In an interview with Dipin Damodharan, "literary popstar" Amish Tripathi, the author of the best-selling Shiva trilogy and the Scion of Ikshvaku speaks on several issues, ranging from the importance of gender equality and women in the Vedas to Lord Ram and atheism.
Have you replaced Chetan Bhagat as the favourite author of youngsters?
Chetan's books also continue to sell in good numbers. I have respect for Chetan, because he is the first one who showed the publishing industry we can sell in good numbers. I think there is difference between FMCG products and books. If you like one author you can like another author also. You can buy the books of both authors. Most of the readers of Chetan's books happen to be youth, and most of the readers of my book also happen to be youth.
"There are good, positive, liberal messages we can learn from our ancient past, which are good for modern India."
All of your books are based on the ancient heritage of India which glorified the Vedas. Are you trying to regain the ancient spirit of India, or is it a marketing strategy to sell your books?
When I wrote my first book, I didn't think it would get published. Most people said the subject that I picked had no hope for success. They said the modern youth are not really interested in religion. But I feel there's a lot of wisdom in the Vedas. There are good, positive, liberal messages we can learn from our ancient past, which are good for modern India. Why not speak up on that? Respect for women is one example. As Swami Vivekanandji said, we believe that all religions are true. When I said it in Israel, a person who was sitting with me said, "You are talking about a fictional world." But, the reality is that we can be religious, and yet be liberal. That's the Indian way. At the same time I want to clarify that I am not anti-West. There're a lot of things we can learn from the West too. As Mahatma Gandhi said we should stay rooted in our culture, but we should keep the windows open.
So, you think the Vedas teach an egalitarian way of life. How do you view the treatment of women in ancient India?
The Vedas are certainly egalitarian. There's no doubt about it. I will give you one straight example. The highest status at that time was for rishis(saints). Their status was even higher than the kings. And, you know there were women rishis. In my personal life, I am surrounded by powerful women. My mother, my sister, sisters-in-law, wife... the rules for my sisters and brothers in my house were the same. No special rules for boys. I have grown up in that atmosphere. But, in terms of the treatment of women, we are among the worst in the world. Society is oppressing women across all religions.
" In the Rig Veda, the most ancient scripture, there are 30 hymns written by rishikas. Today there are idiots who say women can't read the Vedas."
Then how can we handle this?
There are two ways to handle this. One is to get some people from America, Britain to come down here... They will tell us, "you dirty Indians, your culture itself is bad. You listen to our superior culture..." But frankly, we all know how women are treated in the US and Europe. The better way is to tell Indians that by treating women this way you are going against your own ancient culture. You actually insult your ancestors by treating women this way. I think that may have a better impact. Our ancient culture preaches respect for women. Women were treated as equals in Vedic India.
In the Rig Veda, the most ancient scripture, there are 30 hymns written by rishikas (women rishis). Today there are idiots who say women can't read the Vedas. But, the women wrote the scriptures...That was the status of women in ancient India. I think we need to bring these issues out. This is the way to solve the biggest social problem India is facing today. Our ancient scriptures used to say that the Gods abandon the land where women are not respected. So if we don't want the Gods to abandon India, we have to change the way. We have to stop the nonsense that we are doing against women.
Is women empowerment the most serious issue in the country today?
It is the most important issue in India - more than religious differences or any other thing. I genuinely believe that India cannot become the great country we're capable of becoming until we solve this issue. Even the Manusmriti , which has many parts I don't agree with, says that the Gods abandon the land where women are not treated well. The biggest violence in India is actually done on women. An estimated 200,000 girls are killed every year in the womb. The real violence in India is gender violence. This is a social problem. This is what we need to focus now.
What do you think about freedom of speech in India?
In terms of public attitude to freedom of expression, India is actually among the best in the world. But our laws are regressive. The primary culprit is the first amendment which was passed in 1951. Our original Constitution written by Ambedkarji is actually deeply liberal on freedom of expression. The first amendment curtailed freedom of expression. I have written articles outlining the need for a campaign to repeal the first amendment.
"In India true religiosity and liberalism actually go hand in hand. A vast majority here are deeply religious and deeply liberal."
In India true religiosity and liberalism actually go hand in hand. A vast majority here are deeply religious and deeply liberal. It depends on what you mean by secularism. The way people practice secularism is wonderful. Swami Vivekanandji said very beautifully, Indians believe all religions have the truth. All Gods should be respected. On the issue of religious pluralism we are the best in the world.
For you, what are Ram and Ram Rajya?
That's what I am trying to discuss through the Ram Chandra series. My books always have a core philosophy. The core philosophy in the Shiva trilogy was the question of what is evil. And the core philosophy in the Ram Chandra series is this question: what is an ideal society? And the answers are simple. Your definition of an ideal society might differ from my definition of an ideal society. What are the choices that you made, what is the impact of those choices, should we have rule of law? Or should we break the law for justice? What's better? There are many issues... Should you have personal freedom to its extreme even when it breaks families? Or should you have personal freedom but you need to protect families as well? What is better for society? I don't know. But this is a debate that needs answers. Life of laws and rule of laws! In the traditional Indian way, it was always said that God is in balance. Extreme of either kind is not good. Normally the balance approach is the best approach for everything. Of course, you need to bother about religion and dharma. But that doesn't mean that you let your family starve and you go to the Himalayas. How you find that balance is the important thing.
There's nothing wrong with being an atheist. In ancient India there was a sect of philosophers called charvakas. They were pure atheists. No one ostracised them, no one oppressed them. What matters most is whether you are a good person or not. The key thing is that you should be willing to question. In the traditional Indian way you are supposed to question, you're supposed to question even God. In the Bhagavad Gita, it makes this clear. There's nothing wrong with being an atheist or a person of faith. There's something wrong with you when you stop using your brain. You need to use your brain and question and make up your mind... You should question everything. If you are not supposed to use it, then you won't have a brain.
This interview was first published in Education Insider