Immersing in Mahabharata: An interview with Raghu Ananthanarayanan
Raghu Ananthanarayanan is a management consultant, who has immersed himself deeply in the Indian tradition of Itihasa-Purana, especially in Mahabharata and its characters. He regularly conducts Mahabharata Immersion programs, leadership programs, and a host of other activities based on Itihasa-Purana tradition. He is trained in Yoga under Yogacharya Krishnamacharya and brings in his enormous experience in Yoga, Theater, and arts into his various initiatives. His book “Leadership Dharma: Arjuna The Timeless Metaphor” explores leadership and management through the lens of Mahabharata Characters. In an exclusive interview with IndiaFacts, he spoke about his journey into Mahabharata, his approach to the Itihasa-Purana tradition, and various activities he is involved in.
Nithin Sridhar: You have immersed yourself in Mahabharata for many years now. Mahabharata is considered one of the greatest poetry, epic, history, Itihasa, Panchama Veda, etc. How do you perceive the text? What is your approach to the text?
Raghu Ananthanarayanan: My love for the text began with the listening to the stories recounted to other children and me by our elders. My grandfather would sometimes read out from the texts, we also had accomplished and learned people come over and tell stories and have discourses on important puja times. My wife Sashikala and I had the great fortune of knowing Kamala Subramaniam very well and conversations with her were a source of great learning. My interest in theatre took me to a long involvement with the Koothu traditions of Tamil Nadu and intense discussions with Na Muthuswamy and the holders of the tradition. The folk forms have been of particular interest to me in the last few decades as I have explored the convergence of the itihAsa purANa and inner work. These forms are not only insightful; they are very evocative and have kept our heritage alive and vibrant at the grass roots.
NS: You have been conducting “Mahabharata Immersion” programs, where you take the participants through a firsthand experience of the beauty of Mahabharata. In one of your writings you describe the program as a “dynamic meditation”. Can you share with our readers what do you mean by dynamic meditation and how do you expose participants to Mahabharata?
RA: I base my work on the principles of antaranga sAdhana enunciated in the Yoga Sutra (which I studied with Yogacharya Krishnamacharya and Desikachar for over a decade). The central idea is that the process of observing the psyche as it relates to objects (the process of dhAraNa) not only brings about quietude, it also leads to insights about the samskAra that cause disturbances in one’s psyche. So we take participants through a graded self-exploratory exercises derived from dance and theatre. We first enable them to get in touch with their emotional core through exploring the rasa. As they explore their inner space and the aversion or attachments with some of the rasa, they slowly move into a space of shAntam. We also use exercises based on the Tripura Rahasyam to enable them to look at sakhi bhAva and sAkShi bhAva. They are then introduced to the archetypal personas within (again derived from dance). The central practice through all of this is observing the self from a place of shAntam. Finally the participants enact significant situations from the Mahabharata, scenes that have touched them deeply. This inside-out experiencing enables them to understand the deeply symbolic character of the Mahabharata. The stories and the characters become a mirror to the self. One’s own propensities and shadows become clear. New perspectives are gained from this intense self-observation. Therefore one’s latent heroic potentials as well as new ways of responding to one’s world open up.
NS: Can you elaborate more on the exercises based on Tripura Rahasya? What do they involve and how they help the participant in their journey of inner discovery?
RA: The Tripura Rahasyam speaks about the three aspects of ones psyche namely the actor, the mirror and the witness. These are also the three levels of chitta: the manas, the ahamkAram and buddhi. When they are aligned it is called vyasAyatmika buddhi in sankhya philosophy. We simulate this through various exercises done by people working in threes.
NS: One interesting thing I came across while reading your essays and watching few of your programs, is your love for exploring character archetypes from Mahabharata. Can you tell us more about this? What are its benefits? How can an understanding of archetypes help people in life?
RA: Unfortunately with the spread of the TV and the proliferation of serials based on Ramayana and Mahabharata, many of the characters in the Mahabharata have become stereotyped. An archetype is a dream like inner picture of one’s heroic potentials that gets evoked in our minds when we listen to stories told to us by good story tellers, or when we read a well written book and become reflective. They are human potentials hidden deep in our psyche. No one is a pure Yudhistra or Bhima or….we have many propensities and some get developed due to the way we are brought up or due to life experiences. The Mahabharata has explored these archetypes, notably the warrior, the wise person, the king, the healer and so on in a very nuanced manner in several contexts. To illustrate, a character like Bhima is counterpoised with Keeechaka: both are powerful, impulsive and so on, but while Bhima has wisdom and self-control to shape his potentials, Keechaka gives in to greed and lust. This episode is situated at the end of the period of agnyAta vAsam (or if I am permitted to use a modern equivalent, living in the shadow!) of the Pandava Heroes. Both forms of action are possible in a person with a warrior propensity. So studying the contexts of the stories and using them as a mirror to one self enables us to open doors to our own inner drama. I have created a model called the Pandava Profile (with the help of Ashok Malhotra) that enables one to look at thousands of possible combinations of the five propensities and explore their shadow sides.
NS: In your book “Leadership Dharma: Arjuna The Timeless Metaphor”, you explore the Archetype of Arjuna as the ideal leadership. Why Arjuna? What made you pick him among all the characters of Mahabharata? Tell us more about this book.
RA: In our tradition, the King was not the most powerful person, he was the wise one who understood dharma saMkaTa. This can be seen explicitly illustrated in Vikramaditya stories and Vikramaditya is one of the ideal Kings in our tradition. Of the Pandava heroes, Arjuna is the one who questions the contexts deeply, asks questions about the contextual relevance of actions and so on. The Bhagavad Gita starts with Arjuna owning up to his inner dilemma, his dharma sankata and consulting his deepest Intelligence before taking action. He experiences the psychosomatic reactions any person would when they question the ground of their being and the basis of their understanding of the world. Also the Gita is a dialogue about the nature of man, the nature of the world, the ultimate reality and such deeply philosophical truths. Arjuna is not just egged on to fight, he is not provoked into hate, nor enticed by greed, he is evoked by Intelligence to take the dharmic action. I believe that this idea of dharmic leadership is the need of the hour when the whole world is facing a crisis brought on by decades of plundering and colonizing. Current ideas of leadership are heavily influenced by the unexamined assumptions of the colonial enterprise and of conquest. In my book I examine the five types of leadership that an understanding of the Pandava heroes allows us to model, I look at the shadow possibilities too, and do a thought experiment of an Arjuna at different inflexion points, i.e., different points in human history when the yuga dharma has to change. I am therefore asking the reader to introspect, understand one’s own propensities as well as look at the current context and redefine his/ her own idea of leadership through the Pandava lens.
NS: Can you shed more light on the Pandava Profile which you have created along with Ashok Malhotra.
RA: Ashok has pioneered an approach to understanding human processes through an instrument called the Existential Universe Mapper. This instrument has many overlaps with the chakra lens. I have been part of the team that has worked on it over the last decade or so. We have adapted the instrument to map the individual propensity in the 5 archetypal energies of the Pandava. It comprises of a set of adjectives that one rank orders. We then “slice & dice” the choices to arrive at a pattern. We use this for Leadership Coaching and Life Coaching. It is very insightful.
NS: Tell us about your life journey. What led you to explore and immerse yourself in Mahabharata?
RA: The significant point in my otherwise normal life came when I met Dharampalji (along with my colleagues from IIT M). The question he asked us still directs my choices “can we become a great nation by running behind the tails of the west? Don’t we have to start from who we are with respect, humility and honesty to build ourselves and our country?”. This was in the early 70’s, and the hollowness of the western enterprise of world conquest and technological domination of the earth was becoming obvious. This was the time of great ferment, a time of Noam Chomsky, of Fucault, Marcuse and Frantz Fannon, of the Club of Rome report and much questioning of the western paradigms. Dharampalji mentored us through this tough phase in our youth. Each of us who were influenced by him took up one area of tradition to delve into from the point of view of its applicability in solving contemporary problems. I took up the Yoga Shastras and Behavioural Sciences, my wife took up the study of Vastu Shastra. We spent more than a decade in a complete immersion of this study. In psychology, the understanding of archetypes is very important, and a lot of the laboratory learning work I did (under the mentorship of Prof Pulin K Garg and his colleagues) pointed to the way in which we carry our traditional cultural archetypes and conditioning deep within us. In any case I was very interested in theatre and the Mahabharata.
NS: Who is your favorite character from Mahabharata and why?
RA: Ah, I identify with Karna and Draupadi the most. They were great heroes, who were cheated out of their due by the social reality of their times. I identify with this a lot. Perhaps I see the Indian context also through this identification.
NS: In April, you would be conducting an intensive retreat on “Shringara Rasanubhava” at your meditation center “Ritambhara” located at Kotagiri in the Nilgiri Hills. Can you please share more about this program? Who are the intended audience?
RA: In the last Mahabharata Immersion programme we conducted at the Ritambhara Ashram (www.ritambhara.org.in), Ajay Vishwanathan an accomplished dancer had participated, Rajan Swaroop a spiritual seeker was present in the earlier MI. They were keen on exploring the universe of love since they saw a need for it in the Indian youth. We are basing this immersion on the life stages of Krishna since the stories of his life are an intensely beautiful illustration of the stages of growth of an individual. The stories explore all facets of love and therefore provide a very evocative ground for the immersive self-exploration. Any person interested in exploring love is welcome, but I think young people on either side of a relationship (just about to enter one, or having entered wanting to deepen their relationships) will benefit immensely.
NS: The retreat promises to be an immersion in the universe of love and how to anchor oneself in an enduring sakhi bhava. Tell us more about Rasa and your approach to Sringara Rasa? What is Sakhi Bhava and how is it related to Sringara?
RA: The nuances of Indian dance are a great exploration of human processes. The idea of rasa goes much further than emotion though it contains the idea of a deep stirring that moves one into thought and action. In dance, the nAyikA is awakened by the nAyakan and the exploration of this relationship takes her to a sakhi. The sakhi is really a guru/ AchArya figure who has understood the universe of rasa and self and is in a position to enable the nAyikA in her seeking. I believe that sakhi bhAva reflects the idea in Yoga Sutra of observing oneself with compassion. The ability to look at oneself with love and one’s own limitations and shadows with compassion is a pre-requisite for offering love to another. The shringAra exploration will look at all three aspects of one’s self namely, one’s own yearning for love, ones desire to be worthy of being loved, and one’s ability to look at oneself with love.
NS: Tell us more about Ritambhara. What are your goals? What other programs you conduct?
RA: My wife Sashi and I were exploring the meaning of vAnaprastha after we turned 60. Several people approached us to teach them Yoga Sutras, the deeper aspects of the tradition and so on. Ritambhara was born out of our response to these requests since it fitted well with the idea of letting go of the stage of grihasta life. We are committed to teaching people how to become facilitators and teachers focusing on inner growth through an anchorage in our traditions. Sashi and I have spent close to 4 decades in doing action research in this area. Others who are convinced that our traditions are a treasure house of wisdom especially in the area of Inner Work and Design can learn from us and use our learning as a spring board for further work. Our programmes are therefore focused on three themes, all of which ultimately seek to teach teachers, namely, antaranga sAdhana or inner work through our immersions; understanding the universe of Indian Architecture and Design and reflective dialogues into the question “What is India”.
NS: Any advice for those who are interested in exploring the Indian tradition of Itihasa-Purana?
RA: Firstly be aware that they are intensely human stories written with the idea that it is through evoking the rasa that common people can be enabled to examine deep philosophical and ethical questions. Secondly, that they are an inexhaustible source of learning about the human condition and offer many behavioural insights that are timeless.
Featured Image: Ritambhara