Making the Mahabharata accessible with Laura Arley

Yoga teacher from Toulouse, now based in Mexico, Laura Arley has just published History of the Mahabharata, a philosophy of yoga with Éditions des Equateurs, a book in which she has selected and commented in an accessible way on 34 stories taken from the Mahabharata, the great epic of India. Bridging eras and traditions, her modern writing style, accompanied by the dreamy drawings of illustrator Marion Blanc, allows us to access this grand mythical narrative within which even the most novice will find a certain resonance.

History of the Mahabharata is the culmination of a somewhat crazy dream: Laura's desire to transform part of her podcast "Histoires de yoga" (2 saisons, 69 épisodes) (2 seasons, 69 episodes) dedicated to the great Indian epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into a book. A far from simple task since the narrative of the Mahabharata tells us the great story of India through a fratricidal war, originally in 100,000 verses, that is, 10,000 pages or 18 books (the equivalent of three times the Bible). It's one of the longest stories in human history, whose writing itself would have spanned a period of about 700 years (between the 4th century BC and the 3rd century AD).

In both a playful and accessible way, Laura Arley selects and tells these stories from the Mahabharata, where the narratives nest like Russian dolls and within which the legendary characters multiply and the plots intertwine. Among dilemmas, betrayals, violence, love, quests, challenges, inner questioning, and cosmic conflicts akin to Game of Thrones, this beautiful book dusts off and revitalizes this mythical narrative over 2,000 years old which marked the advent of Kali Yuga, the dark age in which we are still immersed today according to Hindu cosmogony.

Citta Vritti | The stories told in the Mahabharata are timeless: which one speaks to you the most in the present time?

Laura Arley | I have always had a fascination for the story of Karna. This sixth Pandava, son of Princess Kunti and the sun god Surya, was abandoned at birth and found himself on the fringes of society, raised by a charioteer. The character is very endearing because he never found his place or was able to define himself other than by what others said of him, dependent on the judgments and even the contempt of his own clan.

The day he ends up fighting his own brothers unknowingly on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, his chariot gets stuck in a rut and he forgets the magic formula supposed to help him. Well before this scene that signals his death, we know that Karna had overly squeezed the earth to give milk to a young girl and was under a curse that he would forget all his knowledge on the day he needed it most.

In a way, he finds himself facing a destiny intimately linked to the earth. And I think that we are all more or less like Karna, whose story tells us about our relationship with the earth, with the environment in which we live. I even wonder if we are not at a certain point in our history where we have gone so far that we could find ourselves trapped by the earth, prisoners, somewhat like during the Covid pandemic.

The story of Karna illustrated by ©Marion Blanc. "Like (Karna), we have used the resources of this Earth. We have taken it in our hands and squeezed it tightly to feed our fellow beings, without caring about the consequences." Laura Arley.

In what way is the Mahabharata a work of union with Life? And is it in this sense a work of non-duality?

In the narrative, the characters are not always human. We are in a universe where mountains, animals, half-animal half-human characters, or deities have a role. This places us in a context that we are not accustomed to and in which we are not at the center. It reminds me of the novel Azteca about the Aztec city at the time of the Spaniards' arrival: their vision advocated respect for nature because they knew they were not at the center of the world. We find this in the Mahabharata where everything is interwoven, interdependent, connected. In this sense, yes, it's a story of non-duality since humans and Life are one and the same.

Million-dollar question: who is the author of the Mahabharata, the famous "Vyasa" that we find everywhere? Can you shed light on this thick mystery…

Yes, he is everywhere…! Vyasa is a sage who appears in various forms in several stories from Hindu traditions. He is credited with compiling the Veda, creating the Mahabharatathe first commentary on Patañjali's Yoga Sutra . So he's someone who's been around since time immemorial, since the beginning of the world and is still here. We wouldn't be surprised if there's a Vyasa today!

In the context of the Mahabharata, he is both the author and one of the main characters in the narrative. It is precisely because of him that the Pandava and the Kaurava (the two clans from the same family who face off in the great battle of Kurukshetra) will be born at a time when the Kuru lineage is left without an heir. It is Vyasa who accepts the mission to father children with princesses and who gives birth to Pandu, the father of the Pandavas, and Dhritarashtra, the father of the Kauravas, as well as the great sage Vidura who accompanies them on their journey. I like to see him as the grandfather who tells us the story of the family to realize that we are all part of this great family.

Why is it important to popularize and modernize these epic narratives that are difficult to access, and what are the limits to this "appropriation"?

For someone interested in the Bhagavad Gita for example (the 6th book of the Mahabharata which emerged as an independent work, ndlr) ndlr.), it provides access to the general context. Thanks to this context, we understand why the war happens, that there is no other solution, and therefore we better approach the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. The Bhagavad Gita is a super interesting text when we question action, but once we are in action, a lot of questions arise for which we don't necessarily find answers in the Bhagavad Gita. However, the Mahabharata and the great battle of Kurukshetra provide elements of an answer: now that you are in this battle, what do you do, how do you continue?

On the other hand, there are certainly limits because some parts of the narrative do not necessarily apply to our current worldview or the way we would like society to be. But these are elements that we find both in the East and the West. When we look at the stories told by Disney for example, they do not necessarily resemble the original tales. And the Mahabharata falls into these categories of stories that we will obviously tell through our filters. I am not at all Indian for instance, but once we've acknowledged that, we can also have fun looking at these stories through a different lens, precisely because it belongs to the realm of stories and they are therefore meant to be told, shared, passed on. Nothing prevents us from telling them to convey a message and perhaps make complex messages more digestible and unifying, prompting us to reflect, opening up questions.

When the sage Bhima meets the monkey Hanuman, illustrated by ©Marion Blanc. "The Mahabharata is a series of tragic and adventurous stories. Let's not forget that lightness is also part of our lives. On our yoga mat, let's practice this concept by taking ourselves less seriously." Laura Arley.

How is the Mahabharata a work that speaks to us about yoga? And what do you think is its main teaching?

Firstly, obviously because it contains the Bhagavad Gita and because we find yoga and the word "yoga" in it. Any story can tell us about yoga, but first we need to know what our definition of yoga is. For me, yoga is a space to experiment with a lot of concepts that are not necessarily very digestible just by reading a theoretical book. In this sense, every story is a little pretext to talk about yoga. Even if we adapt them to answer certain questions in our personal practice.

In my view, the main message of the book is somewhat the demystification of conflict through the great battle of Kurukshetra. Conflict exists everywhere in our society - as soon as we don't live alone in a forest - and sometimes even within us. This story also shows us that once we have accepted conflict, we can also ease the tone and tensions, and it talks about the "scapegoat" phenomenon which occurs when an individual or group is accused of being responsible for society's ills (like Karna). No, I'm not alone and my way of seeing the world is not that of everyone. People are not in my head and I am not in their head, so we will see things differently. To a certain extent, we live in different worlds and accepting this allows us to more easily find common ground, understand others, and put ourselves in the shoes of others.

The conflict of the Mahabharata, a socio-cosmic and individual conflict illustrated by ©Marion Blanc. "These stories invite us to question our personal dharma and our collective dharma, our individual and collective actions." Laura Arley.

What resources would you recommend for those who would like to embark on the Mahabharata adventure?

The most accessible version in French, in my opinion, is the one by Jean-Claude Carrière (French writer and director, editor's note), which is the most digestible, available in pocket-sized book or graphic novel format. These are the first entry points into the Mahabharata to grasp the whole story without getting too lost, as Carrière made choices regarding the characters and does not necessarily narrate everything. Another option is the stage adaptation by director Peter Brook, which runs for five hours and is available on YouTube in English. Lastly, my go-to version is the one by John D. Smith, published by Penguin Classics, in English. It may be a bit less digestible, but it is very comprehensive.

Laura Arley 🙂

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