Friday, May 11, 2018

Years Measured in Mahabharatas

I taught the Mahabharata in seminar this past semester. I teach it every year in bits or parts. Sometimes I go all in, like this past semester. There was only one assigned book. Volumes and volumes of Mahabharata. It's a quixotic, romantic, futile task that invariably fails to do what you planned or imagined. Just the way I like it. You come out of the Epic the way you enter it: always more not less lost at sea, with more never fewer irreconcilable conflicts of interest, more made by karma and making karma than any effort to renounce could create. But because you can't get it "right" doesn't mean you'll only get it wrong.

That is the wonder of the Epic's Vastness, a word so important in Sanskrit lore that it warrants the capital offense and perfectly describes the joy and frustration of living a life measured in Mahabharatas. To live with the Vastness you have to want to be made of it, with and without your consent. Wherever you are in the Mahabharata will be enough if you are not in a hurry to be anywhere else. In that sense, it's the gateway to self and more selves, it's India and right here, home, it's that ocean of consciousness that we are privileged to experience as living souls until we return to more ocean.

In preparation for papers students come to meet with me on several occasions to prepare, discuss, and review. They had to have an interest, a clue, that's all, then we'll figure out how to sip the ocean from a clay cup. The alternative of drowning is to be prevented at all costs--- and I'm there to make sure that doesn't happen. You're never safe when you're at sea and in a life measured in Mahabharatas, you're never not at sea. Two students in particular had the temerity to ask a bit more about my relationship to the work, the job, the subject, both prefacing their questions with a fair humility. They were really asking about themselves, so I answered a bit more than is my usual want.

As a policy my college professor self evades these sorts of personal questions because it is not my job to talk about me or my relationship with India. There's nothing the public media won't reveal. But I don't talk much about it and the reason for this is simple. If I reveal myself students will be less inclined to speak from their own hearts and minds, fearing that they may offend or displease me. They have come to college to find their own voices, and I am there to facilitate, not to determine. They are in their own ocean and I may guide the way and provide some safe harbor, but it not for me to decide their destinations or command their obedience.

With Rajanaka I have had the privilege to reveal more than I ever do at college. My regret is I think we would all learn more together ---and have so much more fun---if we could really figure out how to spend more time learning with each other, more closely, more deeply. We _need_ more time if we're going to grow in the learning. I try at once to give you honest scholarship _and_ opinion because I believe you will take what you like and leave the rest, as you should. There are no litmus tests, no requirements, not even a suggestion of dogma though it's plain that most of you understand after these many years that I'm not shy to comment on most anything, sometimes with better or less informed ideas. I try not to spoil a Rajanaka by going too, too far off our shared India markers. (No, Douglas will not drown us in political vitriol just because he can do that on Facebook. I have actually had hosts assure their students of this...though I am less sure they are confident I will provide.)

For these two college students I tried to reach a bit further. They are both from India, not Americans of the south Asia diaspora. They both grew up and went to school in India, having just come to the States for college. And they were both, how shall we say it? Taken away by what we did in our Mahabharata class. By that I mean a process of close reading, very critical interpretation, and a careful application to our lives as such. We had some overview and I left most of that to them. We covered almost nothing in comparison to what is there. How could you? But they'd never heard anything like this at home, and how could they? Not even the most learned folks in India spend much time doing this sort of work and it is _work_, it is not something that comes merely from culture or assimilation or from just being one is knowing one.

We are all born with code, and process, and develop lenses that determine our visionary possibilities. But we also acquire and create lenses that shape awareness and cultivate selves. We are made and we make, but it's never a simple or symmetrical process. The complexity and asymmetry is always individual. We each learn how to learn and those kinds of skills are not easy to acquire for anyone. These factors will decide how you learn a subject, an anything you can learn.

Well and good, they replied, but how is it that you (meaning me) know _so_ much about India? I again replied that foremost it was my job, my profession, I _learned_ and paid my dues. Provenance is a word they needed to learn about. They pressed again because it seemed to them clear--- I give them courage points for calling me out--- that it is all rather obviously far more than my profession.

My reply then went something like this.
I am not _from_ India. But I am wholly _of_ India.
This means that _everything_, positively everything at every moment of waking, dreaming, and dreamlessness in my experience is filtered through India, both there and here, outside and inside, in life, in books, in imagination and worldly being. It took me a long time to understand more about the depths of that personal complexity, the complications and confusions that necessarily appear--- what Appa called living in many worlds, and how we each bring our limitations and possibilities. But our limitations create boundaries that allow, indeed force the need for some recognition of every larger circumstance. We all do this, it's what it means to evolve a self in the course of a life. How we do this, well, that will make all the difference.

We are all the sum of _all_ of our experiences, much of that hidden in shadow and the unconscious, and more still that comes through the complexities of a life we create and that creates us. India _made_ me because I was lucky enough to step in as a young man, meet people who welcomed me, then loved me, and spend a life of what I call now "having never left." When did you go to India first? That's a question I can answer factually though I'm pretty sure that the mythic answer cuts more deeply. But when did I leave? I never left. I couldn't leave if I wanted to. India made me and if that's a bit unusual for a kid from Jersey---another place I left but never left--- what I can say for certain about my job is that it's an honest and sometimes challenging profession. It's also true that I have willfully, self-consciously made it a point in life that my profession would not make me, at least insofar as I have a say in the matter.

Lucky me, I am no longer much "of" the academy though I'm pretty sure I can fake it convincingly on demand. Sometimes. And that difference provides all the difference I need to keep boundaries clear and safe enough, if not entirely honest. I am professional enough to have earned my place, and accept the consequence of being less professionally ambitious. The academy wants from me something I have not offered it for more than 20 years now. This is another feature of a privileged life. It costs me too. Svaha.

But India is _how_ I live because I cannot live without it. The work as such--- the Sanskrit, the reading, the talking--- is _not_ my reason to live, because I don't need a reason. When you really love something you really don't always love it. You may say "today I am going to do this" but what else would you do? Who else could you be? How you _feel_ about it, on a given day or in a particular moment? That's far more complex than saying, "I love what I do." I don't always. Thank goodness for that. Life doesn't make you love everything, even what you are or what you do, not all the time. I couldn't stand that.

All of this, I told these two students, is for better and worse. You are in the process of seeing through your own lens with greater effort---and of acquiring and being made by forces you don't wholly control. Who you want to be is not entirely up to you. It never is. Who you choose to become is a different kind of question. While that too is not solely up to you, it's because nothing in life you create can you create alone. There is always more story than you can learn. There is always more worth telling again and more still you'll never get to.
"So life is like Mahabharata, Professor?"
"Just so."

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