Dharma and The Palace of Illusions

Each January, for the past few years, I’ve come up with an intention for the rest of the year. 2016 was a year of exploring and practicing trust, which led to last year, which was my “mind your own business year.” That gave way to this year, which I’m dedicating to the study and practice of dharma.

As part of this study, I recently read “The Palace of Illusions,” by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni. It’s a wonderful companion to the Mahabharata—the same story told from the perspective of Princess Draupadi, one of the most important female characters in the epic Hindu text, who marries the five Pandava princes at the same time. (Yes, you read that right. Five husbands at once.)

There are many things I love about this book—the lush descriptions of ancient India, the insider’s view of a royal life, a sorceress who comes to teach Draupadi the secrets of being a queen, and starts with, “First, you must learn to do your hair.” (I knew it.)

But one of the things that stayed with me is the Palace of Illusions itself. The palace comes about after Draupadi and her five prince/husbands have been exiled into the wilderness. Arjuna, the middle husband (the main character of the Baghavad Gita) has set a fire that burned down an entire forest and all of the animals. (It’s unclear why, exactly, he did this. When Draupadi asks him he sort of shrugs–and I thought, wow. Boys have been using that excuse to set fire to things for 3,000 years.)

So they’re all sitting in the middle of a burnt wasteland, but Arjuna did manage to save from the fire an architect who is also a magician. The magician has offered to build them a palace and asks them what they want in a home. One of the princes, who loves to cook, wants a kitchen full of fires that never go out. Another prince wants an enormous gold dome that shows the world the glories of the Pandavas. Another one asks for a great marble hall. And when they ask Draupadi what she wants, she blurts out the most impossible, dreamiest wish she can think of, which is to have waterfalls, creeks and streams, running through the entire building. The wizard’s eyes light up, and this becomes one of the defining features of the storied Palace of Illusions.

Draupadi falls deeply in love with her palace, which she connects to on all levels. (There’s a wonderful line in the book where she says something like, “For the palace was magic, and like all magical buildings, it could read the thoughts of its inhabitants.”)  In it she is not only the mistress of splendid rooms, halls, and gardens, but her husbands, recognizing her as an equal in wisdom, invite her to join them in council. She gains her own voice and faith in herself. When she and her husbands finally return for a visit to Hastinapura, from whence they’d been exiled, the king looks at her and says, “Why Draupadi! You are no longer a princess. You have become a queen!”

I have been thinking about that for weeks. I wonder if all of us, in order to become sovereign in our strength, wisdom, and unique contribution to this world, need some sort of a palace. A space that is uniquely ours, that listens to and contains our wildest dreams. This idea isn’t new—in her essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argued vehemently that that’s what artists need—particularly female writers. Her argument was for women to claim space and demand support to do their important artistic work. But what if this is true not just for female artists, but for all of us—that we need a space of our own—either literally or metaphorically–to claim our soul’s work as valid? So often we feel that indulging in our own space or taking time to listen to our own wisdom is simply that, indulgent. Or crazy. Or weird.

But after reading The Palace of Illusions I kept thinking, what if that idea robs us of our sovereignty?

And what if it’s not just your own palace that helps you find and trust in your own wisdom, but also your own council? A group of people who respect your ideas as legitimate, and who argue or challenge you not to be right, but to create a greater understanding of everything you’re doing.

So this month, here’s an exercise:

If you had your own palace, what would it look like? What would be the defining feature? What dreams would live there? Who would be your council? Who would be your dream holders and explorers?

Write it down. Sit with it. See if it changes the way you move forward in your work, service, and home life. And if you’d like, let us know what came up!