The Telling, Author Ursula K Le Guin
Snapshot
  • Ursula K Le Guin sees how a system like Dharma, if undefended, not just vanishes but vanishes with a tragic loss to humanity.

Ursula K Le Guin loved Taoism. Then she realized something. Taoism has almost been abolished from China. A religion, a complex body of religion, that survived for thousands of years was destroyed in a few decades of the ‘Great Leap forward’ under Chairman Mao. It pained and troubled her. She wanted to write about the loss. And she wrote ‘The Telling’ (2000). In her own words:

I discovered something very shocking to me. In China they’ve been practicing something like Taoism - a very popular religion - for two or three thousand years and apparently it had been nearly wiped out in only twenty years under Mao. This whole thing haunted my imagination and I thought “I’ve got to write something about this, but I don’t know anything about China.” I had to put it in metaphorical terms. I had to invent a world where there had been an old popular religion and suddenly a new political regime comes in and sees this as a big enemy to progress and tries to stamp it out.

This novel is important in ways more than one. For Le Guin, the science fiction she writes is more descriptive than predictive. And hence, this novel becomes a deeper description of not only the destruction of Taoism – the natural religion in China by the Marxist state religion but also explores how the expansionist mono-cultural system can hunt down and destroy the natural religion – branding the latter’s organic structures as superstitious and exploitative.

‘The Telling’

The novel centres around Suttee (‘Sati’), an Indian born girl who had lost her lesbian lover Pao (‘Tao’) to a religious terror group. Suttee has grown up seeing how the religion she grew up in, along with other natural religions, was destroyed by a ‘One God, One Truth and One Earth’ religion of Unist Fathers. A global monotheistic theocracy arises. However the religious structure soon falls with the intervention of ancestral aliens federation - Hainish Ekumen (Hainish - Ekumen is part of the larger universe common in the fantasy-scifi of Le Guin). Though Unists do not like Ekumen, the change becomes inevitable. Soon the monolith created by the Unists crumbles and devolves into numerous competing as well as mutually opposing religious terrorist cults - but all rooted in ‘One True God’ theology. Meanwhile democracy returns and Hainish education centres increase.

Suttee is a scholarly product of these institutions in Terra. Now she goes on a mission to another world – Aka – to knowledge-mine their natural religious system and culture. In Aka she discovers a situation that very much resembles the Unist religion eliminating natural religions in her own planet. A singular ideological state is waging a war like inquisition against the natural traditions evolved in the planet. With the knowledge she had gained from her Terra based Hainish education, she tries to comprehend the natural system of Aka and through her eyes the story unfolds.

Through the novel, Ursula Le Quin describes the destruction of natural religions in two planets. Their destruction on Terra (earth) – a thing of the past – surfaces as a parallel and a warning when Suttee comprehends what is happening in Aka. For a Hindu, the novel is both descriptive of her present and a predictive warning about his future.

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Problems in Defining Hinduism

One of the basic issues raised again and again starting from colonial Indologists to every modern day Hindu baiter, academic, political or media person, is the inability o define Hinduism. Hence, often they come to the conclusion that Hinduism is an artificial construct. This conclusion is often a starting point for hatred against Hinduism – both psychologically and strategically. At best, their ability to comprehend a non-monotheistic non-belief based system can extend only up to Buddhism. So, in most of the modern day discourses, Buddhism and Chrsitianity/Islam are shown in Western discourses as two major contradictory religions while Hinduism is discounted.

Ursula Le Guin goes to the root of this problem in her novel. When Suttee tries to categorise the Akan system, what she sees is a system that is similar to Buddhism or Taoism.

In her noter in one of her long evening recording sessions, late in the autumn, sitting on the red rug in her quiet room, she defined the Akan system as a religion-philosophy of the type of Buddhism or Taoism, which she had learned about during her Terran education: what the Hainish, with their passion for lists and categories, called a religion of process. “There are no native Akan words for God, gods, the divine,” she told her noter. “The Corporation bureaucrats made up a word for God and installed state theism when they learned that a concept of deity was important on the worlds they took as models. They saw that religion is a useful tool for those in power. But there was no native theism or deism here. On Aka, god is a word without referent. No capital letters. No creator, only creation. No eternal father to reward and punish, justify injustice, ordain cruelty, offer salvation. Eternity not an endpoint but a continuity. Primal division of being into material and spiritual only as two-as-one, or one in two aspects. No hierarchy of Nature and Supernatural. No binary Dark/Light, Evil/ Good, or Body/Soul. No afterlife, no rebirth, no immortal disembodied or reincarnated soul. No heavens, no hells. The Akan system is a spiritual discipline with spiritual goals, but they’re exactly the same goals it seeks for bodily and ethical well-being. Right action is its own end. Dharma without karma.”

Note how easily Suttee chooses Buddhism and Taoism. Le Guin critically hints here at the inability of the West to raise above their own comfort-zone categories. So far so good. Clear categorization – what a typical Western anthropologist, even one sympathetic to ‘Eastern’ religions, would end up doing. But then Aka system throws up confusing surprises at attempts of such concrete categories:

Then she found she was thinking about a group of myths that Ottiar Uming had been telling. The central figure, Ezid, a strange, romantic character who appeared sometimes as a beautiful, gentle young man and sometimes as a beautiful, fearless young woman,was called “the Immortal.” She added a note: “What about ‘Immortal Ezid’? Does this imply belief in an afterlife? Is Ezid one person, two, or many? Immortal/living-forever seems to mean: intense, repeated many times, famous, perhaps also a special ‘educated’ meaning: in perfect bodily/spiritual health, living wisely. Check this.”            Again and again in her notes, after every conclusion: Check this. Conclusions led to new beginnings. Terms changed, were corrected, recorrected.

It is not hard to identify the beautiful young deity - sometimes a man and sometimes a woman. Suttee soon becomes ‘unhappy with her definition of the system as a religion; it seemed not incorrect, but not wholly adequate. The term philosophy was even less adequate.

In other words, Suttee is wrestling with the same problem as do sympathetic Indologists. By bringing in a girl from a real natural religion, who actually discovers in another planet, her own ancestral religion and yet is at a loss to understand it through the categories of her secular education, Le Guin, perhaps unintentionally, creates a powerful metaphor for what the Indologists are doing to Hindu culture.

Now Suttee ends up calling it 'the Great System’: (reminding one of Hinduism being called merely Dharma - Sanathana Dharma - the eternal Dharma: Esha Dharma Sanathana:) Then she calls it ‘the Forest’, and Le Guin adds enigmatically, ‘because she learned that in ancient times it had been called the way through the forest.‘ : (reminding a Hindu reader of Aaryankas - the forest books or Tagore’s statement that the culture of India has essentially been a culture fueled by forest culture). Then: ‘She called it the Mountain when she found that some of her teachers called what they taught her the way to the mountain. She ended up calling it the Telling.‘ The young observer from Terra discovers:

This system wasn’t a religion at all, Sutty told her noter with increasing enthusiasm. Of course it had a spiritual dimension. In fact, it was the spiritual dimension of life for those who lived it. But religion as an institution demanding belief and claiming authority, religion as a community shaped by a knowledge of foreign deities or competing institutions, had never existed on Aka.

The most important thing is the sentence that Le Guin adds to this statement enigmatically: ‘ Until, perhaps, the present time.’

As we go through the novel, it becomes clearer that the unfolding story deals with many questions of ignorance which pass for perspective in the Western social sciences and media discourse studying Hinduism.

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Does not Bhagavad Gita also promote Holy War?

One such question which pseudo-seculars and also many Western intellectuals ask Hindus is about Gita and Mahabharata war. Is not what happened in Kurukshetra Indian version of holy war or Jihad? And does not Gita also condone violence similar to Koran? Ursula provides an answer in this in her novel:

One of the great epics Sutty was now recording in pieces and fragments concerned a long-running and bloody feud over a fertile valley, which began as a quarrel between a brother and sister over inheritance. ...  But these wars and feuds had been fought by professional soldiers, on battlefields. It was a very rare thing, and treated in the histories and annals as shamefully, punishably wrong, for soldiers to destroy cities or farmlands or to hurt civilians. Akans fought each other out of greed and ambition for power, not out of hatred and not in the name of a belief. They fought by the rules. They had the same rules. They were one people. Their system of thought and way of life had been universal. They hadall sung one tune, though in many voices.
Emphasis not in the original

In other words, the civil wars are not holy wars. The allusion here is clearly to Mahabharata and the irony is again hard to escape. Suttee is studying in another planet an epic and its related sacredness and she is puzzled by the inability of the frameworks she had learned to deal with it. The reader knows that she could have easily understood it had she used the knowledge from her own ancient culture.

Why do Indologists fail to understand Hinduism?

Ursula Le Guin makes a very pertinent observation as to why the colonial knowledge-hunters cannot understand a natural religion (like Hinduism). Perhaps every social scientist who wants to understand Indic culture and spirituality in a holistic manner or for that matter any natural religion and its evolution, should etch these words in every endeavour they make:

...there’s a Hainish parable of the Mirror. If the glass is whole, it reflects the whole world, but broken, it shows only fragments, and cuts the hand that holds it. What Terra gave Aka is a splinter of the mirror.

If one remembers what the broken mirror piece of colonial Indology did in studying Indian history, culture and spirituality, then one can understand well how the broken mirror not only distorted Indian culture through the Aryan race theory but also cut the very hand that held it with the concept of Aryan race giving birth to Nazi racist ideology killing millions in the West.

So what happened to Hinduism?

Not that Suttee is completely unaware of her ancestral religion. She remembers but only very vaguely. Yet the memories become important in the narration of the tale. She recounts to the ‘Monitor’ of the corporation, the past history of Terra as a warning to what horrible destruction an expansionist monoculture of the mind can bring to a planet. So, she remembers and tells. The meaning of her name and how its layered meanings were taught to her – her uncle explained it to her.

The name of the central character in ‘The Telling’ Suttee is derived from Hindu Goddess Sati (shown here in Hindu calendar art); Ursula Le Guin explored love for Shiva in her poetry collection (Right). The name of the central character in ‘The Telling’ Suttee is derived from Hindu Goddess Sati (shown here in Hindu calendar art); Ursula Le Guin explored love for Shiva in her poetry collection (Right).

“All I knew about Shiva then was that he has a lovely white bull that’s his friend. And he has long, dirty hair and he’s the greatest dancer in the universe. He dances the worlds into being and out of being. He’s very strange and ugly and he’s always fasting. Aunty told me that Sutty loved him so much that she married him against her father’s will. I knew that was hard for a girl to do in those days, and I thought she was very brave. But then Aunty told me that Sutty went back to see her father. And her father talked insultingly about Shiva and was extremely rude to him. And Sutty was so angry and ashamed that she died of it. She didn’t do anything, she just died. And ever since then, faithful wives who die when their husbands die are called after her. Well, when Aunty told me that, I said, ‘Why did you name me for a stupid silly woman like that!’’’ And Uncle was listening, and he said, ‘Because Sati is Shiva, and Shiva is Sati. You are the lover and the griever. You are the anger. You are the dance.

She remembers and tells how varied forms of worship co-existed and how the same individual could easily move between these varied forms of worship and deities:

But all the same, when you have a lot of Gods, may be it’s easier than having one. We had a God rock among the roots of a big tree near the road. People in the village painted it red and fed it butter, to please it, to please themselves. Aunty put marigolds at Ganesh’s feet every day. He was a little bronze God with an animal nose in the back room. He was Shiva’s son, actually. Much kinder than Shiva. Aunty recited things and sang to him. Doing pooja. I used to help her do pooja. I could sing some of the songs. I liked the incense and the marigolds....

Then she recounts who the Unists were and what they did to the Hindus:

But these people I have to tell you about, the people we were hiding from, they didn’t have any little Gods. They hated them. They only had one big one. A big boss God. Whatever they said God said to do was right. Whoever didn’t do what they said God said to do was wrong. A lot of people believed this. They were called Unists. One God, one Truth, one Earth. And they... They made a lot of trouble. ... The Unist Fathers said that what they called evil knowledge had brought all this misery. If there was no evil knowledge, people would be good. Unholy knowledge should be destroyed to make room for holy belief. They opposed science, all learning, everything except what was in their own books. ... I told you about the Unists.  After they took over the government of our part of the country, they started having what they called cleansings in the villages. It got more and more unsafe for us. People told us we should hide our books, or throw them in the river. Uncle Hurree was dying then. His heart was tired, he said. He told Aunty she should get rid of his books, but she wouldn’t. He died there with them around him.

Suttee was telling all these to an official of the state-religion that promotes the worship of ‘One True God of Knowledge’ in Aka by destroying and ‘reeducating’ the Maz - the traditional system of sacred community who pass on ‘the Telling’. She was hoping that the official would see the parallel. And when she gets to the part of Unist Fathers the official at once draws parallel between the Maz and the Unist Fathers, reminding any Hindu reader of how our own pseudo-secular intellectuals are creating such false comparisons. Suttee of course corrects him pointing out the fallacy in such a comparison.

The Hindu Identity of 'The Telling

There are several places in the novel where Le Guin leaves the readers with no doubt about the nature of the religious-cultural system she favours. For example, Suttee explores the Aka for sacred literature:

She found them, but not it. No bible. No koran. Dozens of upanishads, a million sutras. Every maz gave her something else to read.

As she struggles to understand the 'the Telling’ of the Maz, whether it is memory or history or belief, she hears the voice of her uncle in the mind:

A telling is not an explaining. Can’t see the forest for the trees, the pedants, the pundits, Uncle Hurree growled in her mind. Poetry, girl, poetry. Read the Mahabharata. Everything’s there.

As Suttee continues to discover what ‘the Telling’ is , what can be a much needed definition of what Hinduism is , arises:

... a way of thinking and living developed and elaborated over thousands of years by the vast majority of human beings on this world, an enormous interlocking system of symbols, metaphors,correspondences, theories, cosmology, cooking, calisthenics, physics, metaphysics,metallurgy, medicine, physiology, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, calligraphy,numerology, herbalism, diet, legend, parable, poetry, history, and story.

Replace the words ‘on this world’ with ‘in India’ and you have one of the most accurate definitions of ‘Hinduism’. The description of Ursula Guin independently echoes what Sri Aurobindo writes about India’s creativity:

For three thousand years at least -- it is indeed much longer -- she (India) has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many sidedness, republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts and poems and all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries, fine crafts, -- the list is endless. She creates and creates...
Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India, August – November 1918

Ursula Guin has a holistic understanding of Dharma that comes closer to Sri Aurobindo and Veer Savarkar Ursula Guin has a holistic understanding of Dharma that comes closer to Sri Aurobindo and Veer Savarkar

Also it finds resonance with the following words of Savarkar in his paper on Hindutva:

While their orthodox and the heterodox schools of religions have,—having tested much, dared much and known much,—having subjected to the most searching examination possible till then, all that lay between the grandest and the tiniest, from the atom to the Atman—from the Paramanu to the Parabrahma,—having sounded the deepest secrets of thoughts and having soared to the highest altitudes of ecstasy, given birth to a synthesis that sympathises with all aspirants towards truth from the monist to the atheist. Truth was its goal, realization its method. It is neither Vedic nor non-Vedic, it is both. It is the veritable science of religion applied. This is Hindudharma—the conclusion of the conclusions arrived at by harmonising the detailed experience of all the schools of religious thought -Vaidik, Sanatani, Jain, Baudda, Sikha or Devasamaji. Each one and every one of those systems or sects which are the direct descendants and developments of the religious beliefs Vaidik and non-Vaidik that obtained in the land of the Saptasindhus or in the other unrecorded communities in other parts of India in the Vedic period, belongs to and is an integral part of Hindu dharma.
Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar, ‘Essentials of Hindutva’, (1920)

A comparison of the above three passages can show a clear similarity.

The demolished temple at Somnath and the  burnt library of Nalanda. The demolished temple at Somnath and the  burnt library of Nalanda.

Le Guin even brings out a humiliating case of temple destruction in her novel. In Aka there are temples. Again, there is the limitation of language. She does not know if they can be called ‘temples’. But then, under the rule that favoured one God of Knowledge, all their temples had been demolished and so was their most holiest of the holiest ‘the Golden Mountain far to the East’.

In richer areas, there had been great, rich umyazu, to which people went on pilgrimage to see the treasures of the library and ‘hear the Telling.’ These had all been destroyed,pulled down or blown up, except the oldest and most famous of all, the Golden Mountain, far to the east. ...  Golden Mountain had been made into a Corporate Site for the worship of the God of Reason: an artificial cult that had no existence except at this tourist center and in slogans and vague pronouncements of the Corporation.

The anti-Brahmin hatred in India both shares many similarity and differs from the anti-Semitism. Brahmins are seen as cunning alien Aryans who enslaved non-Brahmins. In this, the parallel between anti-Semitism and anti-Brahminism is very clear. However, the description of Brahmins as the evil priests who exploited the people through religion is part of the larger hatred towards Hinduism. The Brahmins are hated not because they are really alien. They are hated because they are seen(rightly or wrongly) as the custodians of Hindu Dharma. In 'The Telling' a very similar propaganda is made by 'Office of Ethical Purity' of 'The Corporation' that promotes the cult of the one True God of Knowledge.

The maz mumbling forever about things that happened ten thousand years ago, claiming they knew everything about everything,refusing to learn anything new, keeping people poor, holding us back. They were wrong.They were selfish. Usurers of knowledge. They had to be pushed aside, to make way for the future. And if they kept standing in the way, they had to be punished. We had to show people that they were wrong. My grandparents were wrong. They were enemies of the state.

Just replace ‘the maz’ with ‘Brahimins’ or ‘Hindu priests’ and one can see the passage becoming indistinguishable from a typical Dravidian pamphlet or the anti-Hindu propaganda literature one finds at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Ursula Le Guin with all her deep understanding of the Dharma, its literary aesthetics, spiritual truths and high philosophy also sees the agony of its destruction. She sees how such a system if it is undefended not just vanishes but vanishes with a tragic loss to humanity. Ursula Le Guin sees the the holistic Hindutva nature of Dharma.

We can contrast this holistic understanding even better if we compare it with the highly decorative and partial understanding Shashi Tharoor exhibits in his latest book ,‘Why I am a Hindu’.

Tharoor sees Hinduism as a kind of beautiful exotic flower vase of high philosophy in his drawing room - with no understanding of the sufferings which the generations of Hindus have undergone to protect and preserve it for posterity. He chooses not to see any danger to Hinduism. Having disembodied it from its historic and present context, Tharoor’s Hinduism is more an abstract leisure activity of the affluent than anything else. In ‘The Telling’, with the emphasis on the need to remember this painful past destruction of the Dharmic natural religion, not to seek revenge or harbor vengence but in order to prevent the repetition of similar expansionist annihilation in another planet, Ursula Le Guin emerges as a passionate defender and describer of Dharma. The novel also makes a sensitive and sensible Hindu understand the futility of drawing the artificial line between Hinduism and Hindutva.

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If you want to know why you are a Hindu today then read ‘The Telling’.

Also read:

Ursula K Le Guin And Her Love Affair With A Seductive Ascetic From South India

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