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Thursday, July 09, 2020

In Good Faith: Balancing the myth

The stories of great religious traditions are needed to make sense of the world. In their stagnation, lie dangers of fundamentalism

Written by Raj Ayyar | Updated: June 25, 2018 10:33:59 am
In Good Faith: Balancing the myth Mythology as a seed can transform our lives. But now, I want to demythologise the myth, not to be ornery or perverse, but to show the dangers when we get caught-up in our own language traps and the maps of our mind.

A mystic is not the same as a psychic. Mystics can be psychic; however, they do not pursue the activity. A mystic journeys the spiritual life. Ultimately he/she experiences the “hidden” found in the “great mystery traditions”.

Plato says in the Timaeus, “Whenever we are talking about matters human or divine, all we have are likely stories.”

Even in the sciences with their empirical methodology, Plato urged us to be tentative. Yet, like little children huddling around a campfire, we need the stories to give our lives meaning and to sustain society. If you look at the mystery traditions of the world, all of them specialise in storytelling.

Mythology as a seed can transform our lives. But now, I want to demythologise the myth, not to be ornery or perverse, but to show the dangers when we get caught-up in our own language traps and the maps of our mind.

One of the ways, we get trapped in myth is the ever-present danger of fundamentalism. When a culture hero, an idea, or a sacred book is taken with dead literalness, the advocates of this approach believe they are uniquely saved. Out of this salvation, they believe they can degrade the lifestyles, the myths, and the beliefs of others.

From being enamoured, to understanding the myth as literal, to the bashing of others, there is a grim predictable regression to rather low levels of being, levels that can be explained by the Jungian concept of “shadow-projecting”.

In the inspired words of the prophet Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, the teachings of the Jewish traditions of Hasidism and the Kabbalah, and in many Hindu myths, we find the admonitions not to judge. Judgement gives us licence to ignore the beam in our own eye and magnify the speck in the other’s eye.

A delicate balance exists for the need of myth and the second danger, the stagnation of a myth. We tell the same myth over and over as if the myth explains all the facets of our self. We need to have the creativity to change our stories. Often times, the stories are so dismal: “I always attract losers into my life. I never seem to have enough money. I always fall short of success. Things work out for other people. Why couldn’t that be me?” Negative myths keep us ensnared; they foreshadow events.

We get remarkable insights into the use of language from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says, “Philosophy very often leads us to the situation of being like a fly trapped in a fly bottle. Philosophers are often trapped in their own language.” The words of our metaphors and myths have ensnared us. The challenge is to resist the lure of the negative myth or stagnant myth and move on. In Zen terms, it is the case of mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

The via negativa, the negative path to God, Goddess, or “All That Is” has been just as important in the great spiritual traditions of the world. The via negativa points out what God is not, rather than what God is. There is a severe debunking of metaphors, mystical visions, or of any attribute definitely pointing to that reality.

Meister Eckhart, the famous Catholic mystic drew a distinction between God and the Godhead. God is represented in religious art, religious poetry, in the rituals that churches hold near and dear. Metaphors like the “Good Shepherd”, image of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, and the Trinity are representational of the divine. Eckhart said the Godhead is not any of those. The Godhead can only be defined by saying what it is not. Eckhart said the most tragic leave-taking is saying good-bye to God so that one can prepare oneself for the encounter with the Godhead.

The Hindu god Shiva is the ultimate god of paradox. Shiva is the god of chastity and celibacy who sits on top of the Himalayas meditating for umpteen years. Yet, Shiva is also the god of frenzied lovemaking who makes love to Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas for 300 years non-stop.

Shiva is the celibate and the lover, the god of destruction, and yet the ultimate of tenderness. He is the god who is friendly to outcasts and loved by certain Brahmins, the god of death and the god of life. Shiva the eternal dancer and the eternal drummer. If you are talking about the tabla or jazz drums, any kind of drum is acknowledging the archetype Shiva.

When the drumming starts, we come into the flame surrounding Shiva, the dancing drummer and when the drum beat stops, it is time for us exist the great stage of existence. Shiva, Nataraja is the lord of the dance and the lord of the chaos that generated the universe. He is androgynous and yet in most Hindu temples he is worshipped as an erect stone phallus.

What are we to make of this terrifying and pleasing god? He is a symbol of life in all of its aspects. We are trained to think in “either-or”. Most logic is binary. In ancient India, as in many other cultures, “either-or”, “good or bad” has its severe limitations. Binary logic has high-tech value. However, when it comes to life, emotions, and the messy fuzzy nature of existence, two-valued logic is useless.

The whole point of the Shiva archetype is to overwhelm. It gives us a sense of the inadequacies of our own logic, being trapped in our own myth or metaphor. Shiva is showing us the need for that “both-and” flexibility where we cherish and enjoy every myth and art form only to constantly go beyond them. In the process of mythos, there is a constant transcendence. Instead of all the stuff that keeps us repeating the mistakes, the stuff of real-life soap operas, Shiva urges us to the motion of cherishing, savouring, and moving on. In this process, embrace the paradoxes and the contradictions of being human and being in the world.

The writer is full-time visiting professor (social sciences and humanities), IIIT-Delhi

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