Quite frankly I had never been able to relate to the stories and characters portrayed in either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. I remember reading short summaries of them in my History textbook way back in primary school. In my textbook the Ramayana had been duly summarized (in one page) as an epic which portrayed ‘role models’ for Hindus to lead their lives. I remember memorizing the answers to the ‘role model’ questions that would eventually appear in some exam. Rama was supposed to model the ‘ideal son and’, Sita the ‘ideal wife’, Lakshmana the ‘ideal brother’, and Hanuman the ‘ideal devotee’. It surprises me now (although it never bothered me in 3’rd grade when I read it), that there was no prototype of an ‘ideal husband’. In any case, in those days I studied with a keen aim to get the right tick marks in my exams and so even though this whole notion of ‘ideals’ seemed quite unpalatable to me, I just memorized the answers. The Mahabharata was described as the story of a dynastic battle for the throne of Hastinapura, and was again supposed to throw light on how Hindu’s ought to conduct themselves in the game of life. This was an overkill for my 10 year old brain. Though I had read portions of Mahabharata in the Amar Chitra Katha Comics, I failed to understand how these stories were supposed to teach me how to live.
Later on I learnt greater details of the characters and plots in both these epics thanks to the fantastic portrayal of them in the television series that used to be aired every sunday morning. This was during the ‘pre-VCR’ days and although we had no provision to record the episodes I must say I hardly missed any episode. No matter where you went, or whom you visited, everyone at made it a point to see these episodes and so it was easy not to miss them. The stories were gripping and because of the very captivating plots I thoroughly enjoyed watching them. I still did not get any ‘life lessons’ from them however. I could not understand why some people kept these books on their puja altar and worshiped them as if the stories themselves were Gods.
In my mid twenties I started studying the Gita, and slowly but steadily these magical verses started finding their way into my heart. Indeed, I owe a lot of my current peace of mind, spirit for life, and way of thinking to the Gita. I was lost, confused, and depressed when I first took to this little book, which has since then been unfailing companion to me in my life. The Gita has given me a wonderful theoretical paradigm to make sense of life. It has given me a ‘Grand-theory of Creation’ I had been looking for. However, In spite of my love for the Gita, I have been viewing the rest of the Mahabharata as a soap-opera, with not much value add except as a context for the birthing of the Gita. Frankly, the drama, chaos, and sensuality of life and relationships potrayed in the Mahabharata was too much to digest for someone like me who had grown up in a catholic school with a very puritarian view of the world. I could not extract any life lessons from them and so I put them aside.
Now, in my late thirties however I have discovered a newfound respect for these epics and the stories they have retold through centuries. Now, when my life has burst forth with chaotic events which I cannot make sense of with my logical mind, I find solace in looking to the drama in these epics. Now, when I have stopped evaluating my success in life on the basis of external parameters and indicators I can look to characters in these epics and see how they can indeed serve as ‘role models’. Now, as I am learning to see the connection between seemingly unrelated events, I can appreciate the ‘stories within a story’ architecture of these grand epics. Incidentally it is those very parts of the stories in these epics that irritated me or troubled me that are now churning out insights for me. It is those very points that I used to ridicule or argue about that are now turning out to hold answers to my problems or helping me see growth opportunities for myself.
One example is the part in the Ramayana, where Rama was asked to go on a 14 year old ‘Vanavas’ by his father and how he just went for it without any argument or questioning. I used to find this part of the story extremely ridiculous and difficult to stomach. How could a father do this to someone he loved? Why should Rama himself listen to such an absurd request? If Rama was indeed a God, then how could something so ‘terrible’ happen to a God and why would the God not change it? It just made no sense to me given the paradigm that I was using to understand life and God at that point in time. I used to believe for example that life was linear and simple. Having been taught that if you are good, good things will happen to you, my mind had simplified this to also assume that only good things happened to good people. So if Rama was a God, and God was Good then how could a terrible thing like this happen to Rama? Further I saw the world as black and white, so things were usually either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I had not yet been exposed to life experiences which teach that something that appears good in the short run might be bad in a longer run or vice versa. Neither did I have the breadth of perspective to see that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ themselves were subjective and could differ according to the perspective from which the incident was viewed. Today, when life is surprising me with events that on the surface appear ‘terribly bad’ and I have no way to circumvent or change the events themselves I find strength by putting myself in Rama’s shoes. When I find myself digging a pit with questions like ‘why did this happen to me’, or ‘how could this happen to me’, I remind myself of Rama, and remember that things happen because of a complex culmination of reasons and it is not possible to always understand those reasons completely. Today, when a close friend or family member surprises me with their seemingly cruel verdict or uncaring stance I think of King Dasharatha (Rama’s father), and tell myself that they are behaving out of a compulsion that is making sense to them and that their decision is a result of the various arrows that life is bombarding them with at this point in time. It might not make sense to me, but it makes sense to them, just like it made sense to King Dasharatha. Today, I can tell myself that what appears ‘good’ on the surface need not necessarily be good and what appears ‘bad’ need not be bad. Today I can go on my Vanavas and see that the smile on the face of the vanavasi can definitely be geniune and that there is true joy to be savoured in the heart even when we are walking a path of ‘apparent thorns’.
Another example is the part in the Mahabharata where Yudhisthira (the eldest of the pandava brothers) gambled away his property, his brothers, and eventually even his wife. I used to find this bit extremely difficult to accept. Why would a virtuous king, who loved his subjects, brothers and wife ever do this? How could this make sense? However, now when I myself have gone through experiences of doing certain unvirtuous acts which have landed up hurting my loved ones I can truly relate to Yudhisthira, and also the possibility that anybody can do mistakes. Perhaps because we are human, no matter how virtuous we believe we are there might come a time when circumstances come together in a way that we might give in to temptation and act in unvirtuous ways. Yudhisthira worked his way from the episode of his unvirtuous act to eventually ascend into the higher realms. This is the part of the story that gives me light and hope today as I stand on the rubble of the mess that my unvirtuous actions have created.
It appears to me that both these epics are rich with metaphors and perspectives to help us make sense of our lives and also find crutches and levers to work our way through challenging times. Indeed much of the drama and complexity of the stories in these epics might seem unreal or soap-opera-ish. However, if my own life experiences are anything to comment by I will go by the adage that ‘truth is sometimes stranger than fiction’. When life is smooth sailing and simple then we can live by the rulebooks taught in engineering school and try to use a mental equivalent of linear optimization to allot our time and resources to obtain the outcomes, goods, and services we might need. However, when life starts getting chaotic and non-understandable (and believe me it sometimes does) then perhaps it is time to throw those optimization models out of our head and read these rich and complex epics instead. There we might find a balm for our grief, a matrix to make sense of life, as well as fuel to walk into our future with hope.