On the evening of 24 March 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was announced, my mind, like millions of others, was filled with shades of fear, anxiety, anticipation, and confusion.
What if I catch COVID? How will I recover? Will I recover at all? Should I stay alone in Delhi or go to my hometown? What if I carry the infection to my parents and other loved ones? How will my work shape up? When will the pandemic end? When will things go back to normal?
There were questions galore and doubts aplenty. The atmosphere of fear and uncertainty was crippling psychologically. The coverage on TV full of gloomy news was not helping either. Cooking food, binge-watching web series, doing household chores, and reading books did provide moments of distractions but they also turned out to be fleeting.
In came the announcement by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to re-telecast two of the famous TV shows of the yesteryears based on the great epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat.
Being a student of history, it was natural for me to get interested in them. Add to it, the nostalgia attached to these TV shows, which all combined together nudged me to watch them. The thing about revisiting the things watched or read in childhood is that with education and exposure, you develop a certain worldview and propensity to analyse and understand more deeply.
It was after I watched the Mahabharat, I realised that no amount of reading about them or even being preached upon by our elders can help one to truly understand the essence and the message behind the epics. One has to embark on a journey with oneself to understand the scope of this vast epic.
After I finished watching all the episodes on Doordarshan, my interest grew in knowing more about the epics, especially the Mahabharat. This made me explore opportunities to understand this great epic in the contemporary context.
As the famous saying goes, “What you seek is seeking you”, I came across the course called “18 Parvans of Mahabharata: an Incredible Epic” offered by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, Maharashtra.
After watching the show and armed with a basic understanding knowledge of Mahabharat, I attended the online course. The course not only provided me insight into the archaeological aspect of study of Mahabharat but also helped me to dwell deep into the characters and their different shades of psychology.
‘Vyasochishtam Jagat Sarvam’ means that there is no issue or subject related to human life and society that is not written and spoken about by Maharishi Vyasa in this vast epic which is bigger than the Iliad and Odyssey put together.
Throughout it is narrated by an omniscient third-person narrator where Maharshi Vyasa’s deep understanding of human nature and the emotions of the characters involved are depicted in a dramatic manner. The course helped me to understand how all the episodes of 18 Parvans move back and forth in time and space and one could feel the emotional undercurrents among the different characters.
The entire epic is embellished with metaphors, descriptions, and adjectives and provokes several emotions and thoughts which are open to interpretation.
The epic made me think hard about several issues concerning life, family, relationships, duties, mentorship, friendships, social conduct, society, and psychology.
The different interesting characters of the epic like Bhishmapitama, Duryodhan, Arjuna, Karna, Draupadi, Bhima, Yudihistra, and many others, and the various entangled stories of the epic helped me to expand my cosmic consciousness and enabled me to understand that the vast majority of reality is imperceptible to us.
We only understand things in their physical aspect. However, the reality is far beyond. One can only imagine! Some critical takeaways after watching the series and finishing the course have been:
The concept of Dharma vs Adharma (still trying to understand them)
There are no right and easy answers to every question (most things are complex and ambiguous)
Ethical dilemmas and the impact of choices
One must be ready and willing to make hard choices if the situation demands so.
Our decisions affect not only us but also our family, society, and the country.(for example Bhishma Pratigya)
The dynamics of complicated relationships (Karna and Shri Krishna)
Success also depends on choosing the right person (Arjuna choosing Krishna over the Yadav army)
Clashes of emotions and duties (Arjuna on the battlefield)
How to conduct a dialogue with oneself
Strategic planning is critical to success.
Ego and the evil
Another extremely important dialogue that I felt is relevant today is the conversation between Rishi Dhaumya and the Pandavas in the Virat Parva of the epic.
Rishi Dhaumya advises Pandavas on every minute detail of the protocols, behavior, manners, and overall conduct that the Pandavas must keep in mind while staying at King Virat’s kingdom of Matsya. Some of these were:
Never give unnecessary advice
Keep silent and speak only if asked
The advisor must advise the king for the overall benefit and welfare of the society, even if the king disagrees
One should not be overwhelmed by any gain or loss
One must have the skill of personal management and conduct oneself graciously
Even now, the guidance and advice seem to be amazingly relevant. They teach us to maintain equanimity in both good and bad times, in both times of joy and despair. These life skills are essential in contemporary life while operating in a modern and dynamic society.
Nowadays, similar principles are taught as people skills, practical skills, and leadership skills in several management and personality development institutions. This timeless wisdom has helped many people to navigate their way in the complex web of life and thrive.
The exchange between Yudhishthira and Yaksha in the Aranya Parva during the Yaksha Prashna is another masterpiece. Some replies given by Yudhishthira to the Yaksha make one ponder with endless thoughts. For example:
The Yaksha asked, “What is weightier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens?” What is fleeter than the wind? And what is more numerous than grass?”
Yudhishthira answered, “The mother is weightier than the earth; the father is higher than the heaven; the mind is fleeter than the wind, and our thoughts are more numerous than grass.”
Another one was, The Yaksha asked,—“What is the best of all laudable things? What is the most valuable of all his possessions? What is the best of all gains? And what is the best of all kinds of happiness?”
Yudhishthira answered,—”The best of all laudable things is a skill; the best of all possessions is knowledge: the best of all gains is health: and contentment is the best of all kinds of happiness.”
As the millennial joke goes, when life gives you a lemon, make a lemonade. Well, reading and knowing about Mahabharat made me realise that when life gives you lemons, you can also visit Mahabharat and other epics for guidance, analyse the implications of your choices, and actions, and create larger good.
Dharma, for example, in contemporary society can take many forms. For an entrepreneur, working incessantly to raise funding, acquire customers, gain profits, valuation, and take care of employees can be dharma, for a consultant, rendering the right advice can be dharma, for an artist painting to the best of abilities can be dharma.
As today’s youth navigating in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world, while you look towards a plethora of self-help books, Google, and ChatGPT for solving many problems and guiding your path, you can very well also stand to gain from the wisdom of our epics explained so well in courses by institutions like The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Foundation.
To think that one can summarise the key learnings from this vast epic in one article will be folly. However, this article is an attempt to communicate the importance and relevance of our epics and how they might provide the answers to some of the most complex questions prevalent in our lives and in society today.
Now is the time to revisit the age-old epics, traditions, and culture of India and see how we can find contemporary relevance and guidance. Our epics are capable of transforming lives in times of crisis and confusion.
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