Journal of Literary Studies, 4.2 (Dec. 1981)

English Department, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, India

John Rothfork, English Dept., Northern Arizona University

Religion and Culture in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope

Raja Rao’s novel, The Serpent and the Rope, is a complex fictional treatment of inter- or cross-cultural understanding, which ultimately suggests that religion, or what Charles Taylor calls, “social imaginaries,” are an insurmountable barrier to mutual understanding among people formed by different cultures. Ramaswamy, a South Indian Brahmin, marries Madeleine in her native France. Madeleine is a Catholic who denies her Catholic faith to practice what she understands of an ascetic Theravada Buddhism. Although Ramaswamy and Madeleine seem to be a model couple and continue to be caring about each other, they are separated from each other for long periods because of Ramaswamy’s research and his frail health caused by tuberculosis. At the end of the novel they are amiably divorced before Ramaswamy abandons Western scholarship to return to India.

        Ramaswamy goes to France to study for a Ph.D. He tell us: “I had taken history, and my special subject was the Albigensian heresy. I was trying to line up the Bogomilites and the Druzes, and thus search back for the Indian background – Jain or maybe Buddhist – of the Cathars” (15). The Albigensians were a heretical sect of twelfth and thirteenth century Christians in Southern France. Also called the Cathari, or the Pure, they were “in line with the Gnostics and Manicheans” who believed that “sprit was the creation of the good principle, matter of the evil one.” They denied that Christ had a physical body and “would tolerate no images, not even the crucifix,” in their services. “They branded sex as utterly evil and would eat nothing they knew to be a product of sexual reproduction.” They also believed in something like karma to explain that “sins committed in this life had to be expiated by the transmigration of the soul through further births” (Bainton 215).

        It is fairly obvious why Ramaswamy was attracted to this sect. Like the Brahmin caste, the Cathars thought of themselves as purer than other Christians. The asceticism, the abstract nature of their devotion in repudiating images, the idea of rebirth and karma would have all been familiar to him from Vedanta. Ramaswamy is a monist, not a dualist like the Manicheans or the Cathars. Thus he says, “I cannot repent, as I do not know what repentance is. For I must first believe there is death. And this is the central fact – I do not believe that death is” (9). This view is illustrated by Ramaswamy’s reaction to the deaths of his two children. After learning of the death of his second child, he says, “I was neither in pain, nor was I relieved; I felt above both” (285). This is apparently caused by Ramaswamy’s focus on the consolation of the Rig Veda: “’Never at any time am I subject to Death,’ says the Rig Veda. The only real illusion, mriyu, mara, is Death” (384). In contrast, Madeleine never recovers from the deaths of her children, which, we can believe, cause her to reject life by practicing asceticism. Before going to France, Ramaswamy’s grandfather told him, “I like the way you go about thinking on the more serious things of Vedanta” (17). In arguing with Communists, who naturally espouse materialism, Ramaswamy, the historian, says that “in Vedanta there is no going back or forward” in history (193).

        If Ramaswamy is so fixed in his Vedanta belief, we wonder why he does not become a pundit or sadhu, a Hindu religious scholar or a Hindu mendicant. Why is he interested in Christian theology and church history? Why does he go to France and marry a French Catholic? The answer seems to be that Ramaswamy hopes to be a kind of Vedantic missionary following in the footsteps of Swami Vivekanada who became a star attraction of the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Ramaswamy’s historical research brings him to France “to find a direct proof of India’s link with the Cathar heresy,” which he hopes will explain Vedanta to the West (344). Ramaswamy believes that the radical monism of Vedanta can subsume all religious and political divisions. Thus he says, “Marxism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Hitlerism, the British Commonwealth, the Republic of the United State of America: all are so many names for some unknown principle, which we feel but cannot name. For all the roads, as the Gita says, lead but to the Absolute” (90). In believing this, Ramaswamy also believes that there are no significant differences among people or cultures. He tells his wife that her notions of the divine are illusory cultural projections: “the gods were neither Hindu nor Greek; being creations of your own mind they behaved as you made them” (55). The question, then, becomes about the nature of the mind and how it affects the identity of the believer. Is identity a social and cultural construction -- which a Vedantan would be likely to say is our deluded state or problem -- or is there a transcendental identity that supersedes all cultural or historical variants? And if so, isn’t that simply the belief of a specific culture?

        In Vedanta the impersonal cosmic force of Brahman is the ultimate reality. It is “Not Mind nor Insight, Mineness nor Substance” (91). It is unknowable as an object, yet we experience it: “who has ever seen nothingness – Nirvana? The Void is only the I seen from within as the not-I.” Transcendental Brahman is eternal but also evident in praxis or process, being manifest as Shakti and Maya. Entangled in Maya, we consider objects as things-in-themselves that gives the illusion that things are important in themselves having an autonomous existence as historic beings. In reality, all individuals are ephemeral manifestations of the One. Consequently, “Maya was as such nothing but the Truth” (110).

        As a Brahmin, Ramaswamy avoids immediate and emotional responses to Maya to repeatedly remember that Brahman is the only reality. “A Brahmin is he who knows Brahman” (406). The Bhagavad Gita declares that “Brahman is the supreme imperishable” and ultimate reality. It counsels that “men who lust after desires get that which comes and goes.” In contrast, Ramaswamy says, “the true Brahminhood commences when you recognize yourself in your eternity,” which sees the ego as ephemeral and transformed in different stages of life (215; asrama-dharma). Consequently, we must detach ourselves from immediate, emotional involvement with events that are ultimately illusory. Like smoke or dreams, Maya is ephemeral offering only a trace of Shaki or  Brahman: “I send forth again and again / This whole host of beings.” The process of self-conscious perception comes closer to discerning Brahman than a focus on the objects of perception.

        Be Me-minded, devoted to Me;
                Worshiping Me, pay homage to me;
        Just to Me shalt thou go, having thus disciplined
                Thyself, fully intent on Me
                                        (Gita 8,3; 9,21; 9,8; 9,34)

        Like all humans, Ramaswamy struggles to intellectually and emotionally obey this injunction. As a historian he is involved in an opposite view of events. This yin/yang complementarity is apparent in his marriage. He marries Madeleine instead of renouncing the world, yet he never attempts to empathize or struggle with her to foster a unified existence in a marriage composed of dualistic, reciprocal elements or male and female identities. As a Vedantist, Ramaswamy feels that he must find his identity directly grounded in the Absolute instead of through a relationship with a proxy or another person as in Christianity where the Absolute is mediated by the incarnation of Jesus. As a Vedantist, Ramaswamy must think that not only is his own ego-identity illusory, so is that of his wife or the beloved. Even the images of the divine are illusory cultural projections. Nonetheless, Ramaswamy reflects that he is “by taste and tradition [...] a historian” as much as a mystic (231). As a historian, Ramaswamy recognizes that Homer and “Greece made life real” (384). Greek culture rejected the thinking of Parmenides, who – like the Hindus – said that Being is one: it “has no beginning and never will be destroyed: it is whole, still, and without end” (Wheelwright 90-119). Ramaswamy hopes to reconcile the dualism of the West with the monism of the East by historically proving that Western dualism – especially the Cathar heresy and Manicheanism – was a garbled and misunderstood version of Vedanta.

        Although the plot of the novel is often overly academic, with characters arguing questions of medieval theology, Ramaswamy recognizes that “the new civilization has to be a technocratic one” (234). All the same, he feels that “Man’s sorrow is not to belong to this earth” (370). That is to say, people still have religious needs and identity. Living in Maya, we are deluded because we do not recognize our essence in Brahman. The Cathars misunderstood how Brahman and Maya function. Ramaswamy believes there was a similar East-West explanation for the medieval grail quest: “There is an old theory that the Holy Grail was a Buddhist conception – that the cup of Christ was a Buddhist relic which the Nestorians took over and brought to Persia; there the legend mingled with Manichaeism, and became towards the end of the Middle Ages the strange story of the Holy Grail” (19). Ramaswamy declares that “India has no history, for Truth cannot have history.” He is, ironically, a historian who hopes to convince the West that its development of Christianity was fostered by a garbled understanding of Vedanta (102).

        Ramaswamy’s thesis is remotely possible, but not likely to be the stuff for a Ph.D. dissertation in history at a French university. Vedanta means the end (anta) of the Vedas and is attributed to Badarayana who wrote the Vedanta Sutras, also called the Brahma Sutras sometime between 450 bce and 250 bce. This work summarized the teachings of the Upanishads in 555 aphorisms, which required commentary to understand. The basic texts of Vedanta are the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita. In the ninth century, Sri Shankara (788-820?) wrote a commentary on the Vedanta Sutras; “because his commentary is one of the earliest and perhaps the most thorough, it is usually assumed to be the Vedanta.” The Vedas themselves “may be place approximately between 2,500 and 600 bce (see Organ 241-69 and Radhakrishnan xvii, 506).

        Despite his focus on Vedanta, Ramaswamy cannot escape entanglement with Maya in his marriage. His initial description of his wife is revealing: “Madeleine was so lovely [...] her limbs had such pure unreality. Madeleine was altogether unreal.” He goes on to say that “her skin [...] was like the unearthed marble with which we built our winter palaces” (13). It soon becomes obvious that Ramaswamy “wanted a companion of pilgrimage” and that he wishes to use Madeleine to seek a better knowledge of Brahman, or to better worship the feminine power of Brahman as Shakti (98). Thus he says, “the woman needs our worship for her fulfillment, for in worshipping her we know the world and annihilate it, absorbing it, into ourself” (172). Later Ramaswamy reflects that “all women are perfect women, for they have the feminine principle in them, the yin, the prakriti” or Shakti (311). This poetic reverie may be the most revealing account of what Ramaswamy hopes for in his marriage:

“Somewhere on these very banks the Upanishadic Sages, perhaps four, five or six thousand years ago, had discussed the roots of human understanding. And Yajnyavalkya had said to Maitreyi, ‘For whose sake, verily, does a husband love his wife? Not for the sake of his wife, but verily for the sake of the Self in her’” (24).

        Ultimately Madeleine comes close to fulfilling this role for her husband, but not in the way he expected. At one point he tells her, “You are more of a Brahmin than I” (313). After she becomes an ascetic, he confirms that “She looked a saint: I worshipped her” (326). Yet Ramaswamy ultimately admits that “Madeleine’s kingdom was not my world; her trees, virgins, Buddhist pigeons were not of my understanding” (385).

The difference between husband and wife is that Ramaswamy is a Vedantic monist while Madeleine is, ironically, a dualist like the Cathars that Ramaswamy came to France to study; she is an ascetic, “the sister-soul of Simone Weil.” Madeleine speaks no more than three hundred words a day and sleeps only five hours at night, and eats only three handfuls of grain three times a day (315, 321, 330). Instead of a wife to love in the context of Maya, Madeleine invites veneration for her steely discipline in denying the flesh. She makes it clear that her development into a Buddhist or Jain ascetic is due to her husband’s influence. She tells him, “I was an atheist […]. You it was, Rama, with your Brahminism, that gave me the eyes to see” (317). This makes Ramaswamy both astonished by his wife’s ascetic discipline and guilty for being the cause of it. Moreover, as the cause, he is helpless to criticize it, which leaves Madeleine’s asceticism as another illustration of a garbled understanding of Eastern religion. Gautama Buddha, himself, practiced such Jain austerity for six years before deciding that it was unproductive. Buddhism is called the middle path between asceticism and intemperance. Like the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta, Buddhist sutras advocate insight, a change in understanding rather than a physical, Manichaean struggle against objects of desire. The Dhammapada says, “But nothing is more impure, O bhikkus, than ignorance. / Cast aside ignorance, and all becomes pure” (Lal 122). Another translation says, “A worse taint than these is Ignorance, the worst of all taints. Destroy this one taint and become taintless, O Bhikkus” (Buddharakkhita 115). The Buddha tells his disciple, Ananda, that the way to enlightenment is by “devout meditation of heart which is concerned with no material object” (Maha-Parinibbana-Sutta in Buddhist Suttas 38). Another sutra tells the disciples to “be devoted to that quietude of heart which springs from within […] let him look through things” (Akankheyya-Sutta in Buddhist Suttas 210).

Rama’s name reminds us of the Ramayana and of Sita as both beauty and the perfect wife. The tragedy of Madeleine’s asceticism is traceable to her hope to become an ideal wife to Ramaswamy. She repudiates her Catholic upbringing to say, “the Hindus are right. Man must lead woman to the altar of God” (40). Madeleine expects her husband to be her guru to play the very role that a Brahmin husband should play. Both are ready to play archetypal roles defined by Hindu dharma. But Madeleine lacks firsthand knowledge of Hindu culture gained by growing up in the culture. And Ramaswamy has at least two unrealistic expectations. He expects his wife to have a religious and cultural understanding of his role as Rama illustrate in the Ramayana; and he expects Madeleine to play a reciprocal role in his own spiritual development.

At one time Ramaswamy says, Madeleine “might then have taken me into herself […] with the conviction that she would make me know myself in the shine of annihilation.” That is to say, Madeleine could reveal Shakti to Ramaswamy so that he would become absorbed in the worship of this divine & true Self. Despite her academic effort to understand her husband and his culture, Madeleine doesn’t understand Ramaswamy’s religious expectations for a “true marriage.” Telling Madeleine “you’ve failed me,” Ramaswamy acknowledges that “to wed a woman you must wed her God” (66, 84). If, as Ramaswamy believes, the Cathars are a kind of sect of Hinduism, this should not be much of a conversion. Ramaswamy writes in his diary, “How I wish I could tell Madeleine I have begun to worship her God” (83). But Ramaswamy’s Christianity is like Madeleine’s Buddhism. Both are affectations based on intellectual study as adults. Neither has roots from childhood praxis. Madeleine never recognizes the self-deception involved with her practice of Buddhist asceticism and consequently “parodied herself out of existence” (387). For his part, Ramawamy soon rejects the thin mantle of his Christian pose, deciding that “I knelt before no alien God. The God of woman must be the God of her man” (113).

As the novel illustrates, religious practice runs deeper than adult talk, historic research, or scholarship. Like learning a native language, its roots extend back into formative childhood experiences including the participation in rituals that are culturally formative of identity. For example, Ramaswamy has a great reverence for rivers, especially for the Ganges, which he personifies as “Mother Ganga” and idealizes as the font of wisdom: “The Ganges alone seemed to carry a meaning” (33, 26). In Talks on the Gita, Vinoba Bhave asks, "If God is not manifest to us in Mother Ganga, where else shall we see Him?" But for Madeleine, the Ganges is, at best, only an anomaly of nature: Ganga jal or “the Ganges water when chemically examined shows no bacteria” (39). In mirror imagery, Rama has no emotional response to Christian symbols. Seeing a French cathedral, he thinks it proclaims, “not that Christ was the Son of God, but that the King of France was the Son of Christ” (56). Authentic emotional response to religious symbols usually requires growing up in the culture for which the symbols are a central focus. As an adult, Madeleine rejects the Christianity in which she was brought up. But her efforts to become a Buddhist arhat are pursued in a cultural vacuum or in the context of European bookish study. Because her tapas or ascetic practices are studied forms taken from an alien culture, her efforts can only end in parody.

Nonetheless, Ramaswamy hopes to break through the guise and shell of his wife’s sadhana or spiritual practice asking, “Must you torture me like this?” It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to recognize that Rama is alluding to the lack of sex in their marriage. Madeleine responds by asking, “what is it separated us, Rama?” Instead of saying the lack of sex, Rama responds tersely, saying, “India” meaning Madeleine’s misunderstanding of what he means by “India.” We can only speculate at how profoundly different the meaning & emotional response may be for the husband and wife. Apparently, thinking only of Hindu theology, Madeleine responds, saying she is “a Buddhist” (331) involved in her idiosyncratic version of Theravada practice. Troy Wilson Organ tells us that “It was Sankara […] founder of Advaita Vedantism, who” combined the “Upanisadic insights on maya [illusion, the ephemeral], avidya [ignorance of one’s true identity], and iva [“as it were,” metaphor, appearance] together with such conceptions as that of a dream world […]. His teachings that the world is maya […] have so captured the imagination of Hindus and non-Hindus that this doctrine is often thought to be the foremost teaching of Advaita Vedantism” (43). It is plausible to assume that thinking along these lines is what Ramaswamy has in mind when he says, “India.” But sex is conspicuous by the reluctance of both to mention it, despite the illustration of the Vishvanatha temple at Khajarajo, often called the sex temple where divinities are sculpturally shown in hundreds of overt sexual poses. Sudhir Kakar explains that a Hindu invokes “a deity not on its own but as a couple: Sitarama and not Sita and Rama, Radhakrishna and not Radha and Krishna” (Portrait 64). In another work, Kakar explains this bliss or moksha (release from ego anxiety) by quoting from the Upanisads: “just as the person, who in the embrace of his beloved has no consciousness of what is outside or inside, so in this experience [of moksha] nothing remains as a pointer to inside or outside” (World 16). Perhaps this needs to be more blunt. “The embrace of his beloved” means joined in the sex act as symbolic of both bliss and absorption into the One.

As a European, Madeleine cannot escape dualist Manichaean thinking that pits the flesh against the spirit, the ego against enemies. Madeleline’s Buddhism is actually closer to Jainism, a matter of fighting desire (with libido taking either the form of violence or sex) and ascetically repudiating involvement with the body and the world. Will power becomes Madeleine’s sole virtue rather than insight into how desire works, which is the focus of Theravada practice. What Madeleine understands of Brahmanism is the exterior, the law, rituals studied as an adult. The intellectual goal of her practice is nirvana, not moksha (release from anxiety and shame). In a highly oversimplified view, Buddhism is the opposite of Hinduism. This is illustrated by the Buddhist sutra, On Knowledge of the Vedas, which says that Brahmins, “by reason of their invoking and praying and hoping and praising, should after death and when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahma – verily such a condition of things has no existence!” (Tevigga-Sutta in Buddhist Suttas 180). In the context of the novel, Madeleine’s religion represents a rejection of Ramaswamy and his outlook of Vedanta.

For Madeleine, religion can only be a struggle against the flesh, against evil objects by relying on will power and discipline. Consequently, she tells her husband, “We Europeans believe in being good” as the opposite of being bad defined by Original Sin and its manifestation in concupiscence. This outlook is not part of Ramaswamy’s childhood culture. He responds saying, Hindus or Indians believe “in being wise,” or in attaining insight into desire rather than repressing or combating it as an enemy (338). Despite Ramaswamy’s intellectual claims, Hinduism and Buddhism are not the same, nor can Christianity be adequately explained as a Western misunderstanding of Vedanta. Each character – Ramaswamy and Madeleine – illustrates Thomas Kuhn’s point that “each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense” (94). Explaining something like paradigms, Charles Taylor invents the term, “social imaginaries,” that enable discussion in a specific culture. We might simply call this “common sense” recognizing that this is not the same for different discourse communities or cultures. Taylor tells us that an “imaginary” is “not a theory.” It alludes to praxis or “practice that largely carries the understanding” and that cultural practice is usually learned in childhood (Taylor 25). “Ideas always come in history wrapped up in certain practices” (33).

Ramaswamy’s monist view is that differences are manifest only on the level of Maya, which is ephemeral and ultimately illusory. But in Madeleine’s “social imaginary,” the flesh and evil are implacable realities that must be resisted or fought against. Instead of an imaginary based on discipline, struggle, and violence, Rama’s Hindu view is based on the imaginary of beauty (rasa) or aesthetics, on the image of Sita or Lakshmi. Troy Wilson Organ explains rasa and simply says, “Hinduism is rasa” (82-88). Rasa invites us to taste or savor experience rather than substituting talk, ideas, and explanations for the experience. Sudhir Kakar explains that “Rasa, in art” quiets “the turmoil of chitta” or mental processes, such as analysis, to bring the mind “nearer to its perfect state of pure calm” (World 31). It is not just the denotative definition that Ramaswamy has in mind when he says, “India.” It is Mother India. Thus he tells his wife, “Buddhism died in India because it became ascetic and so denied womanhood its right to exist. Those who hate woman – who debase woman – must end themselves, as the Cathars did, fasting unto death” (170). The opposites here are sex and death, beauty and resisting the allure of beauty through discipline and repression. If Maya emerges from Brahman, there is no evil in the sense of a substantive entity to destroy, nothing to repudiate. What we thought was a serpent, we discover is only a rope. Ramaswamy even criticizes Mahatma Gandhi for repudiating or renouncing sex (170).

Although Ramaswamy has studied Manichaean dualism, he does not rely on its beliefs and assumptions in forming a gestalt or social imaginary view of events just as Madeleine does not rely on Vedanta in forming impressions. Trying to explain Vedanta, Ramaswamy says, “You can never be a Cathar, a pure; you have to be purity. When there is purity there is no you. That is the paradox and neither Christianity nor Islam has ever been able to transcend it” (99). The stress in these sentences is on verbs, not objects; on the act of perception and on the Hindu self-conscious recognition of “having being” or perceiving. The psychotherapist, Sudhir Kakar, explains that in the West “A good reality sense, according to psycho-analysis, shows itself in the absence of a conscious feeling of the self or the various selves. This, however, is precisely the situation which the Hindu ways of liberation would seek to reverse” (Inner World 20). Such self-consciousness is lost in a Manichaean focus on objects or enemies to subdue or destroy. Madeleine is imprisoned by her cultural perspective, which relies on a social imaginary to see history and a historical ego as inescapable in defining reality. It is me against a world of objects that are not me, that are the contents of consciousness. Madeleine’s Buddhism is fanatically ascetic because she is so sure that her self or ego is inescapably more real than perceptions or conceptions. Ramaswamy is correct in saying, “Catholicism is in her blood.” He recognizes that “for Madeleine there is an area which is not me that she fills with Christian longings” for ego possessions (80). Thus it is significant that her Buddhism is filled with devotional icons, such as “an Indian temple bell with Nandi mount and all, a censer and a folding bookrack, such as only Brahmins have in their sanctuaries” (313). It is also telling that she never considers going to India. Madeleine remains in France where she can control her notions of Buddhism.

Ramaswamy finds that he and his wife are drifting apart and, although both recognize this, neither seems able to do anything to stop it. Ramaswamy’s Vedanta outlook causes him to disregard religious and cultural differences. In thinking that all names are names of God, and that all roads lead to the Absolute, Ramaswamy thought that Madeleine would come to share his outlook. And she tries, saying, “I am becoming a good wife” (261). At the end of one of his lectures on Vedanta, Ramaswamy feels that “this time I had wholly won her” (113). But after the failure of his marriage, he recognizes “one can never be converted to Hinduism” because it is more an experience of growing up in the culture rather than a dedication to a set of ideas or discipline based on commands and prophecy (331). Radhakrishnan tells us that like other religions, Hinduism is “characterized by an ultimate dependence upon intuition” gained in formative childhood experience that include what Charles Taylor calls social imaginaries (Radhakrishnan xxvi).  As Ramaswamy and Madeleine drift farther apart, each pursuing his or her religious views, Ramaswamy meets an Indian woman, Savithri, who reveals Shakti for him. He feels that to “know Savithri, not a saint of ochre and bone bowl, but one which had known the extinction of the ego” would help him achieve what he is looking for, moksha. Ramaswamy tells us that “to know Savithri was to wake into the truth of life, to be remembered – unto God” (169). Unlike Madeleine, who is full of yang or aggressive will power, Savithri personifies yin. Like Sita, Savithri is serene, seemingly unalienated from Brahman: “first Savithri listens to the river, then she listens to her own heart, then she listens to her own silence – and then she is lost” in the sense of ego consciousness (176). Savithri seems never to get lost in ego-focused Maya for “ugly smearing things […] just did not reach her. There was no one to receive, at the other end” (186-7). Kakar explains: “For ‘I’ is neither self, which is the object of ‘I,’ nor ego, a psychic agency. ‘I,’ as Hindus would say, is pure consciousness [without an object, including the self as object], the atman of Vedantic thought whose only counterplayer is Brahman” (Inner World 19).

Ramaswamy finds that an authentic marriage of the spirit is possible with Savithri because she shares the same cultural perspective or social imaginaries. Thus, the silence between the two is a silence that “cleansed everyone” in contrast to the irritating and tense silence of Madeleine’s asceticism that leaves Ramaswamy wondering what she is thinking (187). The actual spouses have idealized notions of each other based on the scholarship of Christianity and Buddhism that neither has experienced as a formative culture. One night, awake in bed, Ramaswamy, “after a lapse of long silence,” looks toward Madeleine. He says, “I could have knelt by her and taken her hand and pressed my lips against it, and whispered many irrelevant, untrue things” (235). But he does not act because he doesn’t know how Madeleine might react to such an emotional self-revelation of need. He does not risk it because he senses that it is at odds with the image that Madeleine has of him as a sanyasi, perhaps an elegant figure like Rabindranath Tagore. In any case, Ramaswamy ironically hides behind his façade to play the role that he feels Madeleine expects, while she, in turn, plays the role of model student and dutiful Hindu wife that she feels Ramaswamy expects. With these spurious masks and roles to play, marriage as mutual surrender of egos is impossible.

Ultimately, Ramaswamy blames himself, saying “had I been less of a Brahmin, I might have known more of love” (400). What he likely means is that as a Brahmin dedicated to never losing the consciousness of Brahman as the absolute and underlying ground of being, he has related to Madeleine only secondarily or indirectly as a conduit to the Absolute. Ironically, he complains of a similar attitude on her part, saying that “Madeleine does not love me. She wants me […] as some devotee would want her Shiva or Krishna” (81). Nonetheless, he plays this role for Madeleine until, in her ascetic regime, she fixes her devotion on the Void itself and does not need him any longer. We wonder if this isn’t the ultimate narcissism and whether their marriage has been a kind of religious competition with each telling the other about how their love is really directed to the Absolute seen through them. Ramaswamy never seems to have touched, literally or figuratively, the actual Madeleine. He has always sought to see through her. And she has been tragically accommodating in erasing the historic and sexual Madeleine through her asceticism. At the end of the novel Madeleine asks why Ramaswamy has come to see her. When he says, “to see you,” she tells him, “you cannot see anything but the eighteen aggregates” that constitute the illusion or temporary construct of Madeleine’s existence on the level of Maya (387). Madeleine seems to have won the competition because Ramaswamy remains entangled in Maya with his love or emotional attachment. In a slightly different view, we might say that Ramaswamy has succeeded in erasing Madeleine’s ego and identity. He has what he thought he wanted – a saint.

Ramaswamy’s love of Savithri is little different from his love of Madeleine. He is still the self-absorbed or narcissist Brahmin who sees through Savithri to the Absolute. In falling in love with Savithri, Ramaswamy says, “I could see in myself a vastness, as it were a change of psychic dimension, an awareness of a more ancient me” (195). We don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see the religious narcissism in this. At the end of this self-reflection Ramaswamy is consumed, not by Savithri, but by Brahman: “there never was time, there never was history, there never was anything but Shivoham, Shivoham: I am Shiva, I am the Absolute” (197). Ramaswamy allows Savithri to marry someone else because he has never loved her as an ego or person. He has loved her because she has been effective in revealing Brahman to him.

In the beginning of the novel, Ramaswamy says, “I was born an orphan, I have remained one. I have wandered the world and have sobbed in hotel rooms and in trains […] for I had no mother” (6). At the end of the novel, he recalls that “Grandfather Kittanna used to say that sometimes the longing for God becomes so great, so acute, you weep and that weeping has no name” or object (402). Ramaswamy burdens every relationship with his longing for God. As a Vedantist he believes that each person is a mask of God deluded because they do not sufficiently recognize this in the entanglements of everyday life. He hopes to dispense with masks, both with others but especially with himself in seeking to be loved, in seeking to dissolve the ego in a mother’s all-consuming love. This is different from Christianity that proclaims that the individual is a creature of God who, at best, maintains a relationship with the divine. Whereas Hinduism proclaims that man is ignorant of his true identity in Brahman, Christianity says that man is estranged from God by having his own ego and will that God forgives us for having, if we are saved. These are, Raja Rao seems to illustrate, mutually exclusive views. Ramaswamy is dedicated to the sadhana of insight; Madeleine is dedicated to the path or technique of will power.

Ultimately, then, The Serpent and the Rope is pessimistic about cross-cultural understanding. The novel suggests that the deepest values – those we cannot give up without giving up our very identity – are created by social imaginaries or formative cultural intuition formed through childhood praxis. Raja Rao seems to illustrate that although all roads may lead to the Absolute, the roads are different. The very form of the novel, as a first person struggle for self-understanding as well as trying to fathom the thinking of someone from a different culture, illustrates cultural solipsism.

Ramaswamy comes to the West to pursue a doctorate in Christian history, marries a French woman, but cannot escape his dharma or social imaginaries, how his Hindu culture makes sense of his experience. Ramaswamy cannot be saved by Madeleine, Savithri, nor a God manifest in history with “a mother and father […] friends and enemies” (82). Such an image and concept is simply not a manifestation of what Ramaswamy understands as divine. Ramaswamy is a mystic who longs to be absorbed in the Absolute, not have a relationship with it that condemns him to alienation or separation as a distinct ego. In the end, Ramaswamy repudiates his scholarship and the attempt to understand the West to return to Mother India. Not only has he failed to explain Western theology as a derivative of Vedanta, he is symbolically reduced to learning the most basic Hindu meditation technique of pranayama or focus on breathing. Being treated for tuberculosis in an English hospital, Ramaswamy is told, “the whole thing was a question of breathing well” (348). The irony is apparent with yoga, “the science of breathing.” Ramaswamy also reflects that “India was my breath” (376). The suggestion is that Ramaswamy would have done better to practice pranayama than to pursue historical research and the abstruse problems of Christian theology.

Although the novel illustrates Ramaswamy’s struggle for insight, we must say something more about his influence on Madeleine. Is Ramaswamy responsible for her asceticism? If so, is Madeleine better or worse for the change in her life? Even as a child, she says she was teased and told “she would end up in a convent” (23). Her husband also says that “what I think Madeleine really cared for was a disinterested devotion to any cause” (18). We can’t discount Ramaswamy’s likely hope to evade responsibility in making this judgment. But there is evidence to support the idea that Madeleine was in search of a cause for which she could sacrifice her ego.

Nonetheless, it is obvious that at the beginning of the novel we find Madeleine to be more alive, more physically and mentally healthy, than the grim and fanatical ascetic at the end of the novel. Ironically, Madeleine has been more successful in relying only on the Absolute than Ramaswamy, who returns to an immersion, not in the Absolute, but in the rich and crowded culture of Hindu India where he will no doubt feel something figuratively similar to a mother’s warm embrace and love. In contrast Raja Rao seems to illustrate that Madeleine has achieved her state at the expense of starving something human in herself. Focusing on what Theravada Buddhism calls bare-awareness (vipissana), it is not Madeleine who feels “there is nobody to go to now: no home, no temple, no city.” It is Ramaswamy who confesses, “I weep a lot these days.” He says that “sometimes singing some chant of Sankara, I burst into sobs.” He reports looking, of all places, into the Encyclopedia for a Western description of God where he finds “sixty-two pages, and they do not illuminate my need.” This leaves him thinking that he needs, “not a God but a Guru” just as Madeleine tragically did in marrying him (402).

Ramaswamy is complicit in what the novel seems to illustrate is Madeleine’s decline or lapse into self or ego extinction in contrast to motherhood that moves in a similar direction through asrama-dharma rather than what we might call technical self-conscious discipline. Similarly, it is because of Ramaswamy’s egotism or self-involvement that he was largely unaware of what Madeleine sought from their relationship or what she made of his lectures on Vedanta in which he was more often taking to himself than involved in empathy for his wife. When Madeleine begins to pursue asceticism, Ramaswamy finds that he cannot respond to have a more authentic dialog with his wife because he feels guilty for playing the role of guru to encourage her along that direction.

Ramaswamy is a pundit and something of a sadhu who hopes to reconcile with Western culture, if not put it in its place as a deluded entanglement of Maya. At one point, Raja Rao has his character say, “I am not telling a story here, I am writing the sad and uneven chronicle of a life (231). In reading the engaging novel, I often thought how it resembles Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948), his autobiography in which he hoped to reconcile a medieval monastic lifestyle with the very different social imaginaries of modern, urban, capitalist life. This made for an interesting and popular book, although I’m sure few sought to follow Merton’s example of becoming a Trappist monk.

Raja Rao’s novel is flawed. It is sometimes tedious and clumsy in treating Vedanta. The character of Ramaswamy is frustratingly immature, self-pitying, and self-involved lacking the kind of irony that is apparent in James Joyce’s rendering of Stephan Deadalus in Portrait of an Artist. The comparison with Thomas Merton and the possible comparison with Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter, and with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, elevate Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope, as well as his novel, Kanthapura, into select literary company.


Works Cited

·         Kakar, Sudhir. The Indians: Portrait of a People.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

·         ________. The Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, 2nd ed.  Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.