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A Quiz


Ancient India has excelled in the Arts, in Commerce and Industry, in Administration and Warfare,  in Science and Medicine, in Education and Literature, and held the supreme position in the history of the world in the realm of Religion and Spirituality. But you already knew this, right?

I am basing the assumption that you already know all this because you are Indian and I suppose that’s the least every Indian should know. But if I were to further ask, why…why is India great in all these fields, would you have an answer? Can you for instance tell me about the uniqueness of the Ajanta paintings or the symbolical significance of the Natraja? Who can tell me the names of all the classical dances of India or what a raga in music denotes? Have you ever practiced making some of those face contortions that all Kathakali artists love making…is it difficult…ever wondered how long it must take to achieve such perfection without wincing in pain?

If you do know these things then it is only a beginning albeit an impressive one. There are not many who dabble with the world of colours anymore. The majority have no time for sculptures when it is difficult enough getting out for the weekly visit to the neighbourhood temple. They do know about Mahabharata and Ramayana though. So they will claim first place in the area of Literature. But let them answer this – what is each of the Epics trying to tell us? Is it about some war or some dispute? Is it about demons and wicked humans? Does it have anything else worth reckoning other than its theme? Somehow I get the feeling that not many would have reflected on the underlying thoughts of wisdom passed by the Sages – the morality expected of a human being, the high use of intellect in the battlefield of Life, the goodness of purity and simplicity, the beauty of Nature, the divinity everywhere. And if some have realized all this, then they are exceptions and for them I have this question – have you read the Epics in the original tongue? Ah…my exceptions have dwindled and now there is one here and one there- so to them I direct this last query- have you read Kalidasa’s Sakuntala or Vikramurvasie or anything written by Magha and Bhavabhuti, Bhartrihari and Chandidas, Kabir and Tukaram?

Who are they? They weren’t part of the syllabus in school, you say. But they were very much part of your past. In fact, they are the ones to have given birth to you the way those nameless artisans did in their caves. They have given you, the Indian, immortality in their poems and literature, and while most of us lap up Shelley and Wordsworth, study Jung and Freud, our own fathers of psychology, the Rishis, the Yogi’s, the Sages remain confined to the realm of Priests and that too presuming the Priest in question is an authority on the Vedas and the Upanishads or does he also chant them like the legendary Tittirya birds of the past – mechanically, sans reflection?
So that’s our third section for today’s Quiz – the Scriptures and Religion. Agreed that you have no time to visit Tanjore or Masrur or Konarka and also accepted that time restrictions do not allow you to read much and so Mahabharata once a week on television should suffice as the literary supplement for the soul. But surely in the world of Religion, being an Indian you must know lots. Like the names of the Vedas which you mugged up in school including the invaluable insight passed by our educators that the Yajurveda is divided into two – black and white! Where would we be without this information? But somehow I don’t quite recall any example of the Upanishad or the Veda. I also don’t recall any further mention of the significance of these Scriptures or of the Puranas and the Sutras. I do remember them saying something about India being very ritual intensive and dominated by the Brahmin priests though. Then they went on to explain the different castes and also about India’s great  affinity towards a pluralistic society. Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Isai, subh hain bhai bhai. And that’s where the lesson ended. But how these four communities came into being, how did they become brothers-in-arms, of what relevance was the Veda or the Upanishad or the Ramayana in any of this, what role did the ancient Rishi play …there is no link, no tie and no continuity. If you truly know about Religion in India, if you have truly understood the Gods above the clouds, if you have any inkling about the Vedas, then you must have the answer to the links…you must know the meaning of Religion for the Indian, do you?

But you’re not a believer you say. A pure scientist, rationalist, atheist. Fair enough, we have a round especially for you. You say you’re a scientist so surely you know about the number zero and where it came from. Every child does, not only in India, but all over the world. And you must also know about the origin of pi and the decimal system. But remember that Pythagoras theorem? Any idea who discovered it? So many hands have shot up with that gleeful look but no my friends, it is not Pythagoras. It is Baudhayana and it was discovered years before Pythagoras. And likewise there are numerous instances of our ancient Indians having made astounding discoveries and staying in the dark. Why? Because we let them stay there. It is much easier not to know Sanskrit for then we will have to rewrite so many of our school books.

If you are scientifically tuned, surely you know about the brilliance of logic behind the Ayurveda system or the reason why our ancient iron pillars are standing with no signs of rust in spite of  centuries of rain and shine. You must also know about our abilities to extract metals in rigs which were unique at the time,  or the method to make pottery, so smooth that after three thousand years you can still see your face on it…all this must be common knowledge for the Scientist in you. No?

I haven’t left our Politician and Businessman out deliberately. I do have a final round waiting for you. And the reason why you come last is because what could there possibly be that you don’t know? Knowledge of India’s trading abilities is nothing new. But any idea about how she traded with countries like Rome and Greece?  Do you know when the first instance of Insurance cropped up in the Indian and quite possibly the world context? Surely you do know about the items of trade and what made her transactions special? All this is mentioned in the encyclopaedic Arthashastra. Even if the merchant missed it, I can’t quite believe that the Politician too by-passed this testament of the Ancient Indian sense of perfection in the designing of the national machinery. It may not all be applicable today but perhaps if you read it once more, its possible you may glean from it some tit-bits about the high morals and the low rates of imperfection that are desired in a government. Better still not just what is undesirable but how it can be altogether avoided. And if you have read it, then my apologies. Wasn’t the Saptanga theory  of the State absolutely ideal? And all those details about the different kinds of forts and branches of Defence…fantastic isn’t it?

Why can I not hear any sounds of affirmation?

Can it be because there is no one who has had a glimpse from this window of our past? Can it be because I have lost my audience? Can it be because this most basic and poor example of a quiz show has no winners?

Perhaps. But I still see some silhouettes out in the shadows. And that’s always a good sign.

What could possibly be my intention here? Is it to ruffle your feathers with a sense of superiority? Is it to antagonize you with power of knowledge?

None of that.

You may be one of those who know all there is to know. You may even be one of those who sifts all that is worth knowing from the rest. But there is a possibility that you are one of those who owing to our education system, owing to our respective upbringing or societal background, failed to perceive ancient India in any way other than as ancient India – an India that has nothing to do with you.

That is how I was and that is what I have only just begun to shirk off.

India has something for everyone, they say. Nothing could be truer. But nothing could be more complicated either. We can pick up subject after subject and have opinions cascading in breathless torrents. There can be fireworks in the debate. There can be exchange of information. There can be devotion on the one hand, scorn on the other. And all of it holds. For India gives an opening for everything.

Her superstitions can make us deny her a position in the world’s scientific civilizations. But what then do we do with her scientific achievements…? Pretend they didn’t exist or did they come as flukes? Could it be that despite her superstitious beliefs, she could still burst forth with an insight to change the world thought?

They say the caste system in India is still a form of slavery and while the rest of the world has shunned it, India proudly hangs on to it for her life. True. She does. But who’s the ‘she’ if not ‘us’? A handful liberate themselves from the caste structure and say ‘oh, I don’t believe in it’ but then what? The caste system can never be eradicated until it is first understood. It was something else originally which degenerated consequently into what it has become. But if one simply denies it as a part of one’s life, it will not go away just as feeding a hungry child will not end hunger. One has to make clear to the audience the whole cycle of events, the point of origin, the point of conversion, the point of transition, the point of disintegration…and then say QED…we don’t need it, for it no longer serves our purpose in this day and age.

They say the Brahmin priests are worse than beggars these days. They are dirty and soul-selling, cunning as foxes, out to wrench every paisa they can. It may be true and all you have to do is go to any of the temples and you’ll find evidence of it. But exactly what is being achieved here? More and more people are denouncing religion because of this changeover. Does that mean there is no truth in the ancient scriptures or does that mean that we have linked the  Brahmin priest to the scripture in a way that is now beyond all prospect of getting de-linked? Surely, they are but instruments, mediators, middlemen. Surely, if there is an iota of truth in the scriptures then it is there for each one to find for himself and if the search be so compelling, it can be found with or without the foxes. Then why bother condemning them…why not simply conserve energy and glide across to the other side, to begin the hunt and the chase?

They say the politicians are criminals worse than rapists and murderers. Ooof. That’s strong. And perhaps that’s also true. For they are raping and murdering the entire nation and not one’s and two’s…a national level crime. They are slaughtering our religions and our values. They are plundering our heritage and morality. But wait a minute… ‘they’ are only a handful and ‘we’ are in millions…how are they being allowed to abuse if the one’s being abused weren’t aiding the perpetrators? We put them where they are. We give them the right. We allow them to manipulate the threads. And then we say ‘tch tch…these politicians’! Kautilya laid out the workings of the administrative and political system to such detail that if even a small minority was aware of it, Indian politics would not have today degraded into this abominable state. He may have said many things which go against the norms in our modern age but who’s asking you to believe and adhere to everything he said…at least go through its contents, pick and choose and then there will be no excuses for such a sorry state of affairs…dharma is not just a fashionable term…its an ethos, an ideal, a truth and its lived since time immemorial. All we have to do is understand it once again…so cut off from its meaning are we, that today, we have little use for it other than perhaps naming our child once in a while.

Ancient India has so much to give us. Good, bad and ugly. And if we are so modern and rationalistic and scientific and ‘with-it’ then its no problem at all for us to sift through, sieve and pick out the gems. Who is saying anything about sinking into the past or sticking to its tenets…use it justly, use it well, use it for tomorrow.

But to do that, we have to first understand it.

Question: how many of us actually have the courage to take out time from our already spent lives to understand something of the bygone eras in order to pave the path for the eras to come?