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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Exploring the Mahabharata Within

The universe is made of stories, not atoms

-Muriel Rukeyser

Why do we tell our stories? Humans are hard wired for stories. We live in an ecosystem of stories. We are a droplet in an ocean of stories! Through the telling of our stories, we weave the tapestry of our lives with the warp and weft of our life experiences.  When we live our stories and have the power and agency to tell the stories the way we want to, we are claiming or reclaiming the power to live a life of authenticity and meaning.

The  Mahabharata Within workshop was insightfully anchored by Naveen Vasudevan, Co -Founder Ritambhara, a community of seekers on a sacred quest,  who share a common concern for the current ecological, sociocultural and political state of the world.  Naveen Vasudevan is a qualified mechanical engineer, associated with the ‘Social Entrepreneurship Association’ in Auroville, whose interests also include evolutionary leadership, integral psychology and process work.

  • Who am I, where am I, why am I here?
  • What does it mean to live responsibly and meaningfully in today’s times?
  • In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing?

Blending the pensive and the playful elements, Mahabharata Within invited us individually and collectively to  explore the Pandava archetypes within us, experientially discover how these  five  energies are the foundational components of the human psyche and how a unique pattern of these plays out in our lives.

Itihasa and Puranas help us map our inner world. They reflect the yogic ideals  of continuous investment in one’s competencies, inner well-being and holistic health through stories that illustrate how the human mind perceives and responds. The Mahabharata is a yoga text that is a repository of archetypes and dilemmas in human contexts.

“These are intensely human stories that although written more than 5000 years back, are still new. The root of the word Puranam (pura api navam) itself suggests this old-yet-newness. The word  Itihasa  suggests, ‘Wow! Is that the way it was?’ and creates a sense of wonder in the reader or listener. It’s the way we read the Puranas that makes it nascent or new,” explains Raghu Ananthanarayanan, co-founder Ritambhara.

Contrary to popular perception, the Puranas are not designed to enable readers or listeners to emulate the characters. Instead, they have the potential to excite the reader or listener that leads to identification (Can I be like this?), spur an immersion in the character, which can then lead to self-mastery.

Human life is an interplay of archetypes that are expressed either appropriately or inappropriately. How do I engage with  the Mahabharata to get in touch with my archetypal energies? According to Naveen Vasudevan, Mahabharata Within workshops are an effort at creating a community of practice, keen on a self-reflective engagement with the Mahabharata and move towards personal growth and evolution.

The process oriented workshop is offered  at two levels.  As part of the process, participants learn about the importance of a self-reflective engagement and explore the Pandavas within themselves and how these archetypes play out in our everyday lives. During the second level, participants, through body movement, art, dialogues and role play, delve deeper into the Pandava archetypes, engage with the shadow or the Kaurava archetypes and explore some basic functional and dysfunctional expressions of these propensities.

Using the Mahabharata as a mirror to engage with oneself is in itself a radial and transgressive idea. We usually tend to exteriorize or look at the stories as external characters and analyse their motives from a third person point of view. However, the system of metaphors embodied in the Mahabharata invites us to engage with the stories in the here and now: What happens to me? Why does this happen to me? What does this teach me about myself?

“The Mahabharata is an encyclopaedia of psychological archetypes. It is a handbook of people at various life stages, not just different  psychological types.  What happens to me is a function of me; how I am evoked by a character. In that sense, every story in the epic is a mirror to ourselves. It doesn’t happen out there but right within us.  Hence the   we engage with the Mahabharata, as a powerful self-reflective mirror and not as an analytical, intellectual exercise. Rather, it helps us get in touch with the purana—the timeless metaphors within us,” explains Vasudevan.

“I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes,” said Walt Whitman, the mystical poet. As I engaged with the characters, I discovered propensities  or tendencies that  reflected the  heroic and shadow (contradictory) sides of each character, also embedded in me, although some were more developed than others. What meaning did the archetypes embody in my life? What in my life reflected these archetypes? How did the archetypes pan out in my life?

Every archetype had embedded within, its opposite. For instance, when I looked at Yudhishthira, I resonated with his ability to  respect  and uphold traditions and rules. However, like him, I too get trapped in  self-righteousness and rigidity. Similarly, Bhima’s passion and  his connect with challenges resonated with me, as did his impulsivity and absence of forethought.  Arjuna’s ability to integrate the masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche was delightful, as was his authenticity and courage in asking the profound existential question, “In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing?”

Like Nakula, I am giving and compassionate, but also fail to replenish myself. Like Sahadeva, I enjoy engaging with challenges and knowledge at an abstract level, but  sometimes also get  trapped in intellectualism and lose my ability to be pragmatic. Draupadi’s resilience, her sharangati (absence of resistance  to the Divine) and ability to confront people and situations is also in me, but like her, sometimes I tend to forget that  no action is consequence-free.  Like Karna, I too have  admirable skills, but like him, for several decades I was  entrapped in victimhood and held on to a disempowering  notion of vulnerability.

An important insight that emerged for me in the workshop was the concept of dharma sankata or co holding of paradoxes that was evoked by the Arjuna archetype within me.  Dharma Sankata, as embodied by Arjuna at Kurukshetra,  is not a conflict between right and wrong. Rather it is a struggle between two seemingly right options, each of them with consequences and repercussions. The agony, lack of clarity and the pushes and pulls so evident in Arjuna that compel him to chose between what is right and what is easy is the essence of this struggle.

Each of these archetypal aspects plays out relentlessly in  our lives.  Some of  us may have an excessive engagement (ati yogam)  with one of these propensities; insufficient (hina yogam) or absence of engagement (viyogam). Awareness of these imbalances is a first step towards  integration of archetypes that results in inner harmony.

Every Pandava  and Kaurava character in the Mahabharata  is  a mirror that helped me see myself clearly, once the layers of dust and debris began to cleave even ever so slightly. The archetypal energies embodied by each of these characters  is universal and gender inclusive. Thus, each of us contains  the polarities of  the daivic (heroic) energy (represented by the Pandavas) and the asuric (shadow) energy (represented by the Kauravas) as also the daivic and asuric aspect of each Pandava  character. Can I step back and look at all parts of  myself  with attentiveness, curiosity and compassion and hold them tentatively? Can I step back and look at the narrative I am creating about myself and the world and ask myself, “In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing?”

The exploration enabled me to  realise that  each of us is equally capable of behaving in a heroic or diabolical manner. If I don’t behave like the Kauravas in a situation, it because of viveka (discrimination) that leads me to make conscious responsible choices—choices that  make all the difference if my life is lived  meaningfully and purposefully—either in Kurukshetra (battlefield) or dharmakshetra (a sacred space). Each of us is a work in progress… on a sacred quest of becoming the best  versions of ourselves… imbued with the fragrance of rasatmika (full of  joy) and excellence.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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