Shifting Perspectives: The Tale of Dead Poets, Caves and Three Fish
As I sat in front of my writing desk, trying to pick an article idea for my first post from five dozen drafts, I stumbled upon a response paper wrote during my Master’s. It was a critical study on the Socio-Philosophical aspects of the Virashaiva poetry- the Vacanas, a story of Shifting Perspectives.
Its structure was unusual. It had a prelude that doubled as a personal note unlike other response papers I usually wrote back then. It described an intriguing incident in the life of A.K. Ramanujan.
A.K. Ramanujan and the Dead Poet:
He is a famous scholar, translator, poet and folklorist. Ramanujan translated kannada Vacanas in his book Speaking of Siva. I was using this book as a source to write my response paper at the time.
As all researchers do, I started reading up every bit of available information on the Vacanas, Veerashaivas, Ramanujan and Shaiva philosophy. In the course of reading, I stumbled upon a poem authored by Ramanujan.
The footnote of the poem revealed an incident in his life. He was once translating a book of poems written by Atmanam. He was so impressed by the poems that he felt those were probably the best poems in Tamil.
“I had some connection with him that I couldn’t quite define.” Amidst translating, his intrigue led him to read the biographical note at the end of the book.”
– A.K. Ramanujan
He was shocked to read that Atmanam committed suicide in 1983. Before attempting suicide, Atmanam was reading, day and night, his book Speaking of Siva, to find solace. This discovery shook up Ramanujan.
I handpicked the best books written by Ramanujan. He translated folktales and poetry in the time he was alive:
- Here is his translation of Veerashaiva poetry: Speaking of Shiva
- Ramanujan’s best works of his lifetime are available in his Collected Essays.
- Understand and express love from his translations of fantastic poems from Love Poetry.
What he read in that moment introduced him to a different world in which he was unaware of his participation. That is when he wrote the following poem.
A poem, which was incomprehensible to me until I read the footnote which contained the story of Ramanujan and Atmanam. A poem, which I thought would undoubtedly double as a brain teaser before I got to know the backstory.
Twenty years ago,
the saints who sang ten centuries ago about Siva
without any thought of me,
I didn’t have any thought of
a young man in Madras ten years ago
who would read them through my words
night and day his hand toying with pills
his eyes with colours turning on a wheel
with the poems that had no thought
of him or me who had no thought of him
gasping in the mist between day and the needles
in the wrist between to be or not to be…
Let me quickly share a similar experience of a Korean monk- Wonhyo before I get back to Ramanujan’s story.
The Monk in a tomb:
In 661 A.D., a Korean Monk- Wonhyo- was accompanying another prominent monk- Uisang on a journey to China. This journey would later be recounted for centuries in innumerous tales.
Due to the political tensions among the three kingdoms of Korea and with Tang China, Wonhyo and Uisang’s journey to China got disrupted a few times. According to the Sung Biography of Eminent Priests, both started again in the year 661.
They were supposed to board a ship from Haemun as a part of their journey. But, as fate would have it, they had to halt the journey and take shelter in a nearby cave. In the darkness and unfamiliarity of the cave, Wonhyo searched for water to quench his thirst in the dead of the night.
Finding a bowl filled with sweet water, he drinks from it. In the rays of the morning light, Wonhyo finds that the cave was, in fact, a tomb. The “pitcher” from which he drank the sweet water was a skull filled with disgusting fluid.
“When Mind is generated, various laws arise; when Mind dies away, the earth mound and the old tomb become the same.”
Wonhyo never went to China- not because he got inflicted badly by disease- but because he got enlightened about the nature of existence. He didn’t find the need to go to China anymore. He returned to Korea and developed his philosophical theory: the One Mind Philosophy.
One would want to delve deeper into his philosophy. You can read about it from his book: Wonhyo’s One Mind. If you are interested in Wonhyo’s explanation of Buddhist Sutras, I recommend reading: Vajrasamadhi Sutra.
There are several versions of this story of Wonhyo, the stormy night, and the cave. But a common theme runs across all those retellings- his One Mind Philosophy.
The mind is the origin of all objects. The meanings we attach to the objects like profanity and sacredness are non- existent. They are not a property of the object, but a result of the mind’s fabrication.
One Mind philosophy
Korean society, at the time, had strict social codes and hierarchies. These hierarchies extended to Buddhism as well. Bone- rank system was applied to religion.
It only qualified people who were aristocrats, rulers and monks to monkhood and moksha. Laymen and householders did not practice Buddhism as it required them to practice certain professions or renunciate.
Wonhyo was the crazy monk who renunciated renunciation and returned to laymen life after his realization. He understood that Buddhahood was a state of mind and can be practised by anyone regardless of their position in the social ladder.
According to him, impurity or purity are mentally constructed concepts. He smashed the following concepts as the qualifying criteria for attaining spiritual realization, which existed then:
- Social order given at birth by the Bone Rank System.
- The profession one chooses to be in for daily sustenance.
Wonhyo made Buddhahood accessible to everyone.
He advocated for equality in the realm of spirituality in his day and age, though he was unaware of it. He did this not by starting a revolution. It all started with Wonhyo undergoing a shift in his own perspective and arriving at the One Mind Philosophy in the tomb on a stormy dark night.
Ramanujan, Wonhyo and Water:
I’m not writing to prove that the universe is connected; neither was Ramanujan. I do not pretend to make sense of all the innumerous connections and impact chains we are unknowingly participating in this world, as we continue our insignificant existence on this planet within the galaxies which are constantly expanding and collapsing.
I’m not preaching about religion, equality or dogma; neither did Wonhyo. Wonhyo simply discovered a new way in which he could experience the world and that idea tipped. He shook up the social dynamics of 7th Century Korea by drinking the disgusting skull water.
Most importantly, what I’m definitely not doing is endorsing drinking mush water to reach spiritual realizations. Let me clarify my intent with an excerpt from the commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace (Disclaimer: It is about water.).
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Wallace was a thought leader who wrote extraordinary novels and taught creative writing during his lifetime. You must have heard of the books: “Girl with curious hair” and “Infinite Jest”. Both are written by Wallace. Find these works and more here:Wallace’s Writing.
The young fish eventually discovered water- their default setting. Most of us continue to be oblivious of our default settings: the sea of ideas we swim in throughout our lives.
The stories of Ramanujan, Wonhyo and the three fishes have a similar arc. All start with certain ideas about the world in which they live- a default setting of operation.
We tend to continue being unaware of the water of notions, pre-conceived judgements and habits we practice day after day after day. And someday, we see the water and may break out of one out of many cycles.
Being aware and understanding the operations of our default settings is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.
David Foster Wallace
Sometimes, this breakthrough could change your life. And most times, your life is not altered upside down and you are not selling a Ferrari to go to snowy Himalayan peaks.
But what it does is make you more aware of the Water that surrounds you. It will make you discover water once-in-a-while, where there was only swimming.
And then something happens outside the realms of this setting, resulting in a shift in their perspective. That is how all breakthroughs that the world has ever witnessed start.
Shifting Perspectives: My Water story
A few years ago, I also had a similar shift in perspective about the way in which research is written and understood. At the time, I thought academic works and research writing needed to possess a quality of dry sophistication. I thought academic writing and storytelling never coincided, so did a few other intellectuals.
When I first read Ramanujan’s story, it sparked intrigue in me. As interesting as the story was, at the time I didn’t think I would use it. I thought it was safer to stick to the default mode of academic writing and stay away from direct speech as I did for other papers to appear “scholarly”.
It is not just upto the politicians to improve the fairness and quality of India’s History. Unless Indian historians learn to make their work intelligeble and attractive to a wider audience, and especially to their own voraciously literate middle class, unhistorical myths will continue to flourish.
Thankfully, the Professor assessing that paper was my mentor Professor Aditya Malik, so the idea was not thrashed. He was a scholar who knows his way around water and would encourage us to operate outside our default setting as well.
His works on South Asian History and Religion are brilliant. Among many other themes, he worked on Oral Histories, Divine Embodiments and Hinduism. You can get them here: Aditya Malik’s works.
I could think of ways in which I could incorporate it into the body of work without compromising the concept of the essay, but I wasn’t sure till I finished writing it.
Somehow, my perspective shifted from trying to conform to the default academic writing style to the realization that the syntax and style we adapt to speak about a topic can’t take away the concept, content or intent of the work.
It was not a breakthrough then, it was just a simple thought sparked by intrigue. It was one of those initial impact moments when I realized the need for Research Story Telling. It is one Water Story.
Do you have a Water story?