'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Indian Museum - Revisited

In an earlier post, I had described a sculpture on the wall of Rani-ni-Vaav, the grand step-well in Patan, Gujarat thus:

"an unusually detailed image of Kalki(?), the equestrian incarnation of Vishnu - he holds a sword and his other hand holds forth a bowl into which a lady is pouring something"

Today, after my second visit to the Indian Museum in Calcutta, let me correct: Whom I called 'Kalki' is actually 'Revanta', a minor solar deity, whose worship dates back almost to the Vedic times, and who still has some serious following in the Western parts of the country (another name for him is 'Raivata' and the holy 'Raivataka' mountain of the Mahabharata (and identified with the modern Girnar) derives its name from him). Wikipedia says: Revanta is one of the sons of Surya, the Sun God proper; he is sometimes said to correspond to the Persian Mitra and is usually shown as a horse-riding hunter.

But my earlier guess of the Patan rider's identity wasn't totally off the mark. Indeed, Vishnu himself started out, in Vedic times, as a minor Solar deity; and as he grew over the centuries to become the all-sustaining Narayana, Revanta, a sub-Solar deity, might well have been absorbed into the Avatara legends cycle with the new name Kalki. And like Kalki (which word is probably derived from 'khadgi' = the one with the sword), Revanta usually is seen brandishing a sword (for example, the Patan image).

Every Vishnu image I can remember showed him with two of his arms raised above shoulder level and holding a discus and conch (keeping them up perpetually must be quite tiresome even for Him). Today, I saw quite a few carvings from in and around Bengal of Vishnu standing at ease, relaxed - all four arms hanging down.

I also saw, for the first time, a strange Buddhist sculpture of the divine Kalpa-taru tree; it looked more like a mushroom - and was vaguely reminiscent of the Henry Moore abstraction on the atomic cloud.

A 7-8 year old boy suddenly accosted me and asked in English: "You know where is mummy?"; for a few seconds, I was too puzzled to give any answer. Then a lady, who had been with him, asked "Do you know where is the Egyptian mummy kept? He (the boy) wants to see only that!"

The mummy, of which I came to know only then - and subsequently visited - is in pretty bad shape; its face has shrunken to a grinning Death's Head.

A caption in Hindi next to a marble statue of queen Victoria's refers to her as 'Rajarajeswari (in translation, "lady/goddess of the king of kings") Victoria'!

The Bharhut gallery was, again, closed.

And I took a second look at the strange 'Ajaikapada' sculpture, which I had mentioned in an earlier post. Then, I had also said I did not remember if the figure was ithyphallic, as is probably the norm; based on what I saw today, it is hard to decide either way!


I found the Victoria Memorial a fairly attractive marble edifice. The facade has a few allegorical female figures, their muscular arms and even poses parodying some of Michelangelo's masterpieces. A large bronze statue in front shows Queen Victoria enthroned in majesty. There is a certain hard-hitting realism about it - the queen is well on in years and quite corpulent and weary-eyed and appears weighed down by her elaborate royal attire; and she has to hold up a scepter and a little globe. No wonder she sits as if the throne is a wheel-chair!

There is a temporary exhibition going on in there, of paintings/sketches/drawings done by Brit artists during 18th and 19th centuries showing Indian landscapes/genre scenes/ ruins etc... Quite impressive. In the (very unlikely) event of someone from Kolkata reading this post in the next few days (the expo closes on Jan 30th if I got it right), let me recommend a visit!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Being And Becoming

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If ...'is' means is, that is ... one thing. If it means ..."
-Bill Clinton

This is a meditation on "Tat tvam asi", a famous aphorism from Chhandogya Upanishad.

In word-for-word English translation, the aphorism is: "That you are". In the standard sequence of words, it becomes: "You are That" with a touch of emphasis on 'That'.

'That' refers to the absolute, the quintessential essence of everything, usually referred to by the word 'Brahman'. And 'Tat tvam asi' is at the very core of Advaita, the Indian Monist/ non-dualist philosophy, which equates and identifies the individual soul with Brahman. In my understanding, Advaita interprets 'Tat tvam asi' to mean that the individual is not a fraction or subset of the whole but the whole itself.

However, one could ask: The Upanishadic seer says "you are that!". And he does not say "that is you!". For a full and *equal* identification (on the lines of the Mathematical equation, "A=B") between 'you' (the individual) and 'that' (the absolute), both statements ought to be made; and the Upanishad makes only one. So, is the Advaitic interpretation accurate?

Indeed, the 'be-group' verbs, "is", "am" and "are" could imply either time-independent (transcendental) being or a becoming, an evolution in time. So, since the seeker (the one spoken to, the 'you') is clearly the one who is 'are-ing', there is a hint of a *becoming*, an evolution that he has gone through or ought to go through to be the timeless 'that'. At least within the confines of the English translation, the absolute Advaitic identification/equality of the individual with the absolute cannot strictly be derived from this particular Upanishadic declaration.

To summarize, in order to fully convey the mathematical statement, "A=B", English needs to say "A is B; B is A"; and I have never come across an English translation of Chhandogya which says: "You are that; that is you!".

However, one should also note here that while English grammar allows statements like "that is you" just as it allows "you are that", other languages, such as Hindi, do not appear to allow both constructions.

Let me try to give an example. In English one could equally well say, "I came to meet a friend... and that is you" or "I came to meet a friend... and you are that friend". But in Hindi, one uses only the latter phrasing: "Ek dostse milne aaya hoon; aur tum ho woh dost" ("woh dost hai tum" is never used)

It might well be the case that Sanskrit, like Hindi, allows only "you are that" - and "Tat tvam asti" ("that is you") may simply be inadmissible, in which case, one cannot really suspect that the Upanishadic seer really implies something different from total equality between 'you' and 'that'.

But then, Sanskrit also (very clearly) allows dropping of 'be-verbs' in several contexts: for example, the question "What is that?" is in Sanskrit, "Tat kim?" (literally "What that?") with valid answers like "Tat modakam" ("That (is a) sweet"). So, the seer could very well have have just said: "Tat tvam!" and identified 'that' and 'you'. The very presence of 'asi' might well be a deliberate decision on his part - to imply that there may be an identification all right but not a total and equal, *reflexive and symmetric* one.

To give another example from Indian spiritual tradition, 'Sat Sri Akal', the Sikh declaration of faith (there is no 'be' verb there) is often translated as: "God is Truth; Truth is God!" - with *both* statements given, asserting the total identification of Truth and God.