Book Review—The Meaning of India By Raja Rao

“India is not a country (desa), it is a perspective (darsana); it is not a climate but a mood (rasa) in the play of the absolute— it is not the Indian who makes India but ‘India’ makes the Indian, and this India is in all: it is that centre of awareness wherein ones’s self dips again and again into the hearth of Agni, as the sacrifice is made.”

~ Raja Rao in The Meaning of India

This romanticised description of India hits you hard when you think about the day-to-day experiences of a citizen. This morning, I was standing in the queue of a grocery store. A middle-aged man wanted to skip the queue because he had fewer items in his hand. The man was consciously (or unconsciously) violating social distancing norms which are essential to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus. There was no common sense in his brain. A large majority of Indians behave this way. Has ‘India’ made these Indians? I have serious doubts. In my opinion, the ‘centre of awareness’ of a large majority of Indians dips again and again in the hearth of stupidity.

Be that as it may, I was quite surprised and impressed by Raja Rao’s approach to writing. He manages to put together an eclectic collection of essays under a heading that does not do justice to the variety of thoughts explored in this book.

I was surprised when I learnt that the author is from my state, Karnataka. He traces his roots to Hassan District. Fortunately (you’ll realise why I say this very soon), I had never heard of his name before I received this book from the Indic Book Club.

The blurb tries to capture the crux of the book. It is says — ‘The Meaning of India advances the view that India is not just a geographical entity or even a civilisational-state. India is, above all, a metaphysic, a way of being and regarding the self and the world.’

If that was supposed to be the core message of this book, I must confess that the author has done a shoddy job.

If not for the dreamy, poetic flavour of the writer’s prose, this book would have deserved its rightful place — the dustbin. The writer wants to convince us that India is an unmatched ‘spiritual entity’ because of its epics, Vedas, Upanishads and certain towering personalities (like Nehru, Buddha and Gandhi).

Raja Rao writes — ‘India was a goddess, like Sita, and prisoner of Ravana again and again, and Pandit Nehru was not like Sri Rama of course, but rather like Bharatha, because Gandhiji was Sri Rama of course, and so for us, Bharatha, the great sage-hero’s loyal younger brother. How shall we ever forget that? We never shall’.

Equating Lord Rama with Gandhi should be considered a thought-crime. You’ll know why if you have read certain controversial excerpts from Gandhi’s autobiography.

Raja Rao’s essay on Gandhi— Mahatma Gandhi: Saint or Politician— is written from the perspective of a disciple. I have to admit that it is moving. One realises why we have deified Mahatma so much in India. It’s because of people like Raja Rao. The author constantly draws parallels between the Buddha and Gandhi. Again, this makes for a wonderful read, but drives us towards personality cults, something that has always lead to bad results.

Even if one ignores this sycophancy, the author fails to explain how Vedic ‘wisdom’, locked up in abstract language can be unleashed to benefit the average Indian. In fact, he fails to explain the unique spiritual flavour that has emerged out of India in simple words.

But, thankfully, the writer’s obsession with Nehru, Gandhi, Malraux, Forster, Buddha and Vedic texts makes it a book which has something to offer to the reader. It provides an insight into the life of this young man from Hassan who got the opportunity to study abroad, and later, to meet well known personalities of his time. He has acquired a hidden devotion for Nehru, no doubt. In one part of the book he claims that he saw the ‘air of a grand mogul’ in Nehru.

Rao introduces us to an Indophile named Andre Malraux. Malraux is a novelist and later serves as a minister in De Gaulle’s (De Gaulle was a French President) cabinet. He dedicates two essays (When Malraux Meets Jawaharlal Nehru and Andre Malraux Among the Gods of India) in the book to this personality. Again the writer oozes a childlike fascination for Malraux. How do these essays on Malraux help me understand the ‘meaning of India’ or its heritage? I have no idea.

One has to force oneself to find bits and pieces of clear writing in the rest of his essays. In many places, the author writes French text without offering an English translation. Even when he quotes Vedas and scriptures, none of it connects to the central theme of the book. Most of his essays seem to be fleeting thoughts his mind dragged for too long. That clearly indicates that the author did not have the best interests of the reader in mind. Or, call me a plebeian if you will.

I had to force myself to finish this book. Raja Rao clearly demonstrates how one should not write if the goal is to articulate an idea as grand as ‘the meaning of India’. I am sure that Raja Rao had great intentions and a grand vision while conceiving this book. But it does not accomplish its aim. Not in my opinion.

Would I recommend this book to anyone? Hell no! Please don’t be misled by the beautiful cover and awards won by the author.

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