Dharma Chakram, the confessional biography of an iconoclast. I would call myself a novice in the realm of Vishwanatha’s literature, being only around ten novels old. Most of the ones I read belong to Purana Vaira Granthamala, the ones that left my modern fantasy soaked mind astounded with their magical warp and weft. I was struck by the pride of nationalism afresh, and I found myself jabbering frenetically to the few heeding friends about the real history of Hindustan, not without a lump held back in the throat at times, when talking of how 1300 years of golden history was strategically nullified.
But Dharma Chakram was different. Could be called the most complex work I ever read by far. The Wheel of Righteousness, how it turns, what makes it turn and how it is bound to turn perpetually in time is the nexus of the story. What is right, what is not? What if it feels right to you? Would it mean it has to be right to all? Is the righteousness relative? If evil is relative, can good be relative too? Or is it the absolute, unchanging truth? These and a motley mass of other contrasting questions break in as I finish the book.
The book predominantly is an account of the period in history that witnessed the momentous clash of ideologies between Hinduism and Buddhism. Or perhaps it focuses upon a few out of several reasons that led to its advent and establishment, displacing the long formed Hindu ideals. That is the outer shell to the reader. But the kernel, that only becomes evident after dismantling the layers of philosophy that garbs this work, is the story of an individual’s struggle with rejection and a compelling account of how a rejected individual sends currents of dysfunction into the society, especially when he holds a strong position in hierarchy.
The book begins with a chilly description of how VeeraPurusha Datta, a boy baby of dubious origins is made the royal heir of the Iskhwaku dynasty, ruling the kingdom of Andhra, on one clandestine moonless night. He is accepted by a few and doubted by others, but welcomed by all as the much awaited male heir of the kingdom. He grows up to hear the half true stories that engulf his past, doubts himself at times, but being of an adamant nature, he learns to assert himself, taking cues from his aunt Shantishree. He has all the virtues and valor that becomes of a king, but none would illuminate the dark shadow of dubious past that lay beneath these. He vanquishes the king of a distant kingdom and wins his daughter, Bhatti Devi as his wife by force. Bhatti Devi, a divine beauty, is described as the one to match VeeraPurusha in all his vigour and effulgence. He begins to love her obsessively, though she would never warm up to him. He never asks her what the reason was, he only goes on assuming that it concerns with the tiny sliver of public opinion about him being a non-Kshatriya. The acceptance he desires from the object of his admiration turns unachievable to him. The indifference begins to puncture his soul. He begins to tumble down the stairs of righteousness, by marrying several times, including his aunt’s daughters, may be wanting to assert himself as always before, or to secretly and unspokenly, beseech Bhatti to cast a glance of compassion at him. He gets all the respect from Bhatti Devi, but he can’t help himself from sensing the coldness in it. He begets two children through her, but the coldness remains. One day, he discerns an aura of peace in the house of Shantishree, his other wife and cousin and begins to go in search of the starting point of the peace. Shantishree introduces him to the Buddhist priest Bhadantacharya, who tries to enlighten him through his philosophical and logical discourses. Vishwanatha dares to point an arrow of criticism towards the Ikshwaku dynasty by saying that the people of dynasty are more concerned about the public opinion rather than their own, citing King Rama estranging the pregnant Seetadevi, caring for a meagre washerman’s words. (I somehow felt that the discourse has a little of Shri. Vishwanatha’s opinion in it, which would justify the non-existence of Uttarakandamin the Ramayana Kalpavruksham series, but It is just a fleeting opinion, I stand to be enlightened). He urges VeeraPurusha not to care the public opinion and his origin does not matter, he urges him to become a Buddhist believer and start his spiritual pursuit to eliminate all his doubts.
VeeraPurusha, instead of accepting himself, tries to make the people accept him. He then begins to feel the ire against the Hindu ideals that have long been extant in the country, the caste system and vedic traditions, considering them as the reason for his non acceptance by the society. Instead of finding peace, he begins to feel his discontentment rise, inflame and take a form. He decides to sacrifice all the vedic rituals, he starts forcing his citizens to be Buddhists, massacres Brahmins who reject to convert all around the kingdom.
Rejection from loved ones always leads to a simmering, unpredictable wrath within the individual. It may burn himself slowly, devouring his soul to ashes, or as in this case, get magnified to an uncontrollable level, sabotaging the surrounding equilibrium indiscreetly. The feelings and reactions are not confined to that century but have travelled down, as examples to human intricacies, arousing the question again and again as to why a righteous person would seem wrong to another.
The kingdom becomes a huge Buddhist establishment as time passes on, and Chaityas and Viharas are built everywhere. Monks begin to visit the kingdom from all the four corners of the world. Vishwanatha points out the virtues of such global spirit, by stating that the monasteries housed great universities where multifarious arts and sciences were taught. But as always, he never gives blanket coverage to anything. He cleverly introduces the questions of Dharma there. He gently starts to ignite the reader’s psyche regarding the futility of the nihilistic theory of Buddhism. As an intelligently conceived archetype, he illustrates Kodabalisri,the daughter of VeeraPurusha and Bhatti. She is portrayed as the real embodiment of all the nihilistic ideals. She is a woman who doesn’t know that she is one. Or who doesn’t care if she is one. She has very limited tasks on her regime, seeking alms like a Buddhist monk for feeding herself and defending herself from adversaries. The portrayal is a perfect symbolism of what nihilism in its most primary form does to a human being. If there exists nothing, there exists not even hope. There is no hope to learn, to live, to marry or to procreate. People would regress to Stone Age, only bereft of the enthusiasm to discover better ways of life, which would make the entire universe a black hole in due course. The very character emphasizes the hollowness of the ideal and hints at the direness of consequences.
Vishwanatha also criticizes the hierarchy, as subordinates follow superiors with no further thought. All the officials become Hindu haters in a sheepish fashion and they begin to guard the new ideals with no idea of what they are doing. Some use it to their own convenience to torture people they had hated for long while some take it as a license to kill and feed their blood thirst. These references too, are not limited to the ancient society, but their venomous tendrils have the world under their grip whichever timeframe you would consider.
VeeraPurusha reaches the peaks of intolerance and ignorance, when he denigrates a Shiva Lingam with his feet on the auspicious Karteeka Pournami[i] night. Vishwantha’s undisputed literary genius gleams bright through the passages in this part when he describes that the silver moon appeared to be tarnished after the incident. There are several sentences that rasp like sharpened blades, stab bluntly at times, or spiral in and out of head. I wish new readers would discover those by themselves so I recede from mentioning references.
VeeraPurusha races in a direction exactly opposite to what he seeks in doing all this. He never finds peace, never gains acceptance all through this ordeal. The realization dawns upon him only after the introduction of a pivotal character in the story. How the story turns thereafter would be best if read, but expect a thrilling penultimate chapter that whets your thinking power and a climax that reiterates Vishwanatha’s unflinching belief in the vedic marital rites in undertones.
When the heat dies down, when the blood in veins slows down, when debility’s talons begin to grip the muscles, a man cannot help but repent his youth, whether it was well spent. When nearing the corporeal oblivion, contemplation perches upon him, of the ill balanced sins and virtues. Few are lucky enough to be free of repentance at that stage. From my limited sphere of knowledge and even limited list of literature I love, that part of the book kindled a thought to draw a parallelism between Veera Purusha to another negative protagonist that I could never get out of my head, Heathcliff. Both were victims of social non-acceptance due to their nebulous origins. Their obsession, their monomaniac passion, their belligerence, their heights of self-abhorrence that makes them hate everything that is theirs, even their offspring, using them as weapons to vanquish their objects of desire and their repentance unto the end and realization that they are nowhere near what they desire.. The similitude clarifies something to us. People like VeeraPurusha or Heathcliff are not a rarity. But they have that shattering impact only when they begin to rise above others in terms of money or power. Conceiving such characters and spinning the story around them is for sure a daunting task, which might become an overdose of negativity without the exercise of caution. But Viswanatha excels in sculpting out the plot to such finesse, where he evokes not just the feelings of apprehension and repulsion, but a tinge of compassion within those.
© Santwana Chimalamarri.
This article has been published on pustakam.net and reprinted here courtesy of pustakam.net.
[i] Full moon in the month of Karteeka (8th month in lunar calendar)