What is the purpose of life? What happens after death? Ask these questions to a young person and he is as clueless as an old person. When it comes to such profound questions the youth today are no different from their ancestors. Yes, they have cell phones, and cars, and access to more money and a faster lifestyle, but their soul still yearns for those eternal questions that have eluded answers since the dawn of time.
Answers to these are never rational. Typically, people will slip into metaphysics and philosophy and try to give an answer based not on facts but on faith. Faith speaks a language that is indifferent to rationality. This language is called myth. Myth is the subjective truth of a community.
Christians believe Jesus was resurrected three days after he was crucified. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad flew on a horse to Jerusalem and thence to Heaven. Hindus believe Ram did live in Ayodhya and he did fight Ravan in Lanka. Are these objective realities or subjective truths? For the outsider, such faith may seem incredible and irrational. But it is uplifting and fulfilling to the insider. We forget that sacred thoughts feel no need to legitimise themselves through logic. Unconditional acceptance forms the foundation of faith.
We have placed rational thought on a pedestal, and often qualify faith as superstition – the refuge of lesser people. We would like to believe that our decisions in life are rational – but they never are. Can you rationally explain why your body is male or female? The X and Y chromosome answer only explain ‘how’ you came to have male or female biology – it does not explain ‘why’.
Christians consider Jesus as their saviour. Muslims consider Muhammad as the final prophet. These titles, ‘saviour’ and ‘prophet’ make sense only if one believes that humankind needs rescuing, that humankind has fallen. And that brings us to the idea of the Original Sin. Is the Original Sin a historical event? Can that be objectively proved? Belief in the overarching narrative of the Original Sin is essential for Jesus to be saviour and Muhammad to be prophet. Both Christianity and Islam are founded on the presupposition of the Original Sin. Hinduism, however, is not.
The subjective truth of the Hindus is quite different. Hindu texts therefore make no reference to prophets or saviours. They refer instead to avatars. An avatar is not the son of God or the messenger of God; an avatar is God descending on earth to set things right. Ram is an avatar. Krishna is an avatar.
Is an avatar a historical figure? Yes, says the Right-Wing politician. No, says the Left-Wing politician. Since both Ram and Krishna are avatars of Vishnu, are they the same person living two different lives in two different periods or two different people in two different times? Suddenly there is hesitation. How can two historical figures be the same individual? Logic and rationality fail once again.
Now let us ask a more difficult question. How many Rams are there? If Ram is a historical figure, there can be only one Ram. But the scriptures do not agree. According to the scripture, the world goes through cycles of birth and death. In each world-cycle, known as Kalpa in Sanskrit, there is a Ram in the Treta Yuga and a Krishna in a Dvapara Yuga. There have been countless Kalpas before the one we exist in; and there will be countless Kalpas after we exist in. In each Kalpa, there will be Ram and Krishna.
Just as the Biblical context does not make sense without belief in the Original Sin, the Hindu context does not make sense without belief in a world that goes through unending and repeated cycles of birth and death.
Science does not make any room for the notion of Kalpa. Science does not make room for the idea that the world was created in seven days. Scholars argue, that ideas such as Creation in Seven days, Original Sin, Fall of Man, Kalpa, Yugas are all symbolic – and must not be taken literally. But they are taken literally. In the USA, even today, there are schools which refuse to teach Evolution to man because it goes against the belief of Creation. Likewise, in India, there is one school of thought that insists Ram is historical reality while another is determined to dismiss Ram as poetic fantasy. The former is trying to legitimise the faith of a people through science. The latter is trying to mock faith as the ‘opium of the masses’.
Rational thought assumes that there is only one logical truth out there. There isn’t. Different people see the world differently and have different truths.
All this tension emerges because of a fundamental assumption that if an event is historical then it is real, legitimate. This assumption is rooted in the belief – what is rational is real.
Try this one – translate the word ‘evil’ in any Indian language. You cannot. Why? Because, ‘evil’ is a Biblical term and means ‘that which is devoid of divinity’. In Hinduism, as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, the whole world is God. Hence everything is divine, nothing is not divine, hence nothing is evil. Thus, the notion of evil is not universal, but cultural, not logical but mythological.
That is why in Hindu scriptures, demons, Rakshasas and Asuras are also respected. Ravana and Kumbhakarna, the great villains of the epic Ramayan, are considered as avatars of Vishnu’s doorkeepers, Jaya and Vijaya, who were cursed to be reborn as demons. Vishnu descends on earth as Ram, says the Bhagavata Purana, only to liberate his cursed doorkeepers so that they can return to his heavenly abode, Vaikuntha.
We forget that Asuras are both good and bad in scriptures: Hiranakashipu who is killed by Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar is an Asura; Prahalad, his son, is also Asura. Thus, Asuras are good and bad. Rakshasas are also good and bad – Vibhishan, who turned against Ravan, is a Rakshasa too.
Most people narrate the Ramayan without an in-depth understanding of Hindu scriptures. They see the scripture in isolation. Hence, they cannot reconcile such ideas. How can both the good Vibhishan and the bad Kumbhakarna be Rakshasas? Are not Rakshasas demons? And so, they try and rationalise it – they say they are born of different mothers (they are not). And in comic books they show Kumbhakarna as dark and ugly and Vibhishan as fair and handsome. Now is it rational to equate darkness and ugliness with the bad and equate fairness and beauty with the good?
In 2006, Virgin comics came up with Ramayan 3392 AD ostensibly to appeal to the younger generation that prefers DC comic heroes. If one looks at the entire premise of the story, one realises that the storyteller has confused Biblical mythology with Hindu mythology. Thus, the world is linear and divided between good (the Aryas) and the bad (the Asuras). Clearly no one bothered to do research – in mythology, Asuras and Rakshasas are not the same: Asuras reside under the ground and fight Devas who live in the sky while Rakshasas live on earth and follow jungle law and fight Manavas or humans who live on earth and follow the code of civilisation. Further, the Asura kingdom is called Nark meaning hell in the Virgin comics transforming Ravan into a Satanic figure. But there is no Satan in Hindu mythology!
The battle between Asuras and Devas is not the battle of forces of evil and good. Asuras are as much children of Brahma as the Devas. Victory and defeat of either will follow each other with unfailing regularity, endlessly, thus reminding all that the Hindu world is cyclical, where death and rebirth always follow each other. There is no Armageddon in Hinduism, no great battle where Satan is defeated once and for all, there is no Great Judgment day in Hinduism. There are only cycles of creation and destruction and the hope that one day we all will see meaning within this meaningless merry-go-round.
Rational thought assumes that there is only one logical truth out there. There isn’t. Different people see the world differently and have different truths. For half the world there is no life after death. There is only this life. Period. When there is one life, there is only one chance and one way of living life – a sense of urgency to do the right thing. This half believes in prophets, saviours and conversion. For the other half of the world, there is life after death. And when there are many lives – other options are bound to be there. Hence the comfort with plurality. Hence the comfort with the idea that Ram and Krishna are the same yet different and that there is one Ram and there are many Rams.
Unless we accept that different people see the world differently, we will never be able to teach the Now generation the virtue of tolerance, we will never be able to teach them to appreciate the idea of Ram as an attempt of ancestors to stabilise a world that is forever changing.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.