By Dr Devdutt Pattanaik
A people’s myth and mythology determine their belief systems and ways of life. Here, an essay on the power of these capsuled truths
Everybody lives in myth. But there are m This idea disturbs most people. For, conventionally, myth means falsehood. Nobody likes to live in falsehood. Everybody believes they live in truth.
But there are many types of truth. Some objective, some subjective. Some logical, some intuitive. Some cultural, some universal. Some are based on evidence, others depend on faith. Myth is truth that is subjective, intuitive, cultural, and grounded in faith.
Ancient Greek philosophers knew myth as mythos. They distinguished mythos from logos. From mythos, came intuitive narrations; from logos, reasonable deliberations. Mythos gave rise to the oracles and the arts. From logos came science and mathematics. Logos explained how the sun rises, and how babies are born. It took man to the moon. But it never explained why. Why does the sun rise? Why is a baby born? Why does man exist on earth? For answers, one had to turn to mythos. Mythos gave purpose, meaning and validation to existence.
Ancient Hindu seers knew myth as mithya. They distinguished mithya from sat. Mithya was truth seen through a frame of reference. Sat was truth independent of any frame of reference. Mithya gave a limited, distorted view of reality; sat, a limitless correct view of things. Mithya was delusion, open to correction. Sat was truth, absolute and perfect in every way. Being boundless and perfect, however, sat could not be reduced to a symbol or confined to a word. Words and symbols are essentially incomplete and flawed. Sat, therefore, eluded communication. For communication, one needs symbols and words, howsoever incomplete and flawed they may be. Through finite, incomplete and flawed symbols and words, it was possible to capture, or at least indicate, the infinite perfection and boundlessness of sat. For rishis, therefore, the delusion of mithya served as an essential window to the truth of sat.
Myth is essentially a cultural construct, a common understanding of the world that binds individuals and communities together. This understanding may be religious or secular. Ideas such as rebirth, heaven and hell, angels and demons, fate and free will, sin, Satan and salvation are religious myths. Ideas such as sovereignty, nation state, human rights, women’s rights, animal rights and gay rights are secular myths. Religious or secular, all myths make profound sense to one group of people. Not to everyone. They cannot be rationalised beyond a point. In the final analysis, you either accept them or you don’t.
If myth is an idea, then mythology is the vehicle of that idea. Mythology constitutes stories, symbols and rituals that make a myth tangible. Stories, symbols and rituals are essentially languages – languages that are heard, seen and performed. Together, they construct the truths of a culture. The story of the resurrection, the symbol of the crucifix, the ritual of baptism, establish the idea that is Christianity. The story of independence, the symbol of the national flag, the ritual of the national anthem, reinforce the idea of a nation state.
Mythology tends to be hyperbolic and fantastic to drive home a myth. It is modern arrogance to presume that in ancient times, people actually believed in the objective existence of virgin births, flying horses, parting seas, talking serpents, gods with six heads, and demons with eight arms. The sacredness of such obviously irrational plots and characters ensures their flawless transmission over generations. Any attempt to challenge their validity is met with outrage. Any attempt to edit them is frowned upon. The unrealistic content draws attention to the idea behind the communication. Behind virgin births and parting seas is an entity who is greater than all forces of nature put together. A god with six heads and a demon with eight arms projects a universe where there are infinite possibilities, for the better and for the worse.
From myth, come beliefs; from mythology, customs. Myth conditions thoughts and feelings. Mythology influences behaviours and communications. Myth and mythology thus have a profound influence on culture. Likewise, culture has a profound influence on myth and mythology. People outgrow myth and mythology, when myth and mythology fail to respond to their cultural needs. So long as Egyptians believed in the afterworld ruled by Osiris, they built pyramids. So long as Greeks believed in Charon, the ferryman of ghosts, they placed copper coins for him in the mouth of the dead. Today, no one believes in Osiris or Charon. There are no pyramids or coins. Instead, there are new funeral ceremonies spawned by new belief systems, new mythologies based on new myths, each one helping people cope with the painful inevitability and mystery of death.
It is ironical that for all the value we give to the rational, life is primarily governed by the irrational. Love is not rational. Sorrow is not rational. Hatred, ambition, rage and greed are irrational. Even ethics, morals and aesthetics are not rational. They depend on values and standards which are ultimately subjective. What is right, sacred and beautiful to one group of people need not be right, sacred and beautiful to another group of people. Every opinion and every decision depends on the prevailing myth. Even perfection is a myth. There is no evidence of a perfect world, a perfect man or a perfect family anywhere in the world. Perfection, be it Rama Rajya or Camelot, exists only in mythology. Yet everyone craves for it. This craving inspires art, establishes empires, sparks revolutions and motivates leaders. Such is the power of myth.
Behind any mythology, there is always a myth. Behind the myth, a truth – an inherited truth about life and death, about nature and culture, about perfection and possibility, about hierarchies and horizons.
Reproduced from the introduction to Dr Devdutt Pattanaik’s
book Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu mythology
published by Penguin India in 2007.
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