The 10th edition of Bhutan’s Mountain Echoes literature and cultural festival, featuring 80 speakers, came to a close on Sunday in the quaint blue-green capital city of Thimphu. Besides music concerts, open mic, and film screenings across four other venues, the talks and literary sessions were held at Taj Tashi and the Royal University of Bhutan, the same venue, where just days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited students of Buddhism from Bhutan to Nalanda University in Bihar.
The three-day festival, organised by Jaipur-based Siyahi in association with India-Bhutan Foundation, started with Queen Mother Her Majesty Arshi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, 64, sharing an endearing story about her father, who passed away earlier this year. She spoke of her late father’s insistence on learning and “not wasting even a moment” followed by the love story of her parents.
Love story was also how Vanessa R Sasson, professor of religious studies from Canada, wanted to write Yasodhara’s story as, in her book, Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife. She was in conversation with Tashi Zangmo, the sassy executive director of Bhutan Nuns Foundation.
One thing that has been missing in the academy and Buddhist studies, Sasson says, is that, they often don’t think about Buddhism having love stories. “We only think about renunciation and monasticism, and think of the Buddha leaving, but before the Buddha left, there was a love story, and more research threw up evidence to this interpretation,” she admits.
From early Pali texts to Sanskrit to Chinese texts, every time they were born together, Yasodhara was always his wife. Lifetime after lifetime, she’s there with him as he’s moving towards becoming the Buddha, and in their last life, they are born at the same time, in the same kingdom.
“Buddhism has the ultimate love story, because it is a multi-life love story,” she said, “Actually, Yasodhara was Buddha’s widow, but calling her that would have been scandalous.” There are episodes in the novel — fiction offers that liberty — where Sasson had to ‘make up’ some events because they were ignored in the documented texts on Yasodhara’s life.
Sasson quotes Prince Siddhartha from a text, “If I touch my (newborn) son, she (Yasodhara) will wake up, and I won’t be able to go.’ And when she wakes up next morning, she’s devastated, and cries, seeking him through the palace,” she says. So many texts and poems sing of her loss, and that makes it a love story for Sasson.
“There’s no absolute Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Abhijnanashakuntalam. Stories are retold over 2,000 years. We have to keep retelling them else they die, and in every retelling, we see them differently. Literature is not uniform,” said Sasson. If some Buddhist writings mention the entry of women to the Sangha as mildew attacking rice fields –“literature also has moments where you see women as ‘being seen’.”
It was the love for his race that made author Tony Joseph dig deeper into the Aryan debate in his book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From. He said, “All population groups in the world are mixtures. And Indian population has been formed by four major migrations. One that is politically sensitive is the last one dating back 4,000 years — the Indo-Europeans.”
He added that the first Indians arrived here 65,000 years ago, which “makes the tribals our closest relatives in the world.” Joseph said. “Even BR Ambedkar has seen the tribal groups differently, seen them as opposed to Shudras,” he added. He also spoke about how invasion theories have been falsified and we should avoid using words like invasion, archaeologically, because Harappan civilisation declined owing to drought and not invasion, and that, historically, Harappans were the ancestors of both north and south India.
The love for the revered river back home, made California-based professor of history, Sudipta Sen, write the book The Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River. The glorious past becomes both a vehicle of escape from — as well as a tool of greater inquiry to seek answers from and engage with — the present reality.
Sen used Ganga as a trope to speak of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, how the sacred water used by 150 million people in north India, used for all purposes of life — birth to death — still a living pulse, is so desecrated yet contaminated at the same time. “The future,” Sen said, “is to harness older ways to being in harmony with the environment.”
The “compelling need” to be fair while asking “what if” continues to drive The Indian Express Chief Editor Raj Kamal Jha to delve into fiction. Speaking about his latest novel, The City and the Sea, Jha said, “Each individual has a story. It is the job of art, if not of life, to tell the story of different people.”
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