Transmission Of Indian Values Across The Ocean in Shared Roots

Sunil Kumar is a contributor to the Shared Roots: Tales from the Indosophere anthology released by INDICA.  In creative terms, his achievements span multiple fields. His book Existential Angst (1999), an anthology of poetry, is catalogued in the British Council Sussex and the US South Asian Literature List. The noted poet Nissim Ezekiel made him a member of PEN (India chapter). He has also written Surreal City (2012), a novel spanning multiple generations that takes readers on a journey through time and space.

Liberal agnosticism and curiosity are Sunil’s mantra in life. He feels a deep connection to his cultural roots, and his true passion lies in the study of the limitless ocean of Indic traditions. In his story A Cambodian Enchantment, Jayalakshmi Vijayan, descendant of a Tamizh Brahmin lineage cursed by the envious Devaraja, embarks on a business trip to Cambodia, she unwittingly steps into a world where ancient curses, divine forces and supernatural elements converge. As she delves into her family's forgotten past intertwined with Tantra, Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Jayalakshmi must navigate a perilous journey to break the curse and reclaim her destiny.

What was your greatest learning while researching your story ?

As I have always been fascinated by history and how the acts of the few impact a vast multitude, writing and researching this story was the opportunity to explore a brave new world through the eyes of a scholarly protagonist - a Tamilian lady whose ancestors were connected to the Khmer kingdoms and magnificent monuments like the globally known Angkor Wat.

The culture of India was and still remains one of the most powerful civilising forces in the world. We have never attempted to foist our views on the rest of the world. I have realised that 'shared roots' of the Indic cosmopolis were solely due to the fact that other cultures looked up to us a beacon of learning, spirituality and refinement.

This is in stark contrast to the rapacious and violent 'colonial' project in the rest of the world. In terms of India, it was a transmission and adoption of cultural values across the globe. The goddess of learning, writers and poets Saraswati was revered all across SE Asia right upto China and Japan, where she is known as Benzaiten.

Indic civilisation has primarily been knowledge driven, spiritual and respected as such across the globe. Among the many things I learnt while researching this story the greatest according to me was the recurring theme or motif of how deep Indic culture seeped into the very soul of a people, completely transforming Cambodian society, language, literature and way of life.

Unlike the contemporary global hegemony of Western culture, Indic values were always a force for good, open-mindedness, tolerance and spiritual profundity.

Your story looks at past birth, pitrus and modern life. How central was this to a feeling of connection between the two countries?

Being a science student, I have been trained at looking at life through an empirical lens, observable and verifiable. But, even the most hardcore skeptic will have to accept that there are realities and facts beyond our sense based limited comprehension.

Take the most relatable commonplace example: your smartphone. Quantum theory that posits the most minute sub atomic particles that none of us have ever seen has been the catalyst for most of the remarkable advances in computing and technology. Srinivas Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians that ever lived attributed his remarkable insights to the Goddess Namagiri Amman of Namakkal in dream-like states. Honouring or venerating the pitrus is a very ancient practice not only in India but across the globe.

Reincarnation is part of the Indic belief system and East Asia for millennia. It was accepted in Christianity as well until a papal council banned it ostensibly for some fiscal reason- souls in purgatory etc.

As part of the Indosphere, all of South East Asia has been profoundly altered by our influence. Local legends and beliefs in spirits and shamans were interwoven with the adhyatmik and scholastic depth of Bharat's culture. Indra's net or this shared web of multiple lives, loves, hopes and aspirations give greater depth to this connection rather than the more commonplace Semitic belief that has become commonplace even among many Indians these days - one life, heaven or hell, eternal damnation.

This is a very narrow view of the beauty of life, love, connections and the human experience.  In my opinion, this story explores a deeper, mystical, spiritual connection which has been the basis of much of India's culture, its darshanas and sampradayas, even so called nastik ones like Buddhism and Jainism. Sufism- the mystical strain in Islam flourished after coming in contact with the Indian subcontinent, apart from the ancient Greeks and Judeo-Christian sects such as the Gnostics and the Nazarenes.

Cambodia and its Khmer culture morphed from Hinduism to Buddhism, but the deep shared roots remained. Even genocidal dictators like Pol Pot and the leftist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, centuries of colonisation in India, a brutal partition and its transformation into a modern socialist nation state could not dislodge the deep connection on a civilisational, cultural level.

What was the thought process of weaving your story around a woman protagonist ?

It is probably cliched to say this, but women are generally considered to be more sensitive and empathetic than men. The worship of Adi Shakti, the primeval goddess also has a very long history according to some scholars dating back to the Indus Valley.

Srividya and Shaivite practices also have a long history in the South. A critical feature in my story is the power of the mantra- the Anjaneya or Hanuman invocation.

Matrikachakra in Shaivism in the South, Bengal and ancient Kashmir- reflects the creative principle or the feminine energy responsible for the very creation of the multiverse if we interpret it according to Shakta doctrines. The wheel of creation or samsara has symmetry, aesthetics and beauty- aspects of Prakriti. Gender is not such a big deal in the ultimate analysis but in our mundane existence plays a huge part.

Making a man the lead player in this narrative would have been more matter of fact, less thrilling and exciting and for lack of a better word boring. Feminine mystique is more alluring.

Also, there is more poise, grace and charm in the female protagonist compared to the male in this context.

Living in the modern world, Jayalakshmi is a skeptic and a modern corporate R&D plus marketing boss but has latent faith in the words of her father in this story, Subramanian Vijayan who I have depicted as a retired scientist and deep Samskritam scholar.  Not to be critical of the men, but many of us would have less faith and dismissed things at the outset. That being said, not a generalisation and I have used a woman protagonist due to these generally accepted tropes.

I have also not used the conventional damsel in distress motif who needs a brave hero but written her arc so that she is pivotal in freeing herself and fighting the bad guys off with some assistance from the divine.

Modern day feminism like all Western inventions is based on hatred of the other- in this case men while no other country apart from ancient India has placed so much emphasis on the divine feminine force, inclusiveness and respect for mother nature.

How important is this shared history to understand a history of Bharat beyond colonial history?

This is a very pertinent question. Bharat's narratives and history has been distorted beyond belief.

The culprits for this are of course our colonisers or in J Sai Deepak's words, Middle Eastern and Western colonialism. But, that is only part of the problem. The majority of the onus lies with the independent nation state India that is Bharat.

We have been culturally deracinated systematically and methodically. Also, history is not top of the mind in this country's consciousness and we are remarkably disrespectful and oblivious for such an abundance of riches.

The South of India, due to its long tradition of scholarship and intellectual debate has managed to preserve ancient traditions much better than other parts of the subcontinent. However, this is also fast eroding under the onslaught of 'so-called' modernity.

Thankfully, in recent years we have seen a re-emergence of sorts of alternative points of view with remarkable people like Vikram Sampath, Rajiv Malhotra, Anand Ranganathan, Meenakshi Jain, Sanjeev Sanyal, Sandeep Balakrishna etc.

Proliferation of social media has led to an explosion of content, and stifling of other points of view is not as easy as before. At the same time, people do not relate with dry, voluminous academic tomes. Scholarship has to be made contemporary, accessible, relatable and 'even' cool. The brilliant and remarkable actor Utpal Dutt, who had leftist Marxist affiliations summed it up the best- influencing society by modes of entertainment.

The entrenched ecosystem exalts writers that conform in Gandhi’s words to the Western ‘drain-inspector’ lens of India- writers such as Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie or any rabid anti-Indic critique is feted, celebrated and promoted ironically as ‘paragons of virtue’ and defenders of the ‘woke’ value system.

One of the reasons for our remarkable cultural continuity is the genius of our rishis who created such epics that distilled and distributed profound values through simple, relatable human stories. Colonisation has fundamentally altered our own self-understanding and continued distorted narratives have even led to a degree of self-hate.

If an Indic Renaissance has to happen, it has to be based on an underlying Dharmic backbone. Our Shared Roots anthology is a humble attempt by every contributing writer to bring forth our real legacy of cultural riches, interconnectedness and spiritual depth in a more contemporary, palatable form rather than the control mechanism and culturally prevalent mechanisms of Western universalism that seeks to coerce and destroy every ecosystem and the very planet.

Bharat's history can only be truly understood if we make an attempt to shed ingrained colonial baggage.

You have participated in Indica’s Vaishnavism conference. What elements of Vaishnavism as you practice it are evident in Cambodia, apart from the most famous instances?

Thanks for this question. I did indeed participate in Indica’s Vaishnavism conference and it was a wonderful learning experience, meeting with scholars painstakingly unravelling so many facets of the Vaishnava thought and sampradaya praxis.

Indica Dean Dr. Nagaraj Paturi ji with his colossal scholarship and profound wisdom is a real inspiration for researchers in practically every aspect of the Indic and Dharmic ecosystem.

That being said, although I have been in touch with Gaudiya Vaishnavism and have profound respect for their devotion and scholastic approach to promoting the Dharmic ethos, my mind is open to exploring the vast ocean of Indic thoughts and beliefs. We should not attempt to limit the multiverse of Dharma by constricting into narrow labels including Vaishnava, Shaiva, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist.

I also participated in the remarkable conference on Jainism organised by Indica in Jodhpur and was genuinely impressed by the sincerity and warmth of the Munishris and many of the participants.

Coming back to the question, modern Cambodia strictly speaking is a ‘Buddhist’ country but like most South East Asian countries has a two-thousand year Indosphere legacy. Archaeologists, artists, historians, linguists, musicians and dancers have all been influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and openly acknowledge this debt. Vaishnav and Shaiva artifacts are discovered every day in the entire zone.

Angkor Wat, the biggest temple complex in the world was originally a Vaishnava shrine but like India, many Dharmic beliefs harmoniously coexisted at the same time. After the rise of Theravada Buddhism, Angkor was modified somewhat.

The biggest aspect of the Gaudiya(Bengali) Vaishnavism tradition I have been in touch with that I believe has universal resonance, also specifically to Cambodia is the concept of ‘prema’- the fifth and most important purushartha according to their acharyas. With a history as disturbing as Cambodia’s recent past, the ‘universal’ love and devotion implicit in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s message is an eternal message, undying and transcendental.

Your story is very realistic in portrayal of human relationships. How has modernity changed our society and is this the case in Cambodia as well?

Our lives are in fact stories that we tell ourselves and others each day. The British writer philosopher Aldous Huxley said, ‘There are things known and there are things unknown and in between there are the doors of perception.’ This drew on the poet William Blake whose ideas are very reminiscent of Advaita Vedanta, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ In another context, we may very well be talking about Adi Shankara, Brahman, adhyasa, mithya et al.

Human relationships are also based on perceptions- personal and inherited cultural values that can be flawed but give a certain stability and longevity.

Modernity or the ‘post-modern’ world is evident all around us. Indian society is transforming all around us. Our country lives in multiple eras all at once.

We have some of the most ‘cutting-edge’ research facilities in some places, and people living in abject poverty who are not sure where their next meal is going to come from. Gender roles have rapidly changed and family structures have transformed into more ‘nuclear’ small units.

Most evident is the all-pervasive influence of technology, media and electronic communication. The most devastating impact of ‘modernity’ is its influence on the environment and the blatant disregard and disrespect due to increased urbanisation and industrialisation.

Most of Cambodia’s recent history was very tumultuous following America’s Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge etc but since the early 2000s, it is on the fast track of ‘economic’ development and faces many similar challenges to India in terms of gender roles, technology and media, changing family structures etc. Unlike India however, it has not been a great ‘open’ and ‘vocal’ democracy for the most part.

This does not figure ‘high’ in the list of priorities of politicians from all parts of the spectrum who just make the ‘token’ statement as a symbolic gesture. Modern capitalism and economic theory in stark contrast to ancient Indic ideals is all about GDPs and increasing consumption, instead of harmony and coexistence. The ‘antagonist’ in my story Noel Nat is a Cambodian American focused precisely on that- business expansion, greed and exploitation. Achieving a socialist or ‘dharmic’ utopia overnight is unrealistic, but encouraging the right values is definitely a step in the right direction.