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 epistemology (knowledge created by the mind).
In its purest form, science does not judge. Science says: I know what I measure; the rest I don’t know.
Conversion and re-conversion, conquest and liberation, follow each other like the recurring battle of the devas and the asuras.
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.