War and Peace: The Epic that Reveals Our Essence

Updated: May 24, 2019

By Radha Ma |

We screened a film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s great and universally acclaimed novel War and Peace at the ashram recently. My being originally named Natasha after one of the characters in the book has always piqued my interest, but somehow I never read the classic work. So I was glad to be asked to facilitate the discussion afterward.

The film sutured a lot of the missing historical context behind this postmodern period in which we live. It often seems we are all today cut off from our history, lost in cultural amnesia without roots in any tradition, without access to any reservoir of well-aged wisdom. We are hypnotized by the glamor of the new, and have lost our appreciation for the lost treasure trove of deep connection with the sources of inspiration that once nourished us from the groundwater of our souls’ deep journey through time.

This film rekindled the spark of desire to feel the guiding presence of our common human ancestors in their own visions and prayers for the care of nature and the love of our fellows to protect us from all that is base and violent within souls that can erupt from the subconscious if we become bound to the narcissistic and nihilistic ego that no longer reveres and serves our hearts’ yearning for goodness. Only our humble surrender to the higher values of our Being that restrain our egoic lust for personal gratification can secure a covenant of peace that will enable our world to endure.

I shared on movie night a fragment of the French psychologist Pierre Janet’s philosophy: “A low level of presentification (the capacity to be present in the Now in your life)….relates to a low degree of autobiographical memory that ignores an accurate localization in time, which is the starting point of legends and myths.…” I reminisced how for years my father had railed on about history, but never made it relevant to my life and needs, and I barely listened. This time, a voice said: This history lesson is for you.

Radha Ma facilitates the sangha screening and discussion of War and Peace on film night at the ashram.

I began to pay attention, not for external-historical reasons but for the logic of my sutratma, my soul’s trajectory through all its past lifetimes. My father had spoken of Prussians as having been one of the earliest Slavic tribes, and the place of my mother’s birth. In an uncanny and surreal way, my father exclaimed several times: No one talks about Prussia! What happened to Prussia? I would now translate this: What happened to my past, that was the thread of my own spiritual glory, not as a physical being in a debased and exhausted culture, but as a descendent of the original and eternal Light, hidden in ignored cultural iconography and erased in our postmodern, ahistorical moment?

I had never been properly oriented in time, always a nomad without destination and without a living ferment to grow the culture onward through transmission of a higher vision. To transcend the limited paradigm of ego, all parts of one’s Being must be present. I never felt I belonged—not even to the human race. Janet’s wise words again rang in my heart: “A high degree of presentification [requires] a keen appreciation of relevant aspects of the past, present and future. We realize that life evolves over wide stretches of time…” Something deep in the higher imaginary-symbolic register happened when I visualized with the help of this extraordinary film the expanse between Paris and Moscow, in both the trek made to Moscow by the French army, and which the ego/Napoleon was allowed to occupy, but which he could not conquer; and the journey of Pierre, who did make it back home, from infatuation with the suave sophistication of Paris to the more rustic and rugged Mother Russia (and having to realize he was the legitimate son of that cultural home. He had the courage to make the return pilgrimage from the glamorous but superficial West to the deep wells of strength still giving life to the older Eurasian East. He resisted the temptations of a world cut off from the Name of the Father to the land where loyalty to the ancient commandments of nobility and generosity, acceptance of the will of God, and the willingness to sacrifice all in service, still kept alive the ideal of emulation of the virtues that are the birthright that comes with being children of God, our common spiritual Father).

Something was re-connected within, and seeing supported in the film by a cast of living signifiers that bolstered that connection. My biological father had also lived in France and found freedom from his own more rigid Slavic country there, to now, my finding a higher sense of the meaning of Father in the soul of Russia, both spiritually and ethnically. It would take a novel twice as long as War and Peace to recount all the weavings of endless clues in every conversation, fantasy, purchase, striving, dream, from all my time in Sat Yoga, with Shunyamurti, back to my birth, and now, I suddenly felt released from identification with that mortal birth into a higher unborn and deathless order.

One needs a lot of mental energy for this kind of journey! Tolstoy’s Natasha is the embodiment of that, demonstrated in her humbling passage from most naïve girl through her fall into the embrace of meaningless sensual desire, her deep remorse and hard-earned redemption, all of which I related to in understanding my own fall into vain concern with the body’s pleasures. And suddenly I found myself again, in the “non-duality of duality and non-duality,” (Shunya’s words). It is the ecstasy of being on one’s way, conscious of one’s journey to the Light, from a place of God-given inner royalty and conviction—rather than from ruin and a subsequent evangelism. The world was instantly bathed in a timeless yet new feeling of the world itself being transfigured, and one’s journey through it, as part of the infinite Whole, not just as an isolated and alienated mind. I felt the awe that comes with recognizing the magnanimous grace of God bringing about the end of the illusion of separation. The Self indeed is epic. I knew the need of dying into the infinite power of love and truth that inspired Tolstoy to transcend his human limitations to be driven to write War and Peace. I felt the humbling surge of prayer to disappear forever into that wellspring of ever-living forgiveness and mercy after having survived the unbearable ordeal of my soul’s dark night.

The ultimate lesson, the one that Shunya teaches over and over: the Fall is a vertical drop. “Now that you know who you are, do not forget. Do not fall below that vibrational frequency of the One Self,” into loss and separation. Real fulfillment is only the joy of the union of time with the Eternal Present. It is the end of sadness. Every last element of this dream of life is the Dream that is given to awaken us, the world speaks to us, art fashions our destiny through transfiguration, to reveal our true figure in the ground of this projected hologram, so that the portal to the Absolute can open, and we can find our way home again, in that sacred White Night, and through the eye of the needle to regain our own Third Eye, to see God everywhere, in that light beyond the ego’s darkness, know our Self through every form. Russia is saved! It sings of the miracle of our saving surrender to the Self, to reign again beyond all worlds, without war, but holy peace without end.

More Notes from a Conversation with Shunyamurti about the film:

Shunyamurti warned us, the movie is not the novel. “The novel is a great deep train of insights about the human soul from one who understands human nature intensely, who can express it in a way that is moving to the heart, and makes one cry many times…Tolstoy got to the essence of the human condition and was able to transmit the feelings of anguish, joy, love, sublime inspiration, he showed the transcendent purpose of art, a function that modern artists alas no longer fulfill. He is the high point in recent Western cultural history, in its capacity to reflect upon itself.”

Shunyamurti continues…

The film depicts a world that is rapidly deteriorating, but it was a time in which people in Russia – specifically- the upper classes, and especially the men, were striving to live up to the old ideal of being a gentleman; which meant nobility, loyalty, service, all the core traditional masculine virtues. And they were failing for two reasons. One, the upper classes were ravaged by alcohol—the abuse of which destroyed their intelligence and enslaved them to their baser passions. Once men have sold their souls to the demon of drunkenness, they will no longer be loyal to each other but rather covet each other’s women—and seduce them when possible, perform rash and dangerous actions to prove their manhood, and fight with each other, and even kill each other, to achieve a dominant position in the male hierarchy. This was the beginning of the self-destruction of the aristocracy.

At the same time, the women were fighting for feminism, speaking on equal terms to the men with an equal ambivalence about loyalty and commitment. In the film War and Peace, on both occasions of betrayal, the woman betrays the man. This further weakens the masculine leaders of society because they can no longer depend on the love of their women, largely the source of their strength. Relationships between men and women have become mere power struggles, as Natasha reveals when speaking of submitting to marriage: “Who will put their sword down first?” Thus the meaningfulness and joy of life—the heartwarming feeling of being in a requited state of love—proved to be an illusion easily ripped apart at the first conflict of wills and projections—and now began to be recognized as hopelessly lost as both men and women recognized the counterfeit nature of courting behavior and all the traditional proofs of love, and both men and women felt more free to have affairs, which often produced illegitimate children, thus complicating the laws of descent and propriety. Those born in part to the aristocracy but not legally belonging to that caste were put into a half-breed situation, as Pierre was (until his father finally relented on his deathbed). Pierre’s life was forced into a stance of rebellion, based on his hatred of the system, stemming from the father who wouldn’t own him, and himself, for being a bastard.

All these factors determined the inevitability of a psychological collapse in those classes that lead society—the state apparatus, the military, the conditions of the landed aristocracy and their relationship with their serfs and the stability of agricultural production, and the leadership of large commercial powers; but also the leadership of the Church, which also comes from the same upper classes sources of recruitment for the priesthood. These were the conditions of malaise plaguing Russia at the time. What was not shown in the film was the power (and corruption) of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the loyalty to one another began to crumble, it became extremely important to feel loyalty to God. The Russian faith was the last bastion where all could come together in a unified way, in an aspiration toward spiritual elevation through the yearning for God’s grace.

Yet, the belief in this possibility too was dying, and the dark cloud of atheism was coming in from the West. Nonetheless, the ancient power of a holy culture, such as that of Russia, especially at the level of the grassroots, the peasantry, the farmers who worked the Earth and still prayed authentically in church, does not die easily. And indeed the flame sputtered and burned low, but it did not become extinguished. In fact, a small religious renaissance burst out early in the twentieth century, one that included influential members of the literary lights, only to be persecuted and destroyed by the Bolsheviks, who closed the monasteries.

The conservative wing of society held onto the essential values of the old tradition. Tolstoy is one of them—and this great novel depicts the fall in a way that can cushion it and give us an opportunity to see our mistakes and prevent us from falling further. Russian society was still clutching at a much higher ethical and spiritual level than the rest of Europe, whereas France had already taken the lethal step of destroying its own aristocracy, which had ended the last authentic effort to support the values of sacrifice and dedication, leaving only an empty pretense of nobility. Thus, the threat of the return to a culture based on the old premise of divine right was horrifying to Napoleon, because he came from the lower classes, and it was further anathema to the nouveau riche bourgeoisie who bought their royal titles or married into the old ruling families. There was a need to humiliate and destroy the arch-enemy Russia, because she represented a higher way of living they could no longer tolerate—which is alas still the case today in the anti-Christian West.

War and Peace takes place during the period of transition from the world order of feudal aristocracy to the world order of the capitalist bourgeoisie, which became a world dominated by pitiless amoral for-profit business. The Earth was no longer a place where the grandeur of the human spirit could blossom. Everything became commercialized, all was lost in terms of human spiritual values, and the ego became the dominant force, indoctrinating society to act out the lowest and most bestial enjoyments and addictions, and to become hardened against the horrors of cruelty that became a new sadistic way of life.

Tolstoy gives us an x-ray image of the souls of those of who are going through the anguish of making decisions from their ego that their soul is horrified by, and having to learn the hard way through their suffering that they must return to a more noble way of life or become extinct. The male characters who prevail are the most faithful and loyal, most willing to serve courageously in the armed forces, while the women who went through their own moment of failure but rose from it, regain their nobility through wisdom earned the hard way.

This is what Natasha and Pierre symbolize at the end of the film. The entire film is about war—not only the war between France and Russia, but much more about the war between men and women, between the higher and lower drives, and between those identified with a fallen world, and those holding steadfast to the old values. These conflicts crucify the hearts and souls living through them. The decisions they make are clear marks written in blood, which will forever sear the nature of what those times were about in our cultural memory. Thus, Tolstoy has immortalized a supremely important moment of the internal clash of civilizations: the downfall of nobility into barbarism and the anguish that comes into the human spirit in fighting against its own fall and finding it nearly irresistible.

What is the deeper meaning of the Russian general’s statement “Russia is saved”? We haven’t been beaten like France, a culture that worships its jouissance, so long as there is fine wine to anesthetize the conscience. The French were notorious for the sensual life and Russia represented the last embers of a more noble spiritual life. The general falling on his knees before Christ embodied the whole meaning of the Russian faith: We saved our love for God on Earth.

Q + A with Shunyamurti

Q: The presence and role of the father is prominent in this movie. Can you speak more about the different kinds of fathers, Prince Andrei’s, Pierre’s, Natasha’s?

All the fathers in the movie are failed fathers—the film is showing us the deterioration of the Name of the Father. You can see Andrei could not respect his father. He saw through how he was being mistreated by the demeaning hatred of a domineering unloving father. So was he really being accurate in obeying his father’s command to wait a year to marry Natasha? Was his duty to respect for his father to be followed at this point? He knew she wouldn’t wait a year. But if he broke with his father, it would have meant cutting his loyalty to the old cultural values. Yet he was sacrificing real love in the present, for an empty semblance of honoring an impossible commandment from the past, and he abandoned her—and his own heart as well. After she gave herself in love to him, he says I am off for the year. You can feel her sense of betrayal as well.

In Pierre’s case the bitterness of the bastard son was far more intense, and there was no reason to retain the pretense of respect. Thus Pierre found solace in Parisian salons, in the new wave of atheism and worship of existential angst, spiced with wine, women in brothels, gambling, and the superficial connoisseurship of meaningless modern art, the adulation of futurism, Dadaism, primitivism, and other such movements away from Logos and the old standards of beauty and truth. The unrecognized sons could not become authentic fathers, and this is why they turned to alcohol—they had lost the phallus, the torch of real manhood had not been passed, and in their hearts they were impotent in a moral, social, political and psycho-spiritual sense, as well as often in a raw sexual level as well. Thus, they needed wars to vent their fury, to project their hatred of the father and of God, and to prove their manhood in degraded ways. Boys were easily recruited to the ranks, many of them then died young—as if that were a mark of heroism. Really it was often a running away from the self-torment of failing internally into a form of suicide by enemy. It resulted in the destruction of an entire generation, and a short-circuiting of cultural continuity.

Rostov was looked down upon because he didn’t have sufficient financial wealth to wield respect or influence. He held onto his identity as a noble personality as much as possible with his hosting of formal salons, higher levels of conversation during proper visits of friends to his home, and the whole array of daily family traditions. He kept alive the noble etiquette of the old aristocracy. It was authentic for him to face the destruction of his home with a simple “don’t worry, we will rebuild.” He was like Zorba, who after the catastrophe, declared “let’s dance!” He still had in his heart the full acceptance of the will of God, based in an inner faith that God is benevolent and it is all a blessing and it is all beautiful. This power to endure, to laugh at fate with a carefree bon mot: “Don’t worry about anything in the phenomenal plane. We are all being taken care of at a higher level of consciousness. For this attitude, of course, others took him for an idiot.

Q: I love to paint horses, so I found it amusing that there is Natasha, painting a horse. Is there a deeper meaning to it?

The horse was valued for its strength, nobility and beauty, qualities of those awakened to the Self, and there was a desire to depict in their art a living symbol which was inspiring, noble, beautiful, and clearly wrought by God. They were already losing touch with those values in human culture and the society was more interested in using horses for warfare, and in general saw humans as conquerors of animals, and of Nature as a whole, rather than feeling reverence for all life forms. Nature had been demoted to a list of profitable resources to be exploited.

So why did Natasha paint? She didn’t have extraordinary talent. It was a way of spending her time introspectively, as she was in a latency mode—in the passage before the sexual drive was activated. She was traversing the sacred passage women no longer go through, she was no longer a child but not yet a woman. There was still a vocabulary for that: she was a Miss not yet a Mrs.—in a time of indeterminacy, wherein she is forming for herself a deep understanding in her body and soul of what womanhood is, recreating herself, determining her relationship to men, sexuality, motherhood. She is in a deep meditation about that, and feeling what she would lack, if anything, if she didn’t have a man next to her. She had to know the real limits of her independence: Could she wield her own sword without surrendering her sovereignty to a man? She was trying to determine where she stood in her own reality, how strong she was, and what did she want.

Q: What was revealed in Natasha’s character when she chose to run off with Anatole?

She allowed herself to be conquered by this guy, so needy for his desire of her that she was wiling to break every rule in order to be ravished by someone who seemed potent and found her irresistible. She was seduced by the magnetic field of that insistent and potent male animal who would bring her into ecstasy. For that fantasy of being the irresistibly adorable object, she was willing to break her bond with Andrei. Andrei’s love was Apollonian, he saw her as an ideal companion with whom there could be a meeting of minds and hearts. But their relation lacked the Dionysian lust that brought her blood to full arousal. Only when it was clear that Anatole would throw her away after a few days and her reputation and good karma would be ruined forever, did she feel remorse, and that was only thanks to Sonja and Pierre’s intervention. The message she received with a shock was that she betrayed her soul by allowing her ego’s sexual drive to blind her to the higher meaning of reality, the intoxication of lust destroyed her ability to reason, as she was taken over by the fantasy of sexual euphoria that would go on forever. It is an illusion that all must pass through and leave behind on the way to authentic adulthood.

Q: I wasn’t clear that it was Napoleon himself being portrayed when the French army entered Moscow. His tantrum was quite amusing, and it was inspiring to see this seemingly cowardly act of retreat by the Russian general that would both save the soul of Russia and defeat Napoleon.

Napoleon’s ego was deflated because there was no one to surrender to him. It was all about ego. It is dead of winter, there is no food, and they have trapped themselves. Only the Russians can live in a Russian winter! The French didn’t bring the right supplies, and supply lines were long and in those days slow. It was their hubris that destroyed them. “Russia! I have Russia!” The crown jewel of Russia, Moscow, used to be Tartaria, and before that Hyperborea. It represented the last oppositional force and if he captured the crown jewel he would have total political power over Eurasia. He would be almost literally the ruler of the world. That is what every ego wants to be and it always fails.

Q: Pierre seems like the first postmodern being…

At the beginning he is on the side of the French. He has been seduced by the newly minted postmodern culture born of cynicism, materialism, rejection of the degraded form that the old culture had been reduced to, and it seemed like the new paradigm that could lead in Nietzsche’s fine phrase, to the rise of the ubermensch. The rejection of Spirit gave the freedom to the thinking mind to dominate consciousness with unconstrained power to invent, without concern for ethical limits or need to worry about the wrath of any god. The new approach led to psychoanalysis replacing priestly confession, and to science concocting new creation myths, based on theories of evolution and competition over cooperation. The new wave was anti-aristocratic. And since Pierre was illegitimate, he was attracted to that rejection of those who rejected him. There was also a great surge of new creativity at the time, since there is always a sattvic period of the next more fallen stage, in which it appears higher and more progressive than the dying old order. That fallen stage, because it was just born and still fresh, was more alive than the older higher culture in its moribund stage. There was great fascination with the new styles of art, the prestige of displaying the exotic dividends of colonialism, and the arrogance of assuming the white man’s burden of running the world. And at the time especially in French culture, a minor renaissance in painting, theater, poetry and experimental literature all expressed the joy of freedom from the straitjacket of obsolete standards, all of which was so alluring to Pierre. But he learned the hard way—in honestly facing the hypocrisy in France’s contempt for Russia, and its envious war to destroy what was still alive in the Russian soul. His honesty actually saved him too, because in the end his heart had the discernment to choose Russia over France, and goodness over suave and sophisticated nihilism.

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