Pitched as a self-help book, Nilima Chitgopekar’s (2019) The Reluctant Family Man: Shiva in Everyday Life draws lessons for personal development from Hindu mythology pertaining to Shiva. Its modus operandi is to extract from mythological vocabulary—describing attributes of deities—a pragmatic metavocabulary that can comprehend and inform human thought and action. In this respect the book is a South Asian cousin to Jordan Peterson’s (2018) 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and, proleptically, to its sequel (2021) Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Though Chitgopekar is by her own admission “no psychologist”, like her North American counterpart Peterson, she believes enduring myths and legends describing the trials and triumphs of superhuman, and even subhuman, agents provide blueprints to a modus vivendi capable of gracefully negotiating the personal, and social, world as we find it. In fleshing out their projects they provide a useful, and accessible, counterpoint to the popular view that timeless, otherworldly, tales aren’t relevant to contemporary conundra, and this-worldly concerns, whose specific demands should exclusively dominate our attention.
The key lessons are organized under the concepts of “ekagrata,” or single-pointed focus, “svabhava” or innate personality traits, “Samrasa,” “santulan,” or balance and “vairagya” or detachment, and “purnatva” or holistic comprehensiveness. Now I will unpack each concept at a level of granularity suitable for evaluating Chitgopekar’s intended moral for the reader against what she actually achieves. Chitgopekar (2019) enjoins the reader to “not overthink… not overscrutinize” as one goes over the principles elaborated in the book, but I don’t believe one violates the request if one only thinks through and scrutinizes the principles and their presentation.
A Deep Dive into the Core Ideas
Shiva, the “only ascetic” deity in the Hindu pantheon is the god of last recourse, approached by other deities when they’re faced with a situation they cannot resolve by their own powers (Chitgopekar 2019). Invariably, he is found to be in a state of meditation, the ancient practice of mentally defocussing from every environing stimulus, whenever he is approached. In his benevolence he responds considerately to requests for help, even if these disturb his meditative practice. But if one disturbs him wantonly then there is hell to pay. Consider Kama, the Indic equivalent of Cupid, who is charred to ashes for daring to arouse Shiva’s passion for his wife Parvati when he is engaged in meditation. To become as Shiva, with resources to deal with fiendish problems of puranic proportions, Chitgopekar enjoins the reader to develop ekagrata by meditating like Shiva does.
One popular theory in modern personality psychology is that of the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism . We’re all either [relatively] open/closed to novel experiences; more/less conscientious in obeying the letter and spirit of normative standards; more/less agreeable in a bid to get along with others; extraverted/introverted in needing more/less social stimulation; and, more/less neurotic in having more/fewer bad moods. Effectively navigating the world requires us to be aware of how we rank on each of these Big Five traits. Shiva knows he is high on Openness [willing to do what is frowned upon], low on Conscientiousness [disregarding all laws and norms], low on Extraversion [preferring to be by himself], low on agreeableness [debatably only willing to go along with others’ wishes if they seem reasonable to him], and high on neuroticism [sometimes capable of great displays of wrath for small provocations; consider Shiva’s beheading of his son Ganesha for irritating him.] Shiva’s self-knowledge and self-assurance in doing as he sees fit no matter what other gods or mortals may think makes him supremely charismatic and attractive. To be more charismatic and attractive, not to mention effective and contented, one must know oneself as one is and then act in accord with that self-knowledge like Shiva does.
Happy marriages presuppose a preponderance of compatibilities, but even the happiest unions involve some differences between spouses. Relationships in which differences are recognized, respected, and, when possible, reconciled bring out the best in each person. This is also true of deities in the Hindu pantheon who often come in twos: Radha & Krishna, Sita and Rama, Laxmi and Vishnu among others. The sheer number of divine duos are witness to the facts that Indians love their gods better when they’re married. Shiva’s many monikers which have his wives’ names in word-initial position, “Umamaheshwara, Umapati, Bhavanipati, Gaurishankara, Girijapati” (Chitgopekar 2019. Emphasis mine) among others, reveal the importance of the different values, instincts, and personality traits his wives—Parvati and Sati— bring into others’ appraisals of him. Though an ascetic with no appetite for social conventions Shiva will be persuaded to do what is necessary if his wife is sufficiently insistent. Gauri convinces him to become a householder and sire a child who can slay the demon Taraka. Parvati convinces Shiva to resurrect Ganesha after he is slain for insolently disturbing him. The takeaway, per Chitgopekar, is to assimilate disagreeable advice from significant others; if this is good enough for the fiercely independent, disagreeable, loner god it is good enough for you.
If samrasa is about striking a balance between one’s own and a significant other’s values, then santulan is about striking a balance between extremes more generally. The idea as fleshed out by Chitgopekar is essentially identical to that of the golden mean advocated by Aristotle. We’re predisposed to extremes of behaviour, and learning to do neither too little nor too much but just the right amount takes work. Shiva relinquishes his independence to become a householder, but in becoming tied to a family he becomes available to save the gods and the world from destruction. The god known for his propensity to extremes in asceticism [he spends most of his time meditating], rage [he burns Kama for trying to distract him], mourning [the gods have to scheme and plot to bring him back to his divine office after he is put out of commission by all consuming sorrow over his wife’s death] is paradoxically an ambassador for moderation. By being open to others’ influences Shiva tempers his obsessive personality: Sati lures him out of celibacy to everyone’s benefit; Parvati’s request prompts him to resurrect Ganesha and thus avail people of the god of auspicious beginnings; Vishnu’s dismembering of Sati’s corpse and scattering her remains all over the Earth puts an end to Shiva’s prolonged mourning while creating sites of worship everywhere a part of her body lands. Shiva in his androgynous form of Ardhanarishvara combines the masculine and the feminine aspect, embodying the golden mean of gendered traits in the human person.
Shiva the quintessential ascetic has no interest in the pleasures of family life, or the status games played by other gods in the Hindu pantheon. Yet, he is called to be a family man, becoming the only god who is a yogi and a sarvabhogi, an ascetic and a person who’s acquainted with all pleasures. It is his dispassion with respect to status among the gods which keeps him out of squabbles for supremacy like Vishnu and Brahma, whose conflict presages pralaya or the catastrophic end of the world. Manifesting as a pillar of fire too tall for Brahma to reach its top and for Vishnu to reach its bottom, Shiva condescends to a vulgar display of his power only when called in to bring an end to the divine duomachy. Shiva, says Chitgopekar, shows one needn’t spend one’s time and effort trying to prove oneself to others. What’s important is actually possessing the virtues rather than getting others to admit you do possess them. Refreshingly, among writers with a religious sensibility, Chitgopekar (2019) recommends detachment rather than stifling enmeshment, or co-dependence, with toxic family members. Shiva being mightier than Brahma and Vishnu doesn’t seek praise or attention, being more virtuous than his father-in-law, Daksha, he isn’t interested in impressing him or seeking his approval. We can do worse than imitating him.
Purnatva, per Chitgopekar (2019), is the point one reaches after having learned and applied the previous five lessons. It does seem plausible that developing focus, acting in knowledge of one’s personality, embracing the values of our significant others, finding the golden mean in our thoughts and deeds, and having a dispassionate view of the world and our place in it will bring purnatva—a sense of being whole. Chitgopekar takes it that Shiva as depicted in his form as Dakshinamurthy [literally facing the south] plays the role of a teacher looking upon the South [the direction of death in Indic mythology] in a meditative pose, with index finger touching the thumb [the chinna mudra] embodies the ideal of purnatva. He’s looking at death calmly with an enigmatic smile, serene and playful at once. Chitgopekar’s exposition leaves it unclear how Shiva’s equanimity can be imitated. She just thinks we ought to do it: feel content, be at peace with everything. Shiva is Ashutosh after all [literally, one who is “easily satisfied”]. She also says purnatva means “compassion,” living “without guilt and regret.” It is unclear how these states of being are related, however, as it is easy to imagine villains with no compassion for their victims living at peace with themselves without guilt or regret. It is all well and good to say be at peace like Shiva, but this is an exhortation not an explanation of how one could do that.
Chitgopekar’s efforts to bring reasonable ideas about focus, self-awareness, value conflicts in relationships, and reconciling conflicting desires and values in oneself with help of ideas illustrated in Hindu mythology are bracing but somewhat clumsy. While some of the stories do permit interpretations which can be put in service of mottos like be yourself, and all things in moderation, arguably some of them have to be massaged quite out of shape before they yield a life hack. Is Shiva’s reluctant acceptance of Sati’s romantic adoration an exemplification of santulan or illustrative of a chink in his otherwise impregnable armour of ekagrata? It appears attaining santulan requires a loss of ekagrata; one life hack militates against the other. Perhaps, the key is to find the golden mean between unwavering focus and a distractibility that is open to stimuli which might prove relevant to our life projects. But this again undermines the centrality of focus in the intended interpretation of ekagrata.
Another problem with Chitgopekar’s six cardinal virtues is that they involve conceptual redundancies. It appears that santulan in the realm of relationships implies finding a balance between self-regard and concern for the other, maintaining independent reserves of self-esteem and emotional continence while also providing and receiving praise and sustenance when appropriate. But this means the partners aren’t overly needy or overbearing, they have a healthy separation between self and other which allows room for both to breath, live, and grow together; there is healthy detachment, or vairagya. This means vairagya is built into the relational lives of people who have found santulan. This is also the case, mutatis mutandis, in the realm of attitudes to leisure and work. Those who have found a happy mean between becoming stressed in their obsession with a hobby and finding the hobby energizing, or between working themselves sore and working as diligently as justified by their responsibilities are exemplifying santulan as much as vairagya. It is santulan that helps them use their hobby as a source of joy, their job a thing they do when they’re at work, and their vairagya that prevents play and work from becoming all-consuming obsessions. Similar redundancies lurk in pairs of virtues like santulan and samrasa (finding a golden mean precludes irresolvable value clashes), samrasa and vairagya (cultivating conflicting aspects of values is a prerequisite to reconciling them), ekagrata and vairagya (focus on one thing precludes over-involvement with another).
At a slender 132 pages the book is brisk, the tone conversational, and the choice of stories interesting. A few stories are mined deeply at various points in the book, giving the discussion a continuity which will provide an easy point of access to those unfamiliar with Indic mythology.