“(Sorrow) will strike you harder than your husbands because your ego is more frail and more stubborn...” says Krishna to Draupadi in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel, ThePalace of Illusions.
The word ego is used here in its commonly understood meaning of ‘the extent to which one thinks highly of one’s self.’ In psychology, the meaning of ego is not quite that, though related to it. Ego is a self-consciousness system in psychology. Ego is that part of our consciousness which tells our own story to ourselves as well as others. It is the story that is made up of our thoughts, feelings and actions. It is the story which inhibits or legitimises our thoughts, feelings and actions to ourselves as well as others.
My ego is my story as I create it moment after moment. It is shaped by my experiences in life. It is the identity I forge as I go ahead in life. If I cannot forge a meaningful identity which gives purpose to my existence, I have ego problems.
Let us look at Draupadi, as an example. What kind of a story could she have created about herself?
The first requisite for forging your story meaningfully and purposefully is the ability to control the key aspects of your environment and guide your behaviour with some purpose. What was Draupadi’s situation? Her husband and the King had lost her in a game of dice. She had been reduced to a mere commodity to be gambled away. None of her five husbands with all their valour and skills in martial arts could help her to take charge of her situation. Not even Bhishma, the highly venerated patriarch, could help. So she became a mere puppet being acted on by others.
Nobody who experiences life as something that is happening to her can write her own story meaningfully and purposefully. The greatest tragedy is to live in such a situation.
If you are caught in such a situation, you build up defence mechanisms some of which are what others perceive as your ego in the common understanding of the term. In the novel mentioned above, Draupadi is a rebel. Her rebellion is the story she writes about herself in her given situation. Being forced to be the wife of five men is enough reason for any self-respecting woman to rebel. Then she is gambled away as if she were a piece of furniture.
Self-esteem is the second most important ingredient of a healthy ego (the first being control over one’s environment, discussed above). If you don’t feel good about yourself, you are damned sure to have ego problems the degree of which will depend on how bad you feel about yourself. Feeling good about self doesn’t mean thinking that “I’m the best” as many popular workshops and seminars for students today propose. Feeling good about self means accepting the self as it really is. It involves accepting the bad sides of your personality too. You may not be the Einstein of the class. May not be the beauty queen. Self-esteem necessitates being compassionate to yourself. That is, accepting the unpleasant aspects of your self.
By extension, self-esteem also involves being compassionate to others. Our sense of self emerges in close relationship to our sense of others. While insight helps us to understand our self better, empathy enables us to understand others. No one who is not compassionate to herself can be compassionate to others.
The frailty and stubbornness of Draupadi’s ego come from her experiences. An environment over which she had little control and being reduced to a commodity that is gambled away in a revelry – that was her experience.
A healthy ego is an integrated ego without the frailty and stubbornness. Without unwanted hang-ups. An integrated ego is a coherent story. The rest is entertainment: sometimes tragic, though largely comic.
A personal note
This is the second post I’m writing drawing inspiration from the novel mentioned here. The last one was Karna and Destiny. I don’t think the novel would have provoked me into this much thinking had it not been for my own personal experiences in the last phase of my career in Delhi. I found myself in an environment which reduced me and many others into mere puppets. The people who wielded the power over the closed system in which we lived had the most heinous motives that I have ever encountered in my life so far. Many of us found ourselves in situations very similar to what Karna and Draupadi faced. It was such a demeaning situation that I chose to leave Delhi altogether. There are many of my friends who are still fighting legal cases. The novel, BlackHole, which I am serialising in a rather haphazard manner is inspired by what happened to me and many others. Real stories are difficult to narrate especially when you are an actor in the drama and some of the other actors are people whom you held in some esteem.
The situation is not limited to a few of us, let alone imaginary characters in epics. Ask Kanhaiya Kumar, if you don’t believe me. Rohith Vemula would have hugged me in assent were he alive. There are millions in India who are actually living as puppets. The strings are not all in the hands of governments. There are religious institutions which play the foulest games at times. I speak from experience. I can give you scores of other people who will agree with me. And these religious institutions are supported by political powers. Then there are the mushrooming religious organisations with names ending in Sena! These sainiks decide who their enemies are in collusion with their political and religious leaders.
It is easy to label people as antinational and marginalise them. It is easy to eliminate people if you bring in religion to support your ideology. Gods have been the most bloodthirsty creatures in the history of mankind. I had chosen to stop writing for some time after I left Delhi. I intended to live a life in solitude as far as that was practical. But what is happening in my country forces me to write. My story is immaterial. But the country’s story matters.
PS. My next post will be a review of A Dance with the Corporate Ton by Lata Subramanian. I owe it to the author.