Sunday, August 26, 2007

A.K. Ramanujam carefully avoided mentioning this strong, prayerful link with the Upanishads

Love that dare not speak Renuka Narayanan Indian Express Monday, February 12, 2001
Says English rock star David Bowie, husband of the beautiful model Iman: ‘‘Religion is for those who believe in Hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there.’’ Makes sense, doesn’t it? The smug, the unquestioning, the ones who have never practised the detoxifying and necessary habit of ijtihad, or independent thinking, are bound to believe in Hell as a kind of particularly nasty penitentiary for those who are Different and therefore, automatically, Sinners.
Alas, that so many ‘intellectuals’ of our Left, especially in media, are absolutely of this fanatical ilk. They have never held jobs in marketing or sales, never been foot-soldiers of Lakshmi, needing to schmooze with clients and bear the humiliation of having their product trashed by some rude media buyer, supply superintendent or Brig. Adm. They themselves don’t belong to the ‘‘productive classes’’ they shrilly champion. They don’t get their hands dirty, except to write chamcha letters to foreign institutions when a study grant (with stipend) isto be jostled for. But they love to decry as ‘‘right-wing’’ anybody who is openly attached to their faith, whatever that faith might be.
In particular, any link with Sanskrit scriptures is considered regressive and casteist. One Purusha Sukta, one Manu Smriti, is made to discredit and outweigh the entire universalist substance of Upanishadic thought. But what about the internalisation of inherited poetic imagery by a whole culture?
I found a very disturbing example of denial in the unlikeliest place and I’m still in shock about it. I’m talking about a book that I venerate, by a person I never had the good fortune to meet, but have loved humbly from afar for decades. I wish he were alive, that I might ask him about this. I mean Speaking of Shiva (1973, Penguin) by the late A.K. Ramanujam. If I have misunderstood the situation, I gladly ask pardon of his close associates and beg them to consider, before they get enraged with me, that since 1974, I have loved and cherished Shri Ramanujam’s work and I still do, particularly his Indian folk tales and his co-authored work on the padams of Annamacharya and Kshetrayya (When God is a Customer).
But the situation that bothers me is in his introduction to the works of the Virashaiva poet Mahadeviakka. She describes, in a particular poem, that God lies deep in her heart like oil in the seed, like treasure in ground. Shri Ramanujam says she used the ‘‘conventions of pan-Indian secular love poetry’’. How carefully these words seem chosen, given that it was 1973 the high noon of the Left in Indian academia and media.
For in a discredited (then) document called the Isha Upanishad, and in other places, where such imagery first appeared, God is described in terms of tilesu tailam, aapas srotassu, araneesu chagnih. Like oil in the seed, water buried deep in a dry riverbed, fire hidden in friction sticks. But Shri Ramanujam carefully avoided mentioning this strong, prayerful link with the Upanishads. The vachanas in his book on Shiva were pitched as protest verse that shook the orthodoxy and so indeed they were. Basavanna, the central figure of the movement, asked shattering questions about mere religion and strongly pointed the way to true spirituality as embodied in the ecstatic path of our lord, Shiva. Virashaiva vachanas, even in translation, are thus inflammatory verses. They set the seeking heart on fire and hold up a luminous marg darshan.
But is it not tragic that the inheritance of Upanishadic imagination could not be acknowledged? Sant Kabir, another beloved figure in our lives, used similar poetic conventions. Given that the pendulum has swung so violently away from 1973, can we in the middle ground please disown our wicked uncles without having to also disown our mother?

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