Over 2500 years ago, Greek bards narrated “mythos”, stories, that sought to make sense of the world. Greek philosophers preferred “logos”, reason, to make sense of the world. For the Greek elite, the preference for logos was indicative of education; only “barbarians” preferred mythos. From this ancient divide stems the modern preference for philosophy over mythology, concepts over stories.
This divide, however, is superficial. For both mythology and philosophy present the same idea: the former communicates through a story, along with symbols and rituals, while the latter uses precise language. Mythology creates a more visceral experience, and so appeals to everyone, not just the intellectual.
If Greek bards spoke of heroes who fight chaos and seek cosmos or order, Greek philosophers talked of shadowy caves of ignorance and the sunlit world of wisdom outside. What were shadows to a philosopher was chaos to a bard. What was sunlight to a philosopher was cosmos to a bard.
If there was a difference between the Greek philosopher and the Greek bard, it was this: the former shared what he understood whereas the latter simply transmitted what he received.
But neither really abandoned the finite linear structure: from chaos to order, from shadows to sunlight, from here to there.
Greek mythology has always been at loggerheads with Abrahamic mythology, which forms the basis of Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths. Greek mythology placed greater value on the individual contemplation of nature and culture, while Abrahamic mythology demands submission to a supernatural force.
Yet, the two have much in common: both follow a finite linear structure. Instead of chaos, Abrahamic mythology speaks of the wilderness of false gods, and instead of cosmos, it speaks of the Promised Land of the one true God of Abraham. If Greek mythology is about destination, adventure and discovery, Abrahamic mythology is about frustrated adventurers returning to a lost home.
The struggle between these two finite linear mythologies, Greek and Abrahamic, shapes much of Western thought. Modern secular thought is in fact just another “avatar” of Greek mythology and philosophy, and this becomes evident when we see Western history as a series of attempts to define what constitutes shadows and what constitutes sunlight: many gods, one god, or no god. The West here refers to the worlds that stretch from Persia and Arabia, through Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, to Europe – and now, America.
- Ancient Greeks sought “theory”, which means to see (orao) the divine (theoin), or the world as it is, which mirrors the Hindu concept of “darshan”.
- Popular discomfort with mythology is rooted in the Greek disdain for the non-intellectual, and Abrahamic disdain for any alternative narratives, which informs even modern scientific education systems around the world.
- Mythology in its most primal form is constituted by rituals, from which symbols and stories emerge. These are different forms of language.
- Under colonial rule, many Indian intellectuals gave preference to the lofty ideas of the Upanishads, and mimicked the Western disdain for Puranic stories and temple rituals of the common folk.
From Imperialism to Nation States
Science focuses on facts and with more facts and more ways to make sense of them, scientific truth expands. Religious truth, however, remains static. Naturally, with scientific facts challenging fundamental assumptions about the material world, religious truth failed to satisfy. So scientists turned to Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for answers.
The rediscovery of Greek philosophy in Europe, however, was not accompanied by a resurgence of Greek mythology, except with a sense of nostalgia. People preferred the story of one god to the stories of many gods. This curious mixing of Greek philosophy and Christian theology resulted in a new wave of thinking that gave rise to what we now called secularism.
Secular philosophers, like the ancient Greeks, valued individual thinking, but unlike ancient Greeks, they insisted on equality and liberty of man, which were Christian values. Humanists like Kant, Rousseau and Hegel believed in the power of reason that enabled humans to break free from nature. But anti-humanists like Nietzsche, Marx and Freud questioned the very rationality of humanity, and attributed all actions to unconscious motives. If humanists de ned cosmos, anti-humanists saw chaos in cosmos. Everything in life became “problematic”, a shadow, intensifying the yearning for sunlight.
In the march towards the twenty-first century, empires collapsed, colonies transformed into nation states, theories such as Evolution and the Big Bang emerged, atheism rose alongside science, technology, industrialisation and capitalism, and religion came to be seen as the prime cause of fundamentalist terrorism. But seekers of social justice and human rights still function like evangelical missionaries, determined to convert the world, to drag people into the sunlight. There is talk of the “good fight” for the “good life”. But this quest for cosmos seems to be plunging the world further into chaos.
From Nation States to Globalisation
Today, the West sees itself in a post-mythic, post-religious, post-structural modern world.
But the mythic eye does not agree.
Modernity firmly clings to the finite linear structure. In journalism as well as Hollywood movies, the hero myth dominates. The political discourse presents authority figures as overbearing Titans who need to be overthrown by young Olympians. Doctors look at disease as pathologies (monsters) to be overcome by medical and surgical intervention. Reaching a target in the world of business is considered an Olympian triumph. Technology is the new ambrosia, meant for all.
The clash between humanists and anti-humanists, structuralists and post-structuralists, mirrors the conflict between Apollonian clarity and Dionysian mysteries, over whom Zeus has to prevail.
This modern/secular/Greek worldview force-fits Hindu mythology into Greek or Christianity templates.
Thus Hindu devas become “phallic” like Hermes, and “rapists” like Zeus, and asuras are explained as Christian demons, or Greek Titans. So the worldview establishes that India is in the shadows and in need of sunlight. It dismisses all talk of rebirth as mere superstition, failing to see the impact of this idea on the Indic mind.
Indic mythologies – Hindu, Buddhist and Jain – do not follow the linear structure that Greek storytellers (from chaos to cosmos) or Greek philosophers (from faith to reason) or Christian missionaries (from many gods to one god) or scientists and activists (from unjust feudal faith to fair egalitarian development) prefer. It has its own structure: a cyclical one.
Western mythology propagates the idea that the world is in need of changing, either by Greek heroes, or by Abrahamic prophets and kings, or by scientists, activists and capitalists. Indic mythology presents the idea that the world is constantly changing, human intervention notwithstanding.
There are no heroes or villains, no oppressor or oppressed, no saviour or martyr, just different ways of looking at reality. That is why the West sees itself as masculine, active, decisive, violent and straightforward, and qualifies Indic ideas as feminine, passive, ambiguous, non-violent yet cunning.
In terms of the “allegory of the cave”, Indian sages valued the sunlight outside as well as the shadows inside. What is sunlight for some people will be shadows for others. If one is in sunlight in one context, one is in the shadows in another.
The seeker is therefore encouraged to observe with empathy – rather than argue with – contrary points of view. Here, subjectivity is given as much value as objectivity, and the journey is towards plurality, not singularity. The point is not to replace false knowledge with true knowledge; the point is to expand the mind to accommodate all kinds of knowledge.
The West dismisses the Indic worldview as chaos, thus closing its mind to any new possibility but its own. Not surprisingly, there are many books by Western scholars that “explain” Hindu mythology, but very few by Indian scholars that bother to “observe” Western mythology.
Excerpted with permission from Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, Devdutt Pattanaik.