Oct 11, 2011

Ganesha, The Mahabharatha and Complexity as a narrative device

In a recent post, Bobulate concludes that "Well-placed complexity has a place. If only to encourage us to think more deeply and globally about simplicity."

 En route to that, she quotes this fascinating passage by psychologist Adam Atler :
"What complexity does is it acts as a cognitive roadblock. …. If you have a communication that last 30 seconds or a minute or even five minutes, if you know there’s a particular point that you really want people to pay attention to — you’ve already hooked them in, they’re interested and they’re motivated — if you introduce complexity even briefly, that changes the way people think. They go from thinking in this very shallow, very superficial way … to thinking much more deeply about whatever you say next.
You still want to keep the message simple, but if you pick that moment of complexity carefully and appropriately, you can lead people to believe whatever you say after that moment of complexity very deeply. If the message is a complicated one … that’s a really effective technique."
I found this fascinating because the opportunistic use of complexity to draw an audience deeper into what's being narrated is a technique that's referred to even in the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharatha.

At roughly ten times the length of both the Iliad and Odyssey combined - and with a total of over 1.8 million words - The Mahabhratha is the world's longest poem. It is a narration of the great war between rival factions of a royal clan, while also incorporating philosophical and devotional discourses along the way.

According to legend, the epic was composed and narrated by the great poet and sage Ved Vyasa. He was instructed to pray to Lord Ganesha, a deity in the Hindu pantheon (pictured above), and request him to be his scribe.

Ganesha agreed to be his scribe on one condition: that upon commencing dictation of the epic, Vyasa wouldn't pause the recitation until the very end.

That put Vyasa in a fix. How would he then go about life - eating, resting, etc.? However, he did agree  to Ganesha's clause but with a clever counter condition of his own. That Ganesha would comprehend every verse Vyasa was dictating before penning it down.

Ganesha agreed and the recital and transcription of the world's longest poem was on.

But with his counter condition in place, every time Vyasa wanted a break, he would compose a particularly complex passage. And while Ganesha laboured to decipher it and then write it down, Vyasa would take a time-out to attend to his needs and be back.

While the story itself may be a ruse to explain the origins of complex passages within the Mahabhratha (in mythical terms), the passages themselves may be an early use of complexity as a narrative device - inserted skillfully to draw the listener deeper into the story and to view what is essentially a princely skirmish over royal power within the expansive context of the very universe itself.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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