My idea is to educate the youth through stories rather than satsang, says Amish Tripathi
From superhero gods to blasphemy, the novelist decrypts his life and purpose over brunchUpdated: May 27, 2017 22:26 IST
I felt like I was staring at Houdini emerge from an escape act. Here is an IIM-Calcutta MBA, a star banker for 14 years. And yet, I see a free man, dressed for the weather, minus the golden handcuffs of corporate India. For the ones left behind, those who want their own shot at redemption, I must ask what is the password.
‘Swadharma’ is the clue he offers. “There is a difference between changing a job and changing a career, and changing a career should never be driven by push factors but by pull factors. The change has to fit your overall pull, your overall purpose in life – your swadharma – and only you can discover it.”
“My swadharma is my belief that modern India needs liberal modern messages”
How did Amish, grandson of a Benares pandit-turned-atheist, turned bestselling Hindu mythologist, discover his purpose? “I felt it had to be a combination of three things – something that the world needs, something that I am good at, something that I enjoy doing. Without the first, it’s just a hobby; without the last, it’s just a job. My swadharma is my belief that modern India needs liberal modern messages. After a few centuries of decline, this great land of ours is rediscovering its greatness. This is a time of change and we need to manage this change and the challenges we are facing. Fortunately, many of these answers are present in our ancient culture. I am driven to discover and mine these messages from the past, and communicate them in a modern way through good stories.”
All sides of the story
I pause on his allusion to national pride – a ‘post truth’ hot potato. Has there been a single country in the world that has achieved large scale uplift without national pride – Japan, US, now China…? Amish nods in agreement, pointing out how the British, in fact, appropriated the legends of the Greeks and those who defeated and conquered them – the Romans – into their own narratives! “On the other hand, our ancestors were really solid achievers through most of human history and we can build our pride on solid fact and truth.”
I feel a tinge of worry for the man. After all, even sworn enemies – the left liberals and the right – could make common cause against him. Can the left liberals digest his idea of Hindu mythology as a source of contemporary morality, and can the right tolerate his alleged blasphemy of divine plots?
Amish is assured. “Three-and-a-half million copies of my book sold, without controversy. This is because our ancient texts have answers for both sides. If someone wants to argue for liberalism, our ancient culture and texts are their biggest allies. It is unfortunate that the liberal elite of the last 70 years have not realised this. I am not saying there weren’t things that you could object to, but that is the point – you could object without being killed. That is why we were the most successful country in the world – economically, spiritually, culturally, scientifically – through most of recorded history. And for those on the right, what greater pride can there be than seeing this wisdom in our ancestors and making it our task to be worthy of them? We were seriously kickass guys!”
Fine dine vs fast food
I retort, “But isn’t this how Indian mythology is meant to be done – slow-cooked, fine dine? Is your speed and styling turning it into fast food, home delivered?” Amish points to Ved Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedas and author of the Mahabharata. “Ved Vyasa realised that the Vedas and Upanishads were very complex to understand, and therefore wrote the Mahabharata – a rocking story – to make that ancient wisdom accessible. The concept of communicating philosophies through stories – and multiple interpretations, localisation, modernisation – is as traditional as the stories themselves. For example, the concept of a Lakshman rekha did not exist in the original Valmiki Ramayana – it was popularised by the TV series which drew it from an alternate version of the Ramayana!”
I get it, but still have to ask: “So you see this as a vast ‘open source’ system of several millennia, with writers like you building their own modern, user-friendly apps on it? Is the Ramchandra series the latest app on this platform? A philosophical work, but with the garnishing of a plot as a user-friendly feature?”
Amish nods. “All my books have a core philosophy that I want to convey. At the heart of the Shiva trilogy is an attempt to answer the question, what is evil? At the heart of the Ramachandra series is, what is an ideal society? We don’t debate enough as a society on this.”
I push back. “Isn’t our modern education system giving us these life skills? Aren’t the best products of this system – executives and professionals – better skilled for ethics and emotional health? Why should they rely on mythology as a tool for life skilling? Really?”
Amish comes back strong. “We have two problems in our education system from colonial times. One is lack of respect or connection with our own roots. The more educated you become, the more disconnected you are. For example, most kids are still being taught we have four seasons! That is what I want to change through my books. Second, there are no philosophical teachings in our education. In ancient India, the subjects that everyone had to study were usually mathematics and philosophy. These days, sadly, philosophy has been reduced to a subject in the humanities stream for those who could not get into the so-called ‘high IQ’ streams. But philosophy is the art of learning how to live – who doesn’t need to learn how to live? In ancient India, there was no concept of pure evil – there is no Vedic Sanskrit translation for the term. This meant that there was nuance and maturity in looking at the world. Women were treated as equals, the caste system was not rigid or birth based. But my idea is to educate the youth on these ideas through engaging stories rather than a satsang.”
Plotting and planning
I bring Amish’s attention to the young man at the table across from us. “See the guy’s Batman T-shirt? You think he would find wearing an Indian superhero, say Shiva or Hanuman, just as cool? You see them pinned up across rest of India with pride – trucks, dhabas, kirana stores, homes – but will they ever be ‘with it’ for the young elite?”
“Of course, that’s happening – most of my readers are the youth,” says Amish. “Our original superheroes are super cool and deserve to be presented and understood. One of my young readers describes Shiva as ‘the dude of the Gods’ – he dances brilliantly, sings brilliantly, is obsessively in love with his wife, and so much more. Sita ma in Sita – Warrior of Mithila is very different from what you may have been used to seeing, since here she is based on the Adbhut Ramayana and Gond Ramayani. She shines in a positive feminist light – an adopted child who rises to become a warrior, the prime minister of her kingdom and then eventually a goddess. She an alpha female who fights 100 warriors at once.”
I throw him a googly. “And do you believe these original superheroes really existed?” Amish plays it off the front foot. “Yes, I believe they are our ancestors and their blood flows in our veins. Can I prove it? No. But I am not trying to force that on anyone else. It inspires me that their blood flows in my veins, I need to step up and deserve it. You need to get into proof only if you want someone else to believe it. Anyway, the only thing you know for sure is that you and your consciousness exist.”
“One of my fears is that I will die before I finish all the stories that are in my head.”
I nod appreciatively. After all, my one-month-old daughter probably believes that the universe is 2,000 square feet, and proves it to herself by rotating her head in all directions. How much more omniscopic are we anyway?
“So what’s the end game, Amish?”
“I have a 20-25 year content plan.” (You can take a man out of banking, but…). “It started with the Shiva trilogy and now is on the Ramchandra series. Even the books I will write after the Ramchandra series – my version of the Mahabharata, Lord Rudra-Lady Mohini story, Lord Brahma story, Lord Parashurama story – have clues in my current books and they are all linked to each other. It’s one complete universe. And when a universe gets created, many minor characters develop stories of their own too. I don’t have the bandwidth to write those stories, so I am planning to hire writers who I will tell the stories to and they will write those stories. Over a period of time, maybe I will establish a company, develop them into movies or other formats.”
“And what after death? Where would you like to be reborn?” I ask, teasingly underlining the scale of his vision.
“Right here! No other country I would rather live in or die in.”
“Writing, hopefully. One of my fears is that I will die before I finish all the stories that are in my head! So it would be nice to get another shot!”
The author is a venture capitalist and Indic philosophy enthusiast
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From HT Brunch, May 28, 2017
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First Published: May 27, 2017 22:26 IST