In many ways, both cannot lay claim to absolute truth. Mythology just takes fantasy a little further, that’s all.
On atheism and his return to faith
I became an atheist in my teenage years and was one for good 10-12 years. Writing the first book of the Shiva trilogy, Immortals of Meluha (2010), slowly brought me back to faith. I grew up in a very religious family. My grandfather was a pandit in Kashi. So we grew up in that atmosphere. And in a sense, it was a sort of return. Sadly, in modern India, we have lost much of our ancient wisdom. There is this assumption that atheism is somehow wrong, which is not the way our ancestors saw it. So we need to imbibe that there is nothing wrong with atheism, and, in India, atheism did not emerge as a reaction to an intrusive organised religion. So, even atheism in India was not as extremist as modern atheism in the West, where they tend to judge religious people. Our ancestors were a lot more chilled out than we are. We could learn from them, frankly.
On his Rama Chandra series and why he chose the Ramayana
There is this lovely line that I read once — ‘No Indian, regardless of his religion, regardless of the varna he comes from, regardless of the language they speak at home, no Indian hears the Ramayana for the first time’. We’re almost born with it. And it’s true in many ways. It is part of our genes, part of our bones. But a part of our celebration of the adi kavya, which is what the Ramayana was, or the itihasa—the Mahabharata, we kept exploring different perspectives of it. We’re truly fascinated by our gods and goddesses, and the way we approached our gods and goddesses, because there is no concept of judgment in the ancient Indian way. The perspective was more to understand, learn and apply in your own life. So, we keep approaching those stories from different perspectives.
On the Indian tradition of questioning the gods
Is there a translation for the English word ‘blasphemy’ in Vedic Sanskrit? No, there isn’t. (Our ancestors) never had a word for it because the concept wasn’t there. Nothing was beyond question. If you read the Natya Shastra, a text which I think should be taught in our schools — sadly, we don’t learn enough about our kick-ass ancestors — the first chapter is a paean to freedom of expression. It’s a retelling of the first play ever performed and that was used as an excuse to discuss freedom of expression. Those are our intrinsic roots. Sadly, we’ve forgotten them.
On his new work, Raavan, being his darkest novel
It’s Raavan, he is not going to be a good boy! So, obviously, it will end up being a dark book. But I think, modern urban understanding of Raavan has been driven a lot by television serials, which tend to look at him in a very simplistic way. We’ve forgotten many of the ancient versions which looked at Raavan from a very nuanced perspective and showed his good points as well. He was a deep, complex man. He wasn’t just a violent thug. He was a scholar. He was a brilliant musician. Those things can’t be denied. He was a brilliant administrator.
On a book carrying the writer’s message
A book without a philosophy is as bad or as pointless as a body without a soul. So it doesn’t matter if the readers agree with the philosophy or not. It doesn’t matter if they get the philosophy or don’t get the philosophy. But the writer must put out his thoughts, his ideologies, his philosophies into the book. That’s the purpose of a book. A story is essentially a wrapper to convey the philosophies that you want to convey. At least that’s the way I think a book should be approached.
On the need to teach culture
I keep saying this repeatedly. We need to teach people our culture. We’re still carrying on with the education system we inherited from the British. I dislike the habit of blaming the British for everything. They have been gone for 70 years. Now the fault is clearly ours. If we change our education system, the Queen of England is not going to come and do a dharna here, right? See, nothing is stopping us from changing it, and reconnecting our education system with our roots, which will actually help our society. That brings me back to the Constitution. The Constitution is not as respectful of individual rights as we think it is. It often tends to recognise group rights a lot more. And true liberalism emerges when we can respect individual rights a lot more strongly.
On distinguishing between mythology and history
In many ways, both cannot lay claim to absolute truth. Mythology just takes fantasy a little further, that’s all. These are interpretations which you imbibe as a culture to give you fuel for the greatness today or give you fuel for liberalism today. Find the truth, find the theory which works for you today, which gives you the succour, the peace, the fuel, that you need for today. That’s the practical, pragmatic thing to do.