Monday, August 29, 2011

National Prozac

Last week while I was walking, a neighbor asked if I was joining the march to show our solidarity for Anna Hazare and team. I cringed as soon as the words, 'I have some reservations,' were out of my mouth. I realized more than the bill and the means to it, the way we as a nation have reacted to it is more interesting.

This is certainly a feel good, anti-depressant protest.

Television coverage, marching with candles, politician bashing etc. obviously makes one feel good, heck elevated even. It was not like someone is shooting the marchers down or even their livelihood was at stake. It gave us a sense of purpose, was time bound and had an escalated sense of urgency thanks to the fast. No wonder we gobbled it up.

And then thinking calmly, one starts wondering about the details - about the existing vigilance commissions and their effectiveness or lack thereof and one wonders if we can't find a single person of integrity in the parliament, with so many controversies surrounding some of the activists how are we going to find people to appoint as Lokpal and Lok Ayukta. As a nation did we have honest, intellectual debates? No.., no.., no.. We either reduced most of it to sound bytes, bent our knees to fasts, or better still made ad hominem attacks. [An occasional print media article was a rare exception]

Anyway - now that the Arab spring has come and gone, Lokpal bill part 1 has come and gone, we will have to deal with the withdrawal symptoms.

I get reminded of Tom Friedman's words - more steroid and less muscle building, that's what this is all about.

Unfortunately it is a complicated world, solutions wont be simple.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birth and youth

[Valmiki Sarga 18 -23, Kamban 5 (contd.) and 6 ]


Not many surprises in the birth of Rama and his brothers - except that twelve months pass between the ritual and the birth. Naturally he is of sarva lakshana,  lohita aksham [1.18.20],- the lotus eyed and long limbed.

Events unfold in quick succession and before we know it the princes are growing up. Rama is not as nerdy as I imagined and is portrayed to be quite athletic, riding chariots and elephants, champion in archery etc.

gaja skandhe ashwa pR^iSTe cha ratha charyaasu sammataH || 
dhanur.hvede cha nirataH pituH shushR^ISaNe rataH | [1.18.27]

We also see a bond developing between Rama/Lakshmana and Barata/Shatrugna.

Vishwamitra arrives [almost a Kamban like poem] like rain on a drought affected land , like regaining a lost treasure. I was quite intrigued about this verse since Vishwamitra seems to have arrived with unreasonable demands. Sanjay felt that it is appropriate since this arrival gives way to the momentous actions later on.

athaa amR^itasya sa.mpraaptiH yathaa varSam anuudake || [1.18.50]
yathaa sadR^isha daareSu putra janma aprajasya vai |
praNaSTasya yathaa laabho yathaa harSo mahodaye || [1.18.51]
tathaa eva aagamanam manye svaagatam te mahaamune 

Vishwamitra quite boldly suggests Dasharatha send his darling sons to battle. Poor Dasharatha promptly swoons.

sa tan nishamya rAjendro vishvAmitra vacaH shubham || [1.19.20]
shokena mahataa aaviSTaH cacaala ca mumoha ca |

labdha sa.nj~naH tato utathaaya vyaSiidata bhayaanvitaH || [1.19.21]

Despite the gravity of the situation and being a thoroughly distraught parent being asked to send his twelve year old boy to battle,  Dasharatha is not comfortable rejecting Vishwamitra's demand for fear.  I found that the emperor of a powerful state, who has incidentally done a ashwamedha few years ago is still afraid of Vishwamitra. The part where he negotiates offering his army, himself, asking questions about the demons, explaining how young Rama and his brothers are are nice details that plays like a modern novel.  'He is just a boy, what does he know - he has to assess the enemy, he has no expertise in warfare,' reasons the distraught parent. Sanjay was particularly impressed how despite knowing the circumstances of Rama's birth, Dasharatha still lets his parental concerns overwhelm him.

baalo hi akR^ita vidyaH ca na ca vetti balaabalam |
na ca astra bala sa.myuk{}to na ca yuddha vishaaradaH || 
na ca asau rakSasaa yogyaH kuuTa yuddhaa hi raakshasaa | [1.20.7]

'Its not like the demons would play fair,' he bemoans. Here is where I felt Dasharatha is true to his character as a loving parent. 

prati shrutya kariSye iti uk{}tam vaakyam akurvataH |
iSTaapuurta vadho bhuuyaat tasmaat raamam visarjaya || [1.21.8]

is a precursor to what is going to happen later. If you promise something you must keep it at all costs - this message is going to haunt Dasharatha again.  Dasharatha is duly consoled and reassured and he sends Rama and Lakshamana with him. Vishwamitra does teach them some clever skills on the first day itself. I liked the final poem of sarga 22, though they slept on grass beds  tR^iNa shayane, they were quite happy - sukham iva vibabhau. 

They get ready the next morning -samhR^iSTau- with a great deal of enthusiasm which I felt was so true to the character of two barely teen-age boys out for an adventure. 


Except for a mention of possible anemia - mathiyamodoppa [1.5.100] during the pregnancy, the detail oriented Kamban too glosses over the pregnancy and childbirth.  The poets were male and this was clearly a female domain.  Odinar Arasan maattu [1.5.108] the nursemaids rushed to the emperor to tell the news and the emperor after a ritual bath, went with Vashishta to see his sons Komagarthirumugam kurugi nokkinan  [1.5.111]. Pregnancy and childbirth are reduced to a message through the maids and then the subsequent show of joy. The story is told, at least so far in a very male point of view. I wonder if it will change after Sita or remain the same.

Kamban attributes praise-worthy deeds to Dasharatha - upon hearing the good news of the birth, he decrees many measures - no tax for seven years, release of political prisoners, renovations of temples etc.

Alayam pudukkuga vanthanaalartham
salaiyum chathukkamunchamaikka santhiyum
kalaiyum malaiyun kadavularkani
malaiyum theepamum vazhangugaendranan [1.5.114]

I felt Kamban's more inclusive and socialist leanings are quite apparent in this series of poems. It reflects a more complex governance.

The citizens of the country are in equal celebratory mood. Already Dasharatha's great affection - body and soul - for Rama is articulated -
Kaviyamolirtharu kamalamumenave
Oviya eliludai oruvanaialathu or 
avaiyum udalum ilathena varulin
mevinanulagudai venthartham venthan [1.5.124]

This verse also briefly touches upon the dark beauty of Rama. After presumably their studies with the sages, Rama and his brothers spent the evenings with the citizens. Adding this to their rigorous athletic activities, they are the ideal princes. Kamban spares a couple of lines of details - 'What do you do? Are you well? And your family?" asks Rama to the citizens he meets and they praise his stewardship. It is an interesting line in Kamban when they say  Ninai ematharasanena udaiyem [1.5.135] - he  is not really their king yet, but they say how could we not be well when you are our king.

The episode with Vishwamitra is a separate padalam in Kamban titled 'Kaiyadai padalam' - the hand-over chapter. This chapter is one of the closest between the two versions.  The title itself portends things to come. When Vishwamitra arrives, the mighty king - kadithezhunthu adi thozhuthan [1.6.2] - stood up immediately, clearly telling who is important. There is a small side story about Sambasuran that was new to me. Killing asuras and helping Indra is something not new to Dasharatha. Vishwamitra recounts this perhaps with ulterior motives. Vishwamitra asks for Rama and here comes  most  poignant words describing Dasharatha's feelings. Kannilan petrilandhan [1.6.11] Like his life was in balance, like fire in a battle wound and then the most drastic - like a  man blind from birth gaining vision and then losing it. Vishwamitra's anger is very dramatic in Kamban. Vashista calms both of them down and persuades the king to send his son.

1.6.17 is a poem with beautiful sounds -
Vantha nambiyai thambi thannodummunthai
nanmarai munikku kaatti nalthanthai nee, 
thanithayunee ivarkkuenthai 
thanthananiyaintha seigendran

'I am handing them over to you, you are their mother, father, do what you can,' says Dasharatha. Did he say this with complete faith thanks to Vashishta's counsel or with a lot of worry. Kamban doesn't say.Off they go past picturesque scenes to a grove. The padalam finishes with Rama asking whose grove it was.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fast track - move on

I watch the ad series for fast track with mixed emotions. The first thought is - it is cute. But when I think about it more deeply though [I know, why would anyone want to think about ads!] I find the whole philosophy of speeding things up disturbing. Are we as a generation not interested to spend time and energy going deep into anything? Are we so tuned to instant information that we don't feel like striving for anything? Are we even trained to think long term? Even nations seem to think in terms of mere decades [that too nations like Maldives that are likely to go under the sea in the next few decades].

Is the reminder of our own mortality - natural disasters, terrorism, accidents everday - making us all want to rush through life like there is no tomorrow?

What if I did live for a couple of more decades instead? What am I going to be able to show for myself?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ashwamedha - The horse ritual

[Valmiki Sarga 11-17, Kamban Padalam 5 ]

Sanjay smiled as soon as we began and said that this was going to be an interesting discussion.


Narration continues with Dasharatha seeking Rishyasringa to invite him to his kingdom. He readily agrees, and is brought forth with much pomp and glory. The verse

tataH pramuditaaH sarve dR^iSTvaa tam naagaraa dvijam || 
praveshyamaanam satkR^itya narendreNa indra karmaNaa |
yathaa divi surendreNa sahasraaksheNa kaashyapam [1.11.27]
compares Dasharatha to Indra but more than that Rishyasringa to Vamana. That was a surprise to me.

It is interesting to note that the preparation didn't happen overnight and it took about a year and then another year when the horse wanders off. The description of the ritual, starting with the building of the hall gives me a clue as to why the ministers were all so enthusiastic. Clearly hundreds of jobs were created -  halls for the Brahmins,  arrangements for the city-dwellers, accommodation for visiting Kings, stalls for elephants and horses etc. needed to be built, soldiers following the horse had to be recruited and so much business with regards to the supplies. No wonder this is a ritual that only Kings performed and our epics have only a few mentions.

Sarga 14 is a shocker to modern sensibilities and is certainly not for the faint hearted.  In short, after a detailed description of the fire altar we learn

pashuunaam trishatam tatra yuupeSu niyatam tadaa |
ashva ratnaH uttamam tasya raaj~no dasharathasya ha [1.14.32]

Three hundred animals along with the horse that has come back after wandering about for a year are sacrificied. And, here is the total kicker, it is Queen Kaushalya, with great delight, paramayaa mudaa [1.14.33], who stabs the horse and then weirdly spends the night next to the dead horse as per the ritual. There is also the 'donation' of the wives to the Brahmans [they are returned back of course upon other compensation].

Sarga 14 is problematic in the sense the interpretations are needlessly explosive. Either we bow to the modern jingoist/revival environment and look desperately for allegory and symbolism, where there really isn't any. Or we take the position that everything in the Hindu mythology is trash and barbaric. In both cases forgetting that we are possibly talking of something two to three millenia in the past. To me the fascinating part is the connection of cause and effect - these rituals and sacrifices are so elaborate but are not remotely connected to the problem at hand. How is the ashwamedha justified for fertility?

In Sarga 15 much to my surprise I find the mention of Ravana. Ravana is established to be a thorough rakshasha torturing sages, full of conceit even striyaH api apakarSati cha [1.16.6] abducting woman [ a hint to events to be unfolded]. It is as though the whole premise for Ramayana is the killing of Ravana.  If one were to reflect on the two birds at the beginning,  the fundamental basis for Ramayana is supposed to be the sorrow of parting. But in Sarga 15-17, it is clearly not the case. This avatar is meant for killing Ravana. And Ravana is an already established demon King. That was a big surprise to me for I had always been under the impression unlike the other avatars, Rama avatar's purpose was not just the slaying of Ravana.

I had to smile at antardhaanam gato devaiH puujya maano maharShibhiH [1.16.10]. Vishnu is certainly an impatient God. While his virtues are being extolled, he vanishes.

The putrakameshti yaga follows suit and the payasam is divided amidst the queens. [1.16.27,28,29] I can see the debate as to whether only one of the children [we know already there are going to be 4 - second queen drinks it twice] is the avatar or are all four part of the avatar would seem interesting from religious scholarship.

Another surprise is the birth of the vanaras and how they are all sundry devas. Well, maybe not sundry - a few biggies there too - Jambavan for example.

Next is the birth of the lord.


Kamban rearranges the narrative slightly and covers all of the action in a single padalam.  Dasharath is more humble here. [1.5.1]Munivaratroludhu - he asks with humility, [1.5.3] pirithoru kurayillai vaiyagam marukumenbathor marukkamundaro - 'I am not asking for selfish reasons, I am asking because I am worried about the future of my people' - there is none of the high-handedness that I felt in the earlier version.

The narrative switches as a stream of consciousness - Vashista connects the promise of Lord Vishnu to protect the world from the demons to his king's dilemma. Then he suggests Dashratha perform a yagna. I thought this was a clever attempt to get some semblance of story sequencing.

Apart from Ravana, the triumph of Megnath over Indra is mentioned making this more personal to the Devas. The biggest surprise was the portrayal of Shiva. Clearly Kamban is a deep vaishnavaite - Shiva is portrayed almost like a minor god - he goes along with the other Devas to beseech  Brahma [1.5.8] Nanmugak kadavulai adi tholuthu, then later [1.5.10] Seyalindrengalal deciding in consultation with Brahma that Thirumal needs to be approached.

Thirumal [Mahavishnu] declares that he will be born as the son of Dasharatha and here with no confusion also declares that his Shanka, Chakra and Adishesha will be born as his brothers. [1.5.25] Kamban clearly subscribed to the school of thought that Rama is a purnavatar. The vanaras birth is also duly explained.

Vashishta, keeping in mind all this suggests Dashrath brings Rishyashringa to preside over the yaga. Kamban's Rishyashringa  gets angry when he finds out that he has been duped into coming to the country first and [1.5.51] King Romapada has to beg for forgiveness. I liked this minor variation better - it gave more flesh to the character of Rishyashringa.

The whole of Ashwamedha is reduced to a single verse in Kamban - [1.5.84]
Mulangalan mummaiyumudugi yaguthi
Valangiye iraru thingal vaithapin
thalangina thunthumi thavil vanagam
vilunginar vinnavar veliyindrannave.

There is no mention of animal sacrifice, no horse running around and getting stabbed by the queen. It is simply a year long prayer at the end of which the three queens get their dessert. Dasharath does donate a lot to the utmost satisfaction and happiness of everyone, but this version is completely lacking of the elements of ritual.

The millennia passage and possibly a dominance of the Dravidian outlook towards the rituals clearly has an effect on the narrative. In the hundred or so verses in this padalam, Kamban spares just a verse for the ritual itself. Already by the eleventh century we are seeing a more 'modern' form of the ancient religion.