Book Review : Saraswati’s Intelligence by Vamsee Juluri

I had originally written the review for First Post where it was first published. Republishing here with their permission.

The fantasy genre is known to take a story-teller’s imagination to a pinnacle. In the cosmos of richly descriptive Ancient World fiction, Saraswati’s Intelligence, book one of The Kishkindha Chronicles, stays true to the promise of “intelligence” in its title and sets itself apart. The edge that this novel has over its Western literary counterparts is most of all the presence of the original superhero, Hanuman himself.  Hanuman is a multi-faceted personality, and in Saraswati’s Intelligence, the action and adventure associated with him also meet intellect and a commitment to a universal ethical ethos.

What Vamsee Juluri does in Saraswati’s Intelligence fundamentally is to offer a story-teller’s tribute to civilization, to the roots and to the forces that have sustained and evolved mankind through the ages.

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Set in a world (Kishkindha, inspired by the ancient Indian subcontinent) that espoused an unbreachable code called Parama Dharma (read “Ahimsa” here), Saraswati’s Intelligence starts on a contemplative note where an adolescent Hanuman faces banishment by his scheming aunt, the Empress Riksharaja ,who takes advantage of a superficial breach of Parama Dharma. In the journey that ensues, filled with a variety of memorable encounters, Hanuman finds himself facing the dark forces that know no morals and threaten to upset the creation of Saraswati, the Supreme Goddess.

While Hanuman makes for an endearing protagonist, the narration brims with reverence towards the feminine universe. The world creation (or call it exploration) of the author is a soulful cognizance of how various species depend on each other and connect themselves to the ultimate source, the Mother of Knowledge. The pages carrying the description of River Saraswati worshipped as the source of life are a delight to every nature lover. To quote a belief of the Kishkindhans about creation:
“In the old days, when much of the world was covered with fire, they say the Goddess herself appeared in the form of a river, and she cooled the fire down slowly, into steam, into water, into earth, and then, into our ancestors, Shiva and Vishnu.”

While the love for nature remains an important aspect in the story, it is refreshing to see that this love is very unlike some of the patronizing and superfluous current day animal protection activism which exhibits overzealous intrusiveness in unnecessary places and callous negligence where action is most needed. The nature worship of the Kishkindhans is rooted in a deeper connect that the various beings such as the Ganeshas and the Jatayus, feel towards each other despite their diversity. ‘Some of us move, some of us lie in wait. Some of us have speed, some have strength. But we all have dharma at heart. So we must think. What is the best way for all our races to work together now? What is the best way for us to work with the forces of land and climate, and not walk into more opposition than we really need to now?’ can be seen as a commentary on the vibrant civilization that was Ancient India and will stay with me for long. Does this universe of Kishkindha espouse everything that we had in the past and everything that we stand to lose in the turmoil of today’s rush to “progress”? I lost track of the number of times I asked myself this question while reading the book and for that reason alone, the book deserves to be read by the young and old alike. Saraswati’s Intelligence is that call from the past to realise what we were and to rediscover what we ought to be.

The story is not a racy, read-and-forget tale that some action and adventure readers might expect it to be. I would advise the readers to be prepared to have their deeper beliefs challenged and coaxed into contemplation to appreciate the nuanced narrative of what Parama Dharma is. Ahimsa, to my delight, is not interpreted as pacifist nonviolence that defeats itself, but it is instead the assertion of vibrant coexistence that pins down the dangerous characteristics of lust, oppression and greed.

One would expect that this ideal universe which recognizes the need to coexist would not run into trouble. But power games, invasions by blood-feeding beings, weaknesses of those whose strength is taken for granted, all form a layered plot skilfully built upon the various shades of the characters. Anjana and Kesari evoke an unearthly reverence as indulgent and yet unattached parents.

Among the well etched characters, Vishwamitra and Vaishnavi (the author’s name given to the Puranic character of Suvarchala) are my favourites, given their stimulating conversations with Hanuman as well as their ability to take quick decisions on their feet. The companionship woven between Vaishnavi and Hanuman (Yes, Hanuman HAS a romantic side and hold on, you will love that!) throws up some interesting debates on Dharma. It made me root for them as a couple and yet…. No spoilers given. One should read the book and travel through the universe of Kishkindha to know what happens.

Saraswati’s Intelligence invokes the rich ancient Indic art of story-telling and cannot be cast into a single genre. Action, Adventure, Spiritualism, War, Romance, Politics, all aspects that take the world of the narrative forward are dealt with through aesthetic storytelling. The book deserves special praise for defying the commercial genre tropes of fantasy like blood, gore and objectification that have unfortunately become a rage in the Western fantasy sphere.  To those under-informed commentaries on why Indian fantasy writing sticks to its ancient scriptures, Saraswati’s Intelligence is the intellectual answer. While the commercial fantasy tropes draw from two-dimensional character motivations dominated by Artha and Kama, the Indic fantasy provides the complete cycle of motivation adding Dharma and Moksha to the carnal side making a story worth its letters.

Interested readers can order Saraswati’s Intelligence from Amazon

Prof Vamsee Juluri is also the author of the Best Selling Rearming Hinduism

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Free Ebook – Creators of Telugu epic literature

My friends and readers are aware of my love for Telugu literature. Prompted by the ebook carnival hosted by Theblogchatter, I put together a collection of my older blog posts on historical Telugu poets into an ebooklet.

Do please download the ebook Creators of Telugu epic literature. It is also featured in the above Ebook carnival.

 

Telugu Epic poets

Ebook Cover design

 

It is an ongoing work and I hope to cover more Telugu poets and composers in future. Please feel free to leave me suggestions and comments below.

Battling the demons – Abuse on Social Media

This was written for Myind Makers and was published in August 2015.

Ramayana, rich with its tales tells us the story of the Vanara Lords, Vali and Sugriva. Vali is believed to have a boon that lets him suck half the opponent’s energy whenever he duels. This makes him unconquerable and even conceited. When he banishes his twin brother Sugriva and even imprisons his wife, there was not much the latter could do. All the attempts to face Vali left Sugriva powerless given Vali’s boon. Sugriva then met Hanuman who was wiser not to waste his energies in facing Vali. Instead his power came of immense use in a much bigger battle in the Ramayana, making him an indispensable friend in need.

Symbolically, the story made me wonder about an individual’s loss of temper when provoked, thus reducing his or her own sense of balance, becoming vulnerable. Provocateur baiting is an age old war strategy used on people known to lose temper easily and it seemed to work. We see it working on Social media too. On Twitter where many express their political and ideological inclinations, provocateur baiting happens on a daily basis, trapping the unsuspecting individuals into knee jerk reactions. The same reactions fuel these baiters into driving their point home as the confused ‘Sugrivas’ see their own strength being used against them.

Social media has achieved a great level of equalizing and normalizing online opinions. Opinion making thus is no longer the turf of a select privileged lot. They can no longer pretend to echo the common sentiments which they anyways never do. The elitism that had been trumped in the first half of this decade has now resorted to this age old and time tested strategy of provocateur content. This brings to us, the flip side of the social platforms where the strength of individuals unknowingly works for the ones they oppose. I’m not saying that I am against these social platforms (albeit unknowingly) becoming tools for obscure public personalities to ‘redeem’ themselves and claim some fame (There is no point in debating the moral aspects of baiting and crying foul).

I see a deeper issue in provoking extreme reactions. I have seen more than a few cases where heated discussions have dented the professional productivity of an individual. Call me paranoid, but one cannot ignore the cascading effects of a negative online footprint which can work against the provoked individual in ways more than one. Resisting provocation thus becomes an important step towards achieving a saner discussion online. I am reminded of this Indic poetical feat called Avadhaana (popular in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada) where an Avadhaani is quizzed by 8 scholars testing various aspects of his or her poetical authority. One of them is Aprastuta Prasanga where he or she is interrupted with totally irrelevant questions. The rule is that the Avadhaani should not lose his wit and even answer the questions with an element of humour thus proving his wit.

As netizens, we do not face this constraint and it is totally within our power to decide whether a provocative content warrants a response or not. Before that, one can as well contemplate whether it is worth taking the content to heart and get affected enough to give an angry response. It is easier said than done and I admit I have lost my temper too. But conscious improvement is what we call as Sadhana and it is important not to give up on one’s own self when we are pursuing a Sadhana. Fact and wit driven dissent and debate add a lot of value to a discourse but not hate filled content, provocative or reactionary. For those who find themselves easily affected by such content I would like to quote a well-known Telugu poem composed by a 13th Century poet Bhadranna Bhupala

Tana kopame tana shatruvu
Tana shantame tanaku raksha daya chuttamb
ou
Tana santoshame s
wargamu
Tana du
hkhame narakamandru tathyamu sumati !

One’s anger is one’s enemy,
Balancing temper is one’s protection. Compassion is one’s relative.
Heaven is nothing but one’s own happiness
and hell is one’s own misery, so true it is

Again, admit that it is easier said than done. To put it in simple words, it could make a good start to avoid contact with those who provoke you or disturb your peace of mind. If you want to take on the proverbial provocateur Valis of today, it is necessary to ensure that they do not leverage on your strength, and in this context, your networks. Un-following some of the everlasting outrage handles on either side of political and cultural lines has helped me a lot in firstly guarding my own peace and secondly, limiting their reach to whatever possible minute level. It is also a noteworthy aspect that the number of followers/likes/retweets of an abusive/provocative profile or content (whether you accept it or not) serves as an endorsement of the content and the person. This makes me think that un-following a provocative person is also a moral obligation as you do your bit to stop the negativity from spreading.

Coming back to our analogy, it needed a Rama to successfully deal with the Vali of Ramayana. Rama could do it not only because he first secured himself from the consequences of a self-defeating step like facing Vali in a duel, but also because his arrow contained the power to pierce Vali’s impenetrable skin. Truth fuelled by a balanced tone of the narrator always has a long life. Not everyone is a Rama, though I don’t deny the possibility of acquiring the potential to become one. But till then, one can instead choose to be a Hanuman who preserved his strength for a bigger battle than consume himself by taking on Vali. This burns down to another topic of what is the greater battle or greater purpose. That is for each of us to ponder over.

Scion of Ikshvaku: An Engrossing And Moving Read

This was written for Swarajya Magazine and published in June 2015

There are few books that leave you sleepless when half-read. Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish Tripathi was one such a retelling of Ramayana. It goes without mentioning that the epic of Ramayana has undoubtedly captured the imagination of poets over millennia all across the Indian subcontinent, with versions travelling as far as Indonesia. Each retelling carried a fresh perspective with each poet trying to drive a contemporary message. Hailing from the southern part of the country, I can say Sri Ramachandra is one name taken by one and all in every instance of extreme emotion. His is the first cradle story an average child hears from his or her parents/grandparents or it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that celebrating Ramayana begins right from the womb.

Scion of Ikshvaku was surely one of the much-awaited books this year and, fortunately, the Kindle version was available overseas too. For those who know the structure of Ramayana, this book covers the Bala Kanda, Ayodhya Kanda and most of Aranya Kanda. The opening chapter ofSitaapaharan grips your attention and gets you hooked as the story flashes to the beginning of Ramayana. Amish has taken care to detail the prevalent socio-political dynamics of Sapta Sindhu in those days and the inevitable dangers of an apparently unwise belief of looking down on trade activity by the Kings.

For those who have read his Shiva Trilogy, Amish’s creative liberty does not come as something new. Creative liberty, of course, has been something that every poet and storyteller has indulged in the literary history of India and this book is a welcome continuation of the same tradition. We see Ramachandra having a troubled childhood taking the burden of an undeserved blame and moving us with his commitment (in contrast to who we know as someone being everyone’s apple of eye).

The second thing which would strike the reader is the amount of discussion and debate over philosophies and codes. The indulgent conversations between Guru Vashishta and the four princes of Ayodhya would make one wish that the kind of education system returns to us, where each student is encouraged to voice his/her opinion and build upon the same with differing perspectives. I really liked the part where Bharata boldly points out that Ravana was a better ruler of Lanka than Dasharatha was of Koshala. “Even honourable men sometimes prove to be terrible leaders. Conversely, men of questionable character can occasionally be exactly what a nation requires” is one pragmatic quote of Bharata where he separates the desired personalities of an individual and a ruler without superimposing.

The amount of care with which relationships between Rama and his brothers have been dealt with is another endearing aspect of the book. We would adore the young Rama for his steadfastness as much as we would adore Bharata for his frank views often disagreeing with Rama and yet take delight in the unaffected fraternal bonding.

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Intriguing conversations don’t really hamper the pace of the plot. One can see the amount of effort that has gone into balancing the philosophical content with the lively nature of characters while reconstructing every detail. In the second half of the book, we are introduced to Sita, who like Sati of the Shiva trilogy is a warrior princess with steadfast beliefs. The ensuing romance of the poised characters of Sita and Rama is something one would look forward to read. The couple who are probably the most celebrated couple in our culture (The only ones who come close are Parvati and Shiva). Sita Kalyanam, the eternally celebrated event though has been retold in a thrilling manner where the newly wed couple would face the battlefield together, almost immediately after their wedding. We also see Ravana, the antithesis reconstructed with great care.

The readers should be ready for Vanavasa episode to gather new reasons other than just Kaikeyi causing it in the last moment (as told in most of the narratives). The quick pace with which Vanavaas came to a close was surprising. I was expecting a discussion or two with Rishis like Atri, Gautama and the Charvaka Jabali, who Rama meets in the original Valmiki’s version. Surprisingly, Scion of Ikshvaku does not contain Rama’s interaction with either. But the nail-biting chapter where the book ends surely makes the reader await the next book.

The book in its first part also has, what I felt, the author’s tribute to Nirbhaya, an event that made our national conscience shake with shock and burn with anger. The character Roshni (the word is of Persian origin though, which I felt was slightly out of place), the daughter of Manthara and the childhood mentor of Rama and his brothers endears herself to the reader in the short duration of the narrative. As a woman, it satisfies me that in this book at least, justice was dispensed even at the cost of the law.

In summary, the book rekindled my love for Ramayana and reminded me about my own earlier love-hate journey with Sri Rama since my teens before I settled as a seeker. Caught between singing Thyagaraja Kritis like Jagadananda Kaaraka while seething with anger about how he (supposedly) treated Sita, my past predicament would have amused Lord Rama for sure. I remember a certain blog post of mine hailing Rama got me angry messages from my feminist friends (the reasonable ones too). After a lot of books that have given a glorified platform to those against Rama or angry with Rama, a counter view from Rama’s perspective was much needed rather than the usual defence of ‘He did what the society expected of him’. This Ram Chandra series by Amish Tripathi will hopefully go a long way in bringing the reader closer to what the spirit of Rama is.

Jagadananda karakaa Jaya Janaki Prananayaka
Gaganadhipa satkulaja Rajarajeshwara
Sugunakara sura sevya bhavya daayaka Sada Sakala
(Jagadananda Kaaraka)

Hail, the one who is cause of universal bliss, the soul mate of Janaki,
The scion of the blessed dynasty of the Lord of skies, the king of kings,
The Ocean of noble characteristics, the one worshipped by gods, the bestower of divinity,
The eternal cause of bliss to all the worlds

-Saint Thyagaraja

Here is the Amazon link to buy Scion of Ikshvaku. Hindi translation can be bought here

Did Rama doubt Sita? – The episode of Agni Pravesham (and not Pariksha)

I had written this post for my blog on Speaking Tree (published in December 2013. Sounds like long back. But the topic is not dated at all :-))

Ramayana had caught my fantasy even as a toddler. The anecdote that introduced me to the epic was about the infant Rama crying for the moon. When nothing else could appease or divert him, his doting step mother, Kaikeyi calmed him by showing him the image of the moon in a mirror. As a child of three or four, I could connect to the cuddly toddler Rama who cried for unattainable things.

As I grew up, I wondered about the importance of this anecdote especially when it had no tellable influence on the plot of Ramayana. In my teens, the narratives of Sri Rama failed to impress me. The episodes of Agni Pariksha and the subsequent abandonment of Sita had started to give me a feeling that we as a culture have only inherited a legacy that punished a chaste woman for no mistake of hers. The philosophical explanations did not help much either. All the anger aside, I used to wonder what kind of a hypocrisy could make us extol Sita as well as sing glories of the one who abandoned her for no sin of hers.

It was a later flash which struck me about the symbolism of  Rama yearning for the moon that is unattainable and hence had to be content with the image of moon. It was much like he had to be content with the statue of Sita during the Ashwamedha Yajna which as a climactic end, brings him closer to his sons.

It was then that I started to re-read the agni pariksha episode with more curiosity than anger. A couple of words chosen by Valmiki in the episode intrigued me even more. We all know that the Ramayana was narrated by Lava and Kusha in the court of Rama. In the first chapter, Ramayana is described as the great story of Sita and that of the destruction of Ravana. When Lava and Kusha get ready to narrate the story, Rama is seen as instructing his brothers to listen carefully as the work contains intriguing words.

The first intriguing word I encountered while reading the Agnipariksha episode was the one Rama uses to address Sita before declaring his detachment. ‘Bhadre‘. The meanings of the root word  Bhadra are many. Auspicious, fortunate, fair, beautiful, blessed, happy and similar meanings. If Rama had actually doubted her chastity and was planning to abandon her, the usage of this word with any of the above meanings would only highlight the irony of the context. One can wonder if the irony was intended. As I read further, another metaphor caught my attention.  Rama says to sita, “With a doubt arising on your character, you are as unaccepatable to me as lamp is to the one whose sight is defective.” The metaphor further highlighted the irony as it is clear that the short sight is the inability to appreciate the light from the lamp is of the eye sight and not of the lamp. Rama is seen as referring to himself as the short-sighted one and Sita as the lamp.

There is also the part where he says that the war was fought in a bid to reclaim Rama’s honour and not for Sita. If we read the earlier scenes, there is one (at the beginning of the war) where Rama describes to Lakshmana about how much he misses Sita (while she is in the captivity). He goes ahead to appeal to the wind to pass by Sita and come to him so that he could feel her presence. He agains says that he is content with touching the earth because he knows that his Sita lives on the very same earth. Would the same Rama who at a point of time seems like he lives for Sita be able to utter as harsh a sentence like “I have nothing to do with you”? If the intended irony of Valmiki is not observed, one can very well take Rama as a split personality. It also makes a laughable case when he says that no man with honour would accept a woman who is sullied by another’s company and hence Sita can be free of him and set her mind on Lakshmana, Bharata or Shatrughna or even Sugriva (like they don’t have any honour or he does not care for that?)

The study made me wonder if the conversation really took place. Or if it was scripted by Valmiki deliberately as he knew that it was going to be sung in the presence of the citizens of Ayodhya who had subsequently cast a doubt on Sita’s Chastity. Did Valmiki take an opportunity to portray the ‘short sightedness’ of Ayodhya citizens in being unable to recognize the lamp that was sita? (Even as he used Rama’s character to depict the same). The combination of words, the deviation from Rama’s usual character in this one episode convinces me of such a possibility. The experiences of hearing a slander on one’s chastity is a fire ordeal in itself, much more to a woman like Sita.

The consistency of Rama’s character can be seen when he installs Sita’s statue by his side for the Ashwamedha showing in his own subtle way to every one that it was not he who ever doubted her. One might argue if he loved Sita so much why did he not abdicate the throne and go with her. In my understanding, such an act would not only have disturbed the social balance in the city, but would also have condemned Rama’s children to the same slander. Instead of running away from the city, he stayed on to ultimately give his sons, their much deserved inheritence before giving up the throne to follow Sita. Yes, it now appeals to me that Rama is the true embodiment of Dharma not because he gave up his wife for a ‘larger good’ (else one can question the very truth of the larger good), but because he persisted to not let the slander affect Sita’s children and did not let them fade into obscurity.