10 Universal Principles from Hindu Mythology That Can Guide Us Today

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Photo by Rahul Dogra on Unsplash

Throughout my childhood, I dreaded going to the temple on Sunday. Every experience I had with religion was a time-consuming obligation to my parents that felt more like superstition than faith.

While talking to one of my dad’s friends, I was surprised to find that the three most well known texts from Hindu Mythology (The Bhagavad Gita, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana) contain universal principles that can still guide us today.

Most Indians who grew up in the US know these stories because we read them in comic books during long summer vacations in India. This was our parents’ way of keeping us from driving them insane.

But many of these principles are buried under idol worship and rituals with no rhyme or reason. This causes many people to overlook real purpose of their faith: to cultivate virtue, to understand the meaning of having a moral compass and to find love within their hearts.

1. Do What’s Honorable

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The Mahabharata is a story of a battle between two sets of cousins, the five Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas.

The Pandavas were given what you might call “superpowers”. One is an extraordinary archer, another has incredible physical strength and the one known to be the most righteous never tells a lie. The Kauravas were given power in their numbers.

On the surface, it’s a story about the age-old battle between good (Pandavas) and evil (Kauravas). But many of the universal principles that can guide our lives today actually come from the questionable actions of the Pandavas. They often come out ahead through unethical means.

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s teacher Drona meets a young boy named Ekalavya. They boy wants Drona to be his teacher. And he is more skilled than Arjuna.

Drona sees that the boy could surpass his star student Arjuna. So he asks the boy to cut off his thumb in exchange for becoming his teacher. This all but guarantees that despite his talent Ekalavya never surpasses Arjuna.

The College Admissions scandal is a modern day version of the same story in many ways. Rick Singer’s clients all did dishonorable things to get their kids into prestigious universities and took those opportunities away from people who deserved them more. And it came back to the bite them in the ass.

Some people get ahead in life and work by doing dishonorable things. They take advantage of the fact that they were dealt a better hand in life. They cut corners and tell lies. But think about how you’ll feel knowing that you or someone else cut a corner to get to where you are today.

You’re the one who will have to look in the mirror and know what you achieved wasn’t through your own sincere effort. Imagine living with the knowing that you accomplished an ambitious goal through fraudulent means.

Will you really be proud of that kind of an accomplishment?

2. Choose Your Words Wisely

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My sophomore year of college, I left a message on a friend’s answering machine and forgot to hang up the phone. Then I turned to my roommate and said, “Why isn’t she answering, she never had a life last year.”

With eleven words, I did irreparable damage to a friendship that meant a lot to me. And my friend had every right to be as upset as she was. I was an asshole and had to take responsibility for my words.

It’s easier than ever to send off an angry email to someone you’ve never met, troll public figures on social media, criticize someone whose life you know nothing about and judge people based on public and personal perception. But stop and ask yourself: what good will come from this? None.

Expressing outrage at the target of your hostility over something you read, hear, or watch is counterproductive to living a meaningful life. You can use your words to build people up or tear them down. You can use the internet as a platform for outrage or inspiration.

Your words can serve or sabotage and they shape people’s perception of you. Choose them wisely.

3. Control Your Emotions

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We rarely make good decisions and frequently say things we regret in moments of intense negative emotions.

Our emotions make us human. It’s inevitable that people will push our buttons, frustrate us and make us angry. But when we direct our negative emotions at other people, they become weapons of self destruction.

We want to, as Chaitanya Charan points out, remain externally composed and internally contemplative. Think first. Act second.

4. Respond to Adversity with Grace

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In the first episode of Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor loses his star quarterback in the first game of the season and has to rely on third string quarterback, Matt Saracen. Unlike his star quarterback, who is one of the best in the country, Saracen is small, timid and doesn’t have anywhere near the athletic ability of the starting quarterback.

For the rest of the season, Coach Taylor shapes and moulds Matt Saracen into an extremely skilled player and the team wins the state championship. The coach has to overcome endless judgement, criticism and doubt from the people of Dillon, Texas.

There is no life in which you will not face adversity, obstacles or challenges. In the face of adversity, we’re in a great deal of pain. Our natural impulse is to project that pain outward and on to our interactions with other people: friends, loved ones, colleagues, etc. Coach Taylor could have let the people in town get to him, but he didn’t.

We can let our moments of adversity harden us and become cold-hearted, ruthless with other people and sociopathic in our behavior. But when you react this way, all it does is make bad things worse.

The wisdom of a broken heart can close our heart or break it open. With any tragedy, grief is inevitable. But we can also practice gratitude for the people we’ve lost or those who help the people in our lives who’ve been hurt.

The lesson is simple. By responding with grace, we can turn adversity into an edge, an asset rather than a liability.

5. Contemplate the Consequences of your Choice

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Every word that comes out of your mouth, every action you take and every decision you make has consequences. Some of them are intended, while others are unintended. And when you don’t consider the consequences of your behavior, you plant the seeds of your demise.

Many people let their first impulse guide their behavior. But impulsive behavior rarely leads to anything good. We have a choice about whether to react or to respond. As a recent podcast guest said to me, “Fear is a reaction, creativity is a response.” The same could be said of almost any other emotion we let determine our behavior.

6. Don’t let your Vices Get in the Way of Virtue

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Everyone has vices, guilty pleasures. It could be booze, drugs, sex, or even something as simple as a Netflix binge. But when we don’t keep them in check, they get in the way of virtue.

Yudhisthira is the most righteous of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata because he never lies.

But he has one vice which leads to his exile and eventually to the battle of the Mahabharata. He loves to gamble. And because of this he loses his kingdom. It’s possible that had this not happened, the story would have ended with brotherhood instead of battle.

Think of the celebrities who’ve destroyed their careers when their vices became an addiction. The unquenchable desire for more put them on the path to self destruction. Like Yudhisthira, they lose their kingdoms and destroy the most important relationships in their lives because they can’t control their desires.

By coming up with our own definitions of success, measuring life with our own yardsticks and having a clear idea of how much is enough, we can prevent vices from getting in the way of our virtue.

7. Enjoy Your Labor, Knowing that You Might Not Experience the Fruits

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Personal development posts, life hacks, and income reports from bloggers fill our newsfeeds. The birth of the influencer has led to the death of hobbies. And as a culture, we perpetuate the narrative that we need to become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyoncé.

In the Western world, the most well-known lesson from the Bhagavad Gita is that you’re not entitled to the fruits of your labor, only to the labor itself. This is important to understand for anyone who wants to build a career in the arts and navigate the geography of a creative life.

The nature of creative work is that a lot will lead to nothing. You do most of it for An Audience of One. Without intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose independent of external rewards, you’ll always see your art as an obligation rather than a privilege.

Creative success is an infinite game with no “I’ve made it” moments. Play for the love of the game and you’re more likely to win.

8. Consider the Context and Intention Behind What People Say and Do

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People in our lives, often those closest to us, will say things they don’t mean and unintentionally hurt us. According to Ryder Caroll, an intentional life is one in which our actions are aligned with our beliefs. Sometimes it’s on us to look for the belief that led to the action.

A few years ago, I got into a fight with my mother over my relationship status that made me so angry, I was willing to let it be the end of our relationship. I yelled, screamed and refused to speak with her for weeks.

Around the time of my sister’s wedding, I interviewed members of my family, including my mother. My last question in my interview with her was, “Are you unhappy that I’m not married?” She said, “It’s not that I’m unhappy. I just want to know someone will be there for you when we’re gone.” In that moment, I understood she said some of the things she did out of good intentions.

We tend to fixate on someone’s words or behavior when we feel they’ve done wrong by us. This is especially true with our loved ones. But, as Phillip Mckernan once said to me, you can love the person but you don’t have to love the behavior.

We acquire, accumulate and achieve over the course of our lives. Goals, dreams, degrees, cars, and houses all have one thing in common. You can’t take any of them with you when you die.

What you’ll be left with is memories of the experiences you’ve had and the people whose hearts you touched and vice versa. Never take those for granted. And treasure the time you have left with the people who matter most to you.

One day they’ll all be gone and so will you. Value them accordingly.

9. Choose Your Battles

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Throughout your life, people will betray you and take advantage of you. They’ll do and say things that piss you off. They’ll trigger emotions from old wounds. If you’re in the public eye in any capacity, you will be the target of criticism and anonymous feedback.

If you do creative work of any kind, you’ll get one-star reviews on your books, mean tweets, vicious emails and more. You can get into it with someone you’ve never met, feed the trolls or practice restraint, and redirect your energy to something more worthwhile.

In contentious divorces and lawsuits, people put copious amounts of time, money and energy into getting their way. The legal bills rack up. In the end, as they say, the only people who come out ahead are the lawyers.

Families and friendships fall apart over petty bullshit because people hold grudges and become resentful.

Ask yourself whether any of this will matter as much in the future as you think it does in the moment. This will help you to discern the battles worth fighting from the ones that are not.

10. Practice Non-Attachment

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Everything we’re attached to holds us back and everything we let go of sets us free. It’s human nature to become attached to people, outcomes, efforts, and things that matter most to us. But attachment brings out the the worst in us.

Think of the romantic partner who clings to another person. Out of fear the other person will leave, they suffocate them. This leads to the very thing they were trying to avoid: the other person ending the relationships.

We remain attached to old labels, old identities and resentment over what other people have said about us. By turning individual opinions into universal truth and past performance into future results, our temporary circumstances become our permanent reality.

Attachment leads to resignation.

Resignation stems from the belief that our fate is sealed and our destiny is predetermined regardless of our actions. The voice of resignation causes us to ask, “Why bother?” instead of “What’s possible?” We deny the uncertainty of life and and can’t accept that our lives won’t always go according to plan.

Non-attachment is the not the same as resignation. When we’re not attached, we’re able to focus on the process over the prize. This doesn’t just apply to creative work, but every area of life. We take action despite knowing we can’t control the outcomes of our efforts.

  • We go on first, second and third dates knowing they might not lead to everlasting love.
  • The artist works for an audience of one knowing her work might never reach of an audience of millions.
  • An entrepreneurs starts a company without the expectation that he’s building the next Facebook.
  • The love we have for family members and friends is unconditional, despite knowing that they’ll hurt and disappoint us because they’re human.

We can remain attached to the life we thought we would have. Or we can get to work building the one we could have. Non-attachment give us the power to build an extraordinary life regardless of our circumstances.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles, infinite social media feeds, the latest self-help best-seller and endless digital stimuli, it’s easy to overlook how beneficial ancient wisdom can be for guiding us in modern times. Whether it’s Hinduism, Stoicism, or Buddhism, every philosophy and religion is full of universal principles that can guide us today and serve as a moral compass for our lives.

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