Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Paul Kalanithi: A Well Ended Life Triumphs Death. 'Death, Be Not Proud'

'Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment'  wrote Dag Hammarskjold. Paul Kalanithi died on March 9th 2015, aged 37, two years after he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He wrote to his friend about diagnosis, "good news is I've outlived two Brontes, Keats and Crane. Bad news is that I haven't written anything". Kalanithi then penned "When breath becomes air" which has been critically acclaimed and is now a bestseller. Kalanithi, by writing this book, has triumphed death. The book carries a special meaning for me since my dad passed away last August due to cancer and he too, like Kalanithi, was a surgeon and a Christian for whom faith was central to his life.

Will Durant's quote from Robert Browning, "life has a meaning. Finding it is my meat and drink", aptly sums up Kalanithi's raison de etre.

Paul Kalanithi became famous when he penned an oped in New York Times, "How long have I got left" where he wrote about being diagnosed with lung cancer. He died less than 2 years of the diagnosis. Couple of weeks back he roared back into the limelight when New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin wrote a fulsome praise of "When breath becomes air", a book Kalanithi wrote as life ebbed away.

Paul and Lucy Kalanithi with daughter Cady - Image courtesy www.paulkalanithi.com 
Kalanithi was born into a family of doctors and chose to stay away from pursuing what had practically become a family vocation. He pursued graduating in literature from Stanford but a brush with a 'low-brow' book provided an epiphany for him. He realized that "literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it". Utilizing the flexibility in choosing coursework that American universities uniquely provide Kalanithi enrolled in biology and neuroscience classes as well. Ready to graduate he felt he was "driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?" In his sophomore year he chose to intern as a chef at a camp. A visit to a center for patients with severe brain injuries, mostly children, in his final year, made him realize "brains give rise to our ability to form relationships and make life meaningful. Sometimes, they break".'As graduation loomed', he realized that he had a "nagging sense" that he "wasn't done studying". Between Walt Whitman who taught him that "only the physician could truly understand 'the physiological-spiritual Man'" and a teacher of philosopher who told him that unlike most graduates of literature he was at home with science Kalanithi decided to become a doctor.

Unlike Indian school students who rush into medical school after rudimentary physics and chemistry in 12th grade Kalanithi, like American students, enrolled in pre-med classes to bone up on those two critical subjects. While he waited to apply for medical schools the Stanford literature and biology graduate went to Cambridge and pursued a course in history and philosophy of science and medicine. The course work convinced him that "it was only in practicing medicine" he "could pursue a serious biological philosophy". Kalanithi returned to US and joined Yale Medical school.

When Kalanithi joined Yale the legendary surgeon-philosopher, a tribe unique to western academia, Sherwin Nuland was a lecturer. Nuland's "How we die" is a classic that taught millions of what Kalanithi calls medicine's "twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations:at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal". Referring to Nuland's narration of an attempt to revive a patient by cutting open his chest and pumping the heart Kalanithi sums up the mission of what it is to be a doctor, "the heroic spirit of responsibility amid blood and failure". My dad would've underlined those words had he read the book.

Would knowledge alone suffice for a doctor? In lines reminiscent of T.S. Eliot Kalanithi, after performing an emergency C-section to deliver preemies that later inevitably died, rues the 'judgment call' and muses "intelligence wasn't enough; moral clarity was needed as well. Somehow, I had to believe, I would gain not only knowledge but wisdom, too".

Doctors are human beings too. Kalanithi recounts how a tired oncologist silently rejoiced that a pancreatic cancer patient did not require further surgery after the initial cut and inspection which revealed extensive metastases. Then realizing the guilt and shamed she needed to be consoled.

"Neurosurgery, with its unforgiving call to perfection" and the realization that "neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity" drove Kalanithi to become one. I think back to the reason Ayn Rand chose to depict the evils of socialism in medicine using not just any doctor but a neurosurgeon. A millimeter here or a millimeter there would make all the difference between a patient losing the ability to learn words or use them. A tumor excised too much has the probability of injuring a millimeter of another faculty and rendering a patient paralytic. I mused on the rationale for affirmative action which argues for jobs on the basis of "he needs it". In another passage that is strikingly similar to Ayn Rand's language Kalanithi writes "technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough", "when the difference between triumph and tragedy was defined by one or two millimeters". I sadly thought of the hundreds of doctors in India who have purchased their way to a degree.

The pages where Kalanithi sizzles is where he recounts learning to avoid becoming the "Tolstoy stereotype of a doctor" and care about patients. My dad used to recount his teacher's words that patients think a doctor has a magic wand to wave away their illnesses and how that implicit faith places upon the doctor a responsibility to care deeply for the patient. Faced with situations where surgery could be futile Kalanithi suggests that "when there's no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon's only tool". Convincing a family to let a brain dead person die is the toughest job a doctor has to do. Kalanithi recounts in a sentence of profound candor that had he been more religious in his youth he might've become a pastor and he even realizes by hindsight that he had sought a 'pastoral role'. Faith was central to my dad's life as a man and as a doctor. He would've nodded approvingly at that observation.

Neurosurgeons, the American curriculums insist, must 'venture forth and excel in other fields as well'. In his 4th year during residency Kalanithi chose to enroll in a motor-neuroscience laboratory run by an Indian he only names as 'V' in the book. Kalanithi says that V, unlike the publish or perish breed of American academia who "connive to publish in the most prestigious journals and get their names out there", "maintained" that their "only obligation was to be authentic to the scientific story and tell it uncompromisingly". The character Max Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis's Pulitzer winning novel Arrowsmith, an inspiration to legions of those who aspired to become doctors, comes to mind.

Atul Gawande in his bestseller "Being Mortal" recounts a profound conversation between his dad, a doctor himself, and his surgeon about a critical surgery that could possibly leave him debilitated. They go over what kind of functional loss would be tolerable and the question "what is important to you in your life" looms. To a neurosurgeon knowledge of what the patient holds dear is important says Kalanithi. Kalanithi sums up "their (neurosurgeon's) duty included learning what made that particular patient's life worth living, and planning to save those things if possible". Gawande in his book narrated how a surgeon at Harvard had no such patience toward his dad and how, in contrast, a Cleveland based surgeon was all about what was important to his dad.

Towards the end of his residency Kalanithi learns that he has terminal stage lung cancer. The debilitating disease and the proximity of death changes his life. Kalanithi's relationship with his wife until then was rocky and he confides that the cancer diagnosis brought them together. Paul and Lucy decide to even have a child despite his wife cautioning him that it'll be difficult for him to say 'goodbye'. In a touching epilogue Lucy adds that the "cancer diagnosis was like a nutcracker, getting us back into the soft, nourishing meat of our marriage".

A terminal illness radically alters not just the trajectory of one's life but even values as well. A class reunion reminds Kalanithi that while his peers will go on to have careers he faces death. The man who turned from literature to medicine in pursuit of finding life's meaning now took a turn back to literature and even religion to discover to what purpose can he use the meager remaining days.

A brief incident of a flippant resident doctor who forgets to include a critical medicine but is adamant, out  of laziness, not to correct it reminds Kalanithi yet again how important it is to be a human being as a doctor.

Racing against time Kalanithi, in luminous passages, ruminates on what is life, the cheer of his newborn child Cady and death.

Having seen my dad slip into the grip of death over an agonize 8 month period as his once corpulent body was wasted and thinned out by the spread of cancer I could visualize Paul Kalanithi's life move inexorably to its end. Though dad was afflicted by dementia for a brief period he did maintain a semblance of lucidity until the end. I've never stopped thinking what must have gone through his mind as he lay contemplating the arrival of the grim reaper. When a false alarm of his impending death arose in March of last my brother and I dashed down to India and held his arms telling him that he had run a good race and that he should depart in peace. I could not bear to read the passage of Kalanithi, who in his last hours seeing the end is near wanted to remove his face mask and hold Cady. Then he muttered the words "I'm ready", says Lucy. Lucy's narration of the final hours is moving, poignant and inevitably lachrymose.

The flap jacket on the book lists Kalanithi's academic credentials. He had a B.A and an M.A in English literature, a BA in human biology (all from Stanford), an MPhil in History and philosophy of science and medicine (Cambridge), graduated summa cum laude from Yale School of Medicine, Neurosurgery from Stanford and also won the highest award for research from American Academy of neurological research. He was 37 when he died.

One wonders at how poorer the world is for the loss of such an intellect and a great human being. Rarely does fate bestow such gifts on a man only to snuff out his promising life at such a tender age. Maybe Kalanithi would've become another Dr. Marsh, a legendary British neurosurgeon and an author of equally acclaimed 'Do no harm'. But who knows maybe this book is a better gift for posterity than any surgical procedure Kalanithi may've invented.

In a brief book written under the most dire of circumstances Kalanithi shows us his literary acumen and brings to life, in a compact two chapter book, who he was in flesh and blood. Abraham Verghese, a doctor and bestselling author of 'My own country', in his foreword aptly points out that despite being acquainted with Kalanithi personally and having read his essays he had come to know him from the book: "it was only when I received the pages that you now hold in your hands, two months after Paul died, that I felt I had finally come to know him, to know him better than if i had been blessed to call him a friend".

I'd rate Kalanithi's book several notches higher than Randy Pausch's "Last lecture" because Kalanithi is far more literary in his writing and weaves more profundity in a narrative that pulses with life. The world may not have benefited from Kalanithi's genius as doctor given his untimely death but Kalanithi the literary person has left a legacy.

Two points for my fellow Indian brethren to ponder. Kalanithi's life is what I'd call 'an American life'. The career choices he made, pursuing literature and philosophy before turning to medicine, including an internship as chef, underscores the uniqueness of what is possible in American education. While not every American neurosurgeon is a Kalanithi I can safely say that a Kalanithi would not be possible in India. Second, Lucy's life as widow. Lucy, an American, defies the stereotype that Indians hold of American women and of American marriages in general. Lucy herself penned a very moving column in New York Times, 'My marriage didn't end when I became a widow'. Lucy would go to Paul's graveyard and lie on top of it and caress the grass nearby as if she was caressing the hair on Paul's head.

Towards the end of his 'Ode to the West Wind' Shelley beseeches the wind : "drive my dead thoughts over the universe, like withered leaves to quicken a new birth". This book will do for Kalanithi what Shelley asked of the West Wind. Kalanithi had chosen a quote from Montaigne to begin the chapter titled "Cease not till death", "he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live". Lucy in her epilogue movingly records, "For much of his life Paul wondered about death- and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes. I was his wife and a witness".

Abraham Verghese closed his foreword with the following words: "Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Tehran lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul."

"Death, be not proud" by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


  1. Paul Kalanithi's oped in New York Times "How Long Have I got Left"
  2. Lucy Kalanithi's oped in New York Times "My marriage did not end when I became a widow"
  3. Paul Kalanithi's article in New Yorker on his "Last day as a surgeon" (he could not perform any surgeries after that one)
  4. Paul Kalanithi's article for Stanford "Before I go"
  5. New York Time's Book Review of "When breath becomes air"
  6. Lucy Kalanithi's interview with New York Times "Keeping Dr. Paul Kalanithi's voice alive"
  7. My blog on Randy Pausch's 'Last Lecture'
  8. Dr. Paul Kalanithi's website www.paulkalanithi.com

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jeyamohan's Discourses on Gita and Shankara: Part Scholarship, Part Propaganda and Some Demagoguery

"There are Gita exponents who can expound on the text better than me but listening to them for 10 days will not prepare a listener to answer one simple question from a Communist". With those words Jeyamohan set the stage for his 4 day discourse on the Bhagavad Gita. His address, he said, was  not a mere expounding of an ancient text with blind worshipfulness but one which sets the text within with a socio-cultural and literary context to answer questions like "Gita encourages casteism" and "why should we learn a text that is an exhortation for killing". Jeyamohan faces down a strange triptych composed of those who venerate a text, those who vilify it for narrow partisan purposes and those who equally promote it for for narrow partisan purposes.

Locate and understand Gita within a historical context is the crux of the first lecture. In India history and folk lore jostle for attention and while both have their place in a cultural milieu one should separate the understandings derived from them. In another lecture he quotes that "there is no text, only context" (Barth / Derrida?) Krishna teaches that a person must do the duty of the varna that the person was born into. That line is the most cited one by critics to discredit Gita as the fountainhead of India's most notorious and most perpetuated iniquity. Yet, as Jeyamohan, points out that 'classification' of a populace was common place in civilizations around the world at that time. And, in the tradition of every Indian historian, Jeyamohan draws attention to a crucial distinction that varna and jati (caste) are not interchangeable terms. Drawing upon recent scholarship Jeyamohan dates the Gita circa 300 BCE.

Speaking on historicity Jeyamohan makes, in the passing, an important and rather very courageous exhortation. Not many realize that the famous 'commentaries' of Gita by Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhavacharya are not mere explanatory notes of an abstruse philosophical text. The 'commentaries' were written by each author drawing upon then existing explanations and then presenting their own philosophies in a systematic logical manner. That implies the famous and revered commentators have learned existing philosophies and created their own edifices within paradigms that were not flights of fancy but patient rational constructs. Jeyamohan underscores that the commentators wrote their commentaries based on their learning of the highest philosophies of the time especially Buddhism. Then he places, what I consider, a very courageous exhortation, by asking that a modern interpretation should likewise be based on today's philosophical peaks that including European and American philosophies. This would be sacrilege in the eyes of many and  partly explains why some of his usual friends pretended that a landmark discourse like this was a non-event.

Gita was indeed an interpolation into the Mahabharata. Given his deep understanding of India's philosophies and literary criticism acumen Jeyamohan beautifully explains that being an interpolation into an epic need not be a reason to look down on the text, then he situates the text based on linguistic styles and philosophic context. He points out importantly that Gita could be considered as written in the era after Buddhist nyaya-sastra was written. In another courageous moment he presents Krishna as not necessarily as an reincarnation but a chieftain the Platonic mould of a philosopher-king, much like Solomon of the Bible. Social historians have written about how Krishna cult was an evolution of later years. It does take a leap of imagination for most Indians to understand that Krishna could be a chieftain who was educated in the philosophical traditions and thus poised to play the teacher. It'd not be an exaggeration to say that this is not how Gita is spoken of commonly. Jeyamohan brings passionate knowledge and yet a modern understanding for an ancient text. 

The second lecture on Gita, in the lines of Richard Davis's 'Bhagavad Gita: A biography', focuses on the ebb and flow of how the text, now revered almost akin to an idol, was resurrected by Charles Wilkins's translation and achieves latter day popularity. Before Wilkins Gita has been commented upon, expounded over the centuries until it slowly faded from memory. Jeyamohan insists that Gita is not a canonical text for a religion like the Bible is and therefore open to interpretations mirroring the philosophical mores of the time and the personalities of the commentators. He explains how Gita draws upon the six systems of Indian philosophies and progresses as a philosophical text. This is an important focus. Again, this shows a society where philosophical discourses were common place and a learning society were a traffic of ideas existed. 

The third lecture delves into an outline of Samkhya Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga as the Gita lays them out. Of the 4 lectures this is the most dense lecture but here, from my understanding, he pretty much hews close to traditional explanations of the 3 paths. 

The fourth lectures starts meanderingly with a digression into India's ancient Gurukul system of education and then progresses on how to learn Gita with an emphasis on Guru-parampara after touching briefly on 'svadharma'. Jeyamohan places emphasis on how one 'progresses' from Karma Yogi to being a Jnana-Yogi. He opines that the converse does not happen. One can understand it simply that one progresses into wisdom and having progressed cannot regress. This does place Jnana Yoga at a higher plane compared to Karma Yoga. Listening to this I was reminded of Milton's sonnet 'On his blindness'. Milton, facing an onset of blindness, is torn apart that being blind he cannot serve the Lord with his intellect and then consoles himself in the end, with the most famous lines of any sonnet, 'they also serve who only stand and wait'. I remembered how my good English professor K.G. Seshadri, a bi-lingual scholar, would've happily discussed Milton and the author of Gita. While I was lost in those thoughts I got word that the octogenarian professor had passed away. 

The lecture on Shankara is a personal favorite of mine after the first two lectures on Gita. Those three lectures together show case Jeyamohan at his literary and philosophical best mixed with some contentious and acidic moments.

Jeyamohan brilliantly and succinctly situates Shankara in a historical context. Shankara fashions his monistic non-dualism (Advaita) even as Buddhism and Jainism were fast losing ground to Mimamsa. Buddhism had degenerated into corrupt Tantric practices. Purva Mimamsa with its emphasis on rituals and specific de-emphasis on godheads provides, in contrast to the monotheistic Buddhism and Jainism, an umbrella for various sects to unite without sacrificing their gods. This is a vital cultural development that provided a platform to unify various faiths. Mimamsa provides the scaffolding for Shankara to construct the progression into non-dualism. 

Not much is known of Shankara, circa 800CE, until Vidyaranya resurrects Advaita and along with it Shankara in the 14th century. There is, Jeyamohan underscores, a near total omission of Shankara's name for nearly 500 years in contemporary sources. In a rambling lecture Jeyamohan outlines how Hinduism responded to invasions and survived by creating diversified mutts as local entities to transmit knowledge and tradition and how Mimamsa, followed by Advaita, provided a fundamental framework for the Vijayanagara empire. Given that we know little of Shankara's life with authority the much revered mutts supposedly created by him were probably established later. Interestingly Jeyamohan omits mentioning Kanchi mutt as one established by Shankara. 

Vidyaranya, according to legend, converts two Muslim brothers back to Hinduism, Harihara and Bukka, and introduces them to Shankara's Advaita. Advaita, Jeyamohan explains, has come to us through Vidyaranya clothing it in rituals and through the mutts thus making it an easily relatable form. The price that we've paid is Advaita has degenerated into obsession over rituals. Advaita, in the hands of Vidyaranya, becomes a tool to unify disparate sects into a coherent religious entity that was translated into political entity that finally congealed into a fabled empire, the Vijayanagara empire. Like he did with Gita Jeyamohan again pleads to peel back the layers of myths and to confront Shankara as a philosopher.

When I read Davis's book on Gita and David Gordon Davis's "Patanjali's Yoga Sutra" I often checked out Jeyamohan's writings and sought clarification. While he has a well earned reputation in Tamil literature for an envious and unprecedented body of work spanning several genre what is less appreciated, especially by those who are turned off by his politics, is his knowledge of Indian philosophical traditions. A sharp literary mind and a tutelage under nationalist philosophers has uniquely prepared Jeyamohan to be an exponent of philosophy. After listening to his lecture on Shankara I bought "Shankara and Indian Philosophy" by Natalia Isayeva. The chapter on Shankara's biography is practically a transcript of Jeyamohan's lecture. It's admirable if one considers the fact that not many books are readily available on this topic and practically none threads the facts into a masterful narrative of socio-political context as Jeyamohan does. If one reads Radhakrishnan's magnum opus 2 volume 'Indian Philosophy' it is evident that Jeyamohan's lectures present a landscape that is rarely, if at all, portrayed and coherently so.

The lectures are not without some unedifying moments and questionable scholarship that are naked propaganda and some are clearly, sad to say, in the area of demagoguery. 

In an address with a specific mission to demythologize philosophy and to place it in a critical context some questionable or arguable cause and effect relationships are regrettable. Talking about how Mimamsa, with its emphasis on rituals and catholicity towards god-heads allowed various sects to come into an unifying fold all the while happily bringing along their own gods Jeyamohan contrasts it with the restrictive 'pantheon' of Buddhism and Jainism. Here Jeyamohan is straining to avoid the word 'monotheism' because in his circles that word is used to denote the parochial nature of Abrahamic religions. With a touch of jingoistic pride he opines that incoming sects were not asked to abandon their beliefs as a precondition to join the umbrella. This is questionable. The Purva Mimamsa placed an emphasis on rituals and almost atheism as a reaction to the philosophies of the time. Denial of gods and indifference to god-heads was their core philosophy which provided an unintended consequence of allowing disparate sects to unify. Unification of sects was not the aim. To present it as such is propaganda.

While Jeyamohan is welcome to explain as to why Gita has always attracted commentary writers from Shankara to Aurobindo he is wrong in presenting the Bible as a canonical text which is treated as authoritative. Also in his zeal to present Gita as a philosophical text that is open to interpretation he ties himself in knots over what is a canonical text and what is canon. Unnecessary hair splitting. He is wrong when he claims that Christianity excluded pagan beliefs. On the contrary a simple example like 'speaking in tongues', glossolalia, can be cited as continuation of pagan tradition that stretches all the way back to the Oracle of Delphi. Christianity and Islam have, more than is often recognized, taken on and assimilated local beliefs. Put simply a Tamil Christian and a Methodist in New Jersey have little in common. Anyone familiar with Biblical literature could've helped him understand the steady stream of commentaries on not just the Bible but interpretations of the commentaries themselves. Libraries can be filled with doctrinal battles over the Bible.

Amongst the critics of Indian education system are those, including my beloved author, who yearn for the idyllic era of Gurukul teaching. This is nostalgia for a utopia that is mistakenly thought of as more consonant with Indian heritage. Gurukul's were cess pools of casteism and rote learning. No gurukul could've produced Radhakrishnan or Dasgupta or Gandhi or Aurobindo. Both Dasgupta and Radhakrishnan wrote their magnum opuses under the aegis of western universities. No veda-pathsala has produced any philosopher or teacher of note. K.A.N. Sastry in his book 'Colas' says that then schools were centers of just rote learning.This is a topic for another day.

It is an article of faith amongst many, especially the stridently Hindutva crowd, that in ancient India everything was discussed and debated in a civic manner. The implied contrast is with the supposedly intolerant Abrahamic religions. "I am a jealous god" declares Yahweh. "No god but god" declares Allah. In a part that is both propaganda and demagoguery Jeyamohan blames supposed sacking of Nalanda university by Bhaktiyar Khilji as one of the water shed events that eventually caused the demise of Buddhism.

In his own earlier blog 'சங்கரப் புரட்சி' Jeyamohan ascribes the decline of Buddhism prior to the advent of Shankara to them losing their way into corrupt practices and notorious Tantric exercises thus losing their philosophical mooring.

Contrary to this sanguine imagery of gentleman debate and discussion various philosophies rose and fell by courting political patronage or losing it.The rise of Bhakti movement in the south had more to do with Jainism declining than any Islamic invasion. The conflict between Jains and the savants of Bhakti movements were anything but civil. Both sides composed verses disparaging and mocking the beliefs of the other. A Bhakti verse even called for beheading Jain worshippers. Jains, Paul Dundas narrates in detail in his book 'The Jains', had very colorful and very obscene tales of Hindu gods, particularly Siva.

A regrettable moment during the lectures is when Jeyamohan declares "but for Vijayanagara empire we would not be standing here as Hindus today". A raucous applause followed. I wondered if I was hearing one of those infamous caste rallies that are now notorious in Tamil Nadu. Dismissing what he calls the canard of Marxist historians he disputes the idea that Hinduism and Brahmin revivalism destroyed Buddhism. He contends that no religion can be so easily wiped out. But he gladly believes that Hinduism would've been wiped out but for the Vijayanagara empire. Even in North India where the Mughal empire held sway for over half a millennia Hinduism was not wiped out. In fact the Mughal empire flourished only when strategic co-option of Hindu regimes existed.

It is interesting how proudly Jeyamohan traces Vidyaranya resurrecting a philosophy to serve as a framework of political unity thus forming the ideological basis of an empire. He also adds how the Harihara-Bukka brothers and their descendants formed the empire with subsequent conquests and made it a firewall against Islamic invasions. Astute observation and magnificent summary but little does it strike him that he is essentially talking about a period of conquests that served to provide religious unity. If European kings undertook invasions at the behest of ensuring religious and political unity that is evidence of a violent era for him but not so when it is Vidyaranya and Bukka.

Much is made of how bloody the Islamic invasions were and often the implied sub-text is "our kings were not blood thirsty". Sure the Islamic and later Christian invasions were bloody and that is partly due to the fact that they were hardy desert or mountain tribes unlike the agrarian kings of India. To be sure we know too well of the blood soaked invasions because they were recent and documented far better. Writing about a Chola expedition K.A.N. Sastry says the army "set fire to considerable area" and "killing some of the Sinhalese chieftains of the locality". We know more about the Peloponnesian war and the 300 at Thermopylae than we do of the expeditions of the Chola kings or the conquests that gave rise to the Vijayanagara empire. This absence of history is often used as proof of absence of violence. Not many know that practically slavery existed in the Chola empire.

The most reprehensible moment of the lectures and one which is clearly demagoguery is when Jeyamohan confronts the canard of characterizing Gita as a text that encourages killing because the Lord tells Arjuna "therefore thou shalt kill" ('ஆகவே கொலை புரிக'). Yes, it is a canard because it takes out of context a phrase and besmirches a philosophical text. Gandhi would later assert that the Lord was merely telling Arjuna to do his duty, which in the battlefield, happened to be killing his enemies. Unfortunately Jeyamohan puts the canard as a question from a Christian and uses the opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at Christianity.

Indignantly Jeyamohan continues, he says he asked the Christian questioner, "show me how many genocides could be traced to the Gita, unlike the Bible. Cortes's expedition in Mexico unleashed a genocide and paved the way for colonization and he even let loose a plague. Hitler and Stalin killed millions". For nearly three to four centuries the European states raced across the globe in a zeal to colonize entire nations and peoples. Blood flowed freely in brutal conquests were the colonizer and the resistant populations freely indulged in blood lust. As reprehensible as Cortes or Columbus was let us not pretend they were killing pastoral communities. American historian Bernard Bailyn recently published a definitive history of America's blood origins. Both the settlers and natives had a penchant for barbarity. The conversions and the necessity of using religion as a tool to subjugate and assimilate a conquered population was not all together unlike how Raja Raja Cholan recognized the use of religion as binding forces in a far flung empire and exported Hinduism to vanquished Lanka. The worst part of the indignant reply was laying the blame for the millions killed by Hitler and Stalin at the doorstep of the Church. 'பின் தொடரும் நிழலின் குரல்' எழுதியவருக்குத் தெரியாதா ஸ்டாலினின் கொலைக்களன்களுக்கு காரணம் மார்க்சியமென்று? Hitler and Stalin espoused atheist philosophies and their factories of death had not only nothing to do with the Church but absolutely nothing to do with the Bible. It is a travesty to say otherwise.

While I completely agree that the Gita should be understood contextually and that it is interesting to note that both the teacher and the taught had freely married outside of their clans though the text calls for avoiding mixing of clans and of course for doing one's own varna defined duty half better than doing somebody else's duty better than that person. But it is undeniable that verses like that within Gita and Manu Smriti have brought about the deepest and most enduring societal divisions in all of human history.

The most famous story of Gandhi's life is how he clutched the Gita gained emotional strength after being thrown off the train and on to a cold platform in a South African train station. What is little known, until recent controversies opened it to scrutiny, is how Gandhi, that student of Gita, looked at native South Africans as infidels and believed they were inferior to Indians. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, as every school boy knows, asked for self governance as birth right. He too, like Gandhi after him, wrote a commentary on Gita but believed firmly that the low caste must not learn the vedas. European historians have cheerfully connected the Crusades to Biblical texts and rightfully so. While Jeyamohan enjoys that connection he steadfastly refuses to not only make a similar arc from Gita to what has become the most notorious fact of life in Hinduism, its persistent casteism. Gandhi's life, unlike Tilak's,  was a trajectory that eventually bent towards universal emancipation.

Ironically it is the militant Hindutva group that today shouts from the rooftops that the Gita helped steel Arjuna to kill. The implied subtext is for Hindus to do the same. Subramanian Swamy and Gurumurthy have written and spoken to that effect.

The warts not withstanding the lectures are an intellectual tour-de-force. If the addresses are published in text form, sans the demagoguery, the book would fill a very lamentable intellectual vacuum in Tamil philosophical and literary canon.

I'd like to emphasize that I've probably spent more words in debunking the questionable parts than in appreciating the scholarly parts only because it is rebuttals that are more scrutinized and only they require more elaborate reasoning. Criticisms have to be done more carefully than praises. I'd like to place on record that I've spent considerable time listening to the lectures, taking notes, referencing other books in order to write this. If all I was interested in was debunking I need not have bothered. The regrettable and deplorable state of intellectual discussions in Tamil Nadu is one has to accept blindly and praise uncritically or go to the other extreme of throwing the baby with the bathwater for the warts. It's an all or nothing approach. I don't think that that's what Jeyamohan desires.

Yet again let me reiterate that Jeyamohan's provocative line of writing has compelled me to re-evaluate Indian philosophical traditions with a more friendly approach. As I was listening to the lecture on Shankara I realized that I need to find books to read about a man who easily ranks along side Aristotle and Kant. I do have books by Radhakrishnan and Dasgupta but they did not, as I wrote earlier, provide a landscape as Jeyamohan did. The Shankara book referred earlier does provide such a backdrop.

As much as I appreciate Stephen Greenblatt's book with its contentious parts I've no problem in enjoying Jeyamohan's lectures. Now, a question to confront is, "if such mistakes exist how should we evaluate it and are we not better off to ignore it". No. And, No. Aristotle's writings on science have all now been shown to be nonsense but Will Durant teaches us that "to ask the right questions is already half knowledge". There is much that one can learn from these lectures and if curious progress to better texts. Jeyamohan, more than anybody, is well aware that the lectures are a success when listeners to go in search of deeper scholarship.

Before I conclude, I don't know why Jeyamohan underplays his oratorical skills. I've listened to Jeyakanthan in person twice and read a few of his speeches, especially the legendary speech on Annathurai. Jeyakanthan, unlike Jeyamohan, had a stage presence, a voice that often roared and a body language that was captivating. That said Jeyakanthan sometimes speaks like the typical Dravidian party speaker. I remember how Jeyakanthan spoke of Bharati. It was theatrical and replete with quotes of entire passages and a surfeit of pedestrian rhetorical flourishes. Our audiences are usually taken up by speakers who reel of lengthy quotes irrespective of whether there is an over-arching coherent theme or not. Today, having read and listened to Jeyamohan I think back to that speech on Bharati. Jeyamohan most certainly would not have roared quotes but he'd have been a cartographer of a bygone era setting Bharati within his era and sweeping back and forth to show the difference he made for the ages to come. I truly found the lectures captivating, specifically the first two Gita lectures and the one on Shankara. If only I had listened to my professors with such rapt attention I may indeed have become a true crorepathi instead of a plodding employee by day and blogger by night.


  1. Gita lectures  http://jeyamohanav.blogspot.in/2015/12/geethajemo.html
  2. Shankara lecture https://archive.org/details/SankararJeyamohan
  3. சங்கரப் புரட்சி http://www.jeyamohan.in/54775#.Vp3EeTbijoo
  4. Vidyaranya https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vidyaranya
  5. The Colas - K.A. Neelakanta Sastry
  6. The Jains - Paul Dundas. Refer to Pg 233-244 for Jain relationship with Hindus and Buddhists.
  7. Shankara and Indian Philosophy - Natalia Isayeva. Good read.
  8. Indian Philosophy - S.Radhakrishnan

Monday, January 11, 2016

What's Unique About Jeyamohan's Discourses on Gita and Adi Shankara?

We know more, much more, about Augustine of Hippo (13th November 354 - 28th August 430 CE) than we do of Adi Shankara, easily the most outstanding philosopher from India, who supposedly lived 788 CE - 820 CE. We know more about Homer, the Homeric epics, the history of the Trojan war and travails of Odysseus than we are in any way closer to fact concerning any principal character of India's epics. That Shankara's fame as a philosopher was not just posthumous, by nearly 4 centuries, but practically a manufactured iconography by an empire builder would offend the sensibilities of many. All the above, in short, capture the backdrop of Jeyamohan's recent lectures on Bhagavad Gita and Shankara.

To appreciate the uniqueness of what Jeyamohan achieved we need to take a detour into the Western world. An understanding of how the Bible, Homer and other ancient texts, are approached within Western academia and popular publishing, will help identify what Jeyamohan accomplishes and the reasons of what I perceive as shortfalls.

'The world of Odysseus' by M.I. Finley, published in 1954, is considered a landmark study of the Homeric epic 'Odyssey'. The book sets forth the social and intellectual climate in which the Homeric epics were born. Bernard Knox, Director Emeritus of Hellenic studies in Harvard, had written an introduction for the book. Knox would go on to write a foreword for all three translations of Graeco-Roman epics by Princeton University professor Robert Fagles. That illustrates the reputation and longevity of a professor like Knox and crucially highlights a rich academic heritage that any author on the Graeco-Roman classics can make use of to write anything new.

Homer and the Greek classics are an obsession for any westerner. More than half a century after Finley Adam Nicholson turned out "Why Homer matters". Nicholson was inspired to write that book after reading Fagles's translation of 'Odyssey'. Note, Fagles himself was a latecomer to the scene of translation that is still dominated by the legendary translation by Robert Fitzgerald. Nicholson had earlier written, 'God's Secretaries', a gripping narrative of how one of the finest gems of English literature, 'The King James Version of the Bible' was written.

The November issue of New York Review of Books reviewed four, not one or two, books on St. Paul of which three were published by Columbia University Press. Publications by universities, especially the Ivy League universities and other reputed universities in US are often of very high academic caliber. The Bible and its associated history, a very rich and never ending source to plumb deep into, are studied academically both as theology and as history. Even when the Bible is approached theologically the lowest denominator is still an academic standard. Nicholson recounts in gruesome detail torture by Church authorities in his telling of how the King James Bible was written

Elaine Pagels, a much awarded and celebrated academician, is Professor of religion at Princeton University. Pagels shot to fame for her research on the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic gospels. One of her most recent books was on the newly discovered Gospel of Judas.

The brief outline given above shows how there is a steady stream of academic output that pushes the boundaries of knowledge on subjects as hallowed and venerated as the Bible and Gospels and ancient texts.

There are surely controversies on interpretation, context and sources of history. Stephen Greenblatt's 'The Swerve' about Lucretius 2000 year old poem, 'On the nature of things', was awarded both the Pulitzer and the National Book award in 2012. Greenblatt's book drew the ire of other historians who think that he was drawing tenuous connections between sparse facts to suit his pre-determined narrative.

The Indian intellectual scene is depressing and an overview of what it lacks provides, in turn, an understanding of why Jeyamohan's discourse is a landmark event irrespective of the parts one may disagree with.

It is fair to say that until the advent of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Max Mueller's efforts not withstanding, Indian philosophy was often brushed aside as theology and worse, as mysticism. Radhakrishnan who comfortably straddled the East and West singularly put Indian philosophy on the map of the world. He was followed by S.N. Dasgupta and others. Yet, what India still misses is a Will Durant. Radhakrishnan and Dasgupta are extremely taxing to read whereas for close to a century Will Durant's 'Story of Philosophy' remains a cheerful read. Here too, in the West, it's not just Durant, there are others like Jostein Gaarder, author of 'Sophie's World', who take philosophy to the common reader adroitly balancing academic rigor and narrative ease. The output on Indian philosophy is almost nil in the past 50 years unlike popular titles like 'Zeno and the Tortoise' that continue to be published even today in US.

The common Indian has, at best, a very hazy idea of Indian philosophy. It is a travesty of Indian education that Indians have little to no idea of the famous Six systems of philosophy. While it is difficult to find an American academic who'd not stress the value of a graduate being grounded in liberal arts it is even more difficult to convince many Indian academics to accept the value of an education in liberal arts. I need to emphasize that I am discounting the vast majority of Indian academics who'd love to teach Mahabharata in the classrooms as a 'venerable text'. That is useless.

Indian academic curriculum does its best to emasculate a student's sense of wonder. Whether it is the beauty of the wave-particle duality of light or the fact that Shankara's commentaries on Gita collects pre-existing interpretations and refutes or builds on them as required the Indian student is ill equipped to be inspired by the wonder that was just laid bare. It took a Western author to teach me that 'commentaries' were not written out of thin air but patient collection of prevailing doctrines and constructing a new edifice based on that. That means Shankara needs to have been educated in prevalent doctrines, subscribe to common rules of logic and finally create his own interpretation. All of that carries deep implications for understanding the social and intellectual life of a long bygone era.

More than anything the worst problem for Jeyamohan is to navigate the treacherous shoals of religious chauvinism or jingoism and the most often patently stupid forms of atheism that are especially popular in Tamil Nadu.

December 24th, the death anniversary of E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, is easily the most irritating day for me on Facebook. Many of my Hindu relatives who love Naicker's brand of Brahmin bashing and idiotic atheism will start posting nonsensical quotes from Naicker, supposedly, upholding 'rationalism'. Last year one relative posted a question-answer quote of Naicker wherein Naicker had ridiculed the existence of God and generously said "well if God does happen to exist and appear before I shall immediately revise my opinion". Another relative, also a Hindu, cheerfully commented "super". I called the guy who posted and asked him "do you know anything of Hindu philosophy?" Of course he knew nothing. Zero. I pressed further "have you read any of the epics?" Again, zero, but now with indignation he asked "well, brother why should I waste my time reading those myths?" This kind of intellectual bankruptcy is the price Tamils have to pay when vagabonds like EVR and Annathurai have sowed the seeds of not just hatred but of crass mediocrity for over half a century.

Once EVR, presiding as chief guest at a writers meeting, angrily demanded that they should discard immoral epics like Mahabharata, which depicted polyandry amongst other salacious depictions, to the dustbin. While almost all the writers swooned in admiration of this demigod only Jeyakanthan, a young and rebellious writer, admonished such a charlatan approach and asserted his right as writer to choose his topics. Annathurai, a habitual philanderer, went from town to town decrying Tami literature's finest jewel, Kamba Ramayanam, as pornography. No wonder that Jeyakanthan considered the DMK to be a 'cultural menace'.

If anyone told a westerner that the Homeric epics or Lucretius's poem should be thrown into a dustbin because they portray an irrational world where even the Gods are a lusty, scheming and fractious lot then the Westerner would laugh at such patent idiocy. Yet, this is what has come to pass in Tamil Nadu for over 50 years.

On the other hand are the no less irritating group of Hindutva elements for whom any mention of Bhagavad Gita as anything less than a holy text open to interpretation is sacrilege. Talk of Krishna being a chieftain and becoming a god head due to possible political realignments will invite untold wrath from the Hindutva crowd.

In summary, Jeyamohan faces dearth of academic material, uniformed religious atavism and equally uninformed blind opposition to a rich heritage in the name of modernity. Amongst the three challenges the lack of academic environment to shape his views lends the lectures a quality of awe because he has plowed a lonely furrow and it is for the same reason that one finds contentious conclusions too in his lectures.

Laying out his objective in delivering the lectures Jeyamohan clearly states that anyone who sets out to read about Bhagavad Gita has only two choices. First, to read the traditional theology kind of explanations and second, vitriolic texts that claim Gita is the source of every evil in Indian society. To answer the latter a reading based on theological format is ill suited says Jeyamohan. Labeling theological explanations as looking back in time, not necessarily backward looking, Jeyamohan says his lecture will be forward looking.

How far did Jeyamohan succeed? The question will be answered in the following blog.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Asokamithran, Ilayaraja, Vijaykant and a Feudal Society: Thou Shalt Not Question

Three separate incidents involving three different persons, of varying intellectual gravitas, illustrated unwittingly what a feudal society India still is. Of the three, Ilayaraja and Vijaykant had public skirmishes with the press and are far better known than the third, Asokamithran, a novelist who joins this list thanks to a column he penned for a Tamil daily.

First, Asokamithran. After all, of the three, he, being a writer, I'd say "should know better". Asokamithran is a much hallowed name in Tamil literature for writing what is considered unpretentious but chiseled prose. I've read his legendary short story about a guy who masquerades as a tiger in shows and his novella 'Spy' based on his stay in Iowa, USA and a smattering of his non-fictional essays. Asokamithran richly deserves a Nobel prize not just for writing about unremarkable and ordinary people but for writing about them in equally unremarkable prose with sharp diligence in avoiding event a subtle hint of intellectualism in his narration. If his fiction is written in ordinary style his non-fiction does not disappoint by showing any inadvertent flashes of brilliance either. It is remarkable talent indeed to be consistently unremarkable. The aging octogenarian has been apparently commissioned by the Tamil edition of The Hindu and Asokamithran started the New Year with a bang by writing a column that recounts a curious incident regarding Indira Gandhi.

Asokamithran. Image courtesy http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/dynamic/01722/17mpbookfair_GP_17_1722258g.jpg

Asokamithran's column in 'Tamil Hindu'                                                                       http://tamil.thehindu.com/general/literature/மவுனத்தின்-புன்னகை-1-இறக்காமலே-இறத்தல்/article8053374.ece
Asokamithran, having written a few books then, was member of some innocuous organization called 'Authors Guild of India'. The column which makes an attempt at humor recounts Asokamithran's travails with the Guild for getting reimbursements and royalty payments. The column recalls that the Guild which is normally ignored by the government had an unusual excitement when Indira Gandhi told them she'd visit and deliver a speech. It was during 'Emergency' period that Indira decided to pay the Guild a visit. Apparently the authors got dizzy with excitement and prepared for a formal grand affair replete with speeches recounting what the guild does etc. Prior to the arrival of Indira, Asokamithran recalls, the authors were heatedly discussing about the electoral prospects of Indira and Sanjay given the popular resentment against 'Emergency'. Indira, contrary to expectations, did not wait for customary speeches but just delivered her remarks that Asomakithran says was a remarkable speech that catered to authors, publishers and broadcasters. Though Indira lost in the subsequent elections she had, thanks to the crisp speech, earned the admiration of authors says Asokamithran.

In an attempt to attest to Indira's liberal attitudes towards free speech Asokamithran says that despite pleas from Communist party Indira refused to ban Dr. Zhivago, both the movie and the book. Indira also refused to intervene in a dispute about banning obscene works and had a familiarity with creative literature.

Now, where do I start? The column itself is shoddily written crap. It is appalling that a Prime Minister who unleashed the most repressive regime in independent India's history and almost destroyed Indian democracy earns the admiration of authors with a canned speech that probably her clerk wrote for her. Not even hindsight of what happened in the darkest chapter of free India elicits any word or caveat from a man who is frankly the most overrated writer in Tamil literature. Asokamithran is the quintessential bourgeoise middle class citizen who, even with the benefit of years behind him, could only think of the paltry royalty due to him and the pittance of reimbursements that were denied to him by a clerical organization. But then the so called intellectual class has often been enablers of authoritarianism. From intellectuals who were palanquin bearers to Stalin to Jeyakanthan and Khushwant Singh the story is sickeningly familiar. That the authors could be bought over by an Empress deigning to speak to them shows a dangerously feudal society. To be fair others like Ramnath Goenka and Jayaprakash Narayan paid a very heavy price for standing up for freedom. Asokamithran and his column are an insult to those heroes.

By the way Indira could not have contemplated banning Dr. Zhivago the book since it was published in 1957. Also, interestingly, Indira Gandhi, according to some reports watched the movie version the night before she announced the devaluation of the rupee.

Tamil Nadu was recently ravaged by floods that made many think that the heavens had opened and a primordial flood had been loosed upon a hapless population. The state government was paralyzed and civic administration was a mockery. Ilayaraja, Tamil Nadu's much adored and way overrated film music director, surprised many with a very rare gesture of generosity by distributing some aid to those in dire need. Of course being Ilayaraja who is known for an ego mania that dwarfs King Kong he had to do one more special act of royal benevolence. He decided to award certificates, signed by him, to a few who had done some service during the difficult period. A token of appreciation. Ilayaraja, let us remember, does not head any organization and his 'certificate' has value only in as much it can be considered an 'autographed paper'. Well if that makes somebody happy so be it. As he was leaving the venue he was mobbed by his fans and the press. In the days after the flood a blatantly expletive filled obscene song had rocked Tamil Nadu's social media. A reporter asked Raja "what do you think of the 'beep song'?" That was it, his royal highness the Lord of music laced into the reporter.

Without a doubt the question was intemperate because of the inappropriateness of the occasion. Raja was there to show appreciation to those who had done selfless service and it was certainly not the occasion to ask what he thought of an obscene song. Raja could easily have brushed him aside with a "No, comment" or even a brusque "this is not the occasion for that question". No, no, no that's what mortals do. Raja admonishes the reporter, "do you have brains". The reporter meekly replied "well that's why I asked you a question". Then Raja parries, "with the aid of which intelligence did you figure out you had intelligence". That's a head scratcher. Then, he who had scored music for very raunchy and obscene songs, delivers the blow "are you qualified to question me?" This from a guy who boasts freely that he has scored music for films that he disliked and thought were crap. Bharati Raja's 'Muthal Mariyathai' is a much appreciated movie for the distinctly underplayed acting by the usual over-acting Sivaji Ganesan. At a music release recently Raja boasted that though he did not like the film he delivered good tunes because he wanted to do justice to his calling as a musician. Apparently a good compensation is all it requires for Raja to meekly deliver the best despite his misgivings about the quality of a movie though he dresses it up as serving a higher cause.

Raja also offers his unsolicited theological opinion that certainly God had let loose this flood to bring about amity in the city. I honestly think that between Raja and the reporter  it is Raja who needs to wonder if he has brains. It is disgusting that some guy could dis out this nonsense and escape condemnation for it.

Given the fanatical fan following Raja enjoys in a society that largely has no deeper aesthetic or intellectual understanding of music the incident drew widespread applause for Raja and a smattering of support for the hapless and intemperate reporter. Only in a feudal society can a press reporter be harassed thus and still draw condemnations. More than anything the crowning indecency was the attitude of "how dare you question me".

Few days after the incident with Raja the press became the butt of another round of gleeful ridiculing. Vijaykant, the least intellectual of the trio being discussed today, is incidentally the leader of the opposition in Tamil Nadu's state legislature. A gaggle of reporters had surrounded him and peppered him with questions and one of them asked, repeatedly, "do you think ADMK would win the next election in 2016?' A visibly irritated Vijaykant shot back "would you dare to ask this same question to Jayalalitha" and then he spat on the ground. Raja's supporters and Jayalalitha haters joined hands for a unified chorus of "shame on you reporters".

Not many remembered that Vijaykant himself, like every other politician in Tamil Nadu, owns a TV channel and he, to the best of my knowledge, has not employed Walter Cronkite or Anderson Cooper and the reporters of his channel, I can bet, are no better. Jayalalitha, though a recluse these days, has in the past given pretty lengthy interviews unlike Karunanidhi who only holds press meets to read out prepared announcements or deliver canned replies. Jayalalitha faced off Karan Thapar's arrogant and condescending questions and returned volley for volley. She had a lengthy sit down with Simi Grewal. After badly losing in 1996 she did an interview with Rabi Bernard (on her own channel, though). I wonder if Karunanidhi has done any lengthy and substantive interviews. Note, Narendra Modi, unlike Jayalalitha, walked out of an interview with Karan Thapar.

Spitting at a person is considered a gross act of disrespect and that a politician can do it on camera and be appreciated for it shows the rank feudalism that runs the gamut of the society. Granted that the TV reporters are uncouth and intemperate but it is equally true that those who ridicule them are mostly no better. India has undergone a sea change from the days when only a government run and government controlled channel existed. The plethora of TV channels, their dubious funding and partisan attitudes not withstanding, have undoubtedly democratized the discourse. Arnab Goswami maybe the most ridiculed anchor in India for his shout-fests but it is undeniable that to see central government ministers and politicians of all stripe is gratifying.

While looking up interviews by Jayalalitha I came across a real gem. Here she is ripping into Ramadoss who relishes fanning the flames of communalism and Jayalalitha does this in the legislature. It is a point by point rebuttal of a very powerful caste leader.

To be sure, Jayalalitha is no paragon of free speech and is known for being titular and vindictive just like Karunanidhi.

Democracy is ill served by fertilizing feudal instincts and the worst feudalism is to arrogantly ask "how dare you question me". Today Barack Obama is addressing a town hall meeting where those like his policies and oppose him are given equal chance to question him on his latest proposal regarding gun reforms. This is democracy at its best.

PS: I'm sure many admirers of Asokamithran will rush at me with brickbats for saying the column was shoddily written. Here's a sample:

"அவ்வளவுதான். ஒரே பரபரப்பு. இதில் விசேஷம் என்னவென்றால் அக்கணம் வரை எல்லா எழுத்தாளர்களும் அரசைத் திட்டித் தீர்த்துக் கொண்டிருந்தார்கள். ஒரு தொகுதி கூடக் கிடைக்காது, தாயும் மகனும் படுதோல்வி அடையப்போகிறார் கள் என்றெல்லாம் பேசிகொண்டிருந்த மனநிலையில் பிரதமரை நேருக்கு நேர் எப்படிப் பார்க்க முடியும்? ஆனால் பிரதமர் வந்தால் யாராவது முக்கிய அங்கத்தினர்கள் அவரை வரவேற்க வேண்டும், வரவேற்புரை ஆற்ற வேண் டும், அந்த அமைப்பு என்ன பணிகளில் ஈடுபட்டிருக்கிறது என்று எடுத்துக் கூற வேண்டும். ஆனால் படைப்பிலக்கியம் வரை இந்திரகாந்தி அவர்களுக்கு நல்ல தெளிவு இருந்தது. அப்போது கம்யூனிஸ்ட் கட்சியின் ஒரு சாராரைக் ‘குட்டி’ காங்கிரஸ் என்று கூடச் சொல்வார்கள். ஆனால் அவர்கள் வற்புறுத்தல் இருந்தும் கூட ‘டாக்டர் ஜிவாகோ’ நூலோ, படமோ தடைசெய்யப்படவில்லை. அதன் பிறகு ஆபாச எழுத்தாளர்களை அரசு கண்டிக்க வேண்டும் என்று ஓர் எழுத்தாளர் அமைப்பு கோரிக்கை விட்டபோது, “இந்த மாதிரி விஷயங்களில் தீர்வு காண அரசாங்கத்துக்கு நுட்ப உணர்வு போதாது, ஆதலால் இதுபோன்ற விஷயங்களை உங்களுக்குள் பார்த்துக் கொள்ளுங்கள்” என்று சொல்லிவிட்டார்."

Monday, January 4, 2016

'Memoirs of Hadrian': A Bygone Era, A Roman Emperor and a French Author

The gold standard for writing history, fictional and non-fictional, was set by two women writers. Marguerite Yourcenar's 'Memoirs of Hadrian' set the standard for history based fiction and Barbara Tuchman's 'Guns of August' set the standard for popular history telling. Neither work has been superseded in brilliance or narrative or sense of history. Interestingly neither Yourcenar or Tuchman are what we can call academic or professional historians. Where Tuchman was blessed with material and access Yourcenar was not and yet she brings to us, based on very fragmentary evidence, a vivid portrayal of a bygone era when an ambitious Roman emperor sought to remake Pax Romana only to see it all crash and burn in the twilight of an illustrious rein punctuated with a very poignant love story.

Yourcenar came across a passage in a correspondence from Gustave Flaubert in 1927 that provided her with a vision to pursue an idea that was already germinating in her mind. Flaubert wrote: "Just when the god's had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone". Yourcenar adds "a great part of my life was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray, that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being". Aelius Hardianus Augustus, Roman emperor  117 AD- 138AD, was that man.

'My dear Mark', so begins this fictional memoir of Hadrian, written in the first person in the form of a letter from a dying Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius. The chapters are titled in Latin and the first one borrows the first line of a poem composed by Hadrian shortly before his death, 'Animula, vagula, blandula', 'sweet little soul traveling'. Hadrian is melancholic after visiting his physician Hermogenes and starts off by noting his current frailty and recalling the days of his youth when he hunted with gusto. In one sweeping passage making use of the fact that a Roman youth traveled throughout the sprawling empire Yourcenar pummels the reader with names of places where Hadrian hunted, Etrurian mountains, a Spanish forest, hunts in Tuscany, Bithynia, Cappadocia, woods of Asia, lions killed in Mauretania and even in Tibur.

Antinous. Image Courtesy Wikipedia
Yourcenar is master of the prose and glides from hunting to the joy of eating, to wine drinking, to a brief note on gymnosophists and lands on a rumination of whether it is fair to classify love as merely a physical joy. Each narrative is crammed with details that vividly brings out what a trading center the Roman empire was and how goods and ideas moved from end of the empire to another. At times it is indeed overwhelming and one does feel clobbered by information that one could lose sight of a fine metaphor or a subtle philosophical hint. This is a book to be read, re-read and re-read and digested.

Hadrian, born in Spain, is educated in philosophy and poetry. He learns grammar and rhetoric. Virgil, Ennius, Lucretius, Homer, Horace, Ovid form a part of his curriculum. Thanks to his Scaurus Hadrian studied Greek and confesses that while his epitaph maybe written in Latin it is in "greek" that he "shall have thought and lived". Overcoming the treachery of his brother-in-law Servianus Hadrian, in an astute move, becomes the bearer of the glad news that to Trajan that the emperor Nerva had died and that Trajan, therefore, will be the new emperor. A talented youth bringing good news no wonder finds himself endearing in the eyes of the recipient of the news.

Hadrian gets turned off by the brutality of Trajan's Dacian wars. He "regretted these dead whom Rome might have absorbed and employed one day as allies against hordes more savage still". The story of Hadrian and Yourcenar's narrative powers reach its apogee in the chapters describing the early reign when Hadrian brings stability, 'Tellus stabilita', and in the chapter describing his love for Antinous, aptly titled 'golden age', 'Seaculum aureum'.

Hadrian was a reformer at heart who is well that the Rome of his time will yield, in due course of time, to "other Romes", he may not live to see them but he would "have helped to mold". He resolves that she would "compose for herself from the words State, citizenry and republic a surer immortatlity". So saying Hadrian cuts superfluous laws, ensures more rights for slaves and women, even curtails slavery, reduces intermediaries in commerce and trade, expresses admiration for merchants, he sees in the army's diversity a blessing, he sanctions unions between Roman soldiers and 'barbarian women', their children get legal status too, curtails special privileges for officers, sympathizes with a plaintiff who scolds him that if he does not have time to hear her complaint then he'd equally have no time to rule but above all Hadrian wanted to be known as the Roman emperor who made peace and negotiations the corner stone of his reign.

The Parthians' chief concern, Hadrian understood, was only to reopen the trade routes between the Roman empire and India. It is interesting to see how many times the name 'India' or things connected with India are mentioned. He even has a 'Hindu servant' who prepares rice. Negotiating between Greeks and Jews he tries telling "the Greeks that they are not always the wisest of peoples, and to the jews that they were by no means the most pure". He ruefully wonders, "these races who had lived side by side for centuries had never had the curiosity to get to know each other, nor the decency to accept each other". Hadrian could be speaking very well for Gandhi or Nehru during India's partition riots. He realizes that "orders on the frontiers was nothing if I could not persuade a Jewish peddler and a Greek grocer to live peaceably side by side".

"To build is to collaborate with earth, to put a human mark on a landscape, modifying it forever thereby". Of the many landmarks created by Hadrian that survive even today the most famous is "Hadrian's Wall" that he constructed in today's England. Seeking to keep away invaders and thereby avoiding the necessity of going to war the wall, Yourcenar's Hadrian boastfully thinks, is a symbol of his "renunciation of the policy of conquest". Walls keep away enemies from without but what about enemies within? Hadrian will realize the limits of pacifism in Judea.

With a sense of achievement coursing in his veins Hadrian scoff at the stoic Epictetus for renouncing life and a Brahman who "was rejecting life itself". Hadrian perceives his relationship with a 'deity' as being 'different'. He sees himself "seconding the deity in his effort to give form and order to a world", he was a "unique force caught up in the multiplicity of things; I was eagle and bull, man and swan, phallus and brain, all together, a Protesus who is also a Jupiter".

In the 'age of gold', 'Seaculum Aureum', Hadrian's tragic homosexual love for teenaged Antinous is narrated lovingly. It should be noted that Yourcenar herself was openly lesbian and it was her partner Grace Frick that translated 'Memoirs of Hadrian' from French to English. Staying in Bithynia Hadrian meets Antinous, who slept "like some daylight endymion", Arrian of Nicomedia who wrote history and philosophy and was a good soldier too, Euphrates, who committed suicide with Hadrian's permission, Phlegm, poet Pancreatus who entertained with musical instruments that included 'delicate Indian flutes' and a Mithraic initiation ceremony that is bloody and terrifying to the greek boy Antinous. Antinous tragically commits suicide and Hadrian decided to commemorate him by deifying him and starting a cult around the catamite unlike Alexander who mourned the death of his lover Hephaistion by slaughtering many.

Finally it was the issue of whether to permit practice of circumcision that brings Hadrian's Pax Romana crashing to reality. A Roman emperor who swore to establish peace and renounce conquests presided over the bloodiest suppression of a revolt that had its beginnings in whether or not a man can slice of the foreskin from the male organ.

Judea was always restive and the peace that was so uneasy erupted into rebellion under the leadership of one Simon who called himself Bar Kochba, Son of the Star. It was brutal guerrilla war that was finally won, after 3 years, at great cost to both sides. Yourcenar who sensitively portrayed Hadrian's love for Antinous and its tragic end becomes a master for historical detail in portraying the Jewish rebellion. From the surreptitious way Jews gathered arms, to the guerrilla war style, to the brutal suppression she gives, in a few pages, a telling portrayal of the rebellion and what its end meant, not just to the Jewry of Rome but to Hadrian himself. The Jewish rebels were an "enemy could be exterminated, but not conquered". The Temple was destroyed and Jews were expelled from the city. The wailing wall was constructed. "Judea was struck from the map and took the name of Palestine by my order".

So, how much of all that is fiction and how much holds up to historical scrutiny? There is little fiction in the above and Yourcenar's Hadrian, much to the chagrin of academic historians, is considered very close to factual history over half a century since its first publication in 1951 in France.

Yourcenar traveled widely and studied volumes in the Yale university library to write the book. She practically reconstructed the library of Hadrian. The litmus test for a fiction based on history is to compare it with a non-fiction actual history book. So let's compare key points of Yourcenar's Hadrian with historian Anthony Everitt's 'Hadrian: Triumph of Rome'. While comparing we should take care to note not just parallels in incidents cited, that's unavoidable given that both Everett and Yourcenar were referring to common materials, chiefly ' Historia Augusta', but similar incidents being identified as key events for the same reason by a fiction writer and a historian attests to the historical acumen of the writer. Let's identify a few such incidents.

Yourcenar and Everitt identify Hadrian's dash to convey the news of Nerva's death to Trajan, the murder attempt by henchmen hired by Servianus notwithstanding, as a pivotal moment in Hadrian endearing himself to a man about to become emperor.

When Hadrian ascended the throne he wanted to be known as a negotiator but Attianus executed summarily four senators who were seen as a threat. That, to Hadrian was a blot and one which though he had no direct hand he knew that he'd be blamed for it. Where Everitt blandly narrates the significance and what it meant, exactly like Yourcenar, he misses the nice fictional narrative that Yourcenar could give using the guise of fiction. Yourcenar's Hadrian recounts in his letter how he decided to chide Attianus and how derisively Attianus looked at him: "He let me run on, smiling meanwhile like a grammarian who listens to his pupil making his way through a difficult recitation".

At two points Yourcenar's sense of history is stunning. The Jews plotted their revolt very methodically by bribing the suppliers of Roman army to manufacture faulty weapons that were no doubt discarded by the army. Such discarded weapons were then remedied for use by the Jewish plotters. That a french novelist and an academic historian would both identify this only attests, emphatically, the novelists eye for history.

The other more telling incident is what Hadrian does in the aftermath of Antinous's suicide. Everitt cites the incident of Hadrian striking a man with his stylus and inadvertently blinding him. Hadrian offers to pay compensation but the victim refuses it and merely asks for the blinded eye back. There ends Everett's narration but in Yourcenar's hand the device of fiction make the incident come alive. "I raised my hand to slap him; unhappily, I was holding a style, which blinded his right eye. I shall never forget the howl of pain, that arm awkwardly bent to ward off the blow, that convulsed visage from which blood spurted". After the man turns down the compensation Yourcenar's Hardian retains him in service to serve "as a warning and a punishment perhaps. I had not wished to injure the wretch. But I had not desired, either, that a boy who loved me should die in his twentieth year".

The device of fiction is to be used with extreme caution when re-creating history. If one only lists a litany of incidents with insufficient fictionalization then one could very well write non-fiction but if one fictionalizes too much where the fictional Hadrian has no relation to the historical Hadrian then one could dispense with calling it fiction based on history. The charm and danger in fictionalizing history is in identifying a judicious mixture of history and fiction. Where to let history speak and where to embellish is what would distinguish a Yourcenar from lesser lights of that genre. A good fiction writer will use the device of fiction to fill in the gaps of history, to create hinges and to lubricate the narrative. Yourcenar's finest moment is when she enters the mind of Hadrian in ruminating over the rebellious Jewish people. What Yourcenar's Hadrian think of the Jewish rebels is not only in sync with the character but could reflect, possibly, the thoughts of the real Hadrian himself because given who the real Hadrian was the fictional rumination is so much in line with that reality.

Yourcenar's Hadrian disapproves of the militant monotheism of the Jews: "harsh Mithra admits himself brother to Apollo. No people but Israel has the arrogance to confine truth wholly within the narrow limits of a single conception of the divine, thereby insulting the manifold nature of the Deity, who contains all; no other god has inspired his worshippers with disdain and hatred for those who pray at different altars".

Disillusioned by realizing how it is the Roman legions that keep pax Romana Hadrian muses "if sixteen years of rule by a prince so pacifically inclined were to culminate in the Palestine campaign, then the chances for peace in the world look dim ahead".

Yourcenar wrote the novel in the aftermath of World War II and possibly the Holocaust was weighing in her mind when she wrote these lines for Hadrian: "Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave....the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror".

In George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' the ultimate parody is when the pigs start walking like men. In lines that echo Orwell's prose Yourcenar's Hadrian comes to the end of his memoir saying "If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods: they will end by resembling us". Then in cascading prose Hadrian presages: "bishop of Christ may implant himself one day in Rome....in his turn one of the universal figures of authority. He will inherit our palaces and our archives, and will differ from rulers like us less than one might suppose". More prophetic words were rarely spoken.

Hadrian bids good bye with "let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes".

Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman to be elected to the French Academy. For a lesbian who considered it is impossible to have made a woman the axis of the narrative because "women's lives are much too limited, or else too secret" it was indeed high honor.

The extent of Yourcenar's research is evident in the well captioned set of photographs that are provided.

1. Marguerite Yourcenar https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_Yourcenar
2. Memoirs of Hadrian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoirs_of_Hadrian
3. Emperor Hadrian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian
4. New Yorker article of Yourcenar's research for the book http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor
5. Antinous https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinous