Raja internalized beliefs came in conflict with

Raja Rao acclaimed to be one of the
trio to have been the founding fathers of Indian English Literature at a time
when the very attempts to write in the colonizers language was scoffed at and
meted out with resistance, wrote a novel Kanthapura
(1938) in his twenty first year. On its surface level, a very simple novel
about Indian freedom struggle upon closer readings, Kanthapura renders itself to multiple layers of meanings. It has
been interpreted as being the manifesto of a new genre of Indian English, of
being a microcosm of pre-independent India in the throes of struggle, analysed
for propagating Gandhian principles, of Indian rural ethos and many other
themes. But apart from all these dimensions, this paper attempts to trace the Indian
spiritual values and mysticism reflected in the novel. India has always been a
land which has prioritized the life of spirit, of kindness, esoteric values and
selflessness as against that of body, material comforts and mundane
externalities. But in its encounter with the West due to the colonial rule that
India suffered, many of these internalized beliefs came in conflict with those of
the West that were in vogue. This conflict and its effect on the psyche of
individuals and the consequent struggle of the individuals to attain harmony
during those troubled times is effectively captured by Raja Roa in Kanthapura. This paper highlights the
underlying currents of the Indian spiritual values that ultimately underpin the
thoughts, lives and actions of the characters in the novel.

             Though Raja Rao’s works have had many Western
influences, he regarded literature as ‘Sadhana’,
or spiritual discipline. For him, writing was a natural result of his
metaphysical life. Famed an epic of freedom struggle Kanthapura mirrors the Indian nationalism and spirituality as Rao has
presented a spiritualized socio-political situation of 1930s in it. In fact Meenakshi
Mukherjee has rightly remarked that: “Kanthapura is narrated by an old woman, Achakka,
an old Brahman widow to a hypothetical listener….Raja Rao’s choice of this
narrator serves several purposes at once. Making this old woman the narrator
enables Raja Rao to mingle facts and myths and in an effective manner. For the
old woman, Jawaharlal is a Bharatha to the Mahatma who she believes will slay
Ravana so that Sita may be freed. For her Gandhi has attained the status of God
and Moorthy is regarded Avatar in Kanthapura. The characteristically concrete
imagination of the uneducated mind pictures the Mahatma as large and blue like
the Sahyadri mountain on whose slopes the pilgrims climb to the top, while
Moorthy is seen as a small mountain. To her the Satyagraha becomes a religious
ceremony to which she devotes her sacred ardour.”(p. 141)

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seems to have carefully delineated the village Kanthapura embedding it in the
rich historical culture of India, giving it a mystical weave. In the foreword
to the novel, Rao himself indicates that the novel is a kind of sthala-purana,
or legendary history, which most of Indian villages invariably have. These
local sthala-puranas are modeled on the ancient Indian Puranas—those
compendia of story, fable, myth, religion, philosophy, and politics. The
detailed description of the village at the opening of the novel is narrated in
the manner of a sthala-purana, wherein its divine origin is stated by
presenting Goddess Kenchamma as the Gramadevata (village deity). The
novel provides a legend explaining her presence there, recalling several
similar legends found in the Puranas. Like the place-Gods of the Puranas,
Kenchamma is responsible for rains, harvests, and the well-being of people in the
vicinity of her village. Her influence cannot extend to other villages or to
outsiders. The village deity thus symbolizes local concerns such as famine,
cholera, cattle diseases, and poor harvests, which may have little to do with
the world outside the village. Like Kenchamma, the river Himavathy also has a
special significance in the novel and recalls passages describing famous rivers
in the Puranas, such as the description of the river Narmada in Matsya Purana
and the Agni Purana. So the whole narration of the novel since the very
beginning adheres to the puranic tradition, intermixing fact and myth
recreating the Indian way of comprehending the life around.

            The protagonist Moorthy, replicated
as little Gandhi of Kanthapura has been portrayed with ethereal counters to his
personality. His fast, the flood and poverty due to the British Rule, and
nationalist struggle, minorities awareness and their involvement in freedom
struggle, the acceptance of non-violence and Swadeshi movement led by Gandhi
are all presented not as literal historical facts, but have been amalgamated
with a galore of myths, legends, Vedantic texts and Puranas as Rao  has tried to weave the tapestry of the
relation between everyday realities and the spiritual values embedded in them. Imbued with a religious
spirit akin to that of the Puranas, the novel has an epigraph that is taken
from the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad
Gita which is the famous explanation of the Hindu notion of incarnation:
“Whensoever there is misery and ignorance, I come.” The doctrine of incarnation
which presents the avatars of Lord Vishnu is carried forward and Gandhi is
referred to be the avatar in Kanthapura which extends into Kanthapura
itself, where Moorthy, who leads the revolt, is the local manifestation of
Gandhi and, by implication, of Truth.

Gandhian Moorthy is the leader of a political uprising, but for him, as for his
ideal Gandhi, politics provides a way of life, indistinguishable from a
spiritual quest. In fact, for him ‘Action is the way to the Absolute”. He finds
what ‘Right Action’ is in his close following of Gandhian principles. Thus, for
Moorthy, becoming a Gandhian is a deeply spiritual experience that is rightly
characterized by the narrator as a “conversion.” In fact, the idealistic
Moorthy’s meeting with Gandhi is his moment of spiritual transformation is when
the Mahatma pats him, “and through that touch was revealed to him as the day is
revealed to the night the sheath less being of his soul.”At the culmination of
this “conversion” is Sankaracharaya’s ecstatic chant, “Sivoham, Sivoham. I am
Siva. I am Siva. Siva am I,” meaning that Moorthy experiences blissful union
with the Absolute. Indeed, the chant, which epitomizes the ancient Indian
philosophical school of Advaita or unqualified non dualism, is found in all
Rao’s novels as a symbol of the spiritual goal of his protagonists. Moorthy,
the man of action, thus practices Karma Yoga (the Path of Action) one of the
ways of reaching the Absolute as enunciated in the Bhaghavad Gita.

            What happens in Kanthapura
when the call of Gandhi turns thousands of youths into soldiers against the
rule of England, shouting and struggling for freedom of their mother-land from
slavery is a microcosmic mirror image of all that is happening in the whole
India. Moorthy’s statements, “Send out love where there is hatred,” and “I
shall love even my enemies” are all the Upanishadic concepts of Immanent Atman.
However Raja Rao apart from glorifying the ancient Indian thoughts does not
avoid presenting the many social ills that had decayed and wrecked the fabric
of Indian values. He has pictured how the society was afflicted with the dowry
system, human bondage, and maltreatment of the widows, drinking, corruption,
child marriage, untouchability, superstition and resentment against
co-education that were eroding the cultural roots of India. The religious
elements and the social and political issues are artistically transformed into
one entity and so quite naturally prayers and national songs were sung side by
side. The objective was to gain freedom, but the means adopted are religious
harikathas, bhajans, fasts, prayers and non-violent resistance. Hence Kanthapura has gained the title of being
a Gandhi Purana.


when the commoners are portrayed in the novel, there is a philosophical undercurrent
that shapes their everyday existences. Rangamma uses the Vedantic precepts to
inspire the satyagrahis to face the police lathi- charge. As the freedom
fighters are scared in the face of physical attack, she prepares their minds by
suggesting that nobody can harm the human soul, as it is immortal. She says’
“No sister, that is not difficult. Does not the Gita say, the sword can split
asunder the body, but never the soul?” (p. 153) Again the female freedom
fighters derive strength and courageously face the situation of being left in
the forest that is haunted by many wild animals, by believing in the
omnipresence and omnipotence of God. Their prayer, “wheresoever we look you are
there, my Lord” is Vedantic in letter and spirit. Also those who were jailed
endured their suffering with forbearance as they believed all punishment was a
result of their karma.


            Thus it can safely be
concluded in the words of M.K. Naik who rightly observes, “Raja Rao goes to the
very roots of transformation by demonstrating how new nationalistic fervour in
rural India in the 1930s blended completely with the age-old, deep-rooted
spiritual faith and thus revitalized the spiritual spring within and helped
rediscover the Indian soul.”In fact as Raja Rao himself accepts that Moorthy is
a reflection of Rao himself, and all of Rao’s early spiritual yearnings have
found expression through the mystical experiences that Moorthy undergoes. So, Kanthapura is a novel that has evolved
from the belief system that was a part of Rao’s personality and mental make-up
that is truly Indian, steeped in the spiritual heritage that lies at its core.




Mukherjee: Raja Rao’s shorter fictions, Indian literature, 1967.

M. K. Critical essays on Indian writing
in English. Dharwar, 1968

Pier Paolo
Picivcco. The Fiction of Raja Rao:
Critical studies. New Delhi: Atlantic publishers and distributors, 2001

Rao Raja. Kanthapura. New
Delhi: Orient Paperback, 1971

accessed on 3rd