Profound Prefaces: Mahabrahmana

It will be an interesting topic in a study of literary history to trace the first book—fiction or non-fiction—for which a preface was written. It is a good practice that has thankfully sustained the roughs of time and taste without falling off the crag. In the hands of a master, a preface has the power to stand as an independent work of literature. Sample this preface to the celebrated Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (who remembers him today?).

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen.   

And because I couldn’t resist it, here’s an extract from his sequel—a note really, not strictly a sequel.

THE rest of the story need not be shown…and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories.  

Shaw sounded his note of alarm in 1916. Just a little over a hundred years ago but as things have unfolded since, the enfeebling of our imaginations is threatening to touch the vanishing line for humans as a species. Already, the pervasive mobile phone epidemic has made the virtual the real. Where then is the place for imagination?

Shaw’s preface as good as it is, is derived from a creative faculty that operates largely at the level of the intellect. But thankfully, he retained deep respect for classical learning and literature and therefore could appreciate the value of imagination.

In the annals of Indian literature, it is said that Maharishi Bhagavan Veda Vyasa was immersed in Tapas for two years and then wrote (dictated to Ganapati) the Mahabharata observing strict Brahmacharya. Equally, as profound as are the Vedas, they provide immense joy for their poetic quality as well. There’s a reason Vedas are sung, not merely recited. Our Rishis were Kavis (poets) as well.

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To this long, ancient, and hoary lineage belongs a Rishi-tulya (comparable to a Rishi) writer who passed away as recently as 1962 after blazing an extraordinary literary, pedagogical, journalistic, philosophical, spiritual, and dramatic career of nearly forty years.

Sri Devudu Narasimha Sastri belongs to that rare and rarefied category of genius which by its mere touch turns everything to gold. He dabbled in theatre, produced and acted in a movie, edited journals and magazines, wrote copiously, built a school, travelled extensively, lectured on a vast array of subjects, mastered our traditional learning such as Veda-Vedanta-Mimamsa-Kavya, played the Vina, and was a voracious gastronomist (one eyewitness account claims that in a span of less than a half hour, he polished off the entire stock of Puri and bhaji sold by an Iyer who had a street food-stall). He was enormous and copious in every way—from his imposing physique to the scale, sweep, and summit of his accomplishments. But take discard all these and retain only his eternal classic Kannada novel, Mahabrahmana (literally, The Great Brahmana). That solitary work exceeds the rest of his accomplishments combined.

And its preface is what we will examine here.

Without doubt it is one of the outstanding prefaces ever written in any language, profound in its grandeur, exalted in its sublimity. One can read the preface and then the novel or skip it and read the novel and then return to the preface. Or skip it entirely and then read it later, as a standalone piece. Or revisit it any number of times. Like the novel, it reveals itself to the reader differently at different points. It is the highest Vedantic experience bedecked in text.

Mahabrahmana narrates the story of the extraordinary journey of the mighty Emperor Kaushika who undergoes a phenomenal transformation from being a Kshatriya to a Mahabrahmana in the true sense of the word. From Kaushika to Viswamitra. The most popular rendering of Viswamitra’s story occurs in the Ramayana. But his story is much ancient than that. He is mentioned as a Rishi in the Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, and Gopatha Brahmanas. He finds a place in the Mahabharata, Vishnupurana, Harivamsha, and Yogavasistha. However, to the common Bharatiya cultural and spiritual memory, Viswamitra is that Rishi who gave the celebrated Gayatri Mantra to the world.

To write such a story, Devudu Narasimha Sastri, in a manner of speaking, himself undertakes Viswamitra’s journey. In lay terms, you could call it “preparing to write the novel.” Writes Devudu:

The impulse to write this novel was born in 1926. By that time, I had realized the glory of Gayatri, and I decided to write the story of the first person who had not only realized Gayatri but had shared it with the world thereby performing the greatest act of benevolence. However, I felt that it was improper to embark on writing about this great Rishi without first undergoing the prerequisite training in the traditional fashion. The Arsha Rna [debt owed to our Rishis] had to be repaid first before writing such a work.

By 1947, the impulse to write this work had matured, and I began penning it down. It was complete by August 1950.

Call it Divine coincidence or whatever you wish. Even as our Constitutional experts and politicians were busy squabbling in Delhi in those three years, here was a Rishi quietly writing the Constitution of Bharatavarsha’s Atma. It is people like Devudu who have kept the true freedom of India alive. Take away such people, you get the West Bengal and Kerala of today.

Mahabrahmana became an instant classic and was immediately sold out. It continues to be reprinted regularly and widely read in Karnataka and by Kannadigas across the globe. Here is another facet and outcome of his preparation.

[At some places in this novel], there are depictions of the Secret Knowledge of the Upanishads. Some of these are derived from my own experience, others are the experiences of other people, and some occurred as I was writing.

The physical manifestation of [the Deity] Rudra, the Devatas conferring with each other, these are my own experiences…Manmatha’s exposition of the growth of the ego…the blessing given by Brahmnaspati, Pusha, and others…these occurred to me in the process of writing.     

That is Tapas, right there. Devudu’s preface reflects the serene confidence of a Master who knows he has attained excellence of a profound sort. And when he speaks, the truth doesn’t need verification. And the words just flow.

Those who have written great works will realize a fundamental truth in their experience: the Jiva within each of us, which is incessantly writhing and yelling, “Me!” “Me!” “I!” “I!” will discard its pettiness and fly high like a shell and attain a new insight hitherto unavailable to it. It will then fill the heart with this insight and that fullness will emerge in the form of a literary work.

It is this insight that the Purushasukta says, lies beyond the “ten fingers.” This is the same divine Darshana of the Gita! This is the Unmanibhava of Mantra Yoga! This is what is meant by Guru Kripa, Guru Prasada! The Upanishads call this as the Devapyaya.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand this until one experiences the full meaning of the Bhagavad Gita verse, “sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah | mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca |” within himself.

Speechless when I first read it. Speechless even now.

The razor-sharp Devudu also anticipates the motivated invectives that he knew would be hurled at him, starting right at the title of his book. Few have provided such a sharp, insightful and conclusive response to such motivated allegations.

Today, literature is working towards portraying the life of the proverbial common man. Because one cannot obtain a coconut from the Thumbe plant, people have busied themselves in planting coconut groves…But then, it is gems that are polished on the grinding stone, and not ordinary stones.  

[…]

Some friends have asked me why I wrote such a work in an era that is overflowing with Brahmin-hatred and the pervasive rejection of the Vedic culture. That’s right. Light is most needed in pitch darkness…when there are friends, there also exist enemies…Banana and jackfruit does not exist for the person suffering from stomachache but for the one who’s hungry.

And then the grand finale. (Sadly, the translation doesn’t do justice to the majestic philosophic beauty of the original)

The Atma of Bharatavarsha has been pictured in this work…it is the inner strength of Bharatiyas that has enabled it to withstand continuous alien assaults for hundreds of years and not descend into chaos…

There are still people in India who have attained and are capable of attaining the Siddhis that Viswamitra attained in this book. Therefore, for those who think that this is just a story, it is just a story; for those who regard it as a Sastra, it is a Sastra; for those who regard it as Vidya, it is Vidya.

[…]

Thus, having read a lot of random things on random topics, having listened to various people, having earned other things through personal experience, and placing all of them in a crucible by the grace of Guru, this book has emerged as smelted toy.       

[…]

This work has come to some random person from some random impulse and from an unknown place. This writer is merely the recipient of the fruit. Therefore, in order to be faithful to its authorship, he is grateful to all those who have given it to him.

That is how you repay Rishi-Rna.

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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