The Saint and the Sage: The Fiction of Raja Rao – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a long essay that originally appeared in The Virginia Quarterly.  (Read Part 1.)  It  focuses on Raja Rao, one of India’s greatest writers, arguing that his three major novels (Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope, and The Cat and Shakespeare) parallel the three stages of Vedic enlightenment—myth, philosophy, and perception—and that these three also progressively empowered the Indian Revolution.  More detail and comment at the end of this post.


Raja Rao, Serpent and the RopeThe mala or threadlike storyline of The Serpent and the Rope concerns the breakup of a remarkable marriage between Rama, a Brahmin, and Madeleine, a Westerner and teacher of history. Rama, himself a history student and writing a dissertation for a French university, narrates the story, saying at one point:

I am not telling a story here, I am writing the sad and uneven chronicle of a life, my life, with no art or decoration, but with the “objectivity,” the discipline of the “historical sciences,” for by taste and tradition I am only an historian.

Yet to be thus dedicated to history is to be dedicated to the object, to the world, and Rama is uneasy about this. In fact, the tone of the book’s first line constitutes an unconscious admission of this uneasiness: “I was born a Brahmin,” says Rama, “—that is, devoted to Truth and all that.”

The Truth Rama is at first so tentative about concerns the relationship between the self and the world. The vision defined by tat tvam asi sees that the world persists because the ego persists, for the world is really only the self seen as the other. Thus The Serpent and the Rope revolves around the question, will one or will one not give up the world?—which is the same as asking, will one or will one not give up the self and see that one is not oneself, but the Absolute? Raja Rao’s great achievement is to be able to pursue such questions with an almost manic philosophical drive without robbing them of the passion, pathos, and even sentimentality which must attend questions that threaten the realm of the self. “Float down, float down, little circles like flowers,” says Rama, almost chanting as he thinks of the mendicants who come down to the banks of the Ganges and receive alms from those bearing their dead:

. . . and there is not even a tear in his eye, for who can weep? Why weep and for so many dead—what little circles like some flowers, and there is not even a tear in his eye, for who can weep? Why weep and for so many dead—what would happen to this poor Brahma Bhatta or Virupaksha Bhatta if our fathers did not die, and we did not have to take their ashes to Benares? Death and birth are meteorological happenings: we reap and we sow, we plant and we put manure; we smile when the sky shows rain, we suffer when it rains hail— and all ends in our stomach. There must be a way out, Lord; a way out of this circle of life: rain, sunshine, autumn, snow, heat and the rain once more, in gentle flower-like ripples on the Ganges.

The rhythms and images of this passage circle, creating a stylistic counterpart to the circle in which Rama feels trapped. But there are two ways out, two ways to give up the world; and, as one might suspect, they are the ways of the West and East, Saint and Sage.

Rama’s dissertation has to do with possible connections between the Western, saintly Cathari and the Eastern, sagely Vedantin. The connections, however, exist only superficially, for although both sects forsake the world through the acquisition of knowledge and the practice of an extreme asceticism, the Cathari—whose doctrines descend from the Gnostics and Manichaens—base their attitudes on a fiercely maintained dualism. The “West”—understood throughout the book not so much as a geographical term, but a shorthand term for the affirmation of the object—means something quite different when it speaks of giving up the world. It means, ultimately, “The world must be more perfect or it must leave me alone.” Yet the more intensely it rejects the world, the more intensely is the world’s unsatisfying presence affirmed. Geared to the titanic struggle of human personality against what is, the West thus produces the hero as dualist and moralist who, as Rama says,

. . . must become saintly, must cultivate humility, because he knows he could be big, great, heroic and personal, an emperor with a statue and a pediment. . . . The Cathar, the Saint, wants to transform the world in his image—he the supreme anarchist. The Sage knows the world is but perception; he is King, he, Krishna the King of Kings.

The moral universe insists—whether it be according to Newton or Pascal—on the reality of the external world. That dhira (hero) of whom the Upanishads speak, enters into himself and knows he has never gone anywhere. There is nowhere to go, where there is no whereness. Alas, that is the beautiful Truth and man must learn it—beautiful it is, because you see yourself true.

Even though he seems to understand the differences between Saint and Sage quite deeply, Rama still works at finding possible connections and confesses “a tender heart for the Cathars.” Indeed, tenderness of heart, rising from a deeply felt compassion for the difficulty of life, is one of his most endearing qualities. Because he is tender we respect his wavering between knowing the sagely vision true and desiring to affirm the world. And never does he waver so intensely between knowledge and desire than in his relationship to Madeleine. At times he feels that he and Madeleine can truly marry, become one, but at others he knows that the best he can do is possess her, play for her the hero as saint; for in her great love for Rama and India she longs to be made over in their images. “Oh to be born in a country where tradition is so alive,” she says. Yet Madeleine is the quintessence of the West: she can only reject the world, not truly give it up. Shortly after their second child is born, she writes a remarkable letter to Rama, whose father’s death has forced him to return to India. The letter is the pure voice of the West addressing India. “You people are sentimental about the invisible,” she writes, “we about the visible.” “I wondered,” she continues, “whether I could really love you—whether anyone could love a thing so abstract as you.” She closes by saying she can, but this declaration is just bravura, for throughout, with great pathos and humor, she has been virtually confessing the opposite. She speaks of naming their son:

. . . at first I thought a second name for Krishna would be Ulysses. How I rounded the names on my tongue: Krishna Ulysses Ramaswamy. Absurd, absurd, said something to me, but I repeated them so often together that with familiarity it might become natural. No, the name seemed so absurd.

The child is named Pierrot and, like their first child, dies within weeks.

Pierrot’s death sparks Madeleine’s efforts at rejecting—not giving up—the world. She remains the dualist, the Cathar. In the growing intensity of her dedication to teaching history, people sense the heroic. She becomes obssessed with Buddhism, drives herself in pursuit of saintliness, and naturally drifts further apart from Rama. Near the end of the book Rama goes to visit her. “Why did you come?” she asks. “To see you.” “You cannot see anything but the eighteen aggregates.” She goes back to counting her beads, and Rama says to himself as he leaves, “. . .she parodied herself out of existence.” It is a weird, pathetically comic close to a marriage whose ups and downs, and intense happinesses and sorrows we so long been following.

To be truly married is crucial, for true marriage is India, is complete, non-dualistic oneness. With Savithri Rathor, a young Indian girl who helps him rediscover India’s spiritual meaning, Rama feels this metaphysical marriage bond. “You can marry,” he says to her, “when you are One. That is . . . when there is no one to marry another. The real marriage is like 00 . . . When the ego is dead is marriage true.”

The desire for the Absolute, for the dissolution of ego and its dualistic vision, is at the heart of a spiritual longing which grows in Rama until near the end of the book he tells us:

Sometimes singing some chant of Sankara, I burst into sobs. Grandfather Kittanna used to say that sometimes the longing for God becomes so great, so acute, you weep and that weeping has no name. Do I long for God? God is an object and I cannot long for him. . . . No, not a God but a Guru is what I need.

He returns to India hoping to still the wavering of his soul over Madeleine, over the Cathars, over the multitude of people and issues his life touches.

          The Serpent and the Rope might be merely a short, touching, somewhat sentimental story were it not for the prodigious volume of philosophy that swells the book to more than twice Kanthapuras length and brilliantly transforms the storyline into small, seemingly ephemeral bits imbedded in vast realms of thought. Rama easily out-talks Achakka. He constantly quotes and philosophizes, and devises a stunning theory of history which is at times so satisfying (as when Hitler is identified as a type of the Cathar, the hero-saint who wishes to transform the world in his image) and at other times so infuriating, especially to the humanist who may be put off by Rama’s insistence that the human be set aside in favor of the “abhuman”—a word coming from the combination of “Absolute” with “human,” and signifying that humans are ultimately not themselves but the Absolute. History—the record of human acts—needs to be replaced by knowledge of how the Absolute acts. “India has, I always repeat, no history,” says Rama:

To integrate India into history—is like trying to marry Madeleine. It may be sincere, but it is not history. History, if anything, is the acceptance of human sincerity. But Truth transcends sincerity; Truth is in sincerity and in insincerity— beyond both. And that again is India.

Ultimately, however, philosophy must also be left behind. The Vedantin recognize three stages in giving up the world: faith, knowledge, and realization—which correspond to our myth, philosophy, and perception. Philosophy may carry one to the brink of realization by analyzing such dualities as Saint and Sage, human and abhuman, but it cannot dissolve these dualities by itself. Even the duality of unreal and real, the root duality of The Serpent and the Rope must be dissolved, and Rama moves towards this dissolution in what is perhaps the book’s most famous passage:

“The world is either unreal or real—the serpent or the rope. There is no in-between-the-two—and all that’s in-between is poetry, is sainthood. You might go on saying all the time, “No, no, it’s the rope,” and stand in the serpent. And looking at the rope from the serpent is to see paradise, saints, gods, heroes, universes. . .you feel you are the serpent—you are—the rope is. But in true fact, with whatever eyes you see there is no serpent, there never was a serpent. You gave your own eyes to the falling evening and cried, “Ayyo! Oh! It’s the serpent!” You run and roll and lament. . . . One—The Guru— brings you the lantern . . .”It’s only the rope.” He shows it to you. And you touch your eyes and know there never was a serpent. Where was it, where, I ask you? The poet who saw the rope as a serpent became the serpent, and so the saint: Now, the saint is shown that his sainthood was identification, not realization. The actual, the real has no name. The rope is no rope to itself.”

“Then what is it?”

“The rope. Not opposed to the serpent, but the rope just is—and therefore there is no world.”

Rama becomes free—philosophically. To transform philosophy into realization, into pure, intuitive vision, he seeks a guru.


Raja Rao, The Cat and Shakespeare          “Afterall, you see what your eyes see. That is the root of the problem,” says Shantha, mistress of the main character in The Cat and Shakespeare. As Kanthapura is, so to speak, centered on myth and tradition, and The Serpent and the Rope on philosophy, so The Cat and Shakespeare, while encompassing both myth and philosophy, is centered on the problem of perception. “Freedom is only that you see that you see what you see,” says Ramakrishna Pai, the book’s main character. Merely to see is to affirm the object: to see you see is to affirm perception. But, untransformed in the beginning, Pai had said: “Time ticks. You close your eyes and open. I want to be free,” thereby echoing what Rama had said in The Serpent and the Rope: “. . . all ends in our stomach. There must be a way out, Lord.”

The style of The Cat and Shakespeare rises out of its pre-occupation with perception. Raja Rao intends his prose to be referentially difficult, ambiguous, as a way of de-emphasizing what is merely seen. Indeed, it is often difficult to figure out what, if anything, has happened, and Rao’s determination to convey the vision of tat tvam asi deeply affects even the very grammar of written English. As in “you close your eyes and open,” he makes many sentences elliptical by dropping, appropriately, subjects and objects. Many sentences move by indirection, switching subjects or objects in mid-flow, using logical connectives to imply connections not there, winding up where they did not set out to go. Also, the contrariety of particularization and generalization, so lovely in Rao’s works, operates here more pervasively than ever. One of the main symbols of the book, for example, is a wall which Ramakrishna Pai must learn to cross:

What a will-o’-the-wisp of a wall it is, going from nowhere to nowhere; tile-covered, bulging, and obstreperous, it seems like the sound heard and not the word understood. It runs just a little above my window, half an inch higher, and on the other side it dips and rises, running about on its wild vicarious course.

Ultimately the wall is only ahankara, the limitations of the ego, which keeps him from seeing what he sees he sees.

“The definition of Truth is simple,” says Pai, “—you wake up and you are in front of Truth.” The book’s plot is so tenuous because Truth is finally more a matter of what is, not what happens. It is not action, but recognition. Ahankara, however, blocks recognition by leading one to try to fulfill the longing for Truth with things which are lesser than the Truth. (Pascal, one recalls, expressed the same notion—only using “God” for “Truth.”) Like Rama working on his dissertation, Ramakrishna Pai is involved in a project closely related to, but lesser than, his desire for freedom and Truth: he wants to build a three-story house.

Just as he begins seriously questioning his ability to do this, one of the great character creations in all literature makes his appearance. Govindan Nair, Pai’s friend, easily jumps back and forth across the wall. “Hey there, be you at home?” he asks. A significant first question; for Govindan is really asking Pai how he conceives of his own being. Are you or are you not yourself? “I tell you, God will build you a house of three stories,” he tells Pai:

It is already there. You’ve just to look and see, look deep and see. Let the mother cat hold you by the neck. Suppose I were for a moment to show you the mother cat!” Govindan Nair never says anything indifferent. For him all gestures, all words have absolute meaning. “I meow-meow the dictionary, but my meaning is always one,” he used to assure me.

Govindan Nair is Ramakrishna Pai’s guru, and for him the mother cat is symbol of Truth, of the Absolute.

In one of the book’s most bizarre sequences, Nair’s office mates present him with a cat they have placed in a rat cage. It is a joke of metaphysical proportions, and there ensues a weird parody on Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. “To be or not to be. No, no,” says Govindan Nair. “A kitten sans cat, that is the question.” The vision shaped by tat tvam asi sees that the world is but the play—lila— of the Absolute. Kittens are cats—the diminuitive, playful aspect of cats, just as “To be” is the play of “Not to be,” or the serpent (the unreal) the play of the rope (the real). To choose, like Hamlet, is to affirm duality, to maintain the illusion that one is different from the other. To put a cat in a rat cage is to treat the Absolute like an object; and if the Absolute is an object, if it is not free, then there is no hope of freedom.

“We have no feline instinct. We live like rats,” says Govindan in an atypical moment of despair. That is, we live as if we were objects. But on the whole Govindan Nair, like the book itself, exudes hope. In lovely accord with the concept of lila, The Cat and Shakespeare is a roguish, uproarious, but exceedingly gentle comedy which, despite its general abstruseness, strikes one with great warmth. “Life is so precious,” says Pai near the end of the book, “I ask you why does not one play?” Man, like a kitten, plays because he perceives himself to be lila, and no one perceives this more profoundly and compassionately than Govindan Nair. One comes to love him not only for his delightful, teasing language but also for the fearless freedom with which he lives.

Through a fantastic series of events, for example, Nair is framed and brought to trial for perpetrating fraud in the ration shop where he works. Yet he faces the situation with such playful courage that the spectators, especially Ramakrishna Pai, suddenly realize the power of the sagely vision. “Govindan Nair was not set free. He was free,” says Pai. Shortly after the acquittal the two speak:

“You must have eyes to see,” he said desperately to me. “What do eyes see?” I asked, as if in fun. “Light,” he said, tears trickling from his dark eyes.

At the end of the book Pai crosses the wall:

I saw nose (not the nose) and eyes seeing eyes seeing. . . . I saw love yet knew not its name but heard it as sound, I saw truth not as fact but as ignition. . . . If I go on seeing a point, I become the point.

This is the rhetoric of mystical illumination, Raja Rao’s prose straining to convey the point at which the self gives way to the Absolute. Finally, however, such passion to render that moment must result in silence; so when Raja Rao said he wanted to publish The Cat and Shakespeare, itself barely 100 pages long, with 300 blank pages at the end, he was jesting in earnest.

Raja Rao          The tears trickling from Govindan Nair’s eyes may serve to remind us that to jest in such a way or to fill one’s book with complex, often irreverent discussions on perception or causality is not merely to engage in merry abstruseness. We have not come as far from Kanthapura as it may seem, for the Truth that so deeply touches Govindan Nair is the same that caused Moorthy to say to Rangamma, “The fault of others is the fruit of one’s own disharmony.”  The Cat and Shakespeare pulses with the very heartbeat of revolutionary India, for it is the most sophisticated extension to date of India as idea, as metaphysic. One may also sense in Govindan Nair’s fearlessly free style something of the courage that animated Sri Aurobindo, and Gandhi, and so many of those early strugglers for freedom. To know that the world is but one’s self seen as the other is to have, as Rama says, the courage “to dare annihilation.” The metaphysic of tat tvam asi assures us that one’s freedom is truly one’s own creation. It is not, however, in one’s hands: it is in one’s eyes—in vision.

_______ End of essay_______

(Read Part 1)

“The Saint and the Sage: The Fiction of Raja Rao” by Richard R. Guzman originally appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 56:1 (Winter 1980), 32-50.  It has been reprinted many times.  The spiritual depth of India is undeniable and its relationship to the India Revolution strong, especially seen through the lens of this particular author.  Yet I also do not mean to fall into an “Orientalist” trap by over-spiritualizing India.  I am aware, for example, that perhaps the world’s largest body of work arguing for atheism and materialism is written in Sanskrit. 

For more on Raja Rao at this site:

  • Read ”World Writing: Raja Rao“—a short commentary and reminiscence.
  • Read “Car Seats and Destiny: Meeting Raja Rao
  • Read “Neckties“—a poem for Raja Rao
  • Read “Against Pure Purity,” a re-reading of the “Saint and Sage” essay above.
  • Listen to Raja Rao reading some of his work.

—Links go live when material becomes available.—

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