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’.