The Meaning of Myth (II)


s we can see, celebrations and paths for others to follow. Their lives —including prayers and themselves were the stuff of . Their re- Ameditation—centring on a sacred enactment of myths was on a totally myth are meant to invoke and make manifest different level than what ordinary people can the divine presence that is already within us. do. himself realized this and As this divine presence is often seen in terms told his disciples: ‘I’ve done sixteen parts. of a myth, the rituals used vary according to Now you do one part.’ And for most of the the myth as well as the culture that sustains rest of us, we cannot do even one-sixteenth that myth. For instance, the that is used of that one part. But that does not mean we to invoke the myth associated with Black cannot internalize their lives. In fact, when Elk would not be the same as the rituals used we internalize their lives, we get the benefit to invoke the myths associated with Ràma or of the power from their spiritual practices. or Christ. The languages and But besides such spiritual practices, cultural symbology for them are completely there are other ways that myths can be different. ritualized and developed. Myths are often Rituals and sacred myths have a close retold in various ways. In fact, in India it is relationship as they are both meant to help not enough to have just one story of Ràma. us manifest the divine within us. Rather, people rejoice in the many different Celebrations and rituals keep the power of tellings of Ràma’s life. And no one cares if the myths alive, and myths give the rituals some stories contradict others. For there will meaning. And here, by the term ‘ritual’, we always be a telling that resonates with can also include the re-enactment and someone. Writers have even written the development of myths. whole story from the point of view of Sità, We have seen how St. Francis re- giving it a whole new perspective. enacted Christ’s life in his own life. This is One can also develop a myth by adding the highest ideal and is basically the whole another layer of story to it. For instance, an point of rituals. We see this also in the lives opera written about 60 years ago by Gian of Ramakrishna and Chaitanya. Many of Carlo Menotti called ‘Amahl and the Night Ramakrishna’s sadhanas, in fact, were re- Visitors’ develops the story of ’s birth enactments of mythological stories. This was in Bethlehem, and points out the blessing it the case with Chaitanya also. was for the world. Menotti takes the story of Yet these great souls did more than this. the Three Kings (or Wise Men) from the They did not just re-enact myths. Rather, East and imagines a background incident they re-awakened these myths through the that takes place on their journey to power of their spiritual practices, creating Bethlehem. In this story the kings stop for a

Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture  June 2018 11 PRAVRAJIKA SHUDDHATMAPRANA

night at the hut of a poor widow, who has an evoking and energy-directing sign. A only child, a son who is crippled. We know mythology is a system of affect or emotional that this story is not historical, yet it images; these representations themselves beautifully imagines a scene that gives produce this emotion or affect. Our own mythology, yours and mine, is human faces to the kings and to people who our particular heritage of affect images. interact with them. When a myth is Look, however, at what has been done to developed in this way, people who watch it our mythology. On the rational level, the can identify with the story and feel a images are said to be absurd and, therefore, relationship with that very person—Jesus— to have no meaning. Our rational system who is never shown in the opera, but whose thus breaks their connections and makes presence is the very life of the story. their energy unavailable to us, in our lives.7 In fact, the so-called ‘rational’ mind Myths and culture simply cannot fathom the infinite expanse of As we see all over the world, myths are the spiritual realm. This is because when it the very basis of culture. The world’s most comes to spiritual truths, the whole is always beautiful music, art, architecture, sculpture, going to be greater than the sum of the parts. stories, and poetry are inspired by myth and The rational mind always tries to add up and . Though some themes are repeated calculate those parts—the ones that it can again and again by different poets and grasp. Yet so much is left out. Above the artists, we can see that this repetition can rational mind there is another state—a state even increase the effect of the sacred myth, of intuition—that grasps spiritual truths rather than decrease it. intuitively. That is the realm of sacred In Rainer Maria Rilke’s set of poems myths. Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), he But, as Huston Smith pointed out, our imagines Mary’s joy as well as her whole educational system nowadays is apprehension when she learned from the focused on training the rational aspect of our angel that she would give birth to Christ, the mind, to the exclusion of all else. Huston Messiah. But Rilke also gives voice to her Smith himself was brought to MIT to help utter grief at the death of her son. develop a Humanities program for this very Michelangelo too has depicted this same reason—to try to bring a balance to the total scene in his beautiful sculpture called absorption in science and technology that ‘Pieta’. All of these are ways to develop and was happening there. But it seems Huston celebrate a sacred myth. And in this very did not feel there was much chance of celebration, we ourselves can mentally re- success with that—at least during his time. enact the myth by visualizing and taking on As he wrote in his book, Why Religion Mary’s emotions. Matters, ‘When I asked a scientist [at MIT] But how hard it is to stop the rational how he and his colleagues regarded us mind from rejecting all this, especially in humanists, he answered affably, “We don’t this era dominated by science, technology, even bother to ignore you guys.”’8 and consumerism. Regarding this, Joseph Though the attitude of this MIT scientist Campbell said: may seem startling to us, this was not the A mythological image is one that evokes and only experience like this Huston faced there. directs psychological energy. It is an energy- Perhaps Huston should have responded, ‘But

12 Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture  June 2018 THE MEANING OF MYTH (II) in years to come, when tragedy strikes, or tastes—something to suit everyone. you are close to death, how will you regard So how do we reverse the modern trend us then?’ with its total focus on the rational mind? also pointed this out: What we need now is to show people how ‘For example,’ Campbell said, ‘when sacred myths are relevant in our lives. As we disaster strikes, when you meet with a great have seen again and again in recent years, calamity, what is it that supports you and stories of heroes and heroines become carries you through? Do you have anything especially popular when made into movies. that supports and carries you through? Or The ‘’ movies are a case in point. does that which you thought was your The heroic personalities of these movies are support now fail you? That is the test of the easily internalized by children and young myth, the building myth, of your life.’9 people. A genuine myth touches our inmost self Now we need to do this with some of so deeply that our life gradually becomes the great saints of different religious centred around it. As Campbell says, in traditions. It is the lives of great souls that times of difficulties it is what holds our life inspire other lives—even more so than their together. teachings. This is why films make such a Swami Siddheswarananda once said: great impact. In fact, we can see this in the ‘Myth is the very foundation of life. The tremendous impact that Richard modern mind’s rejection of mythology as a Attenborough’s movie on Gandhi made in source of inspiration and faith has deprived the 1980s. India has been making such it of a great aid to spiritual struggle.’10 movies and television programmes for many After all, our ultimate goal is to realize years. But due to the low-budget productions our own divine nature, and myths are meant and the strong cultural overtones in these to take us there. But if we are not aiming so movies audiences cannot appreciate high, then at least we all understand that we them. have a deep longing to attain true love, joy, In the West several film versions of the and peace. Mythology offers us a myriad of life of Jesus were done in the and 70s, paths to help us in this also. All we need to and at least one of them was widely do is find a path that suits us and follow it to acclaimed. That was Franco Zeffarelli’s its end. ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. A film on St. Francis, ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’, was also quite Fountainhead of religion successful—though St. Francis’s life was so Myths are like the fountainhead of romanticized in it that it was barely religion. The source of the fountain—that is, recognizable. Still, these films had a the ultimate reality of life—lies hidden message for their day. underground, but how many of us could These were a good start. But now we discover that underground spring without the need new films for a new generation with a fountain? This is why we rejoice in having message for our time, and with a universal the fountain and celebrate it for its saving appeal. Though spiritual truths and teachings grace. And so much the better when we find are timeless and beyond cultural overtones, there are many such fountains of various they still need to be re-presented now and

Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture  June 2018 13 PRAVRAJIKA SHUDDHATMAPRANA

then—especially in stories of saints. For realization. And we should not be shy about example, to put emphasis on the harmony of presenting them as such. , saints and saviours of various But most of all, we need to emphasize religions need to be presented. Moreover, that all these great souls are paradigms for the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami us. We need to present their lives in such a Vivekananda—besides being great way that their lives and message can be exemplars of religious harmony—also bear internalized by everyone. For this is the true witness to the reality and necessity of - meaning of myth. „


7 Thou Art That, by Joseph Campbell, ed. by 9 Thou Art That, p. 24. Eugene Kennedy (Novato, California: New 10 Learning, Listening, Loving, The Life of World Library, 2001), p. 86. Swami Siddheswarananda, by Swami 8 Why Religion Matters, by Huston Smith Yogeshananda (Hollywood: Press, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 67. 2017), pp. 122-23.

(Continued from page 10) The advantages of the digital method worry about leaving your fingers at home. are obvious. You may have to worry But the digital method has its own about losing your rosary, but you never problems. You may find it distracting to have to worry about losing your fingers. keep track of which digit comes next in the Neither do you have to worry that sequence. Your guru will tell you which somebody might steal your fingers. You method to use, and show you how to use it, might leave your rosary at home when at the time of . „ you want to use it, but you never have to (To be concluded)


1 Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Companion, Vedanta Press, Hollywood, Practice of the Presence of God, 1947, p. 129. Translated by John J. Delaney, Image 4 Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Books, Doubleday, , 1996, Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna Math, p. xxi. Chennai, Fourth Edition, 1986, p. 397. 2 M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, See also , Sri Sarada Translated by Swami Nikhilananda, New Devi, The Holy Mother : Her Teachings York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, and Conversations, Skylight Path 1947, p. 312. Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2004, 3 Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal pp. 25-26.

* The writer, who prefers anonymity, is a teacher who was initiated by Swami Akhilananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda.

14 Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture  June 2018