The Rime and the Mariner (I)

Hi Elizabeth,

It’s great to be communicating this way. I am a pretty impulsive fellow, I do stuff when I really have a strong feeling about it, so I’m gonna treat you like an old acquaintance and go all out. One should not be niggardly with affection when the occasion arises out of nothing.

You could be one of the most unusual people I have seen. You are not yet thirty… and you have already been a muscle-prodigy – one among the best – and then you have shifted tracks, taken a parallel path, and set off in the pursuit of spiritual treasure. And I know something, – your renouncing of the hardcore fitness lifestyle, shedding of the bodybuilder image – this is only a superficial thing. Your actual goal is not to trade one thing for another, but to reconcile the two and see how that story turns out.

Maybe some think that you are not the unstoppable muscle-girl anymore. Maybe some think you have forsaken all that. But why would you? The physical identity you wear is just as sacred and special as the spiritual identity you bear. The universe does not share our prejudice against ‘mere flesh!’ I will share with you in our conversations ahead: an ancient philosophical text says, “Nayam atma balahinena labhyo.” (Mundaka Upanishad (3.2.4). Translated, it means – “The Spirit is not to be attained by the physically weak.”

I don’t believe you have ‘given up’ the essence of bodybuilding. No, what you’ve done is expand yourself into a wider space. What you want is to go and get that mind, that heart, that perfectly fits the physique you have achieved. Not a lopsided personality, with a perfect and powerful body and a less-than-perfect mind. Not a partial prize. No… what you want is a true alignment of your body, mind and soul.

I am your opposite in many ways. First of all, I am very, very out of shape. Working at the yards for too long does that to you. Secondly, unlike you, I am no star at all. My only chance of being famous is getting kidnapped by terrorists and put on a screen.

There’s no reason you and I should be friends. I mean, I know there are literally thousands of units out there who would leap at the chance to talk to a star like this. – But well, even without the approval or expectation of our narrow scope, some things happen. Nature doesn’t measure the elements of life on the same scale as we do. Maybe it is absolutely reasonable for us to be friends, after all. “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost.”

I think we have a lot to cover. So now, without much more ado, let’s get down to action.

I am going to show you a few things regarding the books you will need to read. I’m putting a few links here, so that you can keep these on your hit-list, and read/explore them at leisure. I have chosen these keeping two things in mind:

1) They should have both story-value and philosophy value.

As in, they should be completely authentic to the original text in Sanskrit (not diluted or censored versions… there are so many of these. These books being thousands of years old, you have, like, 2000-year-old versions of these which are not original, but diluted). They should tell a reader the complete story, with as few omissions as possible, in a nice style.

And they should also help the reader discover the underlying depths of the work by offering notes and explanations, without turning into a cheap moral-instructional manual. There should be honesty of philosophical query.

2) They should be an efficient buy for you.

They should be available to you in the US, and they should be enough that you don’t have to buy another edition of these books again. Sufficient for a lifetime. Reading these may be slow, and you will be taking time to get used to it, but I think I can trust Elizabeth Rime to push through heavy work like a badass.

Below are some links I fished out of the Amazon.

The first one is what you should probably start with. It will take you through the best-known epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also through many stories from the Puranas: the mythological tales from ancient India. You will enjoy this book as a storybook, and it will introduce you to many, many characters. You will like some of them, dislike some of them, be amazed by some, and find yourself in some of them. And when you start grappling with the bigger, more uncompromising versions that I have put afterwards, – you will find it easier because you already have a base.

The most approachable modern retelling. Start with this. – https://www.amazon.com/Indian-Epics-Retold-Ramayana-Mahabharata/dp/0140255648

The Upanishads (a few of them) – https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8172765428

The Ramayana – https://www.amazon.com/Valmiki-Ramayana-Set-Volumes-ebook/dp/B07F2LDQWS

The Mahabharata (10 book set) – https://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-10-vol-Box-Set/dp/0143424785

The Mahabharata (1st part, single book) – https://www.amazon.com/Mahabharata-1-Translated-Bibek-Debroy-ebook/dp/B06XY9RRPK

The Gita (Part 1 of 3) – https://www.amazon.com/Universal-Message-Bhagavad-Gita-Exposition/dp/8175052139

The Markandeya Purana – https://www.amazon.com/Markandeya-Purana-Bibek-Debroy-tr/dp/0143448250

The Vivekachudamani – https://www.amazon.com/Message-Vivekachudamani-Exposition-Modern-Thoughts/dp/8175053089/

Among these, the Upanishads are the most ancient. They are, in a nutshell, the cream of the books known as the Vedas. The Vedas are some of the very oldest books written by humankind. They are not religious books, not at all. Rather they are works of philosophy and poetry, with a strong spiritual tone.

Out of the two Indian epics, Ramayana is the older, and the more poetic. It is well to remember that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not ‘religious texts.’ Yes, characters in them have been adopted by the people of India over the centuries as deities, but the works themselves were never meant to be items of religious worship. They are essentially ‘Maha-Kavya’, which simply means ‘Great Poetry,’ – in other words… epics. Ramayana is historically older, and the stories in it also take place earlier than the stories in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is longer and more complex than the Ramayana. It is like a giant canvas that holds a contemporary picture of India as a whole, a vast novel, – somewhat like G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Only, this is even bigger.

Both Ramayana and Mahabharata are quasi-histories. They are based upon real societies and real cultures, and also adapt patterns of real historical happenings. But contrary to what many people blindly believe, they are not actual history. It is self-evident, really. These books work through metaphors and symbolism. Taking them to be the literal truth is misleading and stagnating. I know I need not tell you this, but India is going through a very crucial time, a period of rampant, triumphant Hindu fundamentalism… a political cancer that is tearing apart the social, cultural and rational fabric of my country. I don’t want to burden you with this discussion right now, – but just be aware. If you start engaging with India, if you come here, or if you talk to people about it – you will face this. People will try to initiate you into their own personal belief system and cult. Don’t be misled by these peddlers of blind faith and pseudoscience. They sell fake trinkets that will keep you from the real gem.

How do you know I am not a peddler like that myself? – Well, because I won’t ask you to believe something that doesn’t make sense to you. I’ll insist that you verify in your mind whatever I say to you. Religion is when others tell you what the truth is; spirituality is when you find it out for yourself. Whatever I’m doing here, – you’ll find out the truth by yourself.

The Gita is actually a part of the Mahabharata. But it is such a dense philosophical treatise that it has been treated as a separate book by scholars for thousands of years. The book I have suggested for you is a three-part work, and you’ll simply love it. That guy who wrote that book, – he was the head of the institution where I had my school education. He’s a brilliant, brilliant fellow. I couldn’t have suggested you a better read when it comes to the Gita.

The Markandeya Purana is one of the many puranas in Indian mythology. You will already have read some stories from it in the book by R K Narayana (the first book I suggested you read). This is a more detailed text. I chose this particular purana for you because of a special reason… I’ll tell you all about it sometime later.

And finally the Vivekachudamani. This is a tough text. A very hardcore work of philosophy, by one of the most hardcore spiritual philosophers India has ever produced. But this version is edited by Swami Ranganathananda, the guy whose Gita (and also the Upanishads) I have recommended for you. His commentaries should make the read enjoyable and rewarding for you.

And by the time you read the Vivekachudamani (which will be years from now, you won’t need my help by then), you will be strong enough to navigate these waters. The wargirl of philosophy. There’s a character like this in Indian mythology. Wait, not one, there are at least three. Okay, maybe more. I’ll stop now. Can’t tell you everything in one mail.

Let’s pull up here. See you in the next letter.

(To be continued.)

10 thoughts on “The Rime and the Mariner (I)

  1. The Vedas, the Ramayana and the other scriptures were written around 5th century BCE(Wikipedia),and printing was invented in the 15th century so that would mean that all of those scriptures were told to the people orally and that couldn’t be on a large scale,so here i had the doubt that how was the whole country influenced by it and how was it that the whole country accepted that? For something like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, those are texts which talk about super powers which we can’t really see in the world, so for people to accept something like that it should have actually happened. Please have a thought about it. This thought suddenly stuck into my mind.
    And another thing, I am not very sure about it that the oldest Hindu idol was from around 26000 BCE (Kalpa Vigraha) and, some of the rock carvings and the paintings in the Bhimbetka rock shelters are from 10000 BCE which scholars have interpreted as Shiva dancing, Shiva’s trident and his mount Nandi (Wikipedia).

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    • To address this with proper references and details, it will take time for me to gather all the information; I will try and discuss whenever I can; until then, I hope others carry on the discussion in the comments. For now, though, I can point out a few things. One, – ‘the whole country was influenced by it’ over many subsequent centuries. Experts have count of some 300 versions of the Ramayana that were written over the millennia. So it is a fallacy to imagine a pan-Indian Ramayana existing back then in the Vedic age.

      Another way to realize that the Ramayana cannot be history is the sheer number of extra-natural events in the tale. If the Ramayana is history, then a gigantic flying monkey (carrying a mountain from the Himalayas to the southern tip of India) is biology.

      About the Kalpa Vigraha, I quote a retired archaeologist – “I would like to point out that the wooden chests radiocarbon date of 26,000 years B.P. does not date the idol but rather dates the wood the chest is made from. This likely represents an “old wood” problem well known to archaeologists, where the date of the sample associated with the “target” item (the idol) varies greatly in age. The heartwood of old teak can be thousands of years older then the outer wood of the same tree. Even older wood cane be found in moraines at the base of glaciers.” – This seems to solve the mystery, since the Holocene epoch itself is only around 11,700 years old.

      The Bhimbetka paintings are a lot more likely to be authentic records. But even then, note that the paintings might not have been created by a person who had ‘Shiva’ in mind. Maybe ancient artworks cumulatively created the character of Shiva over many, many years.

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      • Yes I truly agree that there won’t be a pan – Indian Ramayana. Ramayana then is a story madeup by someone told to people then it was written by many people in their own version and the publicity was so much that a whole country is talking about it , that’s hilarious. People then would have been so stupid to accept something like that as real. And if we consider this as a work of art then the ones who had written it told that Hanuman had infinite strength so for someone that strong , stronger than billions of the strongest creatures on the planet, it won’t be difficult for them to lift a mountain and travel that distance, so this was like some superhero comic with characters Sentry.

        One fact I learnt about the kalpa vigrah is that it’s made of brass and brass was invented in 500bc and the kalpa vigrah is believed to be way older than that. This information about the vigrah would mostly be wrong . It was under cia for a span of time but then was smuggled to India and now where it is, is unknown(saw it on booksfact.com, sounded convincing). Maybe that is the reason why we cannot get much information about it on the web.

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          • He started off as a jump, but that definitely turned into major league flying. Remember, he was attacked by multiple creatures on his way, and he fought them mid-air, and then proceeded on his ‘jump.’ That kinda ‘jump’ is clearly flight 😅

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        • Yes, if we take the Ramayana as a work of fiction, which has very good points in it we can learn from, then there’s no issue at all. Like you said, there are plenty of amazing books that are clearly not ‘true,’ but are prized possessions of humanity.

          Hanuman is indeed comparable to Sentry in terms of power; Sentry is said to have the ‘power of one million exploding suns.’ Fits Hanuman all right.

          And yes, firstly the whole case of the Kalpa Vigraha is shady. Secondly, even if we want to research about it, the internet is a zoo of fake information. So.

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  2. That is before the scriptures were written. If that is true then that means people believed in higher beings before the scriptures were written and were open for people. Please have a thought about it too.

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    • Yes, of course, beliefs came before written records and books. Beliefs are a product of thought and emotion. You will find a very illuminating discussion on this in Yuval Noah Harari’s seminal work, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.’

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  3. If it is true then that means that people believed in higher beings before the scriptures were written and presented to the public, and the scriptures also talk about it as mention of Satyayuga and Treta yuga where people were very much in devotion towards higher beings. Please have a thought about it also.

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    • Yes. One amusing difference between Hinduism and Christianity is that as per Hinduism, humanity is much, much older than is accepted by science; and as per Christianity, the entire world is only about 6000 years old.

      The two faiths are similar in the fact they have no concept of the origin and evolution of various forms of life. Humanity, according to these beliefs, started off at the same time the universe started off.

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