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At ease in our own shell

We can cut out all that embarrassing Puranic drivel about caste and gender and still keep the stories, which are pretty amazing, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: May 23, 2008 23:16 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Yertle the Turtle (Dr Seuss’s take on HItler), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (born saying “Pizza! Pizza!” in a Manhattan sewer in 1984): cute, very cute, but that’s it?

What about other stories or must we stay trapped forever in the Anglophone world, limited to only what the white American male mind dreams up? Why can’t we have more: because we’re entitled to it, because it’s our right to know what our
own ancestors dreamed up about everything, including the blessed turtle? We can, actually, because we have ownership. We can edit our own scripture, like the (‘Golden Age’) Guptas apparently did with the Mahabharata, sort of re-arrange the whole thing.

We can cut out all that embarrassing Puranic drivel about caste and gender and still keep the stories, which are pretty amazing. We don’t need permission for anything from the pandits at Kashi, like Rinchen Shah, king of Kashmir did in 1320 to become a Hindu. The Kashi pandits wouldn’t let him, so he became a Muslim and so did many of his people. This is recorded by a Hindu, Jona Raja, in his Rajatarangini (chronicles of the kings of Kashmir, different from Kalhana’s Rajatarangini).

The jaadu of modern India lies in the jharoo, in the reformist broom that modern Hindus have regularly used to sweep cobwebs right out of the mother faith: don’t you think the true wealth of a civilisation lies in bringing fresh lustre to its good points and discarding its bad ones? This leads to comfort in our identity, like a turtle in its shell, like ‘finding our home’. It is finding that gold which makes the adventure of life worthwhile, surely, in learning to tell what has lasting value from what has fleeting or no value?

This lovely verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (I:3;26) says, “tasya haitasya saamno yah suvarnam veda, bhavati haasya suvarnam, tasya vai svara eva survarnam, bhavati haasya suvarnam, ya evam etat saamnah suvarnam veda.” ‘He that knows what gold is (in this case, the correct sound of the Sama Veda chants), obtains gold. The tone is the gold. He who knows the gold of this chant thus obtains gold.’ The meaning is straightforward, in fact it’s like that old TV commercial whose punchline, from a smart housewife was, “Main toh quality dekhti hoon, quality!” The Upanishad and the TV ad are essentially saying the same thing.

How does this apply to ‘being established comfortably in our identity’? I guess the first step is to not back off from what we need to value. Learning discrimination is not easy, as everyone knows. The Katha Upanishad spelt that out long ago (1:2:1): “anyach chreyo anyad utaiva preyaste ubhe naanaarthe purusham sineetah/tayoh shreya aadadaanasya sadhu bhavati, heeyate’rthad ya u preyo vrneete”. Yama (Lord of Death) said: “‘The good’ is one thing and different from ‘the pleasant’. These two, with different purposes, bind a man. Of the two, it is well for the one who grasps the good, while the one who prefers the pleasant, misses the mark.” I think though, that we need to interpret this in the layered way Yama suggests, not in a Puritanical or excessively ascetic manner, just as we want to edit unfair portions from scripture while identifying and retaining the valuable kernel.

This means sorting things into ‘negotiable’ and ‘non-negotiable’ lists. Some examples of non-negotiables? Not turning our back on elders and sick people in the family who need our help. Paying our debts, financial and emotional. Not betraying trust. Not beating up people who annoy us (much as we long to!). But why get into long lists, when the entire span of human duty is summed up so self-evidently in that one layered Hindi word, “nibhaao”? Meaning, to do one’s duty (mindfully doing the humane, kind and correct thing)? It contains a whole culture of appropriate and uplifting response, all the moral guidance we ever need, the vital business of being established in our identity, from environmental awareness to queueing up neatly to one side of the lift. It’s a word that holds us in safety, the only real home that we own and operate. “Atmanam rathinah viddhi, shaareeram ratham eva tu: buddhim tu saaradhim viddhi, manam pragraham eva cha.” ‘Know the Self as the owner of the chariot and the body as the chariot/know the brain as the charioteer and the mind-heart as the reins’ (Katha Upanishad: 1:3.3). Too turtle.