|There was a tradition of Shastrarth, of debate. And open debate. Which is why we were one of the most successful societies for most of Indian history. We don’t teach enough of the great debates of ancient India like the debates of Shankaracharya ji and Mandana Mishra ji. Who has studied this in modern india?
By Shruti Bakshi
What I see happening a lot is people becoming entrenched in their political identities – right and left. But this kind of political system is a Western import. What was it like in ancient India – from your understanding and study? How did they debate issues? What would it take for us to institute those kinds of systems of debate and discourse?
Amish: The best example of this is that in ancient Vedic Sanskrit there is no translation for the English word ‘blasphemy’. There was nothing like you had to be killed because you said something. There was a tradition of Shastrarth, of debate. And open debate. Which is why we were one of the most successful societies for most of Indian history.
We don’t teach enough of the great debates of ancient India like the debates of Shankaracharya jiand Mandana Mishra ji. Who has studied this in modern india? Where is it taught in our education system? How much we can learn from such debates and the kinds of things that were discussed and the openness with which they were discussed. We don’t know these things in modern India, so we don’t appreciate the tradition of debate.
What do you think are the key learnings for us from India’s past that are relevant in present times?
Amish: The spirit of questioning and healthy scepticism. There are many things we can learn from our ancestors but if there’s one thing we can learn it’s this. And trying to find a marriage between healthy scepticism and faith. Faith does not mean that you shut your brain down. Knowledge is up to what you can understand, beyond that you have faith, it gives you peace. But you have to find that balance. The approach then is to keep increasing the limits of your knowledge. Then the Gyana Yog is that one day you will increase your knowledge so much that you won’t need faith anymore because you’ll become God. The approach should be a spirit of questioning, healthy scepticism. While still not looking down on faith. Faith gives peace to your soul. To find that balance is I think one of the best things that we can learn from our ancestors.
But I feel like as with everything, there has to be a right way of doing it. For instance, today we have people questioning anything and everything…
Amish: You have to question with knowledge. Not as someone foolish. First learn. I have been at debates or literary fests where people come and ask questions on say, Hindu scriptures and they start off with wrong knowledge.
One of the things I always say is that, please understand, in India there was no concept of blasphemy. You have every right to question all scriptures, of all religions. But a very good first step, if you want to question those scriptures, is to actually read those scriptures, so that you actually know what you are questioning.
Our ancient scriptures talk about the establishment of Dharma as being of primary importance. What does Dharma mean in your understanding?
Amish: Dharma is something that one can spend many lifetimes debating. One of my favourite conversations was a conversation between Dr Bibek Debroy and myself at Jaipur Lit Fest where the topic of the discussion was ‘What is Dharma?’. The beginning of the debate on Dharma can be very simple. Dharma comes from the root word ‘dhr‘, that which binds, brings balance to the universe. And adharma is that which brings imbalance. That’s where the complications begin. How do you know what is good Dharma? Is it about your intentions? Your actions? If it’s about your actions then what is the time frame for those actions? Is it about your thoughts? Does love conquer it all? But actually some of the worst deeds are done in the name of love. What is good Dharma? The answers are never simple and most of our stories, our Puranic tales, Ramayana in all the various versions, Mahabharata, etc. were essentially trying to explore this question, what is Dharma?
It’s a complicated issue. You try to learn and understand it to the best of your abilities and live your life accordingly. The difficulty is that one can never be sure. There was one example I had quoted at the Jaipur Lit Fest about the Chinese Nobel Prize awardee, Liu Xiaobo. If you read his works and the way he conducted himself, even on his deathbed, he seems a very good man. So if you judge on intentions, his karma is good but the Communist party’s karma and understanding of Dharma is not good. But if you judge by results, the Communist party has pulled 800 million people out of poverty. They didn’t do that because they were trying to do some good. They did that because they want to remain in power. A side-effect of that was that 800 million people were pulled out of poverty. So do you count that as good Dharma? Again, it’s complicated. How do you answer this question? At the end of the Mahabharata, all the Pandavas besides Yudhisthira fall down into purgatory. Yudhisthira goes up to Devalok and he finds the Kauravas there.
We can keep debating forever. The answers are not clear. And that is the beauty of it. If you are conscious of Dharma, the way you live is very different. If that is a part of daily conversations, the way you live will be different.
Like, look at how charity was approached in ancient India as compared to the modern world. And if you look at the concept of Dharma there, that you don’t want to carry debt on your soul, the entire reaction is different. When giving charity, you’re not to speak of it, you do it very quietly. Which is how it should be because it’s not for ego, it’s for cleansing the debt on your soul. And if you’ve received charity, you’ll be desperate to get out of it and pay it back to someone else. The entire approach is flipped over. The person giving the charity realises that the person accepting the charity is actually doing him a favour, because he is taking a debt on his soul for me.
At a societal level, it supports Dharma and a better society, because the one who’s down wants to move up and the one who is up there wants to give charity.
Amish: Correct. This is a good conversation to have. So the Indian approach was not as simplistic as ‘do this’, ‘don’t do this’. It was always to treat people as adults, which leads to a more mature and better society.
Raising one’s consciousness has always been the attempt.
Amish: To be conscious of what you are doing and how it impacts your Dharma, your Swadharma.
Yes. So coming to the final question – what’s next for you?
Amish: So I’m currently working on the third book in the Ram Chandra series which is the book on Ravana, the Orphan of Aryavarta. He’s a very interesting character, so I’m having fun writing the book. That will be out sometime in 2018.