Written by Paromita Chakrabarti
Usually, when one says ‘my Hanuman Chalisa’, which is the title of your new book [published by Rupa], it implies the possibility of multiple opinions. Is there still space for that in India?
The ‘my’ part is there, the question is whether ‘your’ part is respected or not. That’s the problem. My space always exists. Wisdom is when I start appreciating your space. Quarrels start when ‘my’ becomes ‘the’. The moment I acknowledge ‘yours’ and then have the courage to expand ‘my’ and create an osmotic relationship between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, then something wonderful happens. That’s when Upanishad happens. For me, that is very important.
In the book, you write how the Ramayan should be read metaphorically and not literally. In current times, given the insistence on ‘mandir wahi banayenge’, how does one reconcile the two positions?
It’s the eternal clash between the world of mathematics and the world of metaphor. You must have met people who do not understand metaphors. These are the people we call engineers. A good engineer must not know metaphors. He better know his mathematics. This is the world of the IIT and the IIM, a literal world. For someone who is literal, Hanuman becomes a monkey. For a person who is metaphorical, a monkey becomes the mind. It is the metaphor which takes you towards infinity. Even mathematics takes you to the world of infinity and only because you allow metaphor to enter mathematics. Because infinity cannot be measured and god cannot be measured.
Hanuman is quite a ‘secular’ god. In your book, you speak of how the nawabs of Lucknow had a festival to celebrate him. Was it a conscious decision to write about a populist god at this juncture?
Not really. Although, as I wrote, I realised the relevance of it in today’s time. Whenever I get a negative feeling, I turn to the Hanuman Chalisa. There’s something about the Ramayana, and, Hanuman, especially, in the Ramayana, that sort of calms you down. In Bombay, there will be a little Hanuman temple in every local train. For me, that is the greatest shrine, because I will see the ordinary man bowing down in front of it and in that ordinariness, I find a lot of power.
I have seen a lot of troll activity. These are educated people, but they just want to win an argument. You see the rage and the frustration. In the Gita, there is a line: ‘When you are angry, you get deluded and when you get deluded, you get confused, and when you get confused, you lose your intelligence and then everything is lost.’ And that’s what is happening. Everybody seems to be fighting for the gods and I have a vision of the gods looking at them, rolling their eyes in response. I was just telling someone that Hinduism is supposed to be mellifluous, not venomous. We have adopted the venom of other people rather than spreading our mellifluousness. That is the tragedy.
What do you mean by the ‘venom of other people’?
Donald Trump, (Vladimir) Putin – angry people, such angry people. Hillary Clinton. Do you see mellifluousness when you see world leaders? They are all trying to be men. They are not doing tribhanga. There is no grace. The European Union is trying to create a world through banking, not through poetry. So, the absence of poetry in the world creates a world of anger. No ras, no anand. We want to be that. Our culture was never that. People want to defend India, but they don’t know what they are defending. What is that India? Because when you talk of this side of India, they are ashamed of it, because it’s feminine. But look at Hanuman. Super macho, right? That’s how everyone thinks of him. But he’s not. He’s a poet, a musician, a servant, a master, a fighter. He’s a monkey who becomes so many things. But we only want to see him as a god with a six-pack, who bashes up people. Really? This is engineering at work. The end of metaphor.
So, are you saying science and faith are completely divorced?
Not at all. A good scientist understands faith. I have worked with the best scientists in the world and they understand religion better than anyone else and a good religious man respects science. But, you have to be at that level. It is always the tragedy of mediocrity. The mediocre scientist thinks that science is about truth. Science is not about truth. Science is about knowledge. Religion is not about truth. Religion is about knowledge. And knowledge expands. It’s expansive. Truth is static. You fight over truth. You don’t fight over knowledge. You gather more and more knowledge. And therefore, it will always be a never-ending process. But we have created this world of expertise – the biologist doesn’t read physics, the physicist doesn’t read mathematics. They make fun of each other. Science has become religious and religion is pretending to be science. That is where the problem is. Neither understands each other. Gyan, bigyan are complex processes. The softness of it, the gentleness of it, is forgotten completely. So, science has become harsh, it won’t let faith in. This is a very American way of looking at things. And religion has become very rigid. These are all venomous ideas.
Is that why we are attempting to establish myths — that aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago or that the world’s first plastic surgery happened here — as realities?
Some people with low self-esteem and insecurity need to prove these. When do you tell people that I am bigger than you? When you are insecure, look at Hanuman. Sukshmo roop bhi leta hain, bhim roop bhi leta hain, virat swaroop bhi leta hain. He can be whatever he wants to be. He can expand and contract himself. Please look at the people we are talking about. Do they ever want to contract themselves for others? They always want to dominate. That’s hardly atma-gyan. That’s hardly Indian wisdom.
At what point did this rupture happen?
It was always there. It will always be there. There will always be a Ravana and a Rama. And you will have people today who will defend Ravana. The best part is a feminist defending Ravana although Ravana denies a woman consent.
But doesn’t that also imply a space for debate? Conversations are now becoming increasingly unilinear.
It is because we want to win the argument. When I want to win the argument like a lawyer in a Supreme Court, I stop seeing what is criminal. I can turn anything into anything. I will argue anything — because I hate Rama, therefore, Ravana must be good. It’s not coming from wisdom. It’s not coming from discovery and curiosity. It’s coming from the desire to win an argument. It’s ranabhoomi, not rangabhoomi. It is not science. It is not curiosity. It is the desire for victory. So, one has to ask: where are you going? The left likes to mock the right, the right likes to mock the left. Why are we so insecure? Why do we need to win this argument?
Where do you think this insecurity comes from?
I think because they feel invalidated in life. When we don’t know who we are, we have to discover our values – focus on ourselves rather than seeing how other people see us. I think that is what is happening around us. I think we don’t know ourselves. There is no atma-gyan. Hanuman is a monkey and god. He is not saying I want to be someone else. He is happy being a vanar. But, if I tell someone, you are a monkey, he doesn’t come back and say, ‘Oh, you mean I am Hanuman?’ He feels insulted. We don’t see the Hanuman in the monkey. We don’t see the monkey in the mind. We don’t know this journey. And somewhere along the line, this is being celebrated. Insecurity is being celebrated. Victimhood is being celebrated. That has become glamorous. To be wise is not glamorous because a wise man will not scream and shout.
Do you think this insecurity is being exploited more at this juncture?
It is very visible right now. We have been told that everybody has a voice, but we forgot to tell that everybody also has ears. Everybody has a voice and we have stopped listening. That’s the whole thing — shruti. Hanuman chants Ramayana all the time so that we listen to the epic. But we are not listening to the Ramayana. And even when we listen, we don’t listen to the metaphor. We listen to the mathematics of the power games. We are not listening to what is being communicated. What is the antidote to that? Stop shouting and start listening.
Is it possible at all then to gain a middle ground between people like Dinanath Batra and the left?
They have to go inwards and neither of them is willing to go inwards. See, atma-gyan is not something either of them cares about. The left will dismiss this as eastern mumbo-jumbo and I don’t know Dinanath Batra, but he seems to be a person who just doesn’t get metaphor. Whatever little I have read about him implies roopak ka gyan nahi hain. So how do I explain (that) to him? It’s his karma and he has to live with it. Maybe, in the next life, or maybe, in this life, one day, he will suddenly discover it. We will all discover it. When you discover atma, the world just becomes a wonderful place. It happens because you have affected the core of your being. I think we are too busy trying to change the world and it will never be changed. The world will never change. But we can always change.