From Sinner to Saint: Reflections on “The King of Mathura”

Tataji teaching history at Vedika (photo courtesy of http://www.vedikaglobal.org)

I recently had the very good fortune and honor of helping edit the English translation of my Ayurveda teacher’s father’s play. Shri Daya Prakash Sinha, or, as students of Vedika (my Ayurveda school) call him, “Tataji” (an affectionate way of saying “respected grandfather”), is a celebrated playwright, a former Indian government officer and foreign diplomat, passionate historian and a leader in the field of contemporary Indian arts. The play is called “The King of Mathura.” It is based on the mythological Krishna legend, in the current context and sensibility. Telling the story of Lord Kamsa (who essential personifies the devil), the Prime Minister of India loved this play, which is also the subject of graduate and doctorate study in universities. I wrote some reflections on the personal significance of the play for me, which I thought I’d share with my blog readers:

On the surface of the play, we see Lord Kamsa’s rise and fall as a dictator, the demonic face of what Carl Jung would call “the shadow side” of humanity. As with any book, however, it is never wise to judge solely based on a cover. A high compliment, I think, to Kans’ character development is the way his multi-dimensionality shines through. Despite his ruthlessness, cruelty and destructive nature, I could feel great compassion for the causes (karma) of Kans’ deep despair. We see Kans as a vicious, barbaric, monstrous force of nature. The very personification of hatred, anger, jealousy, lust, doubt, insecurity and especially the great fear that are the true cause of all evil in this world and beyond. It is actually Kans’ profound shame, stemming from his own victimization at the hands of his father, combined with the way patriarchal society conditions us to view masculinity, that create his agony. He, as Joan Didion once wrote, makes up the bed of lies that he alone must sleep in.

“The King of Mathura” is, to me, a meditation on the many manifestations of the human ego. Each character mirrors different layers of Kans’ deeply disturbed soul. As he reflects after murdering his wife Queen Asti:

“You are free! Your soul, tender like the early morning dew, has been released to the eternity of the infinite sky…I have not murdered you. I have only murdered that counter-ego, which my ego could not brook, be it of wife or friend, sister or father. That had to be destroyed.”

This line speaks deeply to the nature of human conflict. We feel vulnerable in relationships because of what each person who comes our way reflects back to us about our own natures. But, as the poet Rumi has written, we must:

“Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.”

What we admire most in others reflects back what is most admirable in ourselves. What we can’t stand about other is what we cannot stand about our own selves. We often fail to see this, however, which is how the seductive veil of maya clouds our perceptions and blocks us from the ultimate truth, that there is no separation on this earth. We encounter none other than our own Self in the disguise of ‘another.’ What a tool for transformation we have in our hands, each moment of our waking lives!

In the context of Mathura, there could be no Krishna without the presence of Kans, or Kamsa. As light cannot exist without the backdrop of darkness, a saint often emerges in the presence of sinners – or in a sinner him or herself. As Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras commence:

“Now, this is yoga.”

Now, as in something had to have happened before one can become a perfect vessel for the elixir of spiritual knowledge to work its very special magic. A crisis. The kind of earth-shattering experiences that cause one to come to his or her knees, crying out to God for deliverance to a realm beyond that which we are presently able to perceive.

I have had the privilege of seeing many a prisoner face this turmoil, bringing light to the brilliant possibility that even the worst of sinners can, too, transform themselves into saints. As Ashoka the Great did. It is only in fully accepting our helplessness that we can actually receive help, and then be able to give help. As the seed of the lotus flower is planted in the mud at the bottom of a dirty, dark pond, where it is difficult to see the sun, so, too, does the beginning of beauty often grow out of the darkest depths of despair. On the nature of the lotus, I have written a poem:

The Lotus Blooms

The lotus flower

blooms in adversity

atrocity

animosity

For there is no greater power

than that which comes from a

shower

of struggle

strife

and sorrow

The lotus never forgets

the possibility of tomorrow

Rather than mope,

The lotus is the essence

of Hope

Despite the difficulty, the lotus get grounded, and its shoot sprouts, in search of the glorious sun (symbolizing the ultimate truth of the eternal, divine soul). The lotus flower knows that blooming is its goal and that the struggle to reach the sun is simply part of the process, of which the pure beauty of truth is the result.

I myself was moved to serve prisoners as a way to transform myself and thereby be released from the internal prison in which I have long been held captive: inside the conditioning, false perceptions and negative emotional reactions of my own mind. I can see how the crises I have faced in my own life have opened the doorway for deeper realizations to emerge, which have begun to free me from the iron shackles of my own ignorance and denial.

Kans can clearly see his father’s cruelty, but he cannot connect his own killings with the lecherous legacy of his lineage. Like so many inmates I meet, he cannot get past his perception of himself as a victim. Full of feelings of rage, (stemming from fear), he, to borrow the biblical metaphor, seeks to remove the speck out his brother’s eye, all the while unaware of the large beam that blocks his own vision of the truth.

We are the living composite of the universe: part flower, part shark and tiger, ape, tree, cloud, dog, part bird. We have it all within. Any characteristic that we see in nature, we can also find within ourselves. That is why we can, as Muhammed Ali once said,

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

While Kans can clearly be blamed for harming all those nearest and dearest to him, it is Kans himself who truly suffers the most – a lesson we can also learn from the life and death of Adolf Hitler, and of any modern-day suicide bomber. As Kans insightfully asks:

“Is every murder a suicide?”

We are both predator and prey – one and the same, eternally.

Kans’ own brother, Pradyot, the personification, or, one could say, the child of lust, fears not even his own death due to his ability to see the truth that eludes Kans to the end. Because he lived as Kans’ slave, Pradyot’s taking of his own life could be considered the most dignified suicide the world has ever known. Fully cognizant of his own impending ending, he finally takes something in his life – his death – into his own hands.

Kans’ life, however, has never been in his own hands. Krishna’s flute echoes throughout the play, as a constant tragic reminder to Kans about the loss of his childhood innocence. Swaati and Asti’s bodies are compared to flutes, symbolizing the widespread objectification of women in the background of patriarchal society.  Swaati astutely remarks:

“I felt that despite your large body, you were just a child, innocent, unprotected.”

While Kans, clouded by the fog of his lust, thinks that what he wants from Swaati is a lover, what he really needs from her (which she picks up on) is a mother. Swaati follows her statement with a profound question:

“Is the womb of a woman the core of her being?”

Our mother is our first teacher. As it only through receiving a human birth that one can become free from the endless cycle of birth and re-birth, it is only the one who bestows us with life who can possibly help us transcend its limitations, sufferings, the inevitable ups and downs. Maya, who is prakriti, or nature herself, is the provider of illusions; it is only in piercing through the illusions that one comes to know the truth of one’s own being. Like Lord Ganesha is the remover of the obstacles, but also the provider of obstacles, Mahamaya (as a form of Lakshmi) both blinds us in delusion – and has the power to free us from all delusion. God as Mother teaches us to embrace suffering, so that we may see our true Self, which transcends all sorrow. A mother is, after all, the very embodiment of suffering. As Mahatma Gandhi once wrote:

“Ahimsa means infinite love, which means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity to the largest measure?”

Mahamaya and her partner Lord Ganesha are great because without illusions to pierce through, and obstacles to overcome, we could never access our deepest reservoirs of strength and power. As the lotus flower blooms in adversity, no beauty emerges without some struggle.

While it is implied that Kans ultimately meets his demise at the hands of Lord Krishna, I understood the play’s conclusion as the sweet sound of liberation: the soul’s return home, to it’s own Self. Rather than getting killed by Krishna, I felt that Kans ultimately became Krishna. The “King of Mathura’s” conclusion seems to be a nod to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” in the sense of the

“heaps upon heaps of innumerable corpses, underneath them, buried deep…one corpse. The corpse of Kans.”

In destroying the mirrors reflecting back layer upon layer of Kans’ illusions, there is nothing left for Kans to destroy. Brahma thus picks up what Shiva has left behind and I understood that Kans essentially has no other choice but to surrender himself into the hands of God, in the form of Lord Krishna. The sound of the flute, the source of the sweetness at Kans’ very vulnerable core, poetically drowns out the last sounds of Kans’ protests and resistances to his destiny as the true king, the Lord himself.

In Kans we can see both aspects of the ego: the self-denigrating side of the King who cannot get past his father’s insults (that Kans is effeminate, etc.) and the self-aggrandizing Kans who sees himself as the

“Most powerful, the bravest of the brave, the brightest God Shri Kans.”

It is only in being forced out of his false perceptions of himself as an immortal being, a God, that he can truly become immortal, that Kans can merge with and become Lord Krishna himself. It is only in making ourselves small that we can truly become great. Humility is India’s most important value that I believe the world can greatly benefit from understanding properly. To understand, after all, we must stand under. Far from its frequent association with humiliation, true humility is a sign of the greatest strength. Gandhiji has said that

“Ahimsa is the soul force.”

Humility, then, is the sole force.

Lady Ruth, as she is known, was my first American yoga teacher, whose dharma talk during my first American asana class, about the sacred link between spirituality and service, reignited the spark of yoga first lit by my family in India (photo courtesy of http://www.jivamuktiyoga.com)

My first American yoga teacher, a celebrated painter named Ruth, is an embodiment of the sole force of humility. She has written a beautiful essay:

“How to Become a Master”

Vita Raga Visayam Va Chittam – PYS 1.37

“The color of a Saint’s mind tints the color of the devotee’s mind, when the saint’s mind is the object of concentration.”

“In olden times and up to the present, when artists wanted to learn how to paint, they started by copying the paintings of the masters who had come before them. Paintings are thought to be worth copying when all of the different elements are cohesive, belong together, support and enhance and balance each other, and create harmony and depth of feeling. In copying such great work of art, something of what makes that work of art work perfect is transmitted to the copier. An artist can study a painting by looking at it, reading about the artist’s life, and the time in which he/she lived, but those actions won’t reveal what is revealed through copying. It’s like an attunement between the two artists, the one who made the original and the one who copies, even if there are centuries in between them. The connection is bigger than the two individuals. It is mysterious and awesome and holy and timeless. The artist, as originator and copier, contains everything. He or she can channel anything because they believe they can. Through faith, practice, discipline, effort and grace, and most importantly humility, the artist bows before the work he copies.

In olden times, and up to the present, when yogis wanted to reach enlightenment, they copied their teacher. They emulated what their teacher ate, how much they slept, when they meditated, what the nature of their thoughts were, how they showed kindness toward others, what holy books they read, what holy songs they sung, how equanimous they were in the midst of ups and downs, how saddened they were by the suffering of others, and how happy they were in the presence of the Lord.

The yogi noticed how the great teacher harmonized with nature and the animals, how the great teacher’s voice was so soothing, and how the great teacher’s eyes sparkled. And if the yogi copied the lifestyle of the great teacher with humility and sincerity and a desire to serve, and if the yogi had no selfish motive, or at least yearned not to have a selfish motive, worked hard not year to year, or week to week, but minute to minute not to have a selfish motive, gradually the yogi and the great teacher would become one.

Master Patanjali was one of the greatest yoga teachers, a master from olden times. He saw how to bring cohesion and harmony into the world. He knew how to channel the old masters all the way back to the oldest masters, and how to join hands with them. He knew how a human being could be useful in small and in big ways, practical ways and holy ways. In short, he knew how man could finally reach his potential, how the bud could flower, how man could become God.

Let us study the Yoga Sutras of Master Patanjali. Let us work with a playful spirit. Let us bow before Master Patanjali, and surely something substantial will sink in.”

I bow before the lotus feet of Shunyaji, who is like Lakshmi, of Tataji, whose very name is a beautiful reminder of the candle of compassion, of Babaji, Badi-Babaji, and the rest of the family members who continue to light the lamp of Vedika’s long lineage of love. May the flame of this fire burn far and wide, for the benefit of the whole world.

With my reflections (which included drawings of lotus flowers and lotus feet, hummingbirds and butterflies), I wrote Tataji a card. I bought the card from Australia this past December. It is made by Aboriginal artists and sold by Better World Arts:

“Better World Arts is a social enterprise working with empowering business models to provide real economic and cultural benefits to Aboriginal artists and their communities. The Cross Cultural Projects combine the fine art of Aboriginal people with the traditional craftsmanship of artisans from Kashmir, Peru and Tibet to produce rugs, cushions, ornamental lacquer boxes and jewellery, enabling traditional communities to retain their cultural heritage. Better World Arts’ social inclusion work has assisted artists to open their own Ngura Wiru Winkuku Indigenous Corporation in Adelaide where regular arts, health and education programs are run from their studio space. The studio provides support for artists to practice art and handicrafts, as well as other important cultural activities.”

The name of the artist who designed the beautiful yellow card I gave Tataji is Rama Sampson, an elder of the Aboriginal South Australian community. The story of his painting has its roots in Aboriginal mythology. The story contains many stories; it is, in fact, one big story.

After thanking me for my translation work, Tataji gave me a blessing, saying

“Now, you, too can write about mythological legends, in the current context and sensibility.”

I shared with Tataji about a screenplay I had began writing some time back about a little girl named “Lakshmi,” who I had met in India. I had been fascinated by the fact that though this little girl had been badly abused (as so many girls and women in India, and throughout the world are), she was named after the most widely worshipped Hindu goddess of wealth. This led me to dig deeper into exploring my Indian heritage and roots, which has been an adventurous, exciting and very beautiful journey. I can see how I have not only learned more about Hindu mythology, but actually encountered many of its figures, in the form of Krishna, Kamsa, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Mother Mary, Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh and so many, many others, in my own life, and in my own self.

The creative transmission I received from Tataji’s work and presence has reignited in me a sense of responsibility to continue writing “Lakshmi.” It is not “I” who has began writing this screenplay, but rather I can see how this project is truly being written through me, through my life experiences, my joys, sorrows and the many mythological characters who have blessed me with their presence. It is not something I intend to complete in the next month or year. Rather, it has become a very real force in my life: a tool for my transformation, something that constantly reminds me to connect with only the divinity that resides within myself and each ‘other’ person I encounter. It has been my way of taking the responsibility of being very conscious and aware of how I am writing my life story, and making that my offering to God.

Now that I have the blessing of such a wise elder, I feel the weight of my writing responsibility on my shoulders, along with a strong sense of support for the healing potential it contains as a medicine story, for myself, and all ‘others,’ who are actually my own Self. Tataji departs today back to New Delhi, with these sentiments:

To My Dear Tataji,

I want to express my deep and sincere gratitude to you for giving me this opportunity to serve. Though I could not properly answer your question as to my profession, I have understood my dharma as fully utilizing whatever gifts have been loaned to me to serve those who sincerely wish to transform themselves, while being a bridge between East and West. Helping edit the English translation of your provocative, radical and deeply spiritual masterpiece fit seamlessly with the way I have understood my life’s purpose.

This play was precisely the sort of inspiration I was seeking when I asked you to send it. Our Indian mythology is indeed so rich with spiritual medicine the whole world is starved for. I can see how many powerful ancient archetypes have already played out in my own life and feel even more responsibility to continue to pay attention to all that comes my way, to record and reflect on my own experiences so as to make them my offering to humanity. To make my life my message.

Your presence at Vedika during the first five months of my studentship has been an auspicious blessing for which I consider myself most fortunate. I feel a great connection with your writing and spirit and trust that your departure will not signify the end, but rather just the beginning, of our communication.

With Abundant Love

and Gratitude,

Your Granddaughter

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