Launch: Mohan Ashktakala’s Sadhu
INTERVIEW BY J.K. KNAUSS
Mohan Ashtakala is an initiated Hindu Vaishnava priest and has lived in yoga ashrams across India. His goal is to expose the authentic narratives of the yoga tradition through the medium of modern, page-turning novels. He edited a monthly newspaper in Denver, Colorado for thirteen years and has been published in the Denver Post, the Himalayan News, and other newspapers and magazines. He has organized conferences on science and spirituality and has presented at interfaith gatherings, diversity conferences, and various churches and schools. Mohan lives in Calgary, Canada, with his wife Anuradha, his son Hrishi, his daughter Gopi, and Lila, the family’s Boston Terrier. He can sometimes be spotted absentmindedly chanting mantras in the city’s parks. His novel Sadhu has just been released.
How would you describe Sadhu and its themes in a couple of sentences?
In the midst of the political, social, and religious turmoil of fifteenth-century India, twelve-year-old Vishwa-rupa steals away from home in the middle of the night in search of his true self. Over the next twelve years, he explores various spiritual paths, becomes entangled in the politics of the warring kingdoms of the day, studies in a mountain-side monastery, loses his caste, and is captured by the Portuguese.
At the heart of his travels are the evolving relationships with his mother and younger brother, Nimai, who he abandoned but never forgot. Now twenty-four, Vishwa-rupa arrives in Western India, shorn of all illusions and no wiser than before, until a shocking revelation opens his eyes to the connection to the family he once abandoned, and to the nature of his true spiritual identity. As often happens, his journey takes him back home, if only in a spiritual sense.
What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I enjoy writing in many genres, but I have often been encouraged to write #ownvoice historical fiction. The thought settled in my mind, waiting for a unique protagonist and a compelling story.
A couple of years ago, I was reading a biography of Chaitanya and came across his older brother Vishwa-rupa, a mysterious sadhu about whom not much is known. The complexity of Vishwa-rupa’s life and the historical events of that time convinced me to write this novel.
For readers new to the world of Sadhu, could you tell us a little bit about what a sadhu is and some of this phenomenon’s context in fifteenth-century India?
Dictionaries describe a sadhu as a religious ascetic, mendicant, or any holy person who has renounced worldly life. In Sadhu, I use the term to refer to a spiritual seeker. The tradition of leaving home on a spiritual journey has been a constant theme in Indian civilization, predating even the Buddhist era.
What kind of research did you do before writing?
I spent about five years in research. Only ten or so lines regarding the historical Vishwa-rupa exist. However, his younger brother, Nimai, later known as Chaitanya, is a well-known figure in Bengali history, famous as a religious scholar and a social reformer. Remembered for his ardent devotion to Krishna, his teachings resulted in a great flowering of Krishna devotion in Bengal. Thus, much published material is available. Many of the miraculous sections of my novel, such as the avatarhood of Chaitanya, are based on these biographies. From Chaitanya’s teachings, several denominations arose, significantly influencing religion in India and abroad. As an example, the nineteenth-century Bengali saint, Sri Ramakrishna, is regarded as an avatar of Chaitanya.
Indian historians have produced many well-regarded titles regarding the chaotic political situation of the time, with endless battles for supremacy between the Delhi Sultanate, the breakaway Muslim kingdoms, the South Indian Hindu rulers and the newly-arrived Portuguese.
In the end, however, my avocation as a priest and previous study of various sacred texts proved to be instrumental in capturing the essence of Vishwa-rupa’s spiritual journey.
Have you been able to visit many of the places Vishwa-rupa travels through? How did you choose the locations?
The actual places related to Vishwa-rupa’s journeys are shrouded in mystery, except for two: his childhood in Navadwipa, and Pandarpur, Western India, where he passed away.
I have visited Navadwipa, which retains some of the rural charm and the feel of a Bengali village on the Ganges. I have travelled extensively through South India, which is the setting for Vishwa-rupa’s explorations.
How did your visits inform your writing?
The trick is to imagine the land and its culture in medieval times. For example, the population of India was then roughly a hundred million. Now, it is approaching 1.4 billion. It was much more forested and certainly more rural. While many present-day customs are rooted in the older culture and its rustic roots, much research was required to fully understand their historical contexts.
As an example, caste and its social, cultural, and financial implications were a more serious business then, in a way that may not be appreciated by a modern-day urban Indian or Westerner. It took considerable effort to enter the mind of a fifteenth-century Bengali and appreciate how the social context coloured many of the interpersonal interactions of that time.
Were any of the characters in Sadhu particularly challenging for you to write? Which was your favourite character?
My favourite character, and the most challenging, was Vishwa-rupa. In various biographies of Chaitanya, the deep connection between the brothers is mentioned. Vishwa-rupa’s leaving home had a strong impact on Chaitanya, and perhaps influenced Chaitanya to leave home ten years later on his own spiritual quest.
Vishwa-rupa’s profound connection with his brother anchors this story, while the unknowns of his journey provide the sail, allowing for the freedom to explore the political, religious, and social churning of the times.
What is the best writing advice you can share with our readers?
I would give two pieces of advice: firstly, to hone your craft, and secondly, to understand how the industry works.
What is the last great book you read?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.