins, Gandhi has truly brought alive an ancient myth to rejuvenate our effete cultural sensibilities.