Tradition, liberalism & Lord Shiva
In this exclusive interview, AMISH TRIPATHI speaks with ELIZABETH DENLEY about what propelled him to write fiction. A self-professed liberal who at the same time loves the religious traditions of his native India, Amish has brought to life the mythology of Lord Shiva and the Ramayana for young readers, and has developed a pop culture celebrity status in the process.
Q: Welcome Amish.
Q: Through your books it’s obvious that you love mythology and the ancient traditions of India. Where did this love come from?
It’s my good fortune of birth. It’s not just the ancient traditions of India, but ancient traditions across the world. My grandfather was a pandit in Kashi, in Benaras, and he was a teacher as well at the Benaras Hindu University. So I learnt a lot from the family. We grew up learning our stories, our traditions, our philosophies. Both my parents are deeply religious, and one of the good things they poured into us is the respect and love for knowledge and an attitude of questioning everything. Nothing should be taken on blind faith.
So one of the things I learnt early in life from my family was that in Vedic Sanskrit – the language of the ancient Indians – there was no word for ‘blasphemy’. Since the concept didn’t exist, the word didn’t exist. No one was beyond question – no one and nothing. And if you have that kind of attitude and yet you’re willing to learn philosophy, willing to explore faith, willing to explore spirituality, you can have a very rich life. It’s my good fortune that I learnt this from the family.
We weren’t a very well-off family; we had a very humble beginning. But despite the constraints, there were always a lot of books at home. And since we saw our parents reading, it was natural for us to start reading. I read, my wife reads, and my son also reads. Children tend to do what their parents do, not what their parents say. So maybe these were the two things: learning from the family, and lots of reading.
Q: Did you always follow the religious traditions of your parents, or did you challenge this?
I was deeply religious when I was young, but at the age of 15 or 16, when I entered college, I became an atheist. I was an atheist for more than a decade – an extreme atheist. I thought that God was wrong, and religion was wrong; that it was silly. Writing my first book, The Immortals of Meluha, slowly brought me back to faith.
Q: Can you tell us how that happened?
I think all of us discover the form of the Divine that works for us. For someone like me, who is naturally rebellious and anti-elitist, I guess Lord Shiva was the best god to pull me back to faith, and I say this with no disrespect to any other god or goddess. He is the ultimate god of rebels. He is a rule-breaker. He exists outside society, and he is a brilliant dancer and musician. He is very attractive for those of us who are rebellious by nature. For me this worked best.
Q: So is that what drew you to write about him in your first trilogy?
It was actually the other way around. Writing about him kind of pulled me back.
Q: Okay, so why did you start with him?
My book began with a thesis of pure philosophy, an explanation of the question ‘what is evil?’ And that was converted into a story later. The idea was to convey the philosophy through the story. And if I am writing a story to convey a philosophy on evil, the best hero is the destroyer of evil, Lord Shiva.
Q: Your first book was published in 2010, and since then you’ve gone on to become the celebrity pop-culture author of India. It’s a big change from your humble beginnings. How has it been?
It’s been fantastic! I worked in banking for fourteen years, and I resigned only after my second book. Part of having a humble beginning is you tend to be pragmatic about your life choices, so I resigned when my royalty check became more than my salary. It’s been a fantastic ride. I get to do what I love, which is writing, reading, traveling to historical places, and I actually get paid for it!
Q: Why do you think your books have been so popular? Each of them has sold millions of copies. They are about traditional Indian mythology, and most of your readers are young. What’s the magic formula, Amish?
When my first book was ready, every publishing house rejected it, saying,“This has no hope of success, because the primary readership today are the youth and youth aren’t really interested in religion. Even if the story is fast-paced, you’re writing about a god.”
One of the publishers said, “You have these ‘gyan sessions’ where you are discussing philosophies, and this will not work with the youth.” I was advised to write a campus romance instead. So I actually self-published the first book, and it took off, and then many of the publishers who had rejected the book came back to me. It’s not that I predicted it and hence wrote it a certain way. I just wrote the book the way it came to me.
So the pendulum swung to the other extreme, where every tradition was attacked, and many people felt unmoored and uprooted. If there are no roots to hold onto, that doesn’t feel like a good life either. Today humanity is doing so well materially; we have never had it better. In terms of physical security we’ve never had it better. Per capita violence is the lowest humanity has ever seen. And yet loneliness and unhappiness have probably never been higher.
Many people want to find an ideal means to be traditional and also liberal: where you can feel a sense of connectedness to the Divine and tradition, yet still respect LGBT rights, respect women’s rights, respect the environment etc. I think many of these ancient stories serve that need.
There is no point judging others.
There is no point mulling over the past or worrying about the future.
Learn from your past, plan for your future, but don’t get obsessed by it.
The only thing in your control is this moment and your decision in this moment.
So life should be about learning to make better choices now,
and that’s the way to approach these stories.
Q: Mythological stories are incredibly dynamic and non-judgmental. Tell us more about that.
In fact that’s another intriguing thing about the ancient Indian way. Vedic Sanskrit did not have a word for ‘judgment’ either. Again, that concept did not exist.
The entire approach to these stories was not to judge them, and it’s not that the gods or goddesses judged us, either. The entire perspective was to look at those stories, see the archetypes, learn from them and apply the knowledge in our own lives. The philosophy is very clear: the only thing that is in our control is our own choice within this moment. Our past is not in our control, our future is not in our control, and what other people do is certainly not in our control.
So there is no point judging others. There is no point mulling over the past, or worrying about the future. Learn from your past, plan for your future, but don’t get obsessed by it. The only thing in your control is this moment and your decision in this moment. So life should be about learning to make better choices now, and that’s the way to approach these stories.
If you take judgment away, the floodgates open up for learning. Judgment actually stops our ability to learn. In the Ramayan, Lord Ram is the hero and Ravan is the villain. We can learn from Lord Ram, but we can also learn from Ravan. Our task is not to judge him but to learn from him.
Q: The first series was the Shiva trilogy. The second one is the Ramayan. Tell us more.
The Shiva trilogy has three books: The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas, and The Oath of the Vayuputras. And that was my imagination of what could have been the adventure of a man called Shiva, who lived 4,000 years ago, whose adventure was so grand that he was looked upon as a god. He discovered the Divine within himself.
The Ram Chandra series is an interpretation of the Ramayan, literally ‘the travels of Ram’. And I am experimenting with a slightly complex storytelling style, called the multi-linear narrative.
The first book, Ram – Scion of Ishvaku, is from the birth of Lord Ram to the kidnapping of Lady Sita. The second book, Sita – Warrior of Mithila, is from the birth of Lady Sita to the kidnapping of Lady Sita. And the third book, Ravan, which I am writing right now, which will come out by mid 2019, is from the birth of Ravan to the kidnapping of Lady Sita. The fourth book will be a common book up until the death of Ravan, and the fifth book will be about Lord Ram fighting his actual enemies. Ravan was only an opponent; his actual enemies were in his own land.
Perhaps the way to look at Ravan is that
he was a genuinely brilliant man,
with an uncontrolled ego.
Even if you are as talented as him,
if you cannot control your ego,
it’s not going to end well for you.
It’s a mix of different interpretations. You know, the modern Indian version of the Ramayan is actually a 1980s television serial, and if you see the really ancient version, the Valmiki Ramayan, he is not presented as a pure evil demon. He had strengths too. So the first Ramayan, the Valmiki Ramayan, was actually written from that nuanced perspective. He was a devout Lord Shiva worshipper, he was extremely intelligent, and he was a master of the Vedas. There’s a stringed instrument called the rudra veena, and it is like the sitar turbo-charged. Even the musical masters can’t play it, let alone master it. And it is believed that Ravan invented the rudra veena. Perhaps the way to look at Ravan is that he was a genuinely brilliant man, with an uncontrolled ego. Even if you are as talented as him, if you cannot control your ego, it’s not going to end well for you.
Q: You’ve also written a non-fiction book, Immortal India. Tell us about that.
Till Immortal India, I’d written fiction books. Step 1 was always some philosophy that I wanted to convey. The story was step 2, like a wrapper around that philosophy. The core philosophy at the heart of the Shiva trilogy is, “What is evil?”
As the first step is normally the philosophy and the second step is the story, there are many readers who go deeper into the philosophy. So I wanted to write a book that just speaks of step 1, the philosophies, in simple bite sized articles. This book has my thoughts and musings on various subjects like spirituality, historical issues, science, and things like that.
Q: What next, Amish?
Right now I’m writing Ravan, the third book of the Ram Chandra series. I have various story ideas in mind, enough to keep myself busy for at least 20 to 25 years. I have 9 or 10 book series in mind. I’ve left clues for all of them in the Shiva trilogy. So even if I release a book 30 years from now, I have left a clue in the Shiva trilogy. I have enough work to do to make sure that I finish all those books before I die. I don’t want to carry them to my cremation pyre.
Q: A lot of your readers are young. How do you engage with young people? What role do you think your books play in helping them move forward into modern India?
Today India is a country of youth. Coupled with that are the dramatic changes that have been happening in India since 1991.In fact, many say that our true mental independence as Indians started from 1991, not 1947, because after centuries of failure we started rising again in 1991. And that started the return of the historical self-confidence that defined India for many centuries.
Angus Maddison, the British economist, has shown that for 15 of the last 20 centuries, India was the number one economy in the world. Of the remaining 5, thrice we were the number two economy. And we were extremely productive in science, medicine, navigation and everything else. We lost all of that in the last few centuries. Now you see a return of the historic self-confidence, but there’s also still the element of insecurity, which is why you find unnecessary aggression at times. And there’s also this youthful charge with it. This is a process of massive change.
And in that story, who drank the poison so that it would not hurt others? It was Lord Shiva. That is why he has a blue throat. And that is what I suggest to people who are devotees of Lord Shiva: behave like a god. There is a process of change that’s happening right now. A lot of the effects will be positive, and will be good for India, but there are some negatives too. All of us devotees of Lord Shiva should behave like Lord Shiva: drink that poison, take that negativity out. Speak politely, speak nicely, speak positive things. Take the negativity out so that India moves in the right direction.
This is such a wonderful time to be Indian!
Nowadays you can dream any dream,
and chances are you can pursue it.
We’re doing well.
Q: So is this your main guidance for young people today? How would you tell them to live their lives?
I would say this is such a wonderful time to be Indian! When I was growing up there weren’t so many opportunities. Why did I choose banking as a career? Because there weren’t many opportunities. Nowadays you can dream any dream, and chances are you can pursue it. We’re doing well.
This was our traditional way. Can we revive that? Then we will create a society of which our ancestors can be proud. How can we deserve that pride and support the rest of the world in the journey as well?
Q: It’s a great note to end. Thank you!
Interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY
August 27, 2019
July 30, 2019
June 30, 2019