Raja Rao: Scholar, Philosopher, Literary Artist


The Philosophy of Raja Rao

I am a man of silence. And words emerge from that silence with light, of light, and light is sacred. One wonders that there is the word at all--Sabda--and one asks oneself, where did it come from? How does it arise? I have asked this question for many, many years. I've asked it of linguists, I've asked it of poets, I've asked it of scholars. The word seems to come first as an impulsion from the nowhere, and then as a prehension, and it becomes less and less esoteric--till it begins to be concrete. And the concrete becoming ever more earthy, and the earthy communicated, as the common word, alas, seems to possess least of that original light.

The writer or poet is he who seeks back the common word to its origin of silence, in order that the manifested word become light. There was a great poet of the West, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He said objects come to you to be named. One of the ideas that has involved me deeply these many years is: where does the word dissolve and become meaning? Meaning itself, of course, is beyond the sound of the word, which comes to me only as an image in the brain, but that which sees the image in the brain (says our great sage of the sixth century, Sri Shankara) nobody has ever seen. Thus the word coming of light is seen eventually by light. That is, every word-image is seen by light, and that is its meaning. Therefore the effort of the writer, if he is sincere, is to forget himself in the process and go back to the light from which words come. Go back where? That is, those who read or those who hear must reach back to their own light. And that light I think is prayer.

My ancestors and, yes, the ancestors of some of you or of most of you who speak the English tongue, came from the same part of the world thousands of years ago. Was it from the Caucasus or the North Pole? One is not certain yet. They spoke a language close to my own language and close to your language. There is in America a remarkable dictionary called the American Heritage Dictionary. It offers almost a hundred pages (at the very end) of the Indo-European roots of many of our words. Most of you are of European origin. At least your thinking has been conditioned by European thought. There is thus a common way of thinking, an Indo-European way of thinking, between us, so that we are not so far from each other as we often think we are. And beyond the Indo-European way of thinking in Asia, Africa, Polynesia, is that same human light by which all words become meaning. Finally, there is only one meaning, not for every word, but for all words where the word, any word, from any language, dissolves into knowledge. It is only there at the dissolution of the sound of the word or of the image of the word that you say you understand. And here there is neither you nor I. That is what I have been trying to achieve. That I become no one, that no one shine but It.

...I want to say to you in utter honesty: I would like to be completely nameless, and just be that reality which is beyond all of us who hear me--that reality which evokes in me you, and I in each one listening to me this evening, that there be no one there but light. And it is of that reality that the sages have spoken. The sage is one, someone beyond the saint. He is no one. He is the real seer. In fact, we are all sages, but we don't recognize it. That is what the Indian tradition says. In the act of seeing--that is, of the seer, the seen, and the seeing--in seeing alone is there pure light. Where this comes from, nobody can name. I once asked Dr. Oppenheimer, the scientist, who told me his hands were soiled by the atom bomb: Have you ever seen an object? And he answered: Never. If a scientist like Dr. Oppenheimer says he has never seen an object--yet I am hearing him say what he has in all honesty declared--it is that level of knowledge I would like to reach from where I truly write. It is to that root of writing I pay homage. The Neustadt Prize is thus not given to me, but the That which is far beyond me, yet in me--because I alone know I am incapable of writing what people say I have written.

Raja Rao, June 4, 1988, Norman, Oklahoma

The earth's circumference may be but 24,830 miles, its age might be some four or five billion years--an incident, as geologists and astronomers believe--we may be just a spot in this ever expanding, ever exploding universe--time and circumstance may be irreversible, man and woman like light and night, yet there is a feeling, something is missing in this explanation, and that when you sit in front of a well-adorned and elegantly clad woman, young, innocent and round, were she your sister (it may well have been your your mother, your aunt, or maybe your niece), there's an area of awareness, a silken inner move that unveils a different dimension of knowledge, as if one's hands had eyes, one's ears could speak, one's legs smell, one's mind read itself--at once a seeming distance with oneself, a feel of nearness with one's being--somewhat uncomfortable but so exalting a situation, one wonders why this paradox should exist, except that, when rightly known, one, that is, when there is no one, this no one, who is One, knows there is neither seer nor seen, thinker nor thought, and it's this game that we would play with ourselves, and for then it would be real and could suddenly be heard as some distant music, a music like Krishna's flute which brought all the cows and gopis to the bank of the Yamuna, the cattle tearing away their tethers, the women running from their husbands, from their homes, for when that music comes to your inner ear, and you cognize there is none there but Krishna, he the music and the dance, the river and the woman, that it's all one melody, and is not even Krishna, when you see it properly, it's like isness turning on its self-pivot, singing. Yes, isness sings, the song, the woman, and the affirmation, and the man who is no man: Man. It's this transcendence from duality that makes life possible, and meaning self-evident. Thus our revolving earth, with its tigers and elephants in the forest, the rhino and the porcupine, the snake and the chital deer, the birth of the Ganga in the Himalaya, the arising of the Seine in the Massif Central, and the Rhone in the Jura mountains (with the Rhine), the sun in the sky, and the vast milky way, the Einsteinian curve of space, the delighting of time with itself--all, all is just one melody, a melody that nobody hears, for melody cannot hear itself, so created the hearer as its game-partner again for play. Thus play is life, and so the dance. You dance to annihilate space and time, and thiswise dissolved, you are pure happiness. Can you not see it there from Trocadero, down to the river, and then up, tier after tier to Montmartre, the mountain of the martyrs, from the deep curve of inner space, and in the time that has died at each beat of pulse. Are you there, man? No.

Raja Rao, in The Chessmaster and His Moves, New Delhi, Vision Books, 1988, p.505.

A Personal Tribute

It was, I think, in 1983, a conference at the India International Centre in New Delhi, at which delegates from the West met some of the best minds in India... that I first met Raja Rao. One of our English delegates, Paul Sharrad, had been putting forward a Christian (Orthodox) statement. Raja Rao, hitherto silent, uncoiled himself and asked, "Will you please tell me what you mean by the word God?" At that moment I knew that I had reached India, and my heart said, "Home at last." Western answers were themselves questions.

..."India," he said [later], "is not a nation, like France or Italy or Germany: India is a state of being..." India, Raja Rao implied, is open to whoever can attain it, and his words spoke to me like an invitaion. When, in his novel, The Serpent and the Rope, I read further, "India lies beyond sorrow," I understood that "India"--the eternal India, the India of the Imagination, that supreme civilization laden with the wisdom and the beauty of millennia--is the end to which those long journeys, lifetimes, all inevitabley lead: India is indeed "Home at last."

At that time Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay--great patriot and friend of Gandhiji--was President of the India International Centre. ... from her I learned much about modern India. Who, I asked her, were the significant writers? She named only one, Raja Rao, as India's greatest novelist. ... I then read The Serpent and the Rope, and understood that Raja Rao is more than a novelist; he is a philosopher who uses the novel as a vehicle to explore profound themes and to illuminate his vision of the "India" of the mind. He is qualified to do so to a rare degree... In The Serpent and the Rope he compares "India" with Western Christendom at a very profound level. He later told me that at one time Catholic monasticism and Scholastic theology had so attracted him that he had seriously thought of entering a monastic order. Thus he came to understand Europe, not through England, but at a higher and more subtle intellectual level, mainly thorugh France and through the great Catholic theological tradition.

At the beginning of this [20th] century, the West knew little of Indian thought, with the exception of the Theosophical movement. Western confidence in its materialist science--whose impressive discoveries and inventions in the field of technology have been so prestigious--went unchallenged. No alternative was seriously considered. Raja Rao was therefore among the first to present the "India of the Imagination" to Western readers as a great civilization grounded in totally other premises than those of the West. To the Western mind it seems self-evident that reality is the world we perceive, an "object" external to the observer; to India, it is no less self-evident that the perceiving mind is the ground, and the reality not an "object" but a living experience. The difference, finally, is between a lifeless and a living world; the final result of the Western view is to reduce all life to mechanism devoid of meaning or value, to, ultimately, a nihil. The Vedic world is a living world, its gound sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) of essential existence. Deeply as he has respected Western spirituality, Raja Rao has never doubted the more fundamental understanding which underlies the Vedic tradition and is the inspiration of the philosophy and the arts of Indian civilization, flowering in sculpture and dance, mathematics and architecture, painting and music and poetry; all alike grounded in the sacred nature of things. ...

The Chessmaster and His Moves... is a further exploration of the differences between the European and the Indian mind, the Indian and European attitudes to love. Raja Rao especially considers the other great spiritual tradition, that of the Jews. Raja Rao has made his home in Austin, Texas, and had in 1988 already married his present (American) wife, and has completed a further novel (not yet published) exploring the American experience. Yet as he explores the West, so at the same time he enters ever more deeply into the "India" which can only be the ultimate reality, both for the East and the West. He has long been a devotee of an Indian teacher of the purest Vedic tradition, visiting India every year and spending time at his [teacher's] ashram, with his wife, Susan. ...it has been his destiny to open up a profound insight into that eternal India, for many Western readers. In this his word stands in contrast to the many new Indian novelists who see India through Westernized eyes.

At the beginning of this century, the West (with a few exceptions, like the American Transcendentalists, and later the Theosophical Society), never doubting the supremacy of Western civilization, poured missionaries into the most civilized land on earth, where they were tolerated, within a culture that knows no dogma. Now the tide is flowing the other way--the West looking to the East, to India and to Buddhist countries, for spiritual knowledge. Raja Rao would make no claim to be a spiritual teacher--he is, on the contrary, himself a devotee--but his novels are profound explorations of the interaction of the two contrasting civilizations from the standpoint of a follower of the Indian dharma, revealing the majestic grandeur of the universe which opens for whoever attains that "India" which is not a country but a state of being.

--excerpted from Kathleen Raine's essay, "Raja Rao: A Personal Tribute" in Word as Mantra, New Delhi, Kantha, 1998.