The riddle of two cats in a Buddhist monastery and all that talk

CHENNAI: The ‘moral sense’ so to say, is often imprinted in the minds of young through parables, songs, folk-tales, a ballad, last but not least through our grandmas tales, retelling stories from great epics  and heroic struggles of people.

An insight into this act of nudging the moral without pushing it down one’s throat from above, is even better seen in the philosophical analysis of great 20th century thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein , Gilbert Ryle and Austin. For instance, just consider the difference between ‘running a race’ and ‘winning a race’. The former is a ‘process’, the latter an ‘event’.

Similarly, ‘thinking’ is a process in time, like ‘running a race’, while ‘understanding’ is like an ‘event’, a ‘flash’, an ‘intuition’ that suddenly opens up the problem one has been grappling. “At last, I got the hang of it,” is what one would hear people say with relief and joy.   

Trying to communicate the ‘moral sense’ in any human culture is even more peculiar. Any talk-down, condescending approach, is resented by the young. The communication is successful when the story-teller makes them ‘run a race’ alongside a fable that is retold, and suddenly at some place, the point of the story, or the ‘moral’ behind it, as our teachers in school would say, dawns upon the listener. ‘Catechism’ is a form of questions and answers about the religious faith, while ‘moral science’ allows the mind the little luxury of ‘discovering’ the good.

This is a process that appears and re-appears in many ways and today with the Internet and Social Media already loaded with content that are both strong and judgmental, the ‘moral’ as a category takes an even greater beating. It is ‘my opinion’ against ‘your opinion’ that any prescription of a higher call that entails greater responsibility than one’s daily chores, is looked upon, least with puzzle and worst with suspicion. The other end is ‘radicalization’ where options are few.

Given these bristling conceptual niceties, a new generation of young sensitive writers is now navigating this ‘moral space’ without having to explicitly say so. “From Vedanta to Whatsapp- Trending Life Stories”- the first of the two books under review in these columns this week- is precisely an attempt to take the honey from modes of story-telling across religious traditions that one does not have to sound like a propagandist or hold up for a heavy agenda-driven moralism.

The author of this collection of stories, Dev Prasad, a senior IT professional, currently working in Bengaluru, after having graduated from NIT, Tiruchirappalli and having done a management programme in IIM-Bengaluru, already has quite a few books to his credit, ‘Krishna: A Journey through the Lands and Legends of Krishna. In this collection of 60 lucidly written stories, Dev Prasad rolls out the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ possibilities across a range of human situations in a technological age, that each can be read in leisure, quite independently of the other.

Dev Prasad’s endeavour is like re-articulating grandma’s tales in a new setting, new idiom, often telling the reader at the end of a story how day-to-day social problems that affect the community could be best handled. Take for instance, his ‘A Tale of Two Cats’. It is about a tourist visiting a Buddhist monastery in Nepal puzzled by a peculiar custom which he noticed every day: Before the prayers begin, two young monks bring two cats and tie them to a banyan tree “right opposite the prayer hill’.

Trying hard to find out why, as he gets the stock reply, “We don’t question traditions”,  the tourist gets even more determined to get to the bottom of it, until he learns from an old hermit staying near the monastery that there was no great Buddhist tradition behind tying the cats to the banyan tree. It so happened, as the hermit tells the tourist, decades ago a couple of kittens had entered the Buddhist monastery and the monks living then took a liking for them.

“When the cats grew older, they became mischievous ….the monks had trouble while performing their prayers. Hence it was decided to tie the two cats during prayer time. This became a daily ritual,” the hermit told the tourist with a big laugh! Years later, when those two cats died, it became a tradition. More, when the head monk, the man who started this ‘tradition’ of tying the two cats to the banyan tree, also died, the younger one who succeeded him was not aware of the “logic behind tying the cats”. “He insisted that his fellow monks should fetch two cats and tie them to the banyan tree. Only then, he would start the prayers,” Dev Prasad recounts.

It was then the tourists turn to laugh until the old man explained there was no “logic” behind ‘fetching the cats’, except that “this is what happens when we follow traditions without ever questioning them.” In our own homes, and in offices too now, even in this Internet age, “people are slaves to tradition”; thus the moral lid is opened. Excuses for either doing or not doing a particular thing have this refrain, “because we have always been doing it this way,” Dev observes. The best of management practices and science can co-exist with age-old superstitions!

Every story is prefaced with a thought-provoking quote. Another story titled ‘Mouse Trap’ - a story about how one man’s food could be another man’s poison- begins with an interesting quote from Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Dev thus sprinkles his collection of varied stories with such nuggets of wisdom, leaving it for the readers to make their own inferences!

Interestingly, Dev Prasad categorizes his collection under six ‘Sanskritic’ heads:  ‘Sankalpa (resolution), Aatmabodh (self-awareness), Karuna (empathy), Santushti (contentment), Karma (action) and Niyati (destiny)’. If only the author had added another category, ‘Dukkha (sorrow)’, his moral spread would have matched the proverbial ‘seven seas’ and the injunction not to cross them!

The second book under review this week, ‘I Duryodhana’ by Pradeep Govind, writer and NRI media marketing professional, currently working in the Sultanate of Oman, has been prismatic with a new portrait, in a vibrant, stylistically rich mode of retelling the Mahabharata epic, as reminisced by the fallen Kaurava prince, Duryodhana. He is dying alright, but he has to tell his version of the story.

The internationally known writer- with a caveat that his work is a “literary work of perception” with no claims to absolute conformance to the narratives of Veda Vyasa’s ‘Mahabharata’-  very imaginatively captures how ‘truth’ is often the casualty “when history sings just the victor’s song”.  But it is not subaltern history that Govind is writing.

Even though Krishna explains the rationale of the war to Duryodhana, to “establish truth and justice”, for the dying Kaurava prince, his ultimate victory is to hear that the ‘Kaunteyas’ (sons of Kunti - the five Pandavas)’ have been finished off, though it is not clear whether it includes Karna too! Duryodhana then no longer fears the ‘embrace of death’, for he is in ‘the favourable arms of history’, as Govind says. Strange are the ways of self-vindication! Even stranger seems the urge to leap from the epics of a tradition to historical power. It is for the readers to ponder.

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