The mythological and historical perspectives define the impact that a particular culture has, often crafted as a means to exert dominance.
“The fundamental process of reality is, according to so called Hindu myth, hide-and-seek, or lost and found. That is the basis of all games. When you start to play with a baby, you take out a book and you hide your face behind it. Then you peek out at the baby, and then you peek out the other way, and the baby begins to giggle, because a baby, being near to the origins of things, knows intuitively that hide-and-seek is the basis of it all.”
– Alan Watts
There has always been a visible relationship between mythology and religion, though the pejorative connotation attached to a myth is a relatively recent phenomenon. Mythology shapes a narrative which a society or an ideology wants to convey for a number of possible reasons: political ambition, moral rectitude, spiritual transcendence, religious dogma, cosmogony, posterity, among others. It constantly develops with newer inputs, realizations, interpretations as time passes. Where actual spiritual realization starts and apparent fantasy begins is debatable, as often enough the subjective experience cannot be fully relied upon. The negative rendering of the term has been due to its apparent lack of historical basis from a modern western standpoint.
In academia, the term “myth” refers to stories whose culture regards them as true (as opposed to fictitious). Thus, many scholars will call a body of stories “mythology”, leaving open the question of whether the stories are true or false. In studies of mythology, a mytheme is a fundamental unit of a narrative structure (the relationship between a character, an event, and a theme) from which myths are constructed – commonly shared and reassembled in various ways.
To give meaning to the word Mythology, one may look again at this quote by Alan Watts:
“the word itself has different meanings for philosophers or scholars who look upon myths as a descriptive language so as to give an analogy of the events occurring in our realm.”
Religions tend to construct their origin stories through a transcendent experience, though how true the realization is for a guru or prophet is dependent upon the believer. So while one person’s “reality” is another’s “myth”, there is definitely a political element involved in judging either. From an Indic perspective, the dharmic faiths with their multiple philosophies (which are often critical of each other), use the route of scholarly debate to convince their opponents and aren’t concerned with the numbers they can snare. The need to proselytize is the domain of certain political ideologies which masquerade as religion, always pressing forward to capture a piece of the human soul pie.
A central point from where a religion takes shape is the creation story attached with it. Creation myths as such have existed since man developed the ability to visualize, all in the hope of trying to ascertain his place in the world. From ancient Sumerian to Cherokee cultures, ex nihilo i.e. “out of nothing” is the most common story told in which creation is explained through a dream, thought or bodily secretion of a divine being. The Rigveda and other Vedic texts are full of alternate cosmological theories, all offering different perspectives in trying to define Brahman. The origin story in Hinduism talks about Lila or the cosmic play which defines the origins of our existence. To ask a reason for the creation of the universe is inconsequential as Sri Aurobindo puts it:
“Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss.”
Cosmogony as per Hindu thought is cyclical in nature, with the creation and dissolution of the cosmos happening across time periods measured by kalpas (4,320 million human years). This belief is tough to fathom from a rational perspective due to how recent ‘human progress’ has been and even more so for relatively nascent religions as the chronology dwarfs their existence. The presence of millions of Gods across such large time scales, also brings in the western line of thinking to delegitimize such beliefs. Hence the carefully curated linear timeline of modern religion tends to question and then ultimately dismiss Hindu as well as other ancient beliefs as metaphysical and fatalist.
As the renowned mathematician and polymath CK Raju so aptly points out:
“Non-Western views of time have typically been represented in Western literature and scholarship by contrasting Western “linear” time with non-Western “cyclic” time. “Linear” time is endowed with a variety of positive properties: rationality, progress, “free will”, etc. while “cyclic” time is attached to a variety of negative properties: spirituality, stasis, fatalism.”
According to Prof CK Raju, the concept of linear and cyclic time is itself not that straightforward,
i) Superlinear time (scientific theory) where the state of the cosmos is fixed at any time when the initial state is known; such as described by Newton’s Laws of Motion.
ii) Mundane time (philosophy of science) where the future is dependent upon actions taken by humans; such as in an experiment and hence variable.
Also, he prefers to use quasi-cyclic instead of cyclic time to highlight that recurrence isn’t exact and neither eternal across yugas.
“situations of cosmic recurrence, it could be argued that time only seems superlinear because the time scale of cyclicity—the recurrence time—may be very large, just as the earth seems flat, although it is round, since it is very large. Thus, a “linear” picture of time, need not be in conflict with a “cyclic” picture of time.”
The soul cannot be deemed metaphysical because it is based on the axiomatic presupposition of vast cosmic scales, which may or may not be true but surely cannot be dismissed. So the karma-samsara belief extending across millions of years fits into such a model. On the other hand, you have people believing that every fossil ever found must have begun its fossilization process 6000 years ago, right after Adam’s sin introduced death and decay into our world. Abrahamic faith systems cannot come to terms with the inherent equality of each soul and the belief that all souls can eventually attain Moksha, as that would make conversion to their religion a futile exercise. Hence reincarnation was accordingly changed to resurrection—life after death, which just happens once after the end of the world when a certain God reappears.
As one famous comparative mythologist noted:
“The images of Myth are reflections of Spiritual and Depth potentialities of every one of us. Through contemplating those we evoke those powers in our own lives to operate through ourselves.” ― Joseph Campbell
Coming to how certain stories are deemed accurate and others myths, one just needs to look at the belief systems of say the Aztecs or the Greeks which are now consigned to the realm of make-believe. Rise and fall of cultures have existed since man came into being, but the annihilation of cultures on the single precept belief of an omnipotent & superior God has mostly been a product of the Current Era. If left to evolve naturally, most cultures are nourished by aspects of older ones so that continuity persists and people aren’t cut off from their roots.
A case in point being the Greco-Roman culture. According to Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 BC), the Greeks primordial deities, Chronos and Ananke gave birth to the 12 Titan gods. Their bloodline was further extended and the 12 Olympian gods were born. The Olympians won the battle against their parents (Titans) with Zeus reigning supreme from Mount Olympus as the King of the Gods. Now, the Romans despite having conquered Greece accepted their gods and made them as a part of their own pantheon. Each of the Gods of Greek origin had a parallel Roman God, for instance Artemis was also known to the Romans as Diana and Zeus was known to them as Jupiter. There was no Latinization of Greece as the Romans knew that the Greeks were more refined with a culture they hoped to emulate. Hence they took the alphabet, weights and measures, coinage, the building of temples and created a syncretic Greco-Roman culture unlike what was to follow from the Abrahamic faiths. The Greeks themselves according to Herodotus, got their ideas, customs, and religious beliefs from the Egyptians – which is why you read about the ancient Egyptian notion of the soul in the works of Plato. All of these ancient societies, despite forming huge empires through war, never subjugated the captured territories to their cultural beliefs and let them continue as before.
Once a fundamentalist Christian and now a science historian, Michael Shermer puts myths into perspective:
“Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers.”
One can draw a comparison between such efforts by the Romans with many instances in India where the tribal gods were incorporated into Hinduism and vice versa. In effect, Hinduism was built by the agglomeration of practices of many tribes along with the Vedic credo, which is why you see the diversity in beliefs. For instance, the Oraon tribals deity Biri-belas, ‘sun-lord’, has a parallel in Hinduism with its cult of Sûrya, as both traditions practise sun-worship. Endogamy, marriage outside a clan or gotra, belief in reincarnation, all are common to both. This process became systematized over time to form a more advanced and integrated collection, as tribes were no longer self-contained societies but building-blocks of a much larger and more complex union. Those who did not want to come into a broader fold were free to carry on with their lives, not in the least affected by Hinduism. Unlike the conjured up word Adivasis, which means original inhabitants, propagated by the Britishers in the hope of mapping European oppression in America and Australia of the native Americans and Aboriginals respectively, the Vedas mention the Vanvasis as forest dwellers, as they weren’t a part of mainstream society.
The difference between Dharmic and Abrahamic systems becomes much clearer in the way they approached Buddhism and continue to do so even now. While Buddhism dominated India from the Mauryan to the Gupta period, it was the rise of various Hindu sects: Vaishnavite, Shaivite, Tantric, Bhakti, that started competing for a following and eventually brought about the decline in Buddhism. These philosophies brought new vigour into the lives of Indians and Buddhism with its non-material pursuits and self-isolation died a slow death. While on the other hand, when the subsequent Islamic invasion of South Asia started, Buddhism’s non-violent principles capitulated in the face of marauding Islamic armies. They were wiped out and so were their religious monuments, institutions, and monasteries. While the Dharmic way is to win over a following through debate & intellectual superiority, the Abrahamic way has normally been through force or inducement.
Most countries in today’s time are at best imitative societies of a bygone era with little to call their own. Cultural and historical beliefs, genealogical knowledge, social and ethical practices, skills and technology are transmitted only if there is a continuous line. But when disrupted, people tend to take on the story of those who interceded and enforced a new way of life, eventually relegating their own indigenous culture to a myth.
References / Footnotes
– The Mythology of Hinduism by Alan Watts
– Time – Non-Western views by CK Raju
– Sri Aurobindo’s Lila – The Nature of Divine Play