Revisiting ancient India
Reviewed by Kanchan Mehta

Prophets, Poets, & Philosopher-Kings: Sketches on India’s Spiritual & Literary Heritage.
By Abhijit Basu, Celestial Books. Pages 181. Rs 145

The treasure trove of India’s spiritual and literary heritage, bursting with endless perspectives is worth revisiting time and again. Likewise, the present book, a collection of retrospective, critical, scholarly and absorbing essays, centred around ancient Indian poets, prophets and philosopher-kings, provides revealing insights into ancient India.

Besides, underlining the parallels between ancient Indian narratives and modern Western philosophy and literature, it also showcases how the latter resonates with the echoes and impact of the former, it stimulates the hunt for identity between the two diverse entities.

Using classical psychological models of Freud and Jung and those in contemporary psychology as a yardstick, the essay The Gita and Human Psychology, analytically explores the universality of the psychological philosophy of the Bhagavadgita, the "incomparable gift to mankind" that "lays out a comprehensible blueprint for self-improvement and self-actualisation". And also, recapitulating Arjuna’s psychological odyssey from self-doubt to enlightenment through the profound lessons from Lord Krishna, it is a penetrating survey of the human mind.

Bearing a curious title, The Unlikely Protagonist, addresses an intriguing question of the central figure in Vyasa’s Mahabaharta the "monumental tale of myriad players and events". The author arguably pronounces the ‘unlikely’ Yudhishthira as the ‘superhero’ of the epic. Though considering his apparent limitations in the conventional sense of hero and other likely names (Krishna, Arjuna and Bheeshma), the pronouncement may sound unpalatable to a casual yet enthusiastic reader, but the critical examination is quite convincing and highly perceptive. As the author’s showing the parallel between Yudhishthira’s unworthy and unbefitting act of putting Draupadi at stake and the ordinary Michael Henchard’s impulsive selling off his wife and baby in an auction and, consequently, his life-long suffering for it in the modern story of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Well, Rama, the Ramayana’s protagonist, has been idealised for ages as the touchstone of purity, unflinching duty and sacrifice. Nevertheless, the essay, The Real Rama, focuses on the human side of the divine Rama as portrayed by the poet Valmiki, particularly by analysing two controversial incidents. One is Rama’s slaying of Valee, with a snide arrow and the other is his putting Sita to a fire test. However, the latter incident, as the author points out, has an illustrating analogy with "Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion".

Hence, contrasting Valmiki’s real-life Rama with certain apparent contradictions and inconsistencies with Rama as the "venerable divinity of beatific visage" in vernacular Ramayanas, the author persuasively argues that "We should rather thank Valimiki for making the character of Rama come alive in a manner so that we relate to his vicissitudes in life as we would to those of an ‘ideal person’ dear to us, and not as a supremely detached super-terrestrial deity far above our humanly reach."

Again, referring to Valmiki’s cogent portrayal of Bharata and other modern scholars’ commentaries on him, particularly the excellent analytical character study of Bharata by the noted, Bengali essayist Dinesh Chandra Sen in his Ramayana Katha (which admittedly exerted a deep impact on the author), the essay Unsung Hero attempts to glorify the undervalued son of Kaikiye as the best of the lot of the main characters in the Ramayana and the epitome of goodness of all word’s heroes.

For his supreme spirit of sacrifice evident in his long and harsh penance, that too, to atone for his mother’s sin and his abnegation of the kingdom by choosing to place Rama’s padukas (golden sandals) on the throne, the author equates Bharata’s story with the story of eternal India.

The last essay pays a befitting tribute to the legendary poet – playwright Kalidasa. "An artist of superlative genius" was aptly introduced to the western world as the "Shakespeare of India" by Sir William Jones, one of Kalidasa’s master translators. Reviewing Kalidasa’s cult drama Abhijana Shakuntalam, it foregrounds the dramatist’s innovative portrayal of Dushyanta, (monument to Kalidasa’s dramatic acumen) with which he moulded the "cut and dried" original Dushyanta-Shakuntla narrative in the Mahabharata into a romantic drama. The portrayal even overshadows the epic in the characterisation of its borrowed star. Besides, it
also throws relative light on eminent playwright Bhavabhuti’s Uttara-Ramacharitam
in the context of departing from the original epic narrative, the Ramayana.

Versatile scholar Abhijit Basu’s analytical and interdisciplinary research into the eternal and transnational relevance of the overwhelming ancient India, enriched with lucid prose and current bibliography, is invaluable for aspiring researchers and students of literature and cultural studies.