July 18, 2006

Witty criticism of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy

Friday July 14 2006 Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Kanthapura was written in 1939, and his next novel, Serpent and the Rope came out in 1961. In his second novel, Raja Rao shows extraordinary skills of another kind. The language is back to its normative form, though Sanskrit words are freely interspersed in the text. It is a mature and bold novel. The protagonist is involved with three women - Madeline, his French wife, Savitri, his first love, and Lakshmi, who falls in love with him and whom he does not refuse.
Raja Rao handles the relationship of his hero with the three women with enviable panache. To Madeline, he is a considerate husband and a teacher who answers her metaphysical queries even as he engages in characteristically Indian amorous play with her. The passages on sexual play is through the Sankritic poetic descriptions of elephants making love. It might sound bizarre to an English-educated Indian reader, but the passages are one of the most skillfully written ones in India-English literature.
He weaves into the narrative the hero’s research into the persecution of Albigensian, a heretical Christian sect of early medieval France, connected to the Nestorian sect of Christianity of Central Asia. This is just a small sub-plot in the narrative, but he mixes it with much cunning with the hero’s own intellectual and emotional journey. In the Indian part of the story, he shows the traditional vows of love and loyalty that mark a man-woman relationship in the Indian context. The hero’s relationship with Savitri is not purely platonic. It is an intensely romantic attachment. His relationship with the third woman, Lakshmi, has its element of crass sensuality, but Raja Rao shows that there is dignity in it as well.
The overarching theme is the spiritual quest of the hero, who takes a sentimental journey to Benares with his step-mother, described in the novel as “Little Mother” interwoven with saint-philosopher Shankara’s euphonious hymns being chanted during the boat ride across the Ganga. The only weakness of the novel is that the spiritual quest is rather shallow, and even a bit of a fake. It lacks religious sincerity because Raja Rao, like many modern Indians, thinks that salvation is an intellectual game - hence the title, Serpent and the Rope - which it is not. Shankara knew it himself.
But the novel has some wonderfully witty criticism of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. Serpent and the Rope is an intellectual tour de force. Raja Rao’s earned his laurels without much ado.

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