Here and Hereafter: Nikhil Govind
Within a certain narrative history, freedom meant domestic stability. It meant the freedom to feel and achieve a security stable enough to forge one’s destiny. In the optimistic nineteenth century, the high noon of European power, the novel of achieved stability was represented by works like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. The novel is about the belief that the protagonist, even though born in adversity, can learn from that adversity, and forge his future against odds. He can finally reach a freedom where even if adversity strikes, he would have learned enough to know how to moderate it. The novel ends with the staples of bourgeois stability—the job and the wife and the picket-fenced cottage, the claiming of a name in the world. The meat of the novel, its main course, is the hard-won earning of that stable freedom.
In twentieth century modernism, that fable of optimism was to be frequently, and seemingly, with enjoyment, shattered. In Beckett’s novel trilogy of the fifties, or in Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, the novel begins with failures or disability. This failure may be an immense, cavernous, unfathomable exhaustion, as in Beckett. Or with Naipaul, it is often death, and the main course of the story is the unachieved stability of all those staples—the job, or wife, or home, or name. But in a strange way then, freedom belonged less to the protagonist, who was mercilessly subjected to shock after shock for which he was unprepared and unprotected, but rather to the form of the writing itself. Modernism is chiefly the autonomy of form from any constraint of plot, it is the story of the freedom of language. The hero of the novel, the protagonist that achieves freedom, is language itself. Or more precisely, the aesthetics lay not so much in the plot of the novel (the journey of precisely how the hero finally failed), but rather of the emotional and linguistic treatment and layering of the plot.
It has been remarked by prominent philosophers like Bimal Krishna Matilal that the difference between India and the West is that while the ideal object of metaphysics in the West was mathematics, in India it was language. Because language is always embedded in its own materiality and fleshiness, in human speech, it never achieved the transcendence from the messy world that Plato’s ideal triangle, or today’s non-human computer languages, achieve. In India, babel was not something to be transcended. There was no nostalgia for a pre-babel world where communication was perfect, and where there were no misunderstandings. Instead, Indian literature (and more controversially, Indian history) was always willing to use the full resources of linguistic exuberance—puns, repetitions, and long digressions were especially favored—and Sanskrit, with its ability to infinitely compound words (such that single words could run into pages) was ideally suited to such a play. There was much freedom in the linguistic and emotional layering of a bare plot, as in contemporary modernism.
(An aside: this might explain why Hindi movies are considered formulaic—in classical aesthetics, the plot was not considered the hub of innovation. The story—be it the plots of the epics or puranas—were simply borrowed from traditions (or ‘folk’ for lack of a better name) without a sense of where they originated. It was the treatment in language, the sequencing, and hierarchising of the emotions around that given formulaic plot that constituted the performer’s or filmmaker’s freedom.)
Let us compare two complex classical narratives (or, if one prefers, plots, or formulae) of freedom—the Rama-story, and the Buddha-story. Scholars such as Patrick Olivelle now believe that the Rama and Buddha ideals were in competition with each other in the same area of the Indo-Gangetic plains a few centuries before the Common Era. Earlier scholarship had wondered how the Valmiki Ramayan had so little to say about the contemporaneous Buddha-figure who was preaching within the same geography. To a large extent, this is still an unsolved mystery. Perhaps to even name a rival is to give it importance. But at any rate, thematically, one can compare the ideas of freedom afforded in these two narratives, even if some of the intermediate texts that would have helped bridge the historical and narrative gap between these two figures are lost.
In the Rama story, Rama is often thought of as being unable to forge his destiny. Some believe that the story of Rama was essentially a secular tragic story of a doomed martial ethic that was then made use of by religious moralists. This might be true historically, but what is striking is how a tragic story of someone who repeatedly loses his kingly identity, home, wife, and children could be accommodated within a theological framework. Isn’t a tragic theology of unfreedom an oxymoron? Can there be a meaningful religion, or religiosity, without a sense of hope?
It seems as if there is a particular viciousness to Rama’s inability, for it would seem that no one is as qualified for his fate as Rama. It is accepted by everyone that he would make the best son, the best husband, the best king, the best father, the best brother. Not a modern bourgeois stability perhaps, yet it is nevertheless a recognizable ideal even today. And yet, the poignancy is that all these are snatched away just as he is about to assume these tailored roles. The slow unwinding of Rama’s fate is the meat of the narrative. Yet, unlike modernism, one cannot simply claim misery from the outset. Rather, it has to seem as if a fate (the doppelganger of unfreedom), invisible at the beginning of the story, spends the story slowly catching up with the protagonist.
This is also where the question of language as the treatment of fate begins. Within the terms of classical Indian aesthetics, the mood (of pathos, in this case) cannot be directly stated, but must be made to work step by step into the flesh of the tale. Rama learns that he cannot be king, then learns that his wife is kidnapped, then learns that he must banish her.
There are unexpected layerings of irony. Dasharatha, Rama’s father, is always worried that his beautiful son (“with a neck as a conch shell”), a mere boy, can never fight all those evil, horrific, bloodthirsty demons. Yet martial valour is the least of Rama’s problems. Indeed, this is the only area where triumph is assured. But what can mere strength (the attribute of the conventional martial epic) do against all those externalities of fate—jealous step-mothers or gossipy townspeople who blithely cast aspersions. Rama himself tells Lakshmana that he understands that it is his (Rama’s) weakness that he cares too much what the townspeople think. The ethical argument of the narrative makes clear that duty (dharma) must coincide with freedom, and that this coincidence has nothing to do with what the people think. Insofar as dharma, or freedom, is human (or humanizable) at all, it is in relation to the father’s command.
But is it an “external” fate that causes Rama all these travails? Or is Rama, as the Valmiki Ramayana itself asks in its self-reflectivity, “caught in the trap of his own righteousness”? Should he have sacrificed his people for his father’s word—or for that matter sacrificed his father for his father’s word? As the Ramayana itself asks, is Rama caught in, or fabricating, that “noose of dharma”? Is he only being “cunning in all those ways of righteousness?” Or is he not cunning enough? Is freedom the recognition of fate as duty?
The epics, as I have said, were written in dialogue with the rise of Buddhism, their heroic trajectories in competition with the lifepath of the Buddha-figure. There are many similarities, likely direct inspirations from folk tales asking similar metaphysical questions. Buddha too was to be the perfect king and son—this was announced as he was born, for his birth was hailed as auspicious, just as Rama’s was in the Ramayana. In Asvagosha’s Buddhacharita, the canonical literary biography, the Buddha, like Rama, sacrifices the kingdom for the forest—in the forest he hopes to find eternal freedom from human pain. Though the epics were written after the Buddha, yet Valmiki preceded and served as the model for the literary treatment in Asvagosha’s epic. So there are many similar scenes—such as that of the father pleading with the son not to go to the forest, and to accept kingship, and more importantly insisting that it is the city that is the realm of freedom and duty. It goes without saying in all these traditions that the father-son-secular-duty axis is entirely male—as too the metaphysical axis of the son having to light the father’s funeral pyre so that he is free in heaven. In this the Buddha and Rama stories do not differ—where they differ is the crucial relation to the wife, and to a lesser extent, sibling. The household deity of the three (Rama, Lakshman, Sita) speaks to this familiar belief. What is striking about the Ramayana (and hence a chief reason for its popularity today) is its resonant monogamy—Rama’s desolation when Sita is kidnapped is among the high points of all classical literature.
The Buddha too loves his wife (and son), but here the attachment of love is recognized as the very source of unfreedom. In this sense, unlike Rama, he does not distinguish between the attachments of romance and fatherhood. Perhaps equally crucially, Buddha has no siblings—the single child is unimpeded in the achievement of his singular fate. Lakshmana and even Bharata play several roles as narrative foil. They often represent pure martial valour that is agnostic of dharma, a pure righteous anger that in the case of Bharata even includes his stated desire to kill his mother for banishing Rama. But Rama transcends the pure martial ethic—and this transcendence is as much literary as emotive, for it is in the pathos derived from his sacrifice that makes the Rama-story not simply a tale of the heroic male. He renounces not just the kingship, but a family in whose emotional life the narrative is much invested—there are pages and pages on Dasharath’s sorrow, and his constant sinking and reviving from comas of grief.
And this is why the renunciation of kingship, and the journey into the forest, feels so different. The Buddha chooses, Rama accepts. There is no external fate telling Buddha to renounce—or if there is one, it is a universal fate, the fate of us all to grow ill and old. Fate is not predatory towards an individual, or a monogamous couple, or father, as it is in the Ramayana. Can there be a pathos of universal man, as opposed to the uniquely noble, or the singular lover, or father? Did not the Ramayana itself begin when Valmiki composed the first verse in his pain at seeing a bird deprived by a hunter of her spouse?
To those for whom the Rama-story is theology, it is a strange theology. The dominant rasa is the suffering of a god—and unlike the Christian god, this suffering is not for anyone else, and does not mitigate anyone else’s suffering—there is no claim that this suffering makes the rest of the world free. It is a pointless suffering in the most forlorn sense.
The Buddha rejects kingship, as well as wife and son. Rama goes with his wife to the forest. He has no intention to renounce her, yet at the end, he is forced to. It is essential to the Buddha to actively reject. Rama rejects passively– he is doing it as a son for his father’s vow, and as king because the people must not doubt.
In the Buddhacharita, after the single massive shock of seeing the sick and the old, the Buddha achieves stability by renunciation. In the charita at least, though there is some journey to the full awakening, the Buddha speaks with authority as soon as he leaves. Even in the early days in the forest, he is correcting the sages on their claims to knowledge and their meditational techniques. It is a given that he is right—and the reason is often described simply in terms of the majesty of his bearing. Extreme physical beauty is a given to both Rama and Buddha.
But can the Buddha-story have pathos at all?—pathos being the dominant rasa of the Ramayana, and along with shringara (eros), the dominant rasa in the Indian classical tradition. For essentially, the Buddha-story still seems to be conceived within the domain of the heroic story (unlike the Ramayana, where the martial kernel is entirely aestheticized and transcended). The Buddha-story is of course not the heroic story of the martial realm, but that of the conquerer of an inland, psychological world. The Buddha must eventually win his freedom from pain and human suffering, but he cannot return with this triumph to assuming kingship, as Rama does—the Buddha’s authority will be that of a spiritual leader, not a worldly, or kingly, one. Yet, if the stakes are not worldly freedom (name, kingdom, spouse), can there truly be a learnable, communicable language of transcendence? In the Buddha, a radiant stability is finally achieved, even as, in the course of the story, a prince with no experience of the forest, learns its ways and means to freedom, seemingly instantaneously. Freedom is the pure flowing gift of sovereignty and power, be it spiritual or material.
So on the one hand, we have a godlike man (the Buddha), and on the other, a manlike god (Rama, at least in the tale’s religious iteration). Who then is truly more godly, more free, more powerful? Certainly the dominant affect in the Ramayana is devastation: the instabilities of fate, pathos, in a word, the karuna rasa. Perhaps there never was a god so ill at ease with his fate, so unbecalmed, as Valmiki’s Rama. Rama was the most human of gods for Valmiki (and later writers of the Rama story like Bhavabhuti) make the treatment of Rama’s desolation, his sense of being trapped and only uncertainly free, the high point of their art. But maybe it is this narrative quality of wandering uncertainly through the world, and grasping at brittle freedoms, that make the Ramayana modern in the way that the spiritual triumphalism of the Buddha-story may not quite be.