Mythology of conversion
POLITICS | Long-form | 29-12-2014
Devdutt Pattanaik @devduttmyth
Observe how you react when you read the word "mythology". You are conditioned to believe it means "falsehood". Where did this conditioning, and meaning, come from? It comes from Christianity and secularism and science, the Western kind. And this has been accepted as "the" truth by many educated Indians – from the cult leaders of the liberal Left, to the gurus of the conservative right, even scriptwriters of Bollywood. Reveals how much of education has become indoctrination.
The word "mythos" means stories in Greek. Stories construct a worldview that is transmitted from generation to generation, shaping cultures. It is this story that binds people, turns them into a community. Every community in the world, from the Kalahari bushmen of Africa to the investment bankers of Wall Street, from aborigines of Australia to the brahmins of Varanasi, from the bishops in the Vatican to the Arabs of Mecca, has a worldview, a myth, about the nature of the world. Everyone in the community views their story as the truth. They have to. It is the glue that keeps their people together. The outsider finds these stories strange – weird, fantastic, absurd, stupid. Hence the twin meaning of myth – truth and falsehood. It is the assumption of the insider, and the judgment of the outsider. In other words, subjective truth.
For the Christian, Jesus is the saviour. For the Muslim, Muhammad is the last prophet. For the Buddhist, life is suffering. For the older Thervada Buddhist school, there was only one Buddha. In the latter Mahayana Buddhist school, there were many Buddhas. For the Hindu, there is rebirth. For the Shaivite, Shiva can break the cycle of rebirth. For the Vaishnavite, Vishnu is the cycle breaker. For the Jain, the world has no beginning or ending. For the secularist, religion is bad. For the capitalist, money is good. For the communist, the haves oppress the have-nots. For patriarchy, heterosexual men are superior. For the atheist, god is fiction. For the scientist, that which is measurable is real.
Notice how "myth" stretches from religious world to the non-religious world. For everyone tells stories, incredible stories, that some want to believe and some don’t. Storytelling is human. Story believing is human. Myth making is the indicator of humanity.
This poses a problem: how to distinguish the truth from falsehood? Reportage from propaganda. Ideology from reality. Ontology (knowledge independent of the mind) from epitemiology (knowledge created by the mind).
To understand this, we have to study the mythology of Abrahamic religions.
Why Abrahamic religions? Two reasons. First, Abrahamic religions have a profound political power, shaping Western/modern/global discourse, in more ways than we can imagine. Second, from Abrahamic religion we have our conventional understanding of "there can be only one truth!"
Abrahamic religions speak of "false gods" and "one true God". This idea is rather unique to Abrahamic mythology. There is the jealous god who does not like false gods, the god who refuses to be contained within a form and is formless, though is represented in language and art using the masculine form. Those who aligned to this mythology rejected all other gods. To prove their faith, they actively toppled other gods. Thus, when Christianity spread to Northeast India in the 20th century, the older tribal religions were wiped out. Memories were erased. Rituals forgotten. Exactly what happened in Arabia and Persia after the rise of Islam in the eighth century.
The Greeks did not have the concept of the "false" god. They had many gods. New gods kept coming in and old gods kept losing ground. The strong Olympians overpowered the earlier Titans. Eventually, the all-powerful god of the Christians kicked every god out when the Roman empire turned Christian. This was important to control the empire. The cacophony of many was replaced by the directives of the One. Notice this trend in recent times in India – where many clamour for dictatorship, and reject the vast diversity of languages in favour of a single language.
But then Greek mythology resurrected itself - not the gods, but their story. The dominant theme of Greek thought is about oppression and rebellion. To stay oppressed is to be in hell. The point of life is to fight back such authoritarian oppression, take a stand and be heroic. Greeks loved individualistic heroes and the polis (the city center) where rule was by consensus of individuals. With Greek thought came the European Renaissance of the 15th century, which challenged the church, and the idea of god, the idea of King, and gave rise to the Protestant movement (where the church is rejected but not god) as well as the relatively recent atheistic movement (where both church and god are rejected).
In its purest form, science does not judge. Science says: I know what I measure; the rest I don’t know. But science emerged in Christian Europe and so like the Abrahamic God, science became a judge. Science started to say: What I measure is true; the rest is falsehood. Thus the division of true and falsehood, spread into philosophy and science. Earlier, the Greek differentiated between two kinds of truth: that which is created by stories (mythos) and that which is created by reason (logos). Under Christian influence, mythos became falsehood and logos became truth, the truth, and nothing but the truth. Thus the Abrahamic God, overthrown by the Renaissance, fought back and made its way right into the speeches of the most radical militant atheists. This Christianised Science, where truth and falsehood were repeatedly demarcated, made its way to every corner of the world through missionary schools and the modern education system that adopted the missionary method.
Hinduism is not based on the notion of "false" gods and "true" gods. Hinduism has no concept of "judges". Truth is seen very differently. There is limited truth or mithya and limitless truth that is satya. The finite human mind can never appreciate the infinity of the world. But the mind can be expanded – by practices of propagated by hermits such as yoga and tapasya and tantra. Only the sage can see all. He is therefore Buddha, he whose intelligence (buddhi) is fully formed. He is therefore bhagavan, he who sees all parts (bhaga). In Jainism and Buddhism, the sage is a great teacher. In Hinduism, the sage is god, who defies the mortal body. God of Hinduism is limitless (ananta). This limitless god can "contract" himself and "bring himself down to the level of mortals". From here comes the concept of "avatar" (he who descends). From his mountaintop, Shiva sees all. But he is isolated up there. So the goddess brings him down to the plains, to Kashi, where the gaze is restricted by the horizon.
God who is "limitless" is very different from god who rejects the "false". The one is accommodating of human limitations. The other cannot tolerate human weakness. The one has no sense of urgency for it sees fear of death as delusion. The other wants to save the world before falsehood claims the world. The one is at peace. The other is always at war. Guess which god dominates the modern world.
Ironically, Hindu Right wing have started adopting the Abrahamic version of God. And the Left wing seems to agree with this definition of god. It has become the only definition of god, endorsed even by atheists and Bollywood.
The limitless god is too passive – it does not indulge cult leaders. Cult leaders want to be admired as heroes, and so they need villains. So they construct "false gods" – missionaries and secularists. They reject post-modern definitions of mythology. For them myth is "falsehood" not "subjective truth". The latter definition does not serve their ambitions. There is an epidemic of cult leaders in the Right wing, desperate seeking power, each one a jealous god. They don’t care for any truth but their own. So they tell stories, of how Hinduism is under threat and how everyone needs to be alert and fight back. But there is one key clause in a cult leaders story that often goes unnoticed: to win the battle against Christian missionaries, you have to recognise only their version of Hinduism with them as its true articulator. This they make themselves the chosen one! Other than cult followers, everyone can see the irony.
We often forget that one of the earliest form of "conversion" can be traced to Buddhism. It did this without force, without violence– through one leader (Buddha), one clear doctrine and set of rules (Dhamma), and through institutions (the Sangha). Buddhist monks did not speak of any "true" or "false" god, but he did offer the "cure for worldly suffering" revealed by his leader. For the common folk, this made Buddha, the source of the solution, a larger than life being, greater than man – a god! So eventually, ignoring earlier practices, gigantic images of Buddha started appearing, and being worshipped, in Central Asia, China and South East Asia. He who did not care for the gods, became a god. And when he became god, the many Gods of the Puranas, from Shiva to Kali to Krishna, ended up overshadowing him.
Many believe that Jesus was greatly influenced by Buddhism in his "lost years" and was inspired to create the "church", an idea that was alien to the earlier Jewish faith. When the church became powerful, the Roman empire adopted it. Instead of conquering tax-paying land for Rome, they new generals began conquering souls for the one true god. Later, with the rise of Science, god became secular "money" and the age of enlightenment became the age of colonisation. Secular thought propagated itself on the principles of the church – lessons of conversion informed many a marketing department. Brands became the new gods. Rockstars became the new gods.
We forget that stories influence stories. Just as Buddhism can influence Christianity, and Christianity can influence Capitalism and Communism, and the story of the "one true God" can influence truth-seeking scientists. Likewise, the story of the "limitless god" of Hinduism can also influence the limited truths of terrorists and activists.
Conversion believes that only one story will prevail at the end. Re-conversion believes that some stories are under threat. The tangible form of stories – customs, rituals, symbols – may die. The language (vac, in Vedas) may die but not the thought (manas, in Vedas). The intangible form of each and every story is eternal (sanatan, in the Vedas) and ever-changing (a-nitya, in the Vedas). Thus is how Vedic ideas survived despite the rise of Buddhism - reframing ideas locked in esoteric rituals into entertaining epics. This is why the Hindu concept of "history" is "a-historical". The limits of time are broken. The story, or rather idea of the story, belongs not just to the past but also to the present and the future. It recurs always. Conversion and re-conversion, conquest and liberation, follow each other like the recurring battle of the devas and the asuras. So it was, so it is and so it will be. Iti-hasa, even if the Hindu Right wing does not want to believe it.