Amish Tripathi in conversation with Sanjiv Goenka
One is a stalwart of the corporate world while the other gave up a career there to start penning his books that have catapulted him to bestseller status. And when the two meet, it’s bound to be an engaging session of rhetoric. Excerpts from a session in which Sanjiv Goenka of RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group helmed a discussion with Amish Tripathi on mythology and his latest book — Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta :
Sanjiv Goenka: It’s a special afternoon. Amish is special, his writings are special, his thoughts are special, his interpretations are special. I was first introduced to his books by my wife who read them through the night when she started reading them. I got hooked on to his books myself. What fascinates me about his books is his interpretation of characters — how he brings a new dimension that wasn’t popular with the masses to each of his characters, how he simplifies religion into something that could be used on a day-to-day basis.
When I read Raavan, he actually comes across as a scholar and there are facets of compassion when he is dealing with his family. How did you research this book?
Amish Tripathi: You know, in most of modern India, the interpretation of the Ramayana is based largely on a television series, which was Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and many of the subsequent televised adaptations used that as the basis. But that television series was not based on the original Ramayan by Valmiki, it was largely based on the 16th century Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidasji. Many of these ancient stories became relatively simplistic with the concept of good and evil, which was not how our ancient traditions were. If you read the original Ramayan by Valmikiji, you’ll see the characters, including Raavan, are quite nuanced.
I have always said this that our ancestors were much more liberal and wiser than we Indians are. We have forgotten much of the wisdom of our ancestors because they realised that real life was in shades of grey and so in my book, I don’t hide the negative aspects of the character of Raavan. The fact that he is brutally violent is there — in fact, there’s almost a scholarly quality to his violence as he’ll behead someone and then watch extremely closely how the blood oozes out because the heart pumping out the blood does not know that the head is not there. He also has a bad temper and a huge ego. But that does not cover his good qualities, which the original Ramayan also had. He was a brilliant musician and a very good administrator. So our ancient traditions and cultures acknowledged that life has shades of grey.
Sanjiv: So what would your message to the youth be based on your study of various characters?
Amish: It is the attitude of our ancestors that I find so fascinating. And before I come to that attitude, I want to say what the result of that attitude was. India, by far, was the wealthiest and the most powerful country in the past. India was really cutting-edge and I am not talking about spirituality — I am talking about metallurgy, astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and this is to give you a perspective of the knowledge of our ancestors. For most of human history, we were far ahead of the rest of the world. But now, hand on your heart, where do we stand compared to the rest of the world?
We can go into reasons like the British did this and the Turks did that but what is it that we can learn from our ancestors in terms of attitude? That is the thought I want to leave with the youngsters — why were our ancestors so successful as compared to us? The key thing is that they were so innovative. They were obsessed with knowledge because they realised that at the heart of long-term success was innovation and knowledge and pride of the motherland. Innovation does not come from a compliant culture, it comes from a rebellious culture — people who refuse to take no for an answer are the ones who innovate. The language of our ancestors was Vedic Sanskrit and there was no translation of the word “blasphemy” in it because the word did not exist — nothing was beyond question, not even the divine.
Sanjiv: Talking about attitudes, Raavan’s mother Kaikesi tries to distance herself from him, despite her whole identity relying on him…
Amish: Sometimes a parent thinks that they have done everything for a child and it’s the duty of the child to be forever grateful. The child might think that you did something for him but he has achieved stuff on his own. But someone like Raavan who has a huge ego will think that he did everything on his own. He’s like he is giving his mother a comfortable life, so now don’t eat his head. And a mother who believes that she has done a lot for her son would believe that that’s not done. This isn’t necessarily a parent-child relationship — this happens with couples, siblings and friends too. This is also often the result of sudden success when the relationship comes under strain and that’s what perhaps started happening with Kaikesi and Raavan because she wanted him to be under her thumb and Raavan wouldn’t be under anyone’s thumb — not even God’s. So obviously his reaction was ruthless. I believe that character interaction in books should be real and these are real things that happen in life.
Sanjiv: In one part of the book, you refer to a rudraksh being placed in Raavan’s mandir. What is the significance of the rudraksh and its reverential viewing?
Amish: Raavan was a really devout Mahadev worshipper and had composed the Tandav Stotram, which is a very, very powerful hymn. But because he had a huge ego, even in his devotion that would come in. ‘Rudraksh’ literally means the tears of Rudra. There are various myths about the rudraksh and one of the stories I like is when Sati Ma died, Lord Shiva was completely distraught — he was crying incessantly and had cut off from the world and some of the tears had coalesced into the rudraksh. So it’s considered to be very powerful as it captures the most intense of emotions and that’s the Indian interpretation. Only Lord Shiva knows what the truth is. There are various kinds of rudrakshas and Raavan obviously had an eight-mukhi one, which is very powerful!
Sanjiv: In the battle with Dashrath’s army, Raavan orders the killing of everyone, despite gaining victory. What would you attribute that to?
Amish: This battle is described in Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku and in Raavan I describe it from his perspective. It’s a very brutal battle and halfway through, it is obvious that Raavan has won it. But he does not stop there, he wants to kill as many of Dashrath’s soldiers as he can and won’t let anyone escape. This is more like a strategic decision to break the back of the entire kingdom. The most fierce conquerors of human history are the Turks and their entire way of life was about war and killing. Taimur, for example, killed five per cent of the world’s population in the 13th century and this is how he went about it. Breaking the back of a kingdom ensures that they have no way of fighting back — it’s just a brutal but effective method of warfare.
Sanjiv: Somewhere I have read that a book without a philosophy is like a body without a soul. So what was the philosophy that you underpinned Raavan on?
Amish: There are minor philosophies that I speak of in my books — from how women are treated to the caste system. The philosophy at the heart of the Ram Chandra series strives to answer the question — what is an ideal society and what is Ramrajya? If you go anywhere in India and ask anyone what Ramrajya is, there will be 10,000 different answers. What kind of a society was that? What kind of a society do we have now? And these are debates that are worth having. Sometimes there’s a conflict between life and freedom and sometimes, there’s a conflict between security for the state and individual rights. These are debates worth having because it is a democracy. And I try to explore many of these debates through many of my books.