Tale of the Mystics

Last Updated : 15 October 2010, 13:11 IST
Last Updated : 15 October 2010, 13:11 IST

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Mukunda Rao calls his new work a novel but he follows the classic mode of storytelling we find in the epics. A narrator who is himself a well-rounded character, sometimes accompanied by a sidekick, tells an audience of villagers his take on life, illustrated through historical episodes. Bahurupi’s stories are not of gods and demons but of the mystics who seemed to roam the land much more prolifically in the 12th century — Allama Prabhudeva, Basavanna, Dasimayya, Siddarama, and the most fascinating mystic poet of that time, Akka Mahadevi. 

By the 12th century, India had seen several movements of spiritual reawakening and reform, all of which began with a pure, clear vision and sank into confusion and schism. Today we are awash in conventional religion, and many caution that we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. But to an observer in a state of ambivalence, a tiny baby appears to be drowning in much too much bath water.

Mahadevi is Rao’s most interesting character, not just because she is the woman but for her greater purity of principle. None of the saint poets described in this novel even approach a genuine belief in “I am you and you are me” because they cannot believe in equality of male and female. Basava marries two women and then yearns to be free of that “bondage”.

Allama subjects Mahadevi to a sort of trial before allowing her to join the assembly of monks at Kalyana, challenging her way of life and asking questions that are repulsive to a reader even now. He considers himself a free seeker, but he is not enlightened enough to allow a woman that status until she proves herself. To whom does he prove himself? 

This is not just an application of a 21st century standard to the sentiments of the 12th century. It is essential to the truth these poets were seeking. If there is no equality of male and female in the eyes of an enlightened seeker, how can there be any other kind of equality, including that between castes? 

All of these seekers go where their feet take them, in Rao’s words, so they naturally end up in very different places. Mahadevi is the true rebel, rejecting social rules and yet respecting every individual as a manifestation of the one Self. She makes no hierarchies. Basavanna’s Anubhavamantapa houses another kind of movement.

As Rao puts it, “these new soldiers of Shiva were both messianic and militant in their approach and character,” and “from time to time the movement swung from the profound to the ridiculous.” That last note is the history of Hinduism in a nutshell. 

The very term anubhaava refers to the “unmediated experience or vision of the Infinite Absolute”, but every sanyasi in the Anubhavamantapa seems to distrust his own vision. “We want others to lead us, guide us! Why?” says Allama, exhorting his would — be followers to think for themselves. He says even the compassion of a guru is an illusion, a kind of egoism that enslaves rather than liberates. And yet Allama pronounces, and his disciples listen. 

Words can stun the hearer, stop him cold, and catalyse a sea change in his mind. The vachanas or short poems that all these mystics spontaneously sang expressed a feeling of the moment, and their poetry had all those effects on others. But words are often quoted out of context and tie one’s beliefs up into knots.

Basava, asked by the king’s minister to explain what he said in his vachanas about castes and scriptures, is sometimes confused, sometimes irritated. His words are subversive, no doubt, but the king’s minister can see in them only what undermines the political order, not what can transform life for everyone. 

The greater masters, one feels, are those who teach through silence — Dakshinamurty, Ramana, and Ajagana, the young ascetic whose story Rao briefly tells in this book. Ajagana does not talk of his spiritual progress. It is personal and unique and may not hold lessons for anyone else. Can we, in fact, ask and answer on this subject at all?
Mahadevi walks out of Basava’s ashram to continue her own quest for union with Shiva. To acquire disciples and house them in a mutt is no part of that quest. She has braved all, even the small-minded criticisms of fellow ascetics, and it is her small collection of vachanas that any reader of this novel will seek out. 

Rao’s prose is often clumsy, and the translations of the vachanas are uninspired, but his characters must arrest our attention. It is not that the mystics of the 12th century were giants and those of today are little, but that the pure spirit of inquiry that is the best part of Hinduism is fragile. Age after age, it gets bogged down in words and rituals. 

Mystics like Mahadevi, who walk naked and free into their future, who refuse to teach, are the ones from whom we must learn.

Published 15 October 2010, 13:11 IST

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