Mahabharata and Ramayana Critical in a World Spiralling into Decline: Andy Fraenkel

Andy Fraenkel was born in Germany in 1947 and came to America with his parents at the age of five. He is a multicultural storyteller, author, and workshop leader. He is the author of Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest and Hanuman’s Quest.

Andy is a long-time resident of New Vrindaban Community in West Virginia. He was initiated by Swami Prabhupada in 1973 and given the name Sankirtana Das. He is a presenter of the Krishna-Bhakti tradition and offers Katha - a traditional Vedic format of dramatic storytelling which includes a sprinkling of spiritual teachings and the chanting of Sanskrit mantras, meant to be both entertaining and enlightening.

Andy also coaches those who want to hone their theater, storytelling and writing skills.  He is working on two books which have Vedic themes and on In Search of Story, which is about helping people explore the pivotal stories in their life journeys.

Andy speaks to CSP about being inspired by Vedic themes and storytelling:

One of your programs is a presentation commemorating 50 years of the Hare Krishna Movement. What were the conditions in the 1950s and 60s that made America receptive to the Movement.

My PowerPoint presentation is called “Why & How the Hare Krishna Movement Came to the West.” A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, came to the USA in 1965 at a very opportune time. After WW II, America was experiencing tremendous economic growth. New York was the financial capital of the world. There were building booms and the rapid growth of the suburbs. Every American had to have the latest conveniences and the newest cars.

There was also the emergence of the hippie counterculture. These young people frowned upon the materialistic lifestyle of their parents and they also rejected the authority of their government and their churches. They had slogans like “Make Love, Not War” and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”

Into this mix came Swami Prabhupada. He hadn’t particularly planned it, but he came to America at the right time and to the right place – New York’s lower eastside, a poor neighborhood where many immigrants lived, and in the 1960s the hippies moved there by the thousands to revile in their lifestyle. I also lived there at the time as a hippie.

Giving a tour to students at Palace of Gold

What drew you personally to Prabhupada and the Movement?

The Hare Krishna people had a storefront in the lower eastside only a few streets from where I lived. Swami Prabhupada himself started this humble center in 1966. He arrived in New York City on a freighter in 1965 at the age of 70. He came with practically nothing and struggled for a year before he formally established the center and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. At that time in college, I majored in Theater and Filmmaking. The devotees piqued my interest. So I did a short documentary on them for my film class.

A few years later my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Swami Prabhupada. We thought, here is a real holy man. This changed the course of our lives. Prabhupada had translated the Bhagavad Gita into English and he offered a practical approach to spirituality. He advocated the chanting of Hare Krishna. This meditation had a very positive effect on us. The chanting cleanses the heart of so many misgivings. We felt peaceful. We accepted Swami Prabhupada as our guru and received initiation from him in 1973.

Can you speak a little about New Vrindaban.

My wife and I have resided in New Vrindaban in West Vriginia for over 40 years. Swami Prabhupada wanted the devotees here to develop New Vrindaban as a place of pilgrimage in the West. I personally heard him say that New Vrindaban is non-different than Vrindaban in India. Prabhupada’s visits here and his blessings have made New Vrindaban a genuine holy place. The devotees built the Palace of Gold as a memorial for him.

My wife and I feel fortunate to live here and to help serve Prabhupada’s vision for the community. The community started in 1968 on 130 acres of land and has grown to over 3000 acres. I serve as the resident storyteller, offering dramatic Krishna Katha and Rama Katha. I also offer in-depth tours to various groups. People come here from all over the USA and from all over the world. If you visit, let me know. I will be happy to meet with you.

With Lokamangala Das (left) performing a two man Mahabharata drama at Off-Broadway, NYC

There is a renewed interest in Indian epics in the West. What do you think is sparking this attraction?

I had connected with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana during my college days. For me, at the time, they were fantastic myths. Even today, many scholars, authors and readers still view the stories as myths. But Swami Prabhupada helped us come to a deeper understanding of these literatures. First of all, scholars and sadhus over the ages have accepted these books as itihasa – or that which actually occurred. And secondly, these books can help us understand the Dharma, and help us apply those principles in our lives.

So there are two points to your question. In the West, yoga is booming. But the hatha yoga exercises are simply not enough. People want to know about the deeper elements of yoga. They are also enlivened to engage in kirtan. And they want to hear the stories that sustain this ancient tradition.

Also, people are coping with more issues and anxieties. When we look at world events, we see so many people in harms way. And people are struggling just to make ends meet. We also see the environment at a tipping point. These are all real concerns. I would add monumental concerns. But many of the so-called leaders are not interested to tackle these problems, so much so that some even deny the problems exist. So the question people must come to is: How can I live peacefully, both individually and as a society, in this type of atmosphere? Do I just go on accumulating material things and wealth? Or do I want to discover the wealth within? Intelligent people see that unmitigated greed is causing great destruction. In the Vedic stories we have the example of Ravana and Duryodhan.

Practically everything we do and all the conflicts in the world are based on our desire to acquire material possessions. The Earth’s valuable resources are being plundered. People and nations are ready to kill each other to control those resources and exploit the Earth. But the Sri Isopanisad explains, “Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.” (Sri Isopanisad is translated by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and published by the Bhativedanta Book Trust)

The concerns addressed in the Mahabharata are the concerns of humanity. How does the concept of Dharma, as outlined in the Mahabharata, address these concerns?

You say, “The concerns addressed in the Mahabharata are the concerns of humanity.” This is a very profound statement. This applies to both East and West. I would say that most people want to live a peaceful and principled and meaningful life. But they are often confused. They don’t know how to do it. Even in the beginning of Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is confused. And like Arjuna, we have to ask the right questions from Krishna or His devotees, and then we can do the right thing. Otherwise, all over the world, ideals, morals and values are being diminished. We live in a time characterized by rampant greed, fear, and untruthfulness.

College professors here in the USA tell me that many students arrive in college ill prepared. Many students can’t write a decent essay. They are not critical thinkers. The educational system is failing the students. And when they get out of college students are under mounds of debt. Again, there is a lack of leadership to address these issues. This was very important for me in writing the Mahabharata - to convey the principles of Dharma and give examples of good leadership. It’s all there in the Mahabharata.

So our Krishna Consciousness Movement is an educational movement, to help people get trained in the Dharma, to develop good character, good leadership qualities, and to understand what the real goal of life is. It’s like the sun. The sun is not for Indians, Chinese or Americans. The sun is shining everywhere for all people. So the Mahabharata and Ramayana are classic literatures for all the people of the world.

Vedic literatures offer a holistic solution: to live a simple, uncomplicated, peaceful life, based on the principles of Dharma. Then, just like Hanuman, we can be of service to the Lord and to the wellbeing of the Earth through our efforts, our intelligence and our individual propensities.

As an author, how do you deal with the reality that the characters you are writing about in the Mahabharata and in Hanuman's Quest are worshipped all over India?

In writing Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest and Hanuman’s Quest (and I am also working on two other books with Vedic themes), I approached the story and the various personalities in the story with upmost respect. I also wanted to understand the intention of the original authors in presenting the stories the way they did. I also want to honor the reader or audience. I don’t browbeat them or scare them into accepting any philosophical points. The story stands on its own. Lastly, I try to look at the story in a creative light. The idea is that the reader can be entertained, inspired and ultimately transformed. This is the purpose of the sacred literatures.

 

What is 'sacred storytelling' ? 

I have one storytelling program called Sacred Voices. I call it a pilgrimage into the world’s sacred traditions through stories and poems. I’ve made an audio CD. The program includes uplifting, traditional stories from the Jewish, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian, Native American and Hindu traditions. This is a very dear project that I researched for several years.

But nowhere in the world do people relish their sacred stories more than the Hindus. The sacred stories provide us with sacred teachings. Just like a cup holds water, these stories contain the wisdom of ancient India. The stories also help us to understand our own spiritual nature, our relationship with the world around us, and our connection with Sri Krishna, the Supreme Lord who is situated within the hearts of all beings as our dear most friend.

 You have scholars and professors who are very excited about your work. How are these texts relevant to American academia?

In my writing, I keep academia in mind. Several professors are using my Mahabharata in their study of Hinduism. But my books are also for a greater audience. When I do a program for an Indian audience, they tell me, “We know these stories, but it’s fascinating to listen to you because you present them in such a unique and delightful way that all ages can enjoy.” The American poet Robert Frost tells us that “Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen.”

So I challenge myself. I go to great pains to write a book or make a presentation to bring that freshness to a wide audience: for those who grew up with the stories; for those who might be studying these epics in school; for those who don’t know anything at all about the epics; and of course for the youth. And I also write for myself, to keep connected to the sacred. Storytelling is such an integral part of the Vedic/Hindu tradition. I try to bring my passion to my books and programs.

For the human psyche, storytelling in general is a way we learn how to behave properly: what is good behaviour and what is unacceptable behaviour. Stories teach us about problem solving; about how other people live and think; in essence, stories teach us about the world we live in.

Also, I have been a long-time student of filmmaking. I have also acted in and directed dramatic productions for the stage. And I’ve had a career as a multicultural storyteller, offering programs in schools, colleges, libraries, museums and at storytelling events. So in my writing, I incorporate the essential elements of filmmaking, drama and storytelling.

Your new book is about Hanuman. What drew you to him? How has he inspired you?

Hanuman is considered the perfect bhakta, or dedicated, unwavering devotee, of Sri Rama. He is a renaissance “man” and a super hero rolled into one. He’s very talented. He’s heroic. He’s someone who takes the initiative. And sometimes, he might even make a mistake. He is the most compassionate. He helped to reunite Rama and Sita. And he also wants to help us and inspire all of us in our life’s journey, to reunite us with the Divine. I believe that. That’s the qualification of a sacred storyteller. You can’t tell these stories and simply think they are mythology. The stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana are living stories. They can transform us when we let them into our hearts.

Why is Hanuman important to us now?

He is a heroic, principled, and talented figure. The problem early in the story is that Hanuman has forgotten his true heritage and his extraordinary abilities. That’s the situation we’re in. We’re all spiritual beings but we have forgotten our heritage. Like Hanuman, we need someone to remind us who we really are.

(Andy Fraenkel is a recipient of a West Virginia Artist Fellowship Award, Indie Book Award, Storytelling World Award, and a recipient of an Ohio River Border Initiative Grant. He is also on the roster of the West Virginia Division of Culture & History.   He has performed and offered workshops in a wide variety of venues: schools, colleges, churches, libraries, and museums. Andy has given presentations at numerous conferences and special events, including Parliament of the World’s Religions Centennial Event (1993), Religious Communications Congress (2000), Dharma Conference (2003), the National Storytelling Conference (2006), and Unity Day @ FBI Center, WV (2006).

(For more information about his books visit www.Mahabharata-Project.com