“To be and not to be, that is the question. Shanti, shanti, om. – Bill S.”
(inscribed on monastery cell wall outside London, c 1600 C.E.)
The literary critics tell us Shakespeare was the father of modern western consciousness. They say a part of each of us was born the first time Hamlet walked on stage alone asking us questions about himself.
Having spent much of my life trying to figure out who I am, this point of view has a certain resonance for me. Hamlet is a guy I can relate to. He had a difficult time with his father; he drove his girlfriend crazy; the voice in his head just would not shut up.
If he’s not my brother, he’s at least a close cousin. Admittedly, he talks funny. But so do some of my other cousins.
Hamlet had one of the most famous identity crises in the world, and he’s in good company. Lack of self-knowledge is epidemic in the communities Shakespeare imagined. Lear, Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, Hamlet’s friends and family…none of them understood what was inside them or each other. It’s what makes Shakespeare’s tragedies tick.
It’s what makes me tick, too. For decades my mind has see-sawed among my roles and responsibilities. They conflict, they can’t be fulfilled, they fester, I compromise and navigate the guilt. I soliloquize endlessly in psychotherapy, achieving close to nothing. I’m Hamlet all over again, batted around by responsibilities but not really understanding the man on center stage.
But the storytellers in ancient India had Hamlet and me beat by a couple of millennia. We’re both spitting images of Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita.
Picture Arjuna frozen on the battlefield because he doesn’t feel right about killing his cousins. Now look at Hamlet two thousand years later on the stage alone, immobilized by guilt about his father. And then me lately, yacking away about my alimony requirements locking me in a career I don’t like, but unable to do anything about it.
Even though the three of us speak different languages, it’s the same danged picture.
Although the stories of Hamlet and the Gita both pin a young man on the question of his identity, their two storytellers find utterly different answers to the question. In the difference shines the Gita’s radiance, as well as the gorgeous insights and language of Billy Shears.
I’ve been pinned on the same question – like an interesting entomological specimen – and I feel myself switching lately from Hamlet’s perspective to Arjuna’s
Here’s what I find new and different about Arjuna (and I suspect my brother Hamlet would, too). In the tragic worlds of Shakespeare creates, the cards are stacked against the characters. The very universe is constructed to torment us until we die. We may experience moments of peace just before death, but those brief lines are the sherbet in the meal, not the steak.
But where Shakespeare’s tragedies take us on a forced march through confusion to death, the story of the Gita lifts our eyes toward enlightment and immortality. Hamlet has only his father’s ghost to guide him, a tormented figure lacking the power to do anything other than to arouse guilt. In place of the ghost, Arjuna has the lord of the universe to guide him through his torment. Krishna’s power instantly bleaches away the uncertainty in Arjuna’s mind.
I was considerably older than Hamlet when I began my voyage into yoga. I had spent decades on Hamlet’s stage, defined like him by responsibilities, guilt, and the webs of my own words. This is a natural as it could be. His stage – the one Shakespeare defined a few hundred years ago – was the one that came built into the culture I grew up in.
But now my practice of yoga is exposing me to Arjuna’s experience. Over and over again as I practice the poses and breathing and read the ancient texts, I experience a world and a self that is imbued with radiant power. Within my practice and this culture there is an ongoing promise of self-realization.
It’s a whole new stage, beautiful in a different way than Shakespeare’s. And it’s much more fun to act there.
Sooo….Poppa Shakes, it’s been great knowing you and thanks for the upbringing, but…. I’m ready to move out. Today with all due respect I would like to officially adopt Patanjali as my foster parent.