Tag Archives: Mahabharata

Was Krishna The First Psychotherapist?

I was ten or twelve years old when I first heard of the “Bhagavad Gita.” We lived in Bengaluru, and once a week, my spiritually-inclined, civil engineer father would explain its concepts – meditation and other virtues – to my siblings and me. He loved these sessions.

He told us the essence of the Bhagavad Gita was that “Krishna asks everyone to perform their duties to the best of their abilities.” And yet, I still could not make any sense of it. I just felt overwhelmed.

A few years ago, my father passed away and my life came to a standstill. It took days afterwards, filled with sadness, for me to start a transformation that helped me appreciate the Bhagavad Gita’s wisdom and the love and kindness in my surroundings.

The Bhagavad Gita is a profound dialogue between two friends on a battlefield nearly 5000 years ago. When the war begins in the great battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna declines to fight. Krishna, the mystic, patiently explains a psychological battleplan that navigates a pathway from confusion to knowledge, virtuosity and happiness in the midst of war and chaos.

The mind today is a similar battleground between thoughts and emotions. We face challenges and confusion every day from childhood through adulthood, but there are answers to be found in the Bhagavad Gita.

Swami Chinmayananda calls the Bhagavad Gita “a piece of art of strange beauty and it stands apart from everything else, in a class all by itself.”

Its eighteenth chapter contains a philosophy of living which resonated with me when I moved to the US twenty years ago.

My son was enrolled in the Chinmaya Mission and I became intrigued by their discourses on the Gita. I began reading chapters from a Bhagavad Gita my husband had bought at a temple and which we kept at our prayer altar. The scriptures began to influence me in my daily life.

One idea that I found particularly useful said, “You have the right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the results of your actions. ”

It taught me how to perform my duties to the best of my abilities but not stress about the outcomes.

It was one of many profound lessons the Gita has taught me.

I have learnt from the Gita to adjust and accept situations and people. I have realized that each person is uniquely gifted with different emotions and virtues. And the Gita helps me make better decisions that give me happiness.

A few years ago, tragic life events – death, accidents, illness, would depress me for days. Somehow today I’ve developed a better understanding of Karma, the concept of ‘law of action’ related to fear, life and death.

My reaction now is quite different. While I still feel some sadness for a while, I regain my sense of balance far more quickly.

Individuals who intellectually absorb and assimilate the knowledge the Gita offers, become “liberated from confusion and sorrows, and reach a state of inner tranquility and happiness,” says Swami Chinmayananda. I do believe he’s right.

I’m trying to integrate the principles of Bhakti (Devotional)Yoga, Jnana (Knowledge) Yoga and Karma (Work)Yoga into my own life.

Quite simply, this means channelling my emotions in order to discipline my mind (devotional or Bhakti yoga), discipline my body and its actions to help control my mind (work or Karma yoga), and practice meditation, reflection and detachment to ‘lift the mind to silence’, and reach a place of serenity, peace and calm (knowledge or Jnana yoga).

Every day, I attempt to apply the Divine – positivity – in my work and life . When my mind brims with positivity, I’ve noticed that negative emotions don’t invade my thinking! My mother-in-law is a great example of this practice. She works with utmost care and patience and is mindful in all her tasks, whether drawing a rangoli or chopping vegetables. The motto “Work is Worship” is apt for folks like her who are inclined towards Karma Yoga.

Was Krishna the first psychotherapist? Perhaps!

When I read the Gita it often feels as though I’m being personally guided by a psychotherapist friend to make stress-free decisions. And yet, it contains concepts that transcend religions and borders. These ideas have helped reinforce positivity, love and hope in my own life – but I also believe there are lessons to be found in the old teachings to navigate the crises of our present times. As the world battles the stress and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic, the Gita can offer peace, hope and answers that humanity seeks to fight an invisible enemy in a different kind of war.

Kumudha Venkatesan is based in Atlanta and loves to read the Bhagavad Gita and often writes about the vegan lifestyle and spirituality.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor, India Currents.

Image 2: By Mahavir Prasad Mishra – https://archive.org/details/MahabharataTejKumarBookDepotMahavirPrasadMishra, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66704373

The Forgotten Tale of Shikhandi

The Forgotten Tale of Shikhandi

The stories that inhabit the Vedas and epics are “whispers of God” says Devdutt Pattanaik as he opens his book Jaya, a retelling of the Mahabharata. It’s true. These books present a startlingly clear vision of the now from the ancient then. The authors of the stories had a seeing eye that modern scientists would give their eye-teeth for. Pardon the mixed metaphors.

Take the notion of Shikhandi. It is both an idea and a character and has so many reflections in this prism we call the “modern family.” The robustness of Shikhandi as a character is astounding and awe inspiring. As each layer is peeled and his/her place in India’s mythological history is uncovered, Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.

Last July, I interviewed a young man whom I chanced to see in a production called, “The Box.” He was introduced to the audience as J. Jha from India who was seeking asylum in the United States. Binary gender pronouns came up in our conversation and this remarkably talented individual rejected the “he,” “she” format that is the traditional gender distinguisher. Jha preferred “they,” and “theirs,” so I will respect their wish in this article.

Shikhandi is both an idea and a character. Shikhandi’s ambiguities of nature and form become moral, ethical and philosophical data points that have withstood generation upon generation of interpretations.

In their interview, which I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, Jha told me about being confined by the limitations of heterosexual identity and cisgender norms. Growing up in India, Jha said that they had no homosexual or transgender role model. Jha did not have a single openly gay person among their family or friends that they could relate to. Early on, Jha understood clearly, through reactive and reinforced behavior, that transgender people were personae non gratae. It is only upon leaving India and coming to America that they experienced personal liberation with the freedom to express in gender non-conforming ways.

But how have we come to this place of intolerance where we have blatantly ignored or forgotten the lessons from India’s own wise men?

Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era of Darkness, discusses this very idea. He begins his argument with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which allows a punishable verdict on “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”  Tharoor claims that this order of nature was established by the British. “The irony is that in India there has always been a place for people of different gender identities and sexual orientations. Indian history and mythology reveal no example of prejudice against sexual difference.” Tharoor goes on to remind us of the gender-morphing Shikhandi.

There are many versions of the Shikhandi story, but in every version, there occurs a sexual transformation to the female form, crossing male-female boundaries. It is remarkable that a country that gave us the Shikhandi prototype persecutes avatars of this remarkable character.

Here in America, with the high school bathroom issue, gender became hotly debated across the country. At the time, I heard people remark dismissively, “isn’t there anything better to do than focus on high-school bathrooms? When people don’t have jobs, why should we worry about gender-neutral bathrooms?” It’s true, it’s an outsize idea, and one we are unable to adjust to because of in-bred conventional normalcy. So, we find ways to minimize its significance.

Even when we do try to relate, we fall short. Take the Louis Vuitton advertisement where Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son, is shown wearing women’s clothes. It was explained as an ad for women’s clothes featuring a man. Young Smith looked comfortable in the clothes he modeled. He wore it with style and attitude. Yet, it seemed as though he wore women’s clothes because he needed more choices. As Lauren Duca remarked in Teen Vogue, the ad, while looking at the world unconventionally, still “confronted the binary, while participating in it.”

Judith Butler, gender theorist and author of Gender Trouble, argues that gender is not a noun. “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject,” she says, and clarifies by saying that gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame.” So, according to Butler, a person assumes the feminine identity by doing feminine things. As a young child, wearing dresses, growing long hair and playing with dolls reinforces the stereotypes needed for inhabiting a particular gender.

Interestingly enough, one of my daughters, from the time she was five till when she turned fourteen, wore her hair short, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and played Pokemon and Donkey Kong with the boys in her class. Today she is a beautiful young woman, remarkably sure of her femininity. I was cautioned about her gender-bending tendencies by several well-meaning friends when she was growing up. It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now. Her femininity was hers to discover. Just like Jha’s. [Though it might be worthwhile to admit here that tomboys are more accepted than boys who emulate girls.]

Modern Shikhandi characters abound in the world. They teach us a valuable lesson about how to navigate edge cases in our society without distorting character or creating noise. To pursue this engineering analogy, if we are able to gracefully and seamlessly transact our boundary conditions, we will have ourselves a robust operating strategy for life.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.