1. The world of aryavarta        2. Cast of Characters

THE WORLD OF ARYAVARTA


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Aryavarta and the Beginnings of Democracy

The story told in The Aryavarta Chronicles is a story of change, of the evolution of a society, which spurred on the beginnings of democracy. In the historical sense, the Epic Empire formed represents a period of consolidation. Like all Empires, this one too breaks up into smaller fragments, but this time, there’s a difference. From an economic perspective, these fragments are not the usual, inefficiently small splinter kingdoms; on the contrary, they are large enough, and also in some sense of shared social identify cohesive enough to stand united as nations. And so began the era of the maha-janapadas – nation-states.

From a political, even philosophical point of view, however, the change that happened was probably more discreet, but also more fundamental and powerful.

At the end of the day, behind all the good-versus-evil plotlines, there hides the fundamental question of who was, in effect, the accepted, and therefore legal, ruler of the Aryavarta Empire – A question that arose not just from motives of ambition, or issues of primogeniture and descent, but also very simply, competence and efficiency. Till that point in time, the right to rule was adivine right, and to question the competence of these rulers was to question the judgment of the Gods. Perhaps worse, it was to suspect the judgment of the scholar-seer hierarchies that served as the moral conscience-keepers of Aryavarta. As a narrative, therefore, the Chronicles, or the epic tales they are based on,are much more than a tale of feuding brothers. It is actually a story of how existing power structures were questioned, even torn down, as the notion of sovereign accountability began to take hold.

Hidden also in that rather precious phrase – sovereign accountability - are many subtle political implications, the first of them being the idea that even a divinely-appointed sovereign is subject to a delicate balance of power, duties, and limitations. From this arises the corollary premise that such a sovereign may indeed fail at meeting those duties, given his or her limitations, comes the notion of inefficiency or even incompetence. And that brings us to the third premise, an actionable one: What if the sovereign was indeed an inefficient or incompetent ruler, as it were? The answer: It was time to get a better ruler in his or her place.

This is not directly comparable to the contemporary Theory of State paradigm, where the basis of governance stems from the notion that the sovereign can be replaced by a sort of legitimate revolution, and that the right to revolt against a sovereign who doesn’t serve the people remains basic and vested in the people. Rather, the idea presented here is that of a slow dilution of the hitherto unshakeable belief that Kings, by virtue of their divine right, are infallible, even invincible.

Admittedly, when one got rid of a King in ancient Aryavarta, his replacement was likely to come from among his immediate kin – a setting that made for wonderful conspiracies and conspiracy theories, both. Furthermore, one didn’t really call for elections or referendums in the modern sense. It was also highly unlike that a commoner, one of the jagaranyaja, would rise to rule for hierarchies, class conflicts and power politics all remained just as rampant as they had been under a system of pure monarchy by divine sanction.

Despite all that, there was a sense of the vox populi, of a shift in philosophy. No longer was it the destiny, or even the raison d’etre, of the people to serve their king, but rather, the idea that perhaps rulers now existed to ensure the well-being of their people had finally taken root.

And there we have it: the change in the centrality of identity. The beginning of the sense of ‘We, the people…’ This notion of common popular identity would then bind the people together into units of governance based on such identities, or ‘nationalities,’ leading eventually to the rise of the maha-janapadas. It wasn't democracy as we know it today but it was the beginning, an indispensable beginning.

From a storyteller’s point of view, it perhaps was the beginning of a dream. Govinda Shauri’s dream.

 

What Does it Take to Make Mythology Real?

Mythological stories are often told in all magical glory; filled with demons and demigods, magical incantations, and heroes and villains both blessed with superpowers. Flying chariots, illusions, even the power of life and death, and of course, Gods descended to earth.

But that is myth, in all its grandeur. It’s not real. Now, don’t get me wrong here – mythology makesfor awesome stories – it is full of twists and turns, and absolutely memorable characters. These characters and their moral dilemmas have remained relevant till today, and both popular writers and academics have tried to contextualise the tales by going into the psyche of its huge cast, exploring the emotions and thoughts that lie behind the story as we know it. However, that still does not get rid of the magic. And the narrative still remains a myth; almost fantasy.

Hence, the question - What does it take to make mythology real?

If we had to tell this story today, keeping in mind what we know about physics, sociology, politics and economics, what would that story be?

And that is what the Aryavarta Chronicles are about. Historians talk of the Epics age, a time broadly between the third and first millennium B.C., when the events that form the seeds of this myth may have happened – sometime after the Indus Valley Civilisation and before the rise of Janapadas – semi-democratic city-states. The Mahabharata itself is pegged towards the end of the period. Which means, a time of great change.

From hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, from feudal societies to democracies,from elite cliques of knowledge cloaked in mysticism to an era of written records, it wasa time when trade and technology both grew, and society grew with it. But not without upheaval and turmoil.

This is the story of people in these times, especially of one man – a rather intelligent, brave, and undoubtedly charming man who believes that heaven and earth are not so disparate after all.

There is no mythical lore. No magic. Only humanity.

 

Between Myth, History and Fiction

Why not accept myth as it stands? Why insist that mythology is filled with metaphor, or interpolations? So what if there are events that seem magical, even ridiculous in these modern times. So what if relationships, people, behaviours seem both impossibly noble, and impossibly base? Why dispute legend?

Because, it is legend. And behind every legend, there is something more.

Let us consider for the purposes of illustration, a mythical creature well known to all, and often found in global legend – the half-man, half-horse centaur. How could such a legend have got a start?

The possibilities are:

a) There truly existed half-man, half-horse creatures in the (distant) past; but they are now extinct.

b) In ancient times, some people saw others mounted on horses for the first time, and were spooked enough to think these were part-man and partly-horse. Moreover, they continued to remain spooked, even after getting a closer look.

c) The ancients knew that there were horsemen, but were using poetical metaphor to convey the bond between rider and steed (one creature – part man and part horse...)

d) They were being deliberately misleading to protect the existence of horse-tribes, and to use the information to their own gains.

e) Other.

Choosing from the options:

Option A: Not impossible, but doesn’t seem very plausible right now, given our current knowledge of past species and the Theory of Evolution, both. After all, humans and horses belong to different genera, and their biological make-up may not have been compatible enough for a unified form to evolve. Having said which, I’ll take all of this back the day they find the first centaur fossil.

Option B: Again, not impossible. But it is kind of hard to believe that the men and women of Epic times were that silly. Perhaps I indulge here in the same kind of veneration that I criticise in others, but then, how else could we explain the fact that these characters have survived the test of time.

Or perhaps, I should be candid – I do not like this explanation. It makes my characters, my wonderful, brave characters, look less so.

Option C: Poetic metaphor, even pun and wordplay, are to be expected. Especially so if the scribes of old were exactly that – scribes. Word-smithy may have been a lauded art, and the use of new word-forms and metaphors would be an appreciated talent. Anyone who wanted to recount dry, dull facts could write something else instead.

Option D: At the same time, we cannot dismiss the possibility that some degree of secretiveness underlay the use of metaphors. It may not even have been meant in guile.

I once heard that the first-nations aboriginal peoples of Australia used their songs and dances to transmit information about different animals and how to hunt them. They also gave metaphorical descriptions of natural landforms, as maps and guides,with each tribe or group doing so in their inimitable style.

And that may well have been what some of the ancient scribes and seers of Epic India were doing, when they laced mythology with copious amounts of metaphor.

Option E: Most likely, it is a combination of factors, of the four options above, which gives us a legend as it is today. Perhaps the people of these ancient times heard some stories as legend, just as we do today. Perhaps they were familiar with the mythical creature known (to us) as a centaur, just as we are familiar with it today.

Fear and awe can often become intermingled with legends of the unknown to give new life to old legends. Some of what is added, revised becomes canon and the next generation then re-interprets this new body of lore, in its own way.Things get added as art, as metaphor, as homage to ancient tales – precisely the same reasons why we analyse and retell the Epics, in our times.

In conclusion

To say that the answer lies in no one thing, but rather in the combination of the many is admittedly rather vague, and evasive. That, is precisely why, legends take on a life of their own.And so it is, that the forest-kings of Dakshina-varta (the Deccan Peninsula of today), with their monkey-emblems and bear-skin accessories become the monkey-kings and bear-chiefs of the Ramayana.

Similarly, the Rikshasas – Vriksha or tree-people, forest dwellers of the north, become the terrible Rakshasas of legend. Their animal horn helmets, and tiger-tooth necklaces were perhaps morphed into the horned heads and fanged teeth still seen today in TV serials and movies where these ‘forces of darkness’ make an appearance.

We cannot stop that. We cannot undo the effects of time. This is evolution in its own right, and we cannot undo it. To be unaware, and to be aware of the process, both contribute to it. Beyond that, the choice is ours. For my part, I choose a world of Epic lore that may be slightly better, but not significantly different, from the world around me. It brings me that much closer to what I write.

 

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