Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pipli: Birthplace of an Epic

(Published in The Pioneer dated April 11, 2010)

Rajesh Singh

The summer heat has begun to tell. I get down at Pipli in Kurukshetra after a three-and-half hour bus journey from Delhi. Stepping out of the air-conditioned coach at 12.30 pm, I am confronted by a burst of hot wind and an imposing arch at the doorway of the town. On the roof is a chariot with Lord Krishna intent on persuading a non-committal Arjuna to fight a war against his tyrannical brothers and elders he has revered all his life. I am in the land of Mahabharata, where the epic war between the good and the evil was fought, where the timeless and universal sermons were rendered by Lord Krishna – to later be known as the Bhagvad Gita.

I take in the otherwise non-descript town. Is this indeed the place where the Great War happened? Small, shabbily done up shops line the two narrow roads that led into the town from the national highway. Autos race up and down with passengers clinging precariously to the iron railings and whatever else they can find as they sit – half in and half out of the vehicle. I look around for some tourist help; there is none though I am told later that there was a tourist information centre round the corner that I missed. I pass under the doorway – the Gita Dwar. I am now officially in the holy town.

I had thought that Adi Badri, where the now dried up mighty river Saraswati entered the plains after a rollicking journey through the mountains beginning in Garhwal, was close by. I wanted to visit the place. Enquiries with auto drivers and tea stall owners prove futile. None had heard of Adi Badri. Using the Google technique, I try out the key search word: Saraswati Sarovar. O yes, there is a sacred pond, but it is the Brahma Sarovar, only seven kilometres away. There is also the spot where Lord Krishna gave the Gita Sandesh, they add helpfully. They suggest that I hop into the auto for a visit. By now, having realized that I had blundered, I am determined to make the most of the serendipity of being in proximity to the great mythological event.

After ten minutes of drive in a speeding vehicle that disgorges and takes in passengers at half a dozen places, back rubbing sweat-drenched back, I reach Brahma Sarovar. A local guide, whom I encounter as I walk down the narrow lane towards the sacred pond past the Gita Birla temple and dark (power supply has been cut off) souvenir selling shops, tells me I am lucky to be here. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the universe from the land of Kurukshetra. And the Sarovar itself became the cradle of civilisation. People come from far and wide to take a dip in the holy pond. On solar eclipses, the place teems with lakhs of devotees wanting to bathe in the waters.

My guide, whose name is Raju – though not half as debonair as the Raju of the film `Guide’ – is a competent man. He informs me that the Sarovar finds mention in the 11 century AD memoirs of Al Beruni, called ‘Kitab-ul-Hind’, and in the writings of Akbar’s court historian, Abul Fazl in his famous Akbarnama.

The Brahma Sarovar is a massive pond, with bathing steps and small bridges connecting its various ends. The guide tells me it is 1800 feet long and 1400 feet wide. The enormous size, says my guide, prompted Fazl to remark that the Sarovar was a ‘mini sea.’ He must have been indeed impressed by the devotion of millions as they gathered for the ritual bath on a solar eclipse day.

Apart from the sacredness, the heat is also a good reason to dive into the waters. I resist the temptation though; I cannot swim. I glare at Raju when he tells me encouragingly that those who perish here go straight to heaven. After all, a bath in the holy waters is equal to the rewards of an Ashvamedh Yagna.

What strikes one straightaway is the disdain that we as a people have for our heritage. Despite written appeals displayed all along the pond asking people not to use soap and bathe and not pollute the pond with dirt, there are people dipping into the waters fully soaped up. Plastic waste in large quantities bobs up and down the water. Devotees clear their throat and spit out huge lumps of dirt into the pond as they bathe – who knows they may even be urinating in the sacred Sarovar. I wonder, in doing all this can they reap the rewards of the Yagna?

One entire bank of the pond, close to the entrance, is reserved for resident swamis and devotees who have made the Sarovar their home. They eat, wash and sleep here. I see old women with matted hair wash clothes, draining all the detergent into the sacred water, clean utensils and round it all up by blowing their nose into the pond.

Easily the most imposing figure on the banks of the Sarovar is the bronze statue of a chariot pulled by horses. It is commonly referred to as the Rath. Lord Krishna as the charioteer is seen persuading Arjuna to fight a war that the mighty Pandava prince is not inclined to. A plaque informs that that the statue is 50 feet in length and 25 feet high.
As I stand in front of the chariot, I imagine the battle that took place a short distance away from the Sarovar. A confused Arjuna – with the confusion confounded by Lord Krishna’s roundabout replies – makes a vain bid to avoid the fight and asks Lord Krishna for clear-cut guidance. His appeal rings out:

“O Janardana, O Kesava, why do You urge me to engage in this ghastly warfare, if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work? My intelligence is bewildered by Your equivocal instructions. Therefore, please tell me decisively what is most beneficial for me.”

Raju, who has meanwhile taken a dip in the holy pond, joins me with his wet clothes clinging to his lean figure. It will dry up as he stands for fifteen minutes under the sun, he cheerily says.

Bang in the midst of Vishnu territory at the Sarovar complex – Krishna after all, is said to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu – is the Sarveshwar Mahadev Temple of Lord Shiva. It is only the amazing plurality of Hinduism that makes such a thing possible, considering that Shiva and Vishnu represent two very different and often contrasting sects in Hinduism: Shaivite and Vaishnavite. In parts of the country these two are often at loggerheads, with their own muths and swamis. At the Sarovar they co-exist, and keep company with another `outsider’ – a character from Ramayana, of all things! He is Lord Hanuman, who has a temple of his own, with a perpetually large number of devotees flocking there.

We know that the Gopis were enamoured of the flirtatious Lord Krishna and desperately sought his attention. They were the seekers of truth while he was Truth himself. They tried several things to succeed, including appeasing the deity Katyayani Devi. Legend has it that she was born to sage Katyayan. The three-eyed and four-armed deity is the Sixth Aspect of Shakti. An ancient temple in her name stands on the banks of the Sarovar, attracting devotees by the thousands.

As I wind up the tour, Raju suggests that I should visit the place in November end –beginning December. That is when the Gita Jayanti celebrations are held. I promise to return. Like for the gopis, the quest for Truth, for an understanding of this world and beyond, is a journey that will never end. One seeks, and seeks again, and again…

Friday, April 9, 2010

How Indian are we?

Becoming Indian
The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
By Pavan K Varma
Allen Lane
Rs 499/-

Rajesh Singh

This is truly an Indian heart at work. Alternately anguished, upset and outraged over what it sees as growing insubordination of the Indian cultural identity to superfluous western influences, the heart skips a beat or two in its impassioned narration of the betrayal by the educated class of many things Indian – language, art, literature, architecture, films, the performing arts, mannerisms. At first glance, it may appear to be the lamentation of a spoiler, a cynic, or even a hypocrite who uses the very same medium that it derides as ‘un-Indian’ to express its very Indian outpourings. Indeed, some critics say this Indian Heart has gone overboard and is perched dangerously close to becoming a fundamentalist.

There are also those sufficiently aroused ones who have taken exception to the `assault’ on English – a universal language without which the nation would in their opinion come to a standstill. In their agitated state, they have even gone to the ludicrous extent of claiming that Indian languages actually flourished during the English rule.

But Pavan Varma is not a bigot. Disenchanted he may be, he has no cause to be a spoiler. He belongs to the elite Indian Foreign Service cadre, is a distinguished government servant and has many of the comforts of life that millions of ordinary Indians cannot even dream of. He has traveled the world, dined the best and with the best, has a job that will keep him secure even after he quits it and is miles away from the daily crises that the average Indian confronts: power outages, water scarcity, untrustworthy public transportation etc. He is after all a product of the system that he now finds stifling. What, oh, what, asks the agitated Middle class India, is wrong with this man? Someone please shut him up.

(Yes, Pavanji, it is the same Great Indian Middle Class you had lampooned in an earlier book which is out to take revenge. You have yet again dared to take it head on. Then, you had questioned its moral ethos, now, its loyalty to Indianness. How ch-e-e-p!)

So, even as the author’s critics froth around the mouth and condemn him to the cave age, with perhaps only the Vedas for company – for, in their perception the Vedas represented the caveman period – they are unable in their over-exuberance to understand that, not once does Varma in his remarkable book speak against English or the foreign attitudes. He makes just one point, over and over again, throughout the narration: be proud of your language and culture; demonstrate it, wear it on your sleeve. Platitudes will not suffice, go beyond.

The book acquires a greater meaning for us if we appreciate that it represents an inner journey for the author in search of an identity. Varma is not a preacher who is bent on converting us to his way of thinking; he is a victim of an emotional turmoil that is rocking his very cultural roots. He can no longer be ambivalent; he has to take a stand. Would he like to be swamped by the external influences or would he prefer to promote his Indian identity in ways more than merely formal? And, that is the question before us all.

One can argue that the Indian heart is a robust one and can withstand knocks one too many; that being Indian is a state of mind and not of physical display; that the likes of Varma haven’t patented the right to be Indian culture’s torch-bearers – in fact they are the cry-wolf types. Bravo! The Great Indian Middle Class at work again. But seriously, is it possible for a cultural identity to survive beyond decades and centuries if it is not practised – and thus passed on to succeeding generations? We have the recent case of nearly 200 Indian languages facing extinction because of their diminishing usage by newer generations. And, a language represents a vital thread of the nation’s cultural fabric.

But, as Varma argues, language is but one element that binds us to our culture. There are other milestones that indicate the direction our cultural instincts are taking us in. They are to be found in our art, literature, architecture, films, the performing arts, mannerisms – as mentioned earlier. The author has chosen these parameters rather cleverly as they would help a multitude of readers across the country to relate to his battle-cry. They are also fields where cultural ‘corruption’ – distinct from desirable fusion – is most alarmingly evident.

For instance, he talks of the penchant of many travellers on the Delhi-Chandigarh Shatabdi train to respond in English even when spoken to in Hindi, lest the traveller is considered uneducated. None can dispute the tendency. The fixation with the English language is all around us. In Varma’s words, the marvellous English prose of novelist Nirad Chaudhuri made him no less of a “caricature” of the “pucca Brown Sahib” or the “Brown Englishman”. The author holds him responsible for not using his “vast intellectual resources to chisel an authentic identity for himself. Instead he chose to become the most flamboyantly learned mimic of an alien civilization.”

Varma is scathing in his assault on the Indian establishment’s fawning over Western icons – and even over those who were far from being icons in their native countries. He talks of Nehru’s almost child-like fascination for things and people Western. If he had not got the New Delhi project, Lutyens would have remained unknown as he was considered a failure in the West. Le Corbusier could not get major contracts back home in France and one of his architectural plans for Paris had been summarily rejected. Yet, he is an iconic figure in India for `designing’ Chandigarh. The author of course is dismissive of both efforts. In his view, while New Delhi got planned by systematically brushing aside the cultural epicenter of the Old, thus condemning that region and the river Yamuna on which it once thrived to a pitiable existence, Chandigarh, with its over-systematic lay-out lacks the soul of India.

The author gives us an insight into what these men really thought of India and Indians. He quotes Lutyens on a train journey from Delhi to what was then Bombay: “Some fat blacks occupied the only ladies carriage – and you mustn’t occupy a carriage they have used.” In Varanasi, while cruising down the river Ganges, he remarked: “Every sort of black body doing every sort of thing.” Finally, the great Lutyens’ take on the inability of Indian princes to dance: “…a pity, but the only possible solution to the horror of seeing a black man embrace a white woman.” All in all, as Varma points out, Lutyens considered Indians to be “natives with low intellect,” – but that did not prevent Nehru from rewarding him.

It is today fashionable to think globally and shun anything that appears parochial. Thus, projecting and promoting one’s cultural identity is passé. But, as the author says, “There is no contradiction between being culturally rooted and being a global citizen. On the contrary, only those who are so rooted win genuine respect.”

As the world grapples with a number of socio-economic and political conflicts, Varma notes with a touch of deep insight, “The flashpoints of the future may appear to be political. But the real causes are rooted in the unresolved issues of culture and identity.”

Is anybody listening? The Great Indian Middle Class, especially.