Is it just me, or are we all at the receiving end of an unending series of cheery messages from advertisers and well-meaning WhatsApp-forward-loving family and friends? Billboards, magazines, and television—all yell out at us that we are beautiful and perfect and deserve to pamper ourselves (preferably with the products they promote, of course). Self-help gurus and well-intentioned Facebook posts tell us to “think positive”. Had a heartbreak? Everyone will tell you that you deserved much better anyway.
Saturated with these optimistic messages on a daily basis, I am, to use PG Wodehouse’s turn of phrase, if not actually disgruntled, far from being gruntled. There is a certain pleasure in being dramatic, letting out a good stream of curses, and indulging in a little melancholy, especially if you like Sanskrit poetry. I recently came across an event where poems were prescribed for stressed students to get through their mid-terms. So, here are a few Sanskrit prescriptions for general problems, if you will.
Bhartrihari, the poet whose opinions on morality many high school students are forced to memorise, was actually a pessimist of the highest order. Legend traces his pessimism back to when he was a great king. Once, when presented with a precious fruit and told to pass it on to the person dearest to him, he gave it to his queen. As you might have guessed, the queen was not as fond of him as he would have liked. She passed it on to the keeper of the stables, for whom she had a soft spot. He passed it on to a courtesan he was infatuated with, and the courtesan dutifully passed it back to the king! Shocked and heartbroken, Bhartrihari investigated how the fruit got back to him. When he discovered that his love was unrequited, it is said that he wrote a poem about it— “I think of her constantly, but she couldn’t care less; she likes another man, but his interest lies elsewhere. All this while, someone else pines away for me. Damn her and him and love and her and me!”
Sanskrit poets have a strange way of offering comfort. When the queen Indumati dies, and her husband Aja is distraught, the sages do not offer condolences. Instead, here is the advice Kalidasa offers — “The natural state of all embodied beings is death, and wise ones say life is just a variation. If someone is alive and breathing, even for a second, they’re the lucky one.”
If you just had a fight with a friend, chew over this one from the Mahabharata— “One log of wood and another come together in the mighty ocean. Having met, they drift apart. This, indeed, is our lot”. If there’s nothing wrong with your life, but you want to indulge in some catharsis anyway, I can prescribe lots of verses about the futility of life. My favourite is the sombre pronouncement from the Ramayana—“All abundance ends in decline; all ascent in downfall. All togetherness ends in parting, and all life in death”.
If that was too deep, here is a final one to make your family problems look petty. “Shiva’s snake tries to eat up Ganesha’s vehicle, the mouse. Subrahmanya’s vehicle, the peacock, wants to eat up the snake, and Durga’s lion has its eyes set on the peacock. Parvati is jealous of Ganga on Shiva’s head, and the fire in Shiva’s third eye is jealous of the cool moon on his head. Disenchanted by family problems, no wonder Shiva drank poison!”
One takeaway from all this: take comfort, our gods have issues, too.
(Anusha S Rao is a doctoral student in Religion and oscillates between scholarly pursuits and abject laziness)