Amish Tripathi’s new book is a work of non-fiction, the second for the best-selling author of the Shiva Trilogy and Ram Chandra series. Co-authored with older sister Bhavna Roy, Dharma: Decoding The Epics For a Meaningful Life has been a long time in the making. Employing a conversational style, the authors deftly weigh the benefit of philosophies embedded in stories from ancient Indian epics. In a Zoom interview with Faizal Khan, Tripathi, currently director of Nehru Centre, London, and Roy reflect on the importance of India’s traditional knowledge in the difficult times today. Edited excerpts:
How did the series come about?
Amish Tripathi: This book has been long in the making. I think my sister would be a better person to talk about it.
Bhavna Roy: The project began in 2013-14. We are a close-knit family and around 2014 we got talking about idol worship, the philosophical basis of idol worship. Amish, whose three series were out already, suggested that I write about it. Initially I wrote about 15-20 pages and sent them to him. He called me up and was very forthright. “This is not happening. This is very theoretical and not readable. Let’s work on it,” he said.
He converted my 20 pages into conversations. He created this wonderful family of parents, a daughter and a son-in-law. It is primarily a debate between a man and his father-in-law. He created a guru-shishya relationship between a man and his son-in-law. The script went back and forth between us till 2016 when it went into cold storage for personal reasons. During the pandemic, he called me up one day and suggested we start working on it once again.
Did you consider it as a series when you started writing?
Amish Tripathi: Yes, there are many conversations that need to take place on this. One of the key things to realise with dharma is that the very concept is beyond religion. Dharma is also erroneously translated as religion in India. At the root of the word, dharma, is a Sanskrit root, dhri, which means to bind. The question that always animated our ancestors across all religions, all communities the most is the answer to this question, What is dharma? In finding the answer to that we actually learn how to live. Philosophy, at least the way our ancestors show it, is different from the way modern westerners see it, where philosophy has been reduced to a subject that is simply studied in the humanities stream. Something to just graduate and something you do some mental calisthenics with it.
For our ancestors philosophy was essentially learning how to live your life. It is a critical skill that sadly most of us don’t have these days. One can actually keep debating this subject for an entire lifetime. Remember, your concept of dharma will be different from my concept of dharma simply because our back stories are different and our life experiences are different. We are going to carry forward this series in the form of conversations. The Upanishads are written through conversations. Even the names that you find in the book — Dharma Raj, Nachiket, Gargi and Lopamudra — are actually symbolic of the Upanishads. We will discuss various aspects. One of the things that could come up is how we should react to a global pandemic like coronavirus which has destroyed so many lives.
Bhavna Roy: We ourselves are figuring out how to live. What we are doing is sharing even as we are figuring it out.
The book is about conversations, but there are also stories. How do you figure out this could be the way you talk about our rich past to the present generation. How important are our stories?
Amish Tripathi: Stories are essentially, in the traditional Indian way, vehicles to convey philosophies. They are never stories by themselves, for all of us Indians regardless of religions and regions. Stories that define how we look at life are often there in The Ramayana and The Mahabharat. Ved Vyas composed The Mahabharat, which is called the fifth veda, as a way to convey the philosophy of the vedas through a very good story. The Mahabharat is a story you can’t put down. They are page turners and very absorbing. While listening to the story, you understand the philosophy of the vedas without realising it. This is the role model for all writers in the Indian tradition.
If you read Bhima of MT Vasudevan Nair, the English translation (Bhima: Lone Warrior translated from the Malayalam — Randamoozham — by Gita Krishnankutyy), it is a completely different take on The Mahabharat. The key thing is not so much the story that MT Vasudevan Nair puts across. It is the philosophy that you learn from his interpretation of Bhima that most Indians will instinctively get when you read. For us the stories are always a vehicle for some philosophy. It doesn’t matter if you learn a different philosophy and I learn a different one. That is okay, that is the Indian way. All of us will find our own philosophies.
There is a passage in the book that says there are many paths to wisdom and it is possible for each of us to find our fate without compromising. How does it relate to a world of such conflicts and different thoughts?
Bhavna Roy: The world is difficult, it has always been so, even during the Ram Rajya. Technology has added a megaphonic dimension to human life and human state. Having said that the only way to deal with complexity may be to first understand ourselves. Understand who I am and understand the people I am relating to. The only way I understand you and the way you see the world is when I first understand myself. When I do understand myself and I understand you, that is when I will be able to figure out whether I should involve you in my life. There is no other way.
Amish Tripathi: Gautam Buddha had said, the first of his four noble truths, that grief is reality. All of us are cursed with our share of grief. None of us can escape it. Life is not about what happens to us, it is about how we react to what happens to us. And that is in our hands. For us to get into that conversation, mere saath kyun ho raha hai, that is a demoralising conversation, because sab ke saath ho raha hai. Everyone in some parts of life is blessed with more than he deserves and in some parts is cursed with more than he deserves. This is life and this will always be. The philosophies that we learn about how we react to it will define how we will live. Those are the things that we try and cover in this book.
In my Ram Chandra series, both Ram and Ravan suffer. Life treats them unfairly. But Ram behaves differently and Ravan behaves differently. Ravan suffered genuinely. I am not belittling his suffering. But the more he suffered the more angry he got. He only made it worse for himself whereas Lord Ram, the more he suffered the more noble he became. He said I would never stop giving to others what I did not receive. What it does is it changes the conversation in your life.
If you start thinking in that way, it is the most empowering thought in life. There are people who are blessed with everything and still unhappy. There are people who are struggling and still happy. So much of it is in your mind. You can be at peace even in the toughest of situations if you have the right attitude. Look at so many doctors during the pandemic doing their duty. I get so much inspiration when I read interviews with doctors, our sanitation workers, nurses… they have such a positive attitude. That is something to learn from.
In the book Nachiket asks his father-in-law Dharma Raj about the Wuhan coronavirus ‘the CPC (Communist Party of China) has unleashed on the world’. Dharma Raj’s answer appears elusive.
Amish Tripathi: I am not saying that democracies are perfect. There are many improvements that can be made. I am living in a western country. Many improvements can be made in the democracies in the West and in India, southeast Asia, Australia, South Korea. There is no perfection. But if there is a choice between living in a world which is more democratic and living in a world ruled by a superpower which is an authoritarian, efficient country, I would much rather live in a democratic world.
But I think many of us in democracies across the world have to kind of take a step back and stop our internal petty rivalries within our democracies and between democracies as well. There is a broader moral issue for the next generation that we are facing. The kind of things that are happening. One million people are in concentration camps, organs are being harvested while they are alive. This is not okay. I am saying once again, there are many improvements that can be made in democracies. This is the key moral question for the next generation. We have to be aware of it.
Dharma: Decoding the Epics for a Meaningful Life
Amish & Bhavna Roy
Pp 224, Rs 499
Faizal Khan is a freelancer