Introduction to our ancient wisdom

Ashok Ogra

Abu Rayhan al-Buruni (973-1048), an Iranian scholar and polymath, who arrived in India in the second decade of the eleventh century was one of the earliest foreign scholars to have studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, along with Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, Vayu Purana and Aditya Purana. He was greatly fascinated by Indian philosophy, as he was by Greek philosophy, and he came to believe that, in many respects, the two were alike.
Max Muller (1823-1900) German scholar of comparative language, religion and mythology, was instrumental in editing and translating into English some of the most ancient and revered religious and philosophical texts of Asia. His special areas of interest were Sanskrit philology and the religions of India.
One wise man put it aptly-India is a paradox, constant images of contradictions. Hardly anything makes sense if one goes by logic, and yet at another level, all seems to fall into place. Hence, if one has lived in India for a week, one can easily write a book; if one has lived here for a month, she or he can manage to write an article; but if one makes a year-long stay or more in this country, one can barely write a paragraph- that is how enormously complex India is.
Therefore, it is rather surprising that Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) who introduced English education in India should have the temerity to remark “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”
Perhaps nobody reminded Macaulay of the Latin proverb: “From The East, Light.”
Ancient Indian Civilization is the oldest and is distinguished by its profound thought and wisdom contained in our scriptures referred above. While other ancient civilizations reached their zenith and disappeared from the pages of human history, the heritage of ancient Indian Civilization continues in its living tradition in India.
This perhaps explains the phenomenal success of the great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata- when telecast over Doodarshan in late 1980s. Millions of people in middle class homes, glued to the idiot box every Sunday morning, imbibed for the first time, in small doses, the story of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. But both these serials and also Chanakya failed to draw too hard and fast a line between fact and fiction. No fault of the producer/director as the mass media cannot survive except by simplifying and, at times, distorting things to make them more seductive than they are in real life.
Against this background, the recent publication of ‘SECRET WISDOM FROM ANCIENT INDIA’ by Devendra Bajpai is a welcome addition. It contains a collection of quotes, words of wisdom, morals and human values as mentioned in our scriptures.
The author draws from wide, diverse and rich sources:
Goswami Tulsidas, Acharya Chanakya, Maharishi Bhartrihari, Arya Vidur, Hitopadesh, Panchantra and Lord Krishna – so that a reader gets to understand and appreciate the hidden gems of ancient wisdom. The gems mentioned in the book mostly relate to intellect, propriety and philosophy. The author clarifies that that the selection is not religious one even though he quotes from religious texts. However, the author takes care not to include verses in praise of any deity.
The book takes the reader across the frontier of time to our civilization – on a voyage of discovery. This exploration is presented under various themes such as : Devotion to God, Life & Spirituality; Human Body & Health; Education, Wisdom & Ignorance; Prosperity / Poverty; Charity/ Denial/ Accumulation of Wealth; The Virtuoso / Despicable & Their Company; Lust/ Greed/ Desires; Conduct, Character & Communication; Success & Perseverance/ Lethargy; Deeds & Destiny; Humility/ Pride, Arrogance & Envy; Family-Parents, Spouse & Children and Friends & Enemies.
Few excerpts:
– ‘Surrender to God is the only salvation, not unnecessary and elaborate rituals.’
– ‘Like a blind person has no use / value for a mirror, similarly an insensible person can hardly be enlightened by scriptures and good literature.’
– ‘A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first.’
– ‘There can be no happiness for a being nor can its mind know any peace even in a dream so long as it does not relinquish desire, which is an abode of sorrow.’
– ‘Education is the best friend. An educated person is respected everywhere. Education beats the beauty and the youth.’
– ‘Knowledge is the true organ of sight, not the eyes.’
– ‘Calmness, gentleness, silence, self-restraint and purity: these are the disciplines of the mind.’
The author admits ‘all my life I have found great delight in the repeated readings of ancient epics and scriptures. What started as an enjoyment of the many tales of valour, courage, righteousness and other such exciting elements, upon closer readings led to far nobler insights- a generally more philosophical understanding of life and our purpose in this vast universe.’
Each chapter ends with ‘Tales of Inspiration’- further illuminating the text with an interesting story. The message conveyed is that kindness and service to mankind is a greater virtue than having visits to holy places, and such selfless people are closer to god. “Dharma (noble conduct and duty) is the only kin who never abandons a person.” “There is no Dharma than kindness.”
The author relates an interesting story of Chanakya keeping two oil lamps. He would use the one bought at official expenses when doing official work. And light the other lamp when engaged in domestic/ personal chores.
This acts as a reminder for the high degree of integrity and probity expected from those holding positions of power. This is so true and relevant for our present day politicians and bureaucrats. To Chanakya “There is no penance like peace, no happiness like contentment, no disease like greed and no religion like mercy”.
Proficient in many languages, Devendra Bajpai displays a tremendous understanding and command of both our ancient scriptures and also Urdu poetry. Product of IIT and after a distinguished career in the Indian Air Force where he retired as Group Captain, he has devoted himself to education and currently works for the reputed Apeejay Education Society.
The warmth in the book comes from author’s love of the past and the clarity and precision with which he explores and selects the key gems of ancient wisdom to guide us through the journey of life. Not an easy job to perform considering the diversity in our country. Even Ramayana when translated in Kannada sounds different from the Ramayana translated by Tulsidas. There are hundred Kannada versions of Ramayana. In one version, there is the usual dialogue between Ram and Sita. Ram tells Sita that she is very delicate, that she cannot bear going to Vanvas. Sita replies:”What are you saying, my dear? I have read other Ramayana’s, and in all of them, Sita always accompanies Ram….’
In this context, one is tempted to ask the learned author what is so secret about our ancient wisdom that is not known except that it is presented in different and, at times, divergent versions.
Also, whether some, if not all, quotes in the book has counterpoints.
Moderately priced, it is worth a buy and has archival value. The author has taken great pains to translate the original Sanskrit shlokas, quotes etc..into Hindi and English. This will undoubtedly enhance its appeal to readers who may not be familiar with Sanskrit language.
As an author, Bajpai’s success lies in introducing us to the philosophical symbolism of the ancient wisdom without mediating and or imposing his own value judgement. He allows the imagination of a reader to absorb and interpret in their own way. He is fully aware that reading is by no means a passive act. It is always an invitation to engage in conversation. That is what made a wise sage remark that a conversation is so much more than words: a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between the words. That is what SECRET WISDOM FROM ANCIENT INDIA aims to achieve. It makes for a fascinating reading!!!
(The author is a noted management & media educator, and currently works for reputed Apeejay Education Society)