Adishakti's Ramayana Festival held from 16th to 23rd Feb 2011 included some stimulating talks and discussions wtih a wide range of acclaimed thinkers and scholars ranging from Ashis Nandy, Romila Thapar, Rustom Bharucha, Sarah Joseph and several other artists, performers, researchers and academicians. Today's session was with Ashis Nandy whom Bharucha introduced as a 'cultural thinker' rather than the conventional 'social scientist'. At first sight, the 73 year old Nandy appeared like a very affable french bearded grandfather, fair and balding with twinkling eyes. His gold rimmed spectacles hardly gave him the academic air that I had associated with him through the many articles that I had read.He was not the bleary eyed intellectual attempting expession as if words were brittle but a casual and confiding almost chatty mentor talking freely without dropping names or using jargon.
Candidly, he opened his talk by a confession in an English thickly accented by Bengali, that he was going into a digression first. His purpose he said was to try and locate epics in the civilizational context of India.For this aim, he first expounded existing traiditions that have located Indian cultural unity in the ancient scripts like the Vedas and the Upanishads. India as it is today and as it is defined is seen to be a product of a sacred and authentic scriptural past that is closed and fixed. Nandy denounces this and takes the stance, taken both by Tagore as well as by Gandhi, that Indian unity is located in the medieval times and the sects and epics developed during the Bhakti movement. This period has been a period of innovation and literary fertility. Nandy sees Tagore as the anti-national nationalist poet because of this new or rather conflicting way in which Tagore defines Indian unity.
The reason that Nandy takes this stance, the second point that he makes, is because he believes that Indian unity is a product of an open-ended past and not of a remote inceptual point that defines our cultural identity. The past modifies us and is as open as the future, he claims. He gives the apt example of the original 10000 couplet gathas of the Mahabharata to which 90000 couplets were added over the centuries. Epics in India were thus completed over the years and were not sacrosanct and unchanging products of a pristine past. An interesting comparison that he made was with the medieval times of the Western societies which are seen as the dark ages and which see the past as closed as their utopias are always imagined in the future. Furthermore, while Homer's epic is closed, Mahabharata has been open ended. The Indian medieval age has been an age of great productivity.
Thirdly, Nandy also denounces the modern tendency to historicise the past. By historicisation, he means reducing epics to legends to be examined by history. In other words, to analyse epics according to present categories of ideology and schools of thought whether they are Marxist, Freudian, or Structual/anthropological. He rejects the mythification of epics. With the tendency to historicise also comes the tendency to demystify and demythisize which Nandy finds to be a hypocritical endeavour in which critics have only replaced myths with their own schools of thought and philosophies. At the same time, while they have been engaged in trying to decipher myths, they are caught in a sort of ambivalence which is based on an insecurity that they haven't really totally figured out 'hows epics work.'
With this significant digression, Nandy poses the relevant question: "How do we locate Indian unity in the medival domain which encompasses a gamut of poets, writers, innovators etc ?" He continues by affirming that there are other ways of constructing the past as is shown in the postcolonial context by countries like Africa, Latin America and many others. As it is now history is a discipline which is necessary for managing 'the chaos of human memory.' It is based on the theory of memory rather than on forgetfulness. Nandy posits a method of constructing the past through what he calls principles of pricipled forgetting.The past can be a reconstruction of what we can forget and what we can remember. But history as it is now, is a 'totalist' discipline that is a space conflicting with ethics as it cannot include forgetfulness in its documentation of the past. Nandy proposes a more humane approch for reconstructing the past.
Interestingly Nandy quotes figures that he admits no other academician would have looked for. In his studies on the Partition, Nandy observed that 40% of the people during that time of violence and turmoil were either helped by people on the other side or knew others who had been helped. On the other hand, during the holocaust in Europe, the figure was close to 1%. These figures are indeed never included in a history of a place or a people. Nandy conceives of a non-hierarchical domain in which history is located so that all the different Ramayanas whether they are by Tulsidas, Kashiram, or Valmiki are inclusively present without any one gaining more authenticity over the others. He sees this plurality built in inevitably in an epic culture in which 'gods and demons are both necessay.' He extends this coexistance of plurality to an inextricable interdependence between a self and its anti-self or its disowned selves.With such an inclusive vision, the sacredness of a place or a text is justified in itself and not by a hierarchy.
The epic hero or heroine is thus not just a paradigm of the good and the just, he/she has also within him/her his/her anti-self. The epic hero is a whole character who is a culmination of his self as well as his antonym. Heroes have always come from outside their cultures and have had deviant births, remarks Nandy. Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, but he was himself groomed and brought up as an Egyptian Prince- his antonym. Hitler, although hardly considered a hero, but taken in the sense of a protagonaist at a cataclysmic time in history, was himself never a German although he massacred Jews for German 'ideals.' In the Ramayana, Rama is not only the divine incarnation and the righteous king, he is also an insecure man who takes arms in his exile even as his wife protests against the futility of arms in a forest. Exile, incidentally is seen by Nandy as a confrontation with the self. It is not geographical nor historical but psychological.
Furthermore, epics offer 'hermeneutic rights' for interpretation. In other words, their significance is not etched in stone but is reader oriented and open to interpretation within the context of the reader's present. Eventually, the epic becomes nothing else but another way of constructing the past. Ashis remarks insightfully: "The past can be captured neither through history nor through human rights activism. It is located in the consciousness." While historical methods of documenting the past have heavily depended on words, language and categories in which we wanted to accomodate the past neatly, Nandy calls for the creation of new domains of dialogue in the way that we access and reconstruct our pasts, epics being one of these domains of engagement.