Raja Rao Experienced “India as an Idea”
Raja Rao was my professor when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin from 1976 -1981. I started college after spending four years in India, arriving at the Indo-Pak border on December 10, 1970, at the tender age of eighteen and spending four years studying yoga and meditation. In 1973, I met my Guru, Shri Neem Karoli Babaji, who not only gave me my name, RamRani, but also serious instructions that have guided my life since. He said to me, “RamRani, when you go back to America, go to the university and study about India and help to make Hinduism better understood and respected.”
It was my good fortune to have met Raja Rao as I began that scholarly quest. While an undergraduate, I took several classes under his instruction including “Symbolism of the Male and Female” and “Introduction to Advaita Vedanta”. In the sixties his courses had been always full of eager students and the administration had to move his classes to large auditoriums. By the time I was at UT seeking my undergraduate degree, in 1976, the Hippies who had adored Raja Rao, and whom he admired, had thinned out and there was a mixture of scholarly, serious students with a personal mission, as well as a few remaining hardcore enlightenment seeking, Austin-type Hippies. After 1980, and the election of Ronald Reagan, Raja Rao said he noticed a difference in the genre of students who came his way and the sizes of his classes grew gradually smaller. Following my graduation, with a B.A. in Indian Languages and Literature, as well as teaching certificates in Social Studies and Geography, I would bring Raja Rao fresh carrot/vegetable juice several times a week, that I made regularly while I was pregnant with my first child.
Having obtained a BA, from UT Austin in 1981, along with teaching certifications, I taught high school history and found to my dismay that in World History textbooks the narratives about India were full of prejudice and bias and ludicrous misinformation. Comparatively, such negativities were not as prevalent in chapters about other areas of the world such as China, Europe, or Africa; and other other religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islam were treated with less sensationalism and more objectivity. Remembering my Guru’s command to help make Hinduism better understood and respected, when my three children were all of school-age, I decided to go to get a PhD and work to address the problems with the treatment of India and Hinduism as found in history textbooks used in American classrooms.
Essential for the fulfillment of my Guruji’s instructions, in February 1992, while teaching at Taos High School in New Mexico, I applied to graduate school at UT Austin and then went to India with my 12 year-old daughter, Kristina Shakti for six months. I returned to the US in December, anticipating starting school in January, but I found to my surprise that I had not been admitted to the Department of South Asian Studies even though 11 years earlier I had graduated with honors from UT Austin, with a BA in Indian Language and Literature.
When I arrived back in Austin in December 1992, I immediately looked up Raja Rao, my professor and mentor from my undergraduate days. He had retired a decade earlier. I found with delight that he had married my old friend and colleague, Susan, with whom I had worked years before caring for Ella, an elderly vegetarian lady, who had been a Theosophist, since the 1920’s. Raja Rao helped guide me through tumultuous, sometimes adversarial academic experiences, where what I was being taught was quite often the opposite of the instructions given to me by my Guruji. It seemed as if Hinduism was being mistaught, misunderstood, and disrespected at the very universities my Guru had instructed me to attend in order to study about Hinduism.
Since I had been refused admittance to my alma mater UT Austin, Raja Rao came to my aid and called Dr. Richard King, the dean of the school of Liberal Arts and went above the heads of the chairman of the Department of South Asian Studies and the professors on the selection committee. Raja Rao wrote a letter of recommendation that is still one of my dearest memories. In Dec 1992, Raja Rao wrote, “Of all the students I have taught at The University of Texas at Austin, which were thousands. Yvette Rosser understood India the best.” His signature was quite small, and slanted at a 45% angle on the bottom right hand side of the page. After a week or two of wrangling and sincerely begging and pleading in meetings with deans, including a few more phone calls from Raja Rao on my behalf, I was finally admitted to graduate school.
Within the first year I had begun working as the Outreach Coordinator for the Department of South Asian Studies, writing grants to sponsor workshops to teach high school teachers how to better teach about India, and developing curriculum. While working in the department, I was informed by Sarah, the secretary of the Department of South Asian Studies, who had been present taking notes during the selection committee’s meetings, that the reason I had initially been denied admittance to graduate school was because the professors in the selection committee were critical of a letter of recommendation submitted on my behalf by my old friend and Guru-bhai, Ramdass (formally Dr. Richard Alpert, of Harvard University). Ramdass has written books about our Guru Neem Karoli Baba and has published extensively about the practical application of Dharma in everyday life. The professors of South Asian Studies had looked derisively at Ramdass’ letter of recommendation since it implied I was “too Hindu to study Hinduism objectively”. However, the letter did not say I was Hindu, indeed Ramdass does not consider himself a Hindu. However in December 1992, my appreciation for Hindu traditions was enough to disqualify me from studying about those very traditions in a modern American university. I’ve laughed about this because, in my opinion, jealousy may have motivated them, since many books by Ramdass are best sellers and remain in print for decades, such as “Be Here Now” while their books about India gather dust on library shelves.
In January 1993, the major immediate cause of the bias was based on the fact that I began attending graduate school, exactly one month after the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Due to that drama, I found blatant and avowed anti-Hinduism as the predominant accepted narrative, which scholars of South Asian Studies applied to Hindu India using a liberal dose of post-modern theorizing. Raja Rao and I had many long talks stretching over several years. What a blessing to conveniently park my car at Susan and Raja Rao’s home, walk to the university, and after my classes spend precious time talking with Raja Rao, where we often discussed the anti Hindu bias I found in the Department of South Asian Studies. He had seen it and experienced it himself. There was a time well before he retired in 1983, that the professors in the Department of South Asian Studies wanted Raja Rao removed because he was too esoteric and perhaps too authentic. However, the dean of the Philosophy Department would not be swayed and retained the most popular professor in his department.
For several years, in the mornings, I usually parked my car at Raja Rao’s home near the university and walked to class. Later in the day, I would spend an articulate and inspiring hour with him in the afternoon when his wife, my dear friend, Susan Raja-Rao would go to the grocery story. Discussing the surprising anti-Hindu attitude that had developed at UT Austin, where he had taught from 1966 – 1983, Raja Rao and I shared numerous conversations, both humorous and serious.
Certainly, one of the boons of the time that I was a graduate student in the Department of South Asian Studies between 1993 and 1997, was being so very fortunate to be able to visit Raja Rao almost daily. We spoke many times about the way that Hinduism was taught and/or mis-taught in academia, which was actually the topic of my Master’s Thesis. We discussed many aspects about Hinduism, Vedanta, and how to teach about India. Raja Rao’s writings and interests are vast and deep. We discussed many areas of his multi-perspectival interests, and I shared with him my observations of the subtle but ubiquitous anti-Hindu bias that I saw in academia. He once confided in me while laughing, that his old colleagues at UT would be surprised to know that he was pro BJP!
He loved India dearly, and though he had lived in the West most of his adult life, first in France and London, then the USA, Raja Rao carried India around with him. He was always just a few inches from India in any direction. Raja Rao often spoke of Shakti power rising from the bedrock of the Subcontinent, a glow, or hum – emanating between Sindh and Bengal, south of the Himalayas. His concept was that the idea of India was greater than the terrestrial entity, transcending the material world, offering a gift of knowledge to the planet. Many times in eloquent language he explained his perspective that India’s energy or aura, goes out into space, follows trajectories, mutates, vibrates and hums in all directions, thereby influencing the cosmos. Raja Rao thought there was something in the bedrock of the Subcontinent that hums the Dharma, a glow, an energy that keeps the world keeping on. It’s the Dharma’s Shakti, the Cosmic hum rising from that inverted triangular piece of land located between Sindh and Bengal, from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka. Raja Rao said that when he was younger, he felt, and saw, and heard India’s metaphysical terrestrial energy as he was approaching India by boat in 1939 fleeing the war in Europe after having lived in France. Raja Rao often spoke about the power emanating from India, the collective cosmic Shakti power that was ‘Indianness’ (Dharma). He knew scientifically that, he was not off-base theoretically, since India has the oldest rocks on earth from the Precambrian age. In fact, the Narmada flows through the ancient Gondwana Plate. Raja Rao felt that India was an idea that transcended geographical limitations. He knew India has the oldest bedrocks on earth, the Narmada flows through the most ancient Gondwana Plate. For Raja Rao, India transcends geographical limitations. In “The Serpent and the Rope” (1960) he wrote, “Anybody can have the geographic—even the political—India; it matters little. . . . India is not a country like France is, or like England; India is an idea, a metaphysic.”
In mid 1980’s in an interview recorded while in India, Raja Rao said, “Whether I am in Paris, London, New York or Austin, Texas, I don’t think my life changes… By force of circumstance, purely accidental and sentimental, l have lived abroad. My roots are in this country. That is why I come here every year and spend as much time as I can. I live abroad but I am chained to my country. One of the disciplines that has interested me in Indian literature is its sense of sadhana as a form of spiritual growth. In that sense, one is alone in the world. I can say that all I write is for myself. If I were to live in a forest, I would still go on writing. If I were to live anywhere else, I would still go on writing, because I enjoy the magic of the word. That magic is cultivated mainly by inner silence, one that is cultivated not by associating oneself with society but often by being away from it. I think I try to belong to the great Indian tradition of the past when literature was considered a sadhana. In fact I wanted to publish my books anonymously because I think they do not belong to me. But my publisher refused.”
Sometimes we spoke in French, because my mother, whom Raja Rao met, was from Brussels and a native speaker of French. Having the rare opportunity to speak French in Texas delighted Raja Rao, who usually called me by my given French name, Yvette (ईवेत्) instead of my spiritual name, RamRani (रामरानी). Having been born in 1908, Raja Rao was in his nineties when I was in Graduate School. I have many sweet memories of sitting with Raja Rao and discussing a wide assortment of topics. One day we were sitting at his dining room table, he asked me, in these words, exactly, “What is the most important thing in your life? What is your most passionate goal, what vision do you seek?” It was such an overarching and personal and spiritual question. I took a deep breath and looked at him, sitting on the other side of the table, a small man, who when he was my teacher at UT, always wore all black, pants and jacket, inevitably with a burgundy scarf or ascot tied loosely around his neck. That day, fifteen years later, he had on a large blue bathrobe, as the dappled sun was coming through the big tree outside the window on Pearl Street. I looked in my heart to find the answer to such a huge query. And after a moment, I replied, “I want to experience true devotion to my Guru-ji. I want to know that He is in my heart forever.” Just as I stopped speaking, the bells of a nearby church began to toll. We sat together listening to the reverberating sound ringing out across the neighborhood, “bong, bong, bong, bong.” When the church bells stopped, Raja Rao immediately said, “That was auspicious” explaining, “In India we believe that if the temple bells ring just when you say something, that statement is true and it is sanctified.”
These are some of Raja Rao’s words describing what writing meant to him, taken from his Neustadt Prize acceptance speech (June 1988):
“I am a man of silence. And words emerge from that silence with light, of light, and light is sacred. One wonders that there is the word at all ‐Sabda-‐and one asks oneself, where did it come from? How does it arise? I have asked this question for many, many years. I’ve asked it of linguists, I’ve asked it of poets, I’ve asked it of scholars. The word seems to come first as an impulsion from the nowhere, and then as a prehension, and it becomes less and less esoteric – – till it begins to be concrete. And the concrete becoming ever more earthy, and the earthy communicated, as the common word, alas, seems to possess least of that original light. The writer or the poet is he who seeks back the common word to its origin of silence that the manifested word become light. […] Thus the word coming of light is seen eventually by light. That is, every word-image is seen by light, and that is its meaning. Therefore the effort of the writer, if he’s sincere, is to forget himself in the process and go back to the light from which words come. Go back where? Those who read or those who hear must reach back to their own light. And that light I think is prayer.”
Raja Rao was a sage, for him words were made from light that formed during meditation. He was a sage who practiced Advaita Vedanta and his fictional characters were expressions of that tradition. It can be said this his writings were not real, on the surface, they were fiction, but at their core, his writings ring true, words woven with the strings of truth.
His first novel, Kanthapura, written in 1937 when he was only 21 years old, has continued to be acclaimed as a precursor of a kahani – Puranic style of Indic-English. In his preface to Kanthapura, often cited as the quintessential statement or manifesto of Indian writers in English, he wrote that “English is not really an alien” to India, but like Persian and Sanskrit before, has become the language of governance and of India’s “intellectual make-up.” He continued, “We cannot write like the English. We should not. We can write only as Indians” because the “tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression. . . . We, in India, think quickly, and when we move we move quickly.” His 1937 preface concludes, “There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on. . . . Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling.”
These words written by Raja Rao almost 80 years ago, sound very much like words he spoke to me 50 years later, when he described his relationship to English unlike his experience of French. Raja Rao said,
“I don’t write about anything I don‘t know myself. I don’t invent. I am interested in precision. Finding the right word is like making a spiritual discovery. All forms of literature are only capable of indirect statements. English, unlike French, is not academized. The English language is expandable to an extraordinary degree, breaking conventions without any fear of its becoming un‑English.” One thing can be said about Raja Rao unquestionably, there was never any chance of him becoming un-Indian.
Featured Image: The Hindu