A Comic Vision of
Great Constancy
Stories about Unlocking the Wisdom of Everyman
A Reading of “The Knight’s Tale”
and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Comic Vision in India

In January of 2015 my wife and I traveled to India for the first time. It’s one thing to stand in awe before the spellbinding beauty of the Taj. We have done that with other buildings in other places. It’s something else altogether to see thousands of people, mile after mile after mile, living along the roadsides in India. The experience turns our Western ideas of poverty to dust and ashes. Along with the shock of it, though, was a sense that, quite apart from how we might feel about what we were seeing, we were witnessing a functioning, albeit a very different, society.

Unlike our Western passion for privacy, the people lining the roadsides live in the open—brushing their teeth, eating on the ground, working, defecating, warming their hands by a small fire, carrying water, carrying a baby. They are busy doing their own thing, and yet the densely populated scene as a whole conveys a sense of purpose. Also, it includes openings to the future. At night, there are wedding processions in the crowded streets, attended by hundreds and brilliantly lit with flood lights. In working class neighborhoods we see children walking to school in attractive uniforms.

Along the sacred river Ganges there’s the same nakedness of individuals acting on their own while acting out timeless rituals. Even in winter they remove their outer garments on the steps of the ghat—leaving their things with a priest for safekeeping—and then descend to be immersed, to have the water on their skin (and feel the blood rush to the surface, as one woman explained). It’s a long day’s work for Ganga-gi. Every day at dusk the priests begin the rite that puts the river to sleep. As darkness falls, they chant ancient verses, blow the conches, light the incense, and brandish the torches—all in traditional gestures. The life of the fire, the rawness of it in the dark, reminds us that life is an unbroken chain of sacrifices: the oil in the torch giving itself up to fuel the fire, plants and animals giving up their life to feed others, our ancestors sacrificing themselves to give us a secure life in a secure nation, just as we sacrifice our time and labor to sustain the lives of children. And then a short walk from where the river is put to sleep, on the ghat where the cremations take place day and night, the lightly covered, perishable bodies of the dead are completely exposed to a fire that rushes to transform them into heat, smoke, and ash. It takes a few hours; the priest, the body’s relatives, and all of us watching from the river are there to sanctify and to witness this final life’s lesson.

We were warned that driving in India is “controlled chaos.” It’s certainly chaotic at all times, but the “controlled” part is only true if you make it safely to your destination. We shared the road, even major highways, with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles with four people somehow sandwiched on the seat, rickshaws, lorries large and small, tractors pulling wagonloads of produce and people, and of course the sacred cows who own the road. These things go at their own pace, but for those of us in cars they were all opponents in high speed games of chicken (even with cows!) no matter which way they were going. There may be rules of the road, but our astute Indian driver was the only one in our car who knew what they were. His artful dodging kept us riveted for a long and harrowing afternoon on the roads north to Agra. Our party ate and drank heartily that night. For me, our afternoon and evening on the road touched on the questions posed by what I’d seen in Delhi and Varanassi: “What holds this place together? Why is it still working?” Whether we liked it or not and with our life on the line, for an afternoon in our little car we had become part of the warp and woof of things in India, weaving in out of an endless stream of traffic.

Years ago I had studied books on India and Hinduism. Before we left home, I rummaged through my shelves and took two books with me on the trip to read when I had the chance, R.K. Narayan’s translation of the The Ramayana and Juan Mascaro’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita. At out first hotel in Delhi we had a little free time in the afternoon so I went to the lounge and ordered coffee at the bar. I had brought The Ramayana with me and was reading it while I waited. The young man behind the bar inquired about the book, and when I showed it to him, his demeanor completely changed, as if a light had been turned on inside. He was delighted that I was acquainted with the story, and he told stories about the role it played in his and his community’s life. A day later I went to the lounge once again to have coffee and relax. This time I sat in a different place and was served by young woman. She greeted me as “the one reading the Ramayana” even though I didn’t remember seeing her the day before.

Sometimes we rode from city to city in a large bus. We felt safer there, a match for size with the thousands of lorries we encountered both coming and going. Lorries in India are more like massive movie stars than trucks. Their surfaces have a texture like woven fabric and are painted like a brightly colored sari; the mirrors and fenders are decorated with talismantic tassels; and at night lorries are lit up like Christmas trees. Because our vantage point was as high as their cabs, I could look into them as we passed them or they passed us. Inside the cab riding along with the driver there were those brightly colored pictures of male and female gods and goddesses. Working men on the roads of India wear their religion on their sleeves, as it were. Now that I’ve been on those roads, I can see why. The Greek philosopher Thales wrote that “All things are full of gods.” These cabs and our experience of India as a whole manifested the idea in such a colorful and concrete way. What else can one conclude when you look at the surface of a temple that’s completely covered with carved images of immortals.

For several months I read and considered the questions our trip to India has raised. I’ve read the Sanskrit poetry of India since college, but this was long before I wrote my book about Chaucer and Shakespeare. Surfacing from a total immersion in their texts, I found in the Sanskrit literature of the Vedas, the Upanishads, Sankhya, Vedanta, and Tantra a basic correspondence with the comic vision that’s the theme of my book. For example, in his book on Hinduism Stephen Cross quotes the story from the Rig Veda about two birds on one tree. He uses it to describe the two realms that are consistently delineated in Sanskrit literature: that “of empirical existence and ordinary knowing, the world of name and form; and behind it, that quite different order to which the mind doesn’t have access and which is Brahman—or, when spoken of in relation to man, Atman”:

Two Birds with fair wings, knit with bonds of friendship
In the same sheltering tree have found a refuge.
One of the twain eats the sweet Figtree’s fruitage;
The other, eating not, regardeth only.

Near the end of his book, he sums up his very readable survey with this conclusion: “Informing the whole of Hinduism is the idea of release or moksha. It is essentially a change of identity,” from being the bird that eats the figtree’s fruitage to the one that watches.

The relationship between these two realms is also the subject of A Comic Vision of Great Constancy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Helena touches on this theme when she complains that she suffers in relationship with Demetrius because “Love looks, not with the eyes, but with the mind.” People look with the mind to determine what a thing is. There’s a strong desire to know the object, but this looking is conditioned by the cultural and personal bias of the knower. Looking with the eyes, on the other hand, wonders at the fact that the object exists at all. In this looking, life is a miracle—“to be” illuminated by “not to be.” So it’s a strange and even irrational way of looking, like seeing that the world is full of gods, and yet teachers and writers for thousands of years have willed us their assurance that it can be done. In comedy, it’s as simple as slipping on a banana peel because we are busy texting, a variation on an old burlesque routine. In these experiences the thing which absorbed our attention is swallowed up by the whole from which it derives, the “thing” we had been ignoring. Like waking from a dream, we land willy nilly on a larger intelligence, a starting point for fresh eyes. This is clearly not the omniscience of a god, but it’s something: it’s the beginning of wisdom for a lifetime of being a beginner.

A Comic Vision of Great Constancy and this companion piece to it argue from beginning to end that the wisdom literature of the world still has a vital role to play in the government of our lives. This is particularly true in a society run by technocrats and experts, for wisdom depends on acknowledging the greatness of what we don’t know. In India we saw terrible waste—building after building half finished and abandoned, a whole series of overpasses constructed years ago but with no road to connect them, a crazy patchwork tax system that ties up traffic at borders between states, the mounting evidence of poor planning, terrible gaps in political continuity, and, we were told, rampant corruption. So what to do? The people of India have been figuring this out for centuries. Life still streams around the bridges to nowhere that politicians built.

But we didn’t find the cynicism, the dark humor that’s a staple in other badly run countries we have visited, like Russia, for example. Instead, there’s a brightness and vitality that’s quite the opposite. Having turned for my own health and happiness as a teacher, parent, and husband to the wisdom literature of the West and East, I’m inclined to attribute the lively pulse of India to a love of ancient stories, their main characters (like the loyal and resourceful monkey god, Hanuman), and the life lessons these stories embody. Juan Mascaro informs the reader quite early in his Introduction that there is no tragedy in Sanskrit literature. On the whole, he writes, it’s “a romantic literature interwoven with idealism and practical wisdom, and with a passionate longing for spiritual vision.” This describes the literature I have written about and which I call a comic vision. No wonder, then, that there were so many books I wanted to read in the bookstore at the Delhi airport, my last stop before boarding the plane.

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