What would someone who is decidedly atheistic gain from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?
The epics have been religious texts, but their essence and narrative capacities lie not in invoking religious sentiments. They are aimed at making you understand what life is all about and raising questions about modern conduct, what the human world is impacted by. I think the two great epics tell you how to live. I have been very fond of saying that we not only live in Bharat but also, simultaneously, live in the Mahabharata. It is full of violence and betrayals, what we have in human life today. Ultimately, the lesson of the Mahabharata is that war not only defeats the vanquished, but also the victor; that war cannot achieve anything, even if it is a dharmayuddha. So, these epics are full of insight, wisdom, questions and doubt, which, I think, makes them very modern. This is unlike the epics in the West, which now exist only in textbooks, libraries, academic circles, but not in life. Homer is no longer relevant in people’s lives, The Iliad is not talked about today. But there will be 5,000 performances taking place all over India related to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are living epics, which is a very unusual phenomenon.
You say that the Mahabharata is more relevant today than Homer’s works. How much of this is because of the divinity we assign to it, which is, after all, not attached to The Iliad?
I am a non-believer; I don’t have the gift of belief. But I read the two epics as great literary epics. I am not concerned with the divinity of it, and there are many others who aren’t either. The element of divinity that is assigned to them has not prevented them from being used for secular purposes. The Ramayana, for instance, was translated by Akbar into Persian, and he called painters from Gwalior, Kashmir and parts of Rajasthan to come and illustrate it. Rahim Khan-e-Khana, who was his senapati as well as a great Urdu poet, commissioned another translation. Now surely, these people did not do so for religious reasons; they wanted to find out what India was all about, what India thinks. This has happened over centuries. So, the epics have a quality of abiding, a quality of assistance, a quality of permeating. There are any number of things in them that are objectionable today, but they survive all that. A classic is one that survives. You do not have to keep or remove the divinity: just read them. These are texts which can be read with a very secular mind and without any ritualistic apparatus. They speak to both the religious and the secular.
In a number of the sessions here, religions have been criticised for flaws in their founding texts. For instance, we had a session on sharia law, and another where Kancha Ilaiah and Ajay Navaria got into a debate on the Buddha’s misogyny. There was also a recent controversy over misogyny in the Mahabharata, which Bibek Debroy addressed in an essay for TEHELKA. How do you reconcile these readings, many of them stemming from changes in attitudes after these texts were written?
I think the problem is different. No religion is perfect, and no religion is without problems and infirmities. While all religions aspire to the condition of the absolute, none of them in fact is, nor could be, in the first place. Now, there have been things in all religions, without exception, that one can find fault with. Recently, when the Delhi rape took place, some of the religious leaders made atrocious comments. I wrote a piece in which I said that what should have happened is that all religions in a democracy can be allowed to exist and grow only if they accept the basic concept of democracy, that is equality between man and woman. And I would have imagined, ideally, that all religious leaders should have come out in support of this equality.
Also, all religions today, without exception, are violent. And a lot of the violence today is because of religious strife. But the violence of religions does not necessarily emanate from misinterpretation. There are elements within each religion that nourish some kind of violence. That’s what they must be held accountable for. They cannot get away by saying this is misinterpretation. This is like saying that Marx had nothing to do with the atrocities associated with communism, that this was a misinterpretation of Marx by Lenin and Stalin, which is absurd. There is something in Marxism which allows such homicide. So religions cannot be absolved; they are not the havens of peace that each one of them would like to believe. Religion must allow doubt, must allow questions, enquiry and knowledge. But, by that same token, they must also be allowed to have the notion that their existence itself is sacred.
Vajpeyi is a poet and cultural commentator