Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self exploration via mythology

I have been reading a very interesting book. It seems to be generally regarded as a seminal work of comparative mythology. Its called 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' by Joseph Campbell. A sample extract from this book is given below:
The story is of a caravan leader from Benares, who made bold to conduct his richly loaded expedition of five hundred carts into a waterless demon wilderness. Forewarned of dangers, he had taken the precaution to set huge chatties filled with water in the carts, so that, rationally considered, his prospect of making the passage of not more than sixty desert leagues was of the best. But when he had reached the middle of the crossing, the ogre who inhabited that wilderness thought, "I will make these men throw away the water they took." So he created a cart to delight the heart, drawn by pure white young oxen, the wheels smeared with mud, and came down the road from the opposite direction. Both before him and behind marched the demons who formed his retinue, heads wet, garments wet, decked with garlands of water lilies both blue and white, carrying in their hands clusters of lotus flowers both red and white, chewing the fibrous stalks of water lilies, streaming with drops of water and mud. And when the caravan and the demon company drew aside to let each other pass, the ogre greeted the leader in a friendly manner. "Where are you going?" he politely asked. To which the caravan leader replied: "We, sir, are coming from Benares. But you are approaching decked with water lilies both blue and white, with lotus flowers both red and white in your hands, chewing the fibrous stalks of water lilies, smeared with mud, with drops of water streaming from you. Is it raining along the road by which you came? Are the lakes completely covered with water lilies both blue and white, and lotus flowers both red and white?"

The ogre: "Do you see that dark green streak of woods? Beyond that point the entire forest is one mass of water; it rains all the time; the hollows are full of water; everywhere are lakes completely covered with lotus flowers both red and white." And then, as the carts passed one after another, he inquired: "What goods do you have in this cart—and in that? The last moves very heavily; what goods do you have in that?" "We have water in that," the leader answered. "You have acted wisely, of course, in bringing water thus far; but beyond this point you have no occasion to burden yourself. Break the chatties to pieces, throw away the water, travel at ease.11 The ogre went his way, and when out of sight, returned again to his own city of ogres. Now that foolish caravan leader, out of his own foolishness, took the advice of the ogre, broke the chatties, and caused the carts to move forward. Ahead there was not the slightest particle of water. For lack of water to drink the men grew weary. They traveled until sundown, and then unharnessed the carts, drew them up in a contracted circle, and tied the oxen to the wheels. There was neither water for the oxen nor gruel and boiled rice for the men. The weakened men lay down here and there and went to sleep. At midnight the ogres approached from the city of ogres, slew the oxen and men, every one, devoured their flesh, leaving only the bare bones, and, having so done, departed. The bones of their hands and all their other bones lay scattered about in the four directions and the four intermediate directions; five hundred carts stood as full as ever.

This is a lovely story. A story that repeats itself again and again and again and again in our lives endlessly. While we all have our journeys to make, there are countless such ogres waiting within us and trying their level best to distract us from the journey to be made. The journey is worth its name only if there are many such ogres within that threaten it. Stories such as the above have dramatic scenes and endings and it is easy to spot the ogres there. But, in real life it requires a dedicated yogic practice to identify them.

The average human being has many competing dimensions within. The comparative strengths of these dimensions are mostly chosen by genetic and social factors. Amidst all these dimensions, the yogic tradition (most other spiritual traditions too) value one particular dimension immensely. It is the dimension of us that exhibits the ability to unconditionally observe everything with perfect equanimity, that is always in the present moment, that is untouched by impurities etc.

The yogic (and all other spiritual traditions IMO) contend that a life rooted on this dimension is a wholesome healthy life. Such a life can deal with these and countless other such ogres within skilfully and appropriately. Without us consciously identifying and cultivating this dimension in life, ones life tends to fritter away. We can all see families where spouses do not talk to each for decades or relentlessly fight with each other for decades, where siblings do not talk to each other etc etc. This could happen to any one of use. Real yogis consciously chose to cultivate the aforementioned dimension and thereby preclude these things from happening in their lives by systematically and optimally dealing with all distractions. But for the rest, if such a catastrophic life has not descended upon them, then it can only be considered to be a mere stroke of luck. These things are just waiting to happen. The ogres within are waiting to strike. Traditionally (in the yoga parampara) asana / pranayama is practised to cultivate this dimension and make it the strongest within. Other traditions too aim at the same thing but have different practices (pooja / silent sitting etc). It has to be made strong by regular daily practice. Then, they become the strongest dimension within and ones life is inseparably rooted to it. Using that as the centre, all the ogres within are captured and many an interesting journey can be realised. 

This same idea is expressed again and again through various mythological stories! Unless one explores the contents of ones mind, the human condition etc, all these myths will remain in our lives as children's fables (which is how most western educated people see them these days). It is a sad reality today that even those for whom these stories are part of family tradition, do not value them and disregard them.

But, when one really gets in touch with ones psyches contents and tries to shape it, these myths come alive in spectacular multicolor!

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