Grimdark, Hopepunk, and Art That Transforms and Inspires

What follows is a conversation with Brahmachari Tandava, from a series of YouTube interviews with mostly under-30 millennial yogis conducted by Asha Nayaswami, spiritual director of Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.

Tandava is a Stanford and Google alum, a former manager of East West Bookshop, and is currently on staff at the Sangha and at Living Wisdom School. He’s a gifted teacher, whether the subject is meditation, music, dance, computer skills, or anything else, making concepts accessible with humor and clarity. It’s hard to find a moment when Tandava isn’t cheery, willing, and just on the verge of a terrific one-liner. He’s a frequent soloist and guitarist for Ananda.

Asha: You remarked in a recent conversation that we have stories here in the West that help form our ways of thinking, even as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have affected the general consciousness in India.

Tandava: I was thinking of the kinds of stories we consume in this culture through books, movies, and TV shows, and how they affect our consciousness – not only how they exhibit the cultural consciousness of the times, but also what they do to us personally.

And, you know, the Indian epics are one thing, but what we have here in America is something very different.

As I’ve spent more time at home these days during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been recording an audiobook for YouTube of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, which is a book I read in third grade, when I read it fourteen times in a row, and I’ve read it a number of times since. And if you know me and you read the book, you’ll think wow, that explains a lot about Tandava. [Laughs] Because you can see a lot of my personality in it.

Asha: So give me the elevator pitch on how those two things connect.

Tandava: A large part of what I find in the book is a love of learning, because it’s about the major journey that the main character goes through – he’s learning why everything is fun and interesting and important to learn.

I also love the sense of humor, and the theme of taking abstract things and making them concrete, and enjoying the process as a way to learn about them and create new and interesting and amusing situations.

I was realizing while reading the book aloud that it’s similar to Yogananda’s concept of “mental citizens,” where he describes how we have a collection of people living inside us. And on the journey that the main character, Milo, goes through in this fictional land, everybody he meets seems to exemplify a particular quality or concept that we can read as an aspect of our own consciousness and our own personality.

Tandava (at right) sets out with friends to lead a yoga program at a Bay Area public library.

Asha: Okay, give me an example of a mental citizen that Milo meets.

Tandava: While he’s traveling through the Mountains of Ignorance, he meets all sorts of demons that are excellent examples of bad habits or bad qualities. In a chapter that I just finished reading, there’s a demon who has asked some people to transport a mountain of sand from here to there with tweezers. [Laughs] And, how often do we find ourselves embroiled in some endless, nitpicky, pointless project or mindset – and how can we obsess over things that aren’t actually all that important?

But there are positive qualities in the story as well. Most of the book is taken up by the quest to return the Princesses Rhyme and Reason to their kingdom, which is probably something we’d all appreciate in the kingdom of our consciousness.

It’s a topic of Swami Kriyananda’s book Art as a Hidden Message, which is a favorite of mine. He talks about how art in all its forms expresses consciousness. And I’ve been looking at the kinds of consciousness that come to us through art in this culture, and the ways they affect us that many people probably won’t be aware of.

The Phantom Tollbooth was a very positive example for me. On the flipside, I remember reading a trilogy of young adult novels several years ago, because I still read lots of young adult and kids’ books, and I’m not ashamed to admit it because I love them. But there’s been a trend in the last decade or two of dystopian themes, not just in novels for adults, but in kids’ books.

Asha: I don’t know what dystopian means.

Tandava: Do you know what utopia means? Well, it’s the opposite, and it’s exactly as bad as you’d imagine. The novels are usually post-apocalyptic, where the world has collapsed and people are trying to survive. And you can feel from the word dystopia that these are generally not uplifting books, and it’s not a trend that I’ve enjoyed watching, especially in young adult literature.

I was reading a series that was very popular at the time. I won’t name it, but it was very engrossing, very exciting and engaging, just as a novel should be. But toward the end of the series I found myself feeling awful in the mornings – I didn’t want to get up. And when I woke up one morning feeling that way, I had an intuitive sense that it was related to the book.

I finished the book regardless, because I wasn’t going to stop. [Laughs] But the best thing I could say about the ending was that the heroine survived. And I had the feeling, “I read three books for that?”

I realized it was the same feeling I was experiencing in the morning – I’m getting out of bed for what? Because of the negative consciousness that had been running through the books, long before I knew how the story would end, and it was a feeling that the author was giving me on a subtle level.

Asha: Without naming it, it’s a well-known, popular series?

Tandava: Yes, it’s aimed at middle school and high school kids.

Asha: Oh, my. So this is what they’re feeding their consciousness for breakfast, you might say.

Tandava: Yes, and as I mentioned, it’s been a very popular category and a genre in literature in the last decade or so, of dystopian novels, and you can find huge lists of them online.

Another term that has come up a lot that I also don’t like is grimdark. And, again, it’s exactly what you’d expect. The Game of Thrones books and TV series are one of the most intense examples, and when I tried to read those books I got such horrible images stuck in my head that I had to give it up, even though I recognized that the author was brilliant at creating a huge world and sucking people into it by making it as addictive as you’d want a novel to be.

You want a book to draw you in and keep you turning the pages, and he had that down pat. But there are still things I wish I could scrub out of my brain from what I read six or eight years ago, and I naturally didn’t watch the TV series when it came out.

When I heard somebody attach the term grimdark to Game of Thrones, I realized, oh, now that you’re calling it that, it makes it even easier to avoid, because you’ve made it clear that you’re trying to do this deliberately. And it shocks me that people would want to do that.

Asha: I want to pause for a second, because I’ve never been involved in the popular culture. I dropped out at nineteen, and I wasn’t familiar with the popular culture even of my own generation. But I’m not living in a cave, and I’ve heard the phrase “Game of Thrones” repeatedly, though I haven’t bothered to ask what it was. But I understand that it’s hugely popular.

Tandava: Yes.

Asha: So everybody immerses themselves in the grimdark world and thinks it’s a good thing. And are we talking millennials?

Tandava: I don’t know if they think it’s a good thing to do. More likely, they think it’s a neutral thing, because not everybody is aware of the ways it’s affecting their consciousness. But, yes, it’s hugely popular.

Asha: We’re touching on something Keshava said in the first interview in this series. He talked about virtual realities, and how the intensity of a virtual reality is difficult to replicate in the real world, and how confusing that can be, when people compare their everyday lives. At any rate, you and I are talking here about popular culture, but we don’t have to stay on the dark side of it.

Tandava: No, I wasn’t planning to.

Asha: So there’s a vibration that’s being propagated by the popular culture, and I’m going to reference the fact that something can be extremely popular because it’s exactly in tune with the vibration of the times. So why don’t you tie it together with Swami Kriyananda’s basic thesis in Art as a Hidden Message, which is that consciousness gets transmitted and spread through the arts.

Tandava: Well, you’ve said it. There’s a general state of consciousness that the society as a whole is embodying, and then some new things will come along that fit really well, and you can tell because they become very popular, and because people recognize them as easy to like because they match something in their consciousness. So it’s a signal about how, even for perfectly nice people, maybe there’s still something in them that responds to this and wants it.

Asha: And we can get confused because everybody’s doing it. A young man who was pretty much out of the popular culture told me recently that he realized he was feeling a little out of it, and he decided he had to jump back into it a little bit. And you might be tempted to jump in just because you don’t want to be left out, or feel different and weird. But let’s go to the other side of it.

Tandava: Yes, because it’s not all completely dark. We are in an ascending age where things are getting better, and a phrase that has come out in the last two or three years as a deliberate counter to grimdark is “hopepunk.”

Asha: I feel like a moron. I feel like a tourist.

Tandava: Hopepunk was started, I think, by an author, but it’s been applied to music and movies and other things in the culture, and it’s explicitly intended as a counter to grimdark.

They recognized that this is bad, and we don’t want everything so gritty and horrible all the time, and all the things the people who’re writing grimdark think are realistic. I’ve actually seen that as a description of grimdark – “gritty and realistic fantasy.”

And, sure, some reality is gritty, but they’re labeling gritty as reality, and that’s a little different –that’s the scary side. But hopepunk is taking the view that things don’t have to be that way, that you can still care about people, and about causes, and you can have a heart involvement in whatever you’re trying to do, and an optimism that doesn’t exist in grimdark or dystopias.

Asha: Is hopepunk a big movement?

Tandava: I can’t guess at the relative numbers, but I certainly hope it’s growing. I do think it has its limitations. I’ve read articles on hopepunk recently to try to get my mind around what people are thinking when they talk about it. And there’s still an influence of violence and struggle that carries over in hopepunk.

I actually read the phrase in an article, “weaponizing kindness.” [Laughs] And if you take it at face value, what does it mean? Because there’s still a feeling that you have to struggle and fight for what you want. Where maybe what you’re wanting to do is a good thing, and maybe it’s important, and you care about it, but it’s still a fight.

If you’re writing a novel, you naturally need conflict, because you have to keep the plot going. But some of the people praising hopepunk are presenting it as an ongoing struggle that may never end, where you have to keep on fighting because you can’t lose hope, even if nothing will ever get better.

Asha: The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita are epic struggles. The Iliad is an epic struggle. There’s a clear subtext in those stories that you have to have spine, and you have to have the perseverance to conquer. So are you saying that in hopepunk there’s a feeling that even though you might not triumph, you have to go on struggling regardless?

Tandava: In some of them you’ll triumph, but some of them make a point of saying that you won’t. A limitation of hopeunk, it seems to me, is that it’s still very dependent on my own effort to change the world to be the way I want it. Which obviously does limit the scope, within the wider perspective that Paramhansa Yogananda gave us.

Some of the superhero movies and TV shows are so blatant in their emphasis on self-effort that it’s almost funny. The Flash is a superhero whose superpower is that he can run really fast. The TV show is very hopepunk, and the reasons I like it have nothing to do with the fact that he’s a superhero, but with the personalities and relationships.

The opening voiceover says, “We have all these challenges, we have all these evil people, blah blah blah, and I’m the only one fast enough to stop them.” It’s really a hammer and a nail situation – “whatever nail I have, I’m gonna run really fast.” [Laughs] The underlying assumption being that everything has to be fixed, and I personally have to fix it with my powers. So he has this superpower, he’s really fast, but that’s as far as it goes, and there’s no bigger context.

Asha: There’s a lot of conflict in the world today, because everybody has their own set of conflicting egoic preferences. Paramhansa Yogananda said that the whole point of the difficult times descending upon the planet now is to teach us that we are part of a greater reality, and that it isn’t a question of fixing the world my way or your way, but of all of us attuning ourselves to a third reality. And is that what you’re talking about?

Tandava: Yes, that’s what’s lacking in hopepunk. And while it’s a positive, progressive step, and worlds better than grimdark, it doesn’t take us all the way there.

Asha: Is there a thread that you would call Self-realization in any of the more positive expressions of consciousness in the popular arts? We started with The Phantom Tollbooth and Milo’s travels.

Tandava: The fact that hopepunk and other positive expressions in the arts are progressing in the right direction is, I think, reason for hope, if you look at it from the perspective of the spiritual path, where values are seen as directional.

I grew up reading lots of science fiction and fantasy novels, and I think it was, at least in part, because I had an intuitive sense that there really is something more. So I was attracted to stories about people who are wizards, who are something more, or science fiction where maybe you’re expanding your reality through technology. And for me, having that sense that there’s a greater potential meant that when I read Autobiography of a Yogi I had something to connect it to – wow, here’s a real-life story of higher potential that we can actually achieve for ourselves. And it helped me feel it as a personal connection.

Asha: Now, tell me, is there anything that’s popular, or that’s making its way, that is pointing in a more positive direction? I’ll mention Harry Potter, although I’ve never read the books or watched the movies.

Tandava: Harry Potter is totally hopepunk. It’s a great example. I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching a class called Harry Potter and the Spiritual Allegory, where we would go through the series and interpret it in that higher way. But to connect it to my last comment about potentials, the Harry Potter books begin when Harry receives a letter that tells him, “You are a wizard, and if you leave what you think is your normal life and follow these people who know how to be wizards, you can develop this potential within yourself.”

And how much is that like somebody handing you the Autobiography and saying, “Guess what you have inside you?” And maybe most of the people around you aren’t getting it, so you have to decide for yourself, how am I going to relate to this, and is it worth changing my whole life for?

Asha: So Game of Thrones and Harry Potter are the alternatives?

Tandava: Well, they’re certainly examples of a couple of the big trends. I actually wanted to mention another book that I can’t legitimately call popular, even though everybody knows about it. But it’s a much better counterexample to grimdark because it goes beyond hopepunk, and that’s War and Peace by Tolstoy. I read it last year, explicitly because I had chosen not to read Game of Thrones. The Game of Thrones TV show had wrapped up, and I was feeling, “Oh, man, I would have liked it if it had been a really good, uplifting epic fantasy. I want to read a huge new world like that.” Karen had told me how much she loved War and Peace, and I thought, well, that’s an epic, and let’s just see how it goes. [Laughs] And I was surprised by how much I loved it.

But here’s an interesting contrast. Game of Thrones is notorious for killing off its characters. It’s almost a joke – don’t get attached to anybody, because they’re going to die. And once I say it aloud, what sort of lesson is that giving people? It leaves people feeling “Why did he die? Why was that life so pointless? That was the only character I liked!”

Asha: Don’t lose your thought, but can we see how sad that is? And how it’s even worse if it’s done really well.

Tandava: Because you feel it more,

Asha: Because you feel it more. But, really, you’re right. There’s no reincarnation, there’s no God, and no divine purpose, so it emphasizes the emptiness without giving you the solution.

Tandava: The counter to that is that in War and Peace, yes, people do die. After all, half of the title Is “War.” So it’s expected that many of the characters that you like will, in fact, die.

I was looking through the book after I finished it, at how every major or medium character who died had some sort of transcendent experience during or shortly before his or her death. I made a list of them, and sometimes the uplifting experience of death was relative in its intensity to the level they had achieved in their consciousness. But something very progressive happened before each of the characters died. And I don’t think Tolstoy ever actually shows us a death scene directly. He leaves them off stage, because the important point is not the death itself but the change of consciousness that each of them goes through.

Tolstoy

An example at a lower level is a character who had been horrible to his daughter throughout their lives, and she had lovingly taken care of him regardless. And then just before he died they had a reconciliation, and it was sweet, and a good step for him.

There was another character who had striven all his life for greatness and personal achievement in the army. And as he was dying over the course of days and weeks, he was deliberately letting things go and detaching himself from the world, and just before he died he had a very transcendent dream that actually involved the phrase “awakening from life.” He was clearly going into something bigger and greater, because he had let it all go so that he could move forward.

Every death was beautiful, and so, even with the characters that you would wish didn’t have to die, it was okay. It’s not like, oh, they killed off my favorite character again. Rather it was the perfect way for it to happen, and it comes off as so much more uplifting and true.

Asha: And you can remember it and relive it, and as you relive it, it feeds your hope, and your deeper feeling about life. So what do we do about this? Are you saying, hey guys, wake up, don’t just keep drinking things that will leave you feeling depressed.

Tandava: That’s a big first step, certainly, to be aware of what’s coming into you. Because so often we aren’t aware of it, and we’re just taking in whatever’s out there, or what we’re used to, out of sheer habit.

But the point is to seek things that will have a better effect on you. And if you’re an artist or a writer or a creative person in any way, to be aware that this is a powerful thing that art can do, and to use your powers for good, and really understand that whatever you put out into the world will have an effect on other people.

Asha: Well, you know, there’s so much negativity and sadness and despair and lack of hope in the world today, and it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. The more darkness there is, the more the art of the times will reflect it, and the more the art reflects it, the more people absorb it. So there really has to be a counterforce, and we have to make a decision. We have to draw a line and refuse to let it into us. And I think it’s an emergency.

Tandava: People are doing that. It’s where hopepunk came from. People were saying, “Is grimdark going to take over everything? No – we have to draw our line.” And hopepunk is where their line was.

It’s different from where Tolstoy’s line was, and if a yogi were to decide to write novels, maybe their line would be different. But, yes, we have to be very conscious, and explicitly mark out where we’re going, and not let ourselves be dragged into where the rest of society would like us to be.

Asha: Right, and this is part of the battle of light and darkness. The last time I saw Swamiji, he asked me to write a novel. He listed the rest of my life’s assignments, and one was to write a spiritual novel. Because, he said, “Society has been more influenced by novels than by any other form.” And I said sure, because I would have said sure if he’d asked me to climb Mount Everest. At the moment it’s a complete zero in my head, and I have no idea what to write or when to write it, and I’m hoping that when the moment comes I’ll know what to do. And I’ll do it.

But he felt very strongly about the power of fiction, because of all the things you’re saying. What other favorite books would you list? As an audience, I want to know what else I can read.

Tandava: It’s hard. There are a lot of hopepunk books that are trying to go in the right direction, and that’s great, but it’s still a constant hunt to find things that pass the high bar of what I, as a yogi, want to be putting into my consciousness.

Asha: Yes, it’s difficult to find good books, for those of us who read for relaxation and entertainment. Swami was a bookworm, too. But so far we’re leaving our friends with two choices, War and Peace and The Phantom Tollbooth. [Laughs]

Tandava: And Harry Potter! But I’ll also mention Swami’s fondness for P. G. Wodehouse. And, again, it isn’t modern popular culture, but there’s an open-hearted, humorous, joyful acceptance of everybody in all their follies and foibles and ridiculousness, because they’re silly stories, but they’re silly stories that don’t make fun of anybody. Everybody is just in this and enjoying it together. That’s my feeling about those books, which is why I feel good after reading them. I actually enjoy reading them as a sort of “palate-cleanser” in between other books.

Asha: Absolutely. I think we could talk for a lifetime and be entertained. Thank you, Tandava, for a most unusual discussion.

Tandava: My pleasure. Thank you.

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