By Devdutt Pattanaik
One of india’s leading mythologists demystifies the clash of cultures between the east and the west, at a talk at the ted conference held in mysore recently
There is my world and there is your world, and my world is always better than your world, because my world, you see, is rational and yours is superstitious. Yours is faith-based, yours is illogical. This is the root of the clash of civilisations. It took place, once, in 326 BC on the banks of a river called the Indus, now in Pakistan.
Alexander, a young Macedonian, met there what he called a “gymnosophist”, which means “the naked, wise man”.
Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed. Each one thought that the other was a fool.
To understand this difference in viewpoints we have to understand the subjective truth of Alexander: his myth, and the mythology that constructed it. Alexander’s parents, and his teacher Aristotle told him the story of Homer’s Iliad: of a great hero called Achilles, who, when he participated in battle, victory was assured, and when he withdrew, defeat was inevitable. “Achilles was a man who could shape history, a man of destiny, and this is what you should be, Alexander.” That’s what he heard.
Because, you see, the Greeks believed you live only once and when you die, you have to cross the River Styx, and if you have lived an extraordinary life, you will be welcomed to Elysium.
The gymnosophist heard a very different story. He heard of a man called Bharat, after whom India is called Bhãrata. Bharat also conquered the world. And then he went to the topmost peak of the greatest mountain of the centre of the world called Meru. And he wanted to hoist his flag to say, “I was here first.” But when he reached the mountain peak, he found the peak covered with countless flags of world conquerors before him, each one claiming “I was here first … that’s what I thought until I came here.” And suddenly, in this canvas of infinity, Bharat felt insignificant. This was the mythology of the gymnosophist.
The Indians also have a river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. But you don’t cross it once. You go to and fro endlessly. It is called the Vaitarni. You go again, and again, and again. Because, nothing lasts forever in India, not even death. And so, you have these grand rituals where great images of mother goddesses are built and worshipped for 10 days … and then dunked in the river.
Two different mythologies, two different ways of looking at the world. One linear, one cyclical. One believes this is the one and only life. The other believes this is one of many lives. The denominator of Alexander’s life was one. So, the value of his life was the sum total of his achievements. The denominator of the gymnosophist’s life was infinity. So, no matter what he did, it was always zero. And I believe it is this mythological paradigm that inspired Indian mathematicians to discover the number zero. In one-life cultures around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardisation, absoluteness, linear patterns in design. Cyclical cultures based on infinite lives have a comfort with fuzzy logic, opinion, contextual thinking, with relativity.
Look at the ballerina. How linear she is in her performance. And then look at the Indian classical dancer, the Kuchipudi dancer, the Bharatanatyam dancer, curvaceous. (Laughter)
Look at business. Standard business model: vision, mission, values, processes. Sounds very much like the journey through the wilderness to the promised land, with the commandments held by the leader. And if you comply, you will go to heaven.
But in India there is not “the” promised land. There are many promised lands, depending on your station in society, depending on your stage of life. Businesses are not run as institutions, by the idiosyncrasies of individuals. It’s always about taste. It’s always about my taste.
This is what India is today. The ground reality is based on a cyclical world view. So, it’s rapidly changing, highly diverse, chaotic, ambiguous, unpredictable. And people are okay with it. And then globalisation is taking place. The demands of modern institutional thinking is coming in. Which is rooted in one-life culture. And a clash is going to take place, like on the banks of the Indus.
So, then we come back to Alexander, and to the gymnosophist. And everybody asks me, “Which is the better way, this way or that way?” And it’s a very dangerous question. Because it leads you to the path of fundamentalism and violence.
Depending on the context, depending on the outcome, choose your paradigm. You see, because both the paradigms are human constructions. They are cultural creations, not natural phenomena. And so the next time you meet someone, a stranger, one request: Understand that you live in the subjective truth, and so does he. Understand it. And when you understand it you will discover something spectacular. You will discover that within infinite myths, lies the eternal truth. Who sees it all? Varuna has but a thousand eyes. Indra, a hundred. You and I, only two.
Reproduced with the author’s permission. To hear and view the talk go to: http://conferences.ted.com/TEDIndia/ Devdutt Pattanaik has transformed his passion for mythology into a career, constructing the work culture of the Future Group. www.devdutt.com
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