‘Ancient epics hold immediate relevance to modern life’

With degrees in law and engineering, Mumbai-based Dr Shubha Vilas is a lifestyle coach, storyteller and author. As an author, the focus of his work is the application of scriptural wisdom to modern-day life. Dr Vilas has delivered more than 5,000 talks across many countries and is a visiting faculty at premiere business management schools in India, including the IIMs and NMIMS. Some of his bestselling books include Ramayana: The Game of Life, The Chronicles of Hanuman, Timeless Tales to Ignite Your Mind, Mystical Tales for a Magical Life, Ancient Wisdom to Elevate Your Mind and many others. Here, he speaks to BooksFirst about the inspiration for his books, his fascination with the ancient wisdom that can be found in our scriptures and the ways in which those learnings can be used in modern life.

You have studied law and engineering. From there, to writing books – please tell us a bit about the journey. Many of your bestselling books take references from the Ramayana, the Vedas and the Puranas. What is about these ancient texts that you find most fascinating?

Many years ago I discovered that my greatest need was to give. And I have made sure that on a daily basis I fulfil my quota of giving by sharing the wisdom that I gain from books that I read and great teachers that I hear from. I have studied in depth scriptures like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Srimad Bhagavatam, Puranas and Bhagavad Gita. My engineering and law degrees have served to expand my mind and help me understand the scriptures in a more mature way. The logical thinking that engineering gave me and the analytical thinking that law gave me, I use them optimally in writing books and giving lectures based on the ancient wisdom of India.

I strongly felt the need to present epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to the modern audience in a way they can easily understand and appreciate. They have a wealth of learning for us if only it could be presented in a contemporary manner.  My only intention to take up writing was to demonstrate how ancient epics hold immediate relevance to modern life. And how their wisdom can help navigate and steer the ship of life through stormy seas and clear skies alike.

Why ancient Vedic epics? The reason being that there is something attractive about the epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that has kept them alive century after century. Beyond the storyline, something fantastic is waiting to be discovered from these ancient texts.

The VedasPuranas and other scriptures were written centuries ago and belong to a different era. Are their teachings still relevant in today’s hyper-competitive, always-on, dog-eat-dog world, where most people are only too willing to discard ethics, morals and any sense of fair play, for material benefit?

The answer is in your question. ‘In today’s hyper-competitive, always-on, dog-eat-dog world, where most people are only too willing to discard ethics, morals and any sense of fair play, for material benefit’ – isn’t it now that we need the scriptural lessons the most? If we could live by the teachings of the scriptures, we wouldn’t have such a hypercompetitive and threatening world to begin with.

Sadly, the world today is totally involved in a materialistic lifestyle, leaving behind human values. We can learn about these values from characters of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Arjuna’s unwavering persona teaches us how to handle reversals positively; Hanuman’s actions teach us how to handle temptations and Draupadi’s courage probes us to explore beyond our comfort zone. Every relationship in the epics is a lesson on values.

What the society needs today is not an eye transplant but a vision transplant. An eye transplant grants the gift of sight and a vision transplant grants the gift of direction. Ramayana and Mahabharata reveal profound rules of human relationships and conduct – what works, what fails to work and how to navigate through this amazing labyrinth called life.

As technology is progressing, the world is shrinking and the span of fame is shrinking even further. But does this affect the fame of Bhagavad Gita? It is eternally popular even after being spoken 5,000 years before. Discussed by philosophers and thinkers of every era. And still in the limelight.

The younger generation has no idea of what our sanatana dharma is all about. They are growing up on non-authentic and whimsically twisted books written purely from sales point of view. In such a scenario, what is original will be lost soon. The rituals and traditions need to be understood in the context of philosophy and practical application; only then they make sense.

There is repacking needed in terms of the presentation and not in terms of the values. When we decide to compromise the values for the sake of the package, we are actually sacrificing substance for the sake of the shadow. My writing is targeted towards repackaging the stories without diluting the essence. 

‘What the society needs today is a vision transplant. An eye transplant grants the gift of sight, a vision transplant grants the gift of direction,’ says Dr Vilas

Please tell us more about Ramayana: The Game of Life six-part book series. What are some of its main highlights? What was it that encouraged you to distil the Ramayana’s teachings and interpret those for the modern world?

I have grown up on stories from the Ramayana told to me by my grandmother. So my first inspiration comes from her. Another burning desire was to bring out the epics from the closet and present them in a way that could be understood and appreciated by a larger audience. And when my readers share with me how much they’ve been helped by my books, I consider my day successful.

Most stories can be enjoyed once, at the most twice; they have nothing new to offer after the second read. But unlike regular stories, the Ramayana grows more interesting with every reading. An all-encompassing story, it adds value to every type of reader and addresses every human need. In Ramayana – The Game of Life, we find adventure and romance, mysticism and sinister plots, struggles and immortal values, poetry and intellectual analogies, and so much more.

A good game is full of twists and turns at every stage and promises to thrill with its absolute unpredictability of results. But no one wants the same to happen in real life. Life should be extremely predictable and smooth – this is what most of us are comfortable with. Stories like the Ramayana present the realities of life in the most exciting manner. This magical epic arms us with valuable tools to deal with the various twists and turns of our own lives. The simple wisdom of dharmic tales like the Ramayana is always fresh and gives us the clarity we often need, while being rooted in time tested traditional values. Modern audience today is in need of simple wisdom along with clarity which is rooted in time-tested traditional values. This is exactly what we get from our epics; the ability to arm ourselves with valuable tools to deal with the various twists and turns of our own lives. Thus the name, Ramayana – The Game of Life.

Here are three quotes from the book, which bring out the deeper truths of life in a contemporary manner, yet one that is not compromised:

‘The decisions to make decisions has to be made in moments of strength not in moment of weakness.’

‘One ounce of immaturity coupled with ten ounces of ill advice is the perfect recipe for a life of disaster.’

‘Excessive lamentation is like trying to gulp hot tea. It results in a blistered tongue. One’s lamentation for the past should not ricochet to destroy one’s future.’

Do you believe that the study of our ancient texts should also be focused upon, in schools? If children study these at the school level, is there a better chance of them being able to imbibe the teachings of these scriptures?

Our scriptures teach us how to live life. They present the realities of life in the most exciting manner. Mahabharata especially is a magical epic that arms us with valuable tools to deal with the various twists and turns of our own lives. It gives us simple dharmic wisdom along with clarity we often need, and therefore it is absolutely relevant to present life.

Spirituality is the act of getting in touch with your real self in a way that is not artificial. When an egg is broken from outside, life is lost and when an egg breaks from inside, a life is born. Similarly, when someone is forced to accept a path terming it as spirituality, the spirit of religion is lost. But when a person is inspired from within to experience his true nature, the spirit is gained.

I have developed value education workbooks for school children from std. 1 to 10, based on scriptural learnings. If we can introduce these learnings from childhood itself, we can be assured of healthier minds capable of making the right choices in life without buckling under pressure. Lack of this education is the primary cause of today’s youth being so lost and wallowing in epidemics of depression and anxiety from pre-teens itself.  

You are a visiting faculty at leading business management schools. Can business management students also benefit from the teachings of the Ramayana, the Vedas and Puranas? In what ways can those ancient books help with business-related problem solving in the modern world?

I have taught in business schools across India and the world, whether it is Stanford University or Princeton University or Indian Institutes of Management. I have found great acceptance and appreciation for the wisdom that I present to the students based on ancient Indian principles of management. I try to make them relevant and applicable to their current situations and roles.

Did you know that when Bharata met Rama in the forest, Rama gave him many instructions which can be termed in today’s parlance as business management modules! But no one knows about it simply because we have never read the Ramayana. The Vedas, Puranas etc. give us principles which are timeless. Whether it is about leadership, whether it is about emotional intelligence, you pick any management topic and you will find it in the Vedic literature either as an example or a discussion or in any other way. All of it is as relevant today as it was then. What has changed is the context. My books are a medium to bridge this gap so the scriptures become relevant to modern situations through the same timeless principles that never go out of fashion.

What are you currently reading? Personally, what kind of books do you enjoy reading? Any favourite authors?

I am currently studying the Mahabharata in great detail. I also read a lot of non-fiction. Some of my favourite authors are Valmiki Muni, Vyasdev, John Maxwell, Malcom Gladwell, Jordon Petterson and many more. I love the works of Prakash Iyer, Rajiv Malhotra, K. S. Narayanacharya and many others from India.

Would you like to name the two or three most memorable books you’ve read in the last 2-3 years? Are there any books in particular that you’re looking forward to reading in 2023?

Some memorable books would include Outliers: The Story of Success, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, and The Anatomy of Peace. Looking forward to read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Visit Dr Shubha Vilas’s website here

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