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Monday, March 03, 2014

Exploring the Minds in 'Mahabharata' - A Study of the Experiences during Childhood and Previous Births

The whole purpose of the clues in a mystery are to push us to think beyond what is right in front of us, to make us think of the impossible. We might not know the exact truth behind each and every clue there is, but we might know how those clues glue the pieces of the story. At times, the clues are constructed in a way to add to the ‘fantastic’ aspect of the piece and when these clues or instances transcend the fantastic, we have an epic. It reaches a plane where these events act as the reasons for the actions that follow. They come close to being a truth and though it can be contested, it isn’t. Apart from the events that took place in the epic narrative, Mahabharata, the characters that lived through the events can be studied. As Freud analysed many a patients to locate the origins of their fears, thoughts, personality traits and tendencies, I will attempt to analyse the influence of childhood experiences on the later life of the princes of the ‘Kuru House’. An interesting observation that I came across is that the experiences extend beyond childhood into the previous births as well. Though it might be simple to explain adulthood tendencies based on childhood experiences, the added layer of the influence of previous birth experiences makes this reading somewhat complex.

Freud, in the course of his life and work, proposed and established a number of theories that fall under the psychoanalytic umbrella. One of these suggests that the personality of an adult is formed on the basis of the childhood experiences and instinctual impulses that are ingrained in the mind of that individual.  Though there are many thoughts and impulses that might get stored in the unconscious, never to be accessed, the rest remain set in the mind, to varying degrees. Freud majorly addressed the sexual drives and impulses, but he never dismissed the other instinctual instincts that can arise in a person’s mind. Hence, I would like to apply this theory to the character traits that the princes possess in the later course of the story. For the purpose of this paper, I shall only be exploring a number of selected chapters from the first section of Mahabharata, named ‘Adi Parva’, literally meaning ‘the beginning’. This section establishes most of the character that feature in the entire epic and also, how these people came to be.

The first reference to a consequence of the previous birth presents itself in the first chapter ‘On the Banks of the Ganga’. The scene is that of the queen, Ganga, proceeding to kill her eighth child, just as the King, Santanu stops her. She explains to her husband that she was cursed and that was the reason behind her actions. I’d like to bring the focus to how she explains the King’s desire for her – the reason lying in his previous birth. His desire for Ganga has its roots in his desire for her in their previous birth. There are modern studies that use hypnosis to delve deeper into past-life experiences, but that came later. In my view, with reference to the story I am analysis, the dissection of the mind happens on a more spiritual level in Mahabharata. The theory given by Freud works on a physical and psychological level, but when you introduce a new plane of the spiritual to parallel the rest, it brings forth a lot of questions about whether it is truly applicable. It might be and this paper explores just that. So, coming back to the question of his love for Ganga existing in his present birth, we are now posed with the question of possibility. Can the desires be attached to a particular spirit and then transferred to the body? Then again, someone might ask if the spirit exists in the first place.

The second chapter is a better example for the influence of childhood experiences. It is titled ‘Sixteen Years Later’ with reference to the eighth son, then named Devavrata and later, Bheeshma. The chapter gives evidence of all that Bheeshma learns during his childhood and adolescence. His attitude of striving for more than his potential gives testimony to the decisions he takes later in life, when he turns father to his dead brothers’ sons and then grandfather to their sons. His experience of staying away from his father for those many years might have driven him to be the best father figure that the princes could possibly have. This is reflected first when he first chooses the wives for his brother, Vichitraveerya and then through the ways in which he brings up the princes. He provides them an education far superior to his own when he was as old as them.

The next reference to previous birth comes about in the sixth chapter when one of the princesses chosen for Vichitraveerya, Amba claims that she had already chosen her husband. According to custom, she is no longer eligible to marry Vichitraveerya and hence leaves the palace to return to her chosen one. When he rejects her, she is in a fit of rage and does a penance to be able to take revenge on Bheeshma for reducing her to such a state. In time her perseverance gives way to her being granted a boon that she would be reborn as a man who shall destroy Bheeshma. She is also granted the benefit of remembering the rage that she felt in the present birth when she was to be born again. The whole process of being born in this instance is driven by her rage against Bheeshma. Transcending above a childhood to adolescent trait, she is born all over again to fulfil that impulse. The focus here is then on how the act of transference of an instinct is transformed into the fantastic as an element of an epic.

The twelfth chapter that narrates ‘The Birth of the Pandavas and Duryodhana’ represents the source of their personality traits. It is not based on their childhood experiences; it is based on the God that they are born of, hence raising the question of genetically retaining traits and impulses. That then contradicts that belief that every individual is unique. This is said to have occurred in a time obviously much before Freud gave his theories to the world. So, suggesting that the Pandavas possess certain skills and traits because they were born of a certain person, or entity, in this case, questions the theory itself? Can this epic be dissected then, on the basis of psychoanalysis, when the first step of the process is itself questionable? If the brothers had honed their skills based on a certain drive and if they had chosen a certain role based on a particular instinct they couldn’t explain, this theory would have worked quite well.

The fifteenth chapter marks the conflict and is titled ‘Jealousy: Its First Sprouts’. This is the best example of a childhood experience being the root of Duryodhana’s drive in life. His feeling towards his cousins, the Pandavas, had only been the result of a childish rage of jealousy. If he had let it pass, the story would have taken another course altogether. The fact that his uncle, Sakuni influences him at an early age with the most negative of thoughts leaves this experience embedded in his mind. What was then a childish behaviour results in a violent action on his part when he attempts to kill Bheema. The entire course of Duryodhana’s life is then steered by this one desire that could have dissolved had it not been solidified with his uncle’s words.

The last episode of such a Freudian occurrence is in the nineteenth chapter titled ‘Radheya’ which takes us back to the tenth chapter when he is first born of Kunti and the Sun God. He is given away by Kunti, who was then a young girl and found and brought up by a childless couple. At the age of sixteen, Radheya is troubled by his unusual desire to learn archery which was what he was born to be worthy of. These repressed instincts come back to him in the form on dreams and desires that puzzle him. When he addresses his mother, she tells him the truth about how he was found and that he was, in fact, the son of someone divine. The search for his true identity then leads him away from his adopted parents towards his real home.

Despite the few episodes that actually refer to childhood desires transforming into adult personalities, the question here still remains the same. Where are our desires rooted? In the world we live in, it is all apparently in our mind, but based on my reading of Mahabharata, there are worlds still unexplored and that might not even be capable of being explored out there that leave us thinking. I believe that spirits exist, in the sense that the energy that we leave behind. Maybe that connects us to the next life, if there hopefully exists one and that is another way that our desires and instincts are carried forward. I don’t know if Freud ever read this epic, and if he did, I wonder if he would have had a convincing answer to the same.



Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1995. eBook.

Psychoanalytic Criticism -

Subramaniam, Kamala. Mahabharata. 16th. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2011. 3- 142. Print.

Nandika A.K.


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