The conquest of Fear

Indian Mythology 19 Comments

Published in First City, May 2010

There is only one truth in nature – survive or die. Nature has given every animal and plant either strength or cunning to fend for itself. If the organism cannot fend for itself, no one will come to its rescue. A wounded animal has no caretaker. A weak deer cannot appeal to the kindness of hyenas. So an animal has to be always alert. Every day, the deer has to run faster than the lion if it hopes to survive and the lion has to run faster than the deer if it hopes to eat. Animals are therefore constantly afraid, wary of unseen predators who lurk in every shadow. In Sanskrit, this is called matsya nyaya, the law of the fishes. In the sea, the big fish has a right over the small fish. If nature has given the big fish strength and size to survive, it has given the small fish speed and cleverness to dart and save itself. Nature favors no one. Death in nature is the ultimate equalizer.

But humans are different. Yes, they are animals, but still they are different. And the difference lies in the size of the human brain. We have the largest forebrain. And this means we can imagine. And because we can imagine, we are different from animals. We can imagine our past and imagine our future. In other words, we can creatively build on what we have experienced actually and stored in our memory. We can imagine a world that is better than what we live in; and the delta between the positive imagination and the reality can depress us. We can imagine a world that is worse than what we live in; and the delta between the negative imagination and the reality can make us joyful. Thus, thanks to imagination, we can have moods. Thanks to imagination also we can have a vision of the world that is different from the world we live in. This can excite us, inspire us, motivate us, drive us. Animals, without imagination, have no such propellant.

Like animals we experience death. Like animals we are afraid to die. Like animals we take steps to protect and nourish ourselves. But unlike animals we actually imagine a world without fear. We imagine a world where there is abundance of food, where there is no scarcity, where there is little or no effort in our quest to acquire nourishment. The human creativity then comes up with ideas to realize this imagination. It is from this space came our tools – tools with which we domesticated the earth, the animals and the plants, transformed ourselves from hunters and gatherers to herdsmen and farmers. We create a world where we did not have to scavenge for food every day like the animals; we had enough to eat today and store for tomorrow.

But prosperity did not take away the fear. A new kind of fear emerged, between those who were prosperous and those who were not. The man who caught many fish had much to fear from the man who had few. The woman who could make pots and baskets had much to fear from the woman who could not. So the human imagination and human creativity came up with a new idea, one that could provide peace along with prosperity. Rules came into being – rules that protected the prosperous and provided for the poor, rules that domesticated the mind, tamed the beast within and roused behaviors unseen in animals – generosity, kindness, politeness. Theft was condemned, greed was condemned, cheating was looked down upon.

But even this world, where there was prosperity and peace, did not take away fear. Everything could be domesticated except death. Humans could imagine a world without them. If the world can function without them, they really did not matter. What was the point of it all? Humans felt humiliatingly passive. They felt meaningless. They felt invalidated. They were reminded that they were no different from the animals and plants they domesticated. While they could reject the ‘law of the fishes’, they could not reject another law of nature – everything that is born must die.

So a quest began to make sense of life, something that would make man cope with death. Until now, the tools of prosperity and the rules of peace, were all functional. They helped man stay alive and thrive. But they did not give any meaning or sense of purpose. From the desire to give life meaning came the first stories – the greatest gift of the human imagination.

Stories explained the reason for the sun, the moon, the animals, the plants and the humans. Stories made life a part of a grand design. Stories gave humanity structure. With structure came order, a hierarchy. Stories created milestones in life – life became a journey from birth through marriage and childbirth to death. Stories celebrated life – what is good and what is bad, what is true and what is untrue, what is beautiful and what is ugly. Stories explained death – what happens when we stop breathing, where do we go, and is it a wonderful place. Stories created legacy of great men and great women, who we aspired to be. Suddenly, thanks to stories, there were gods and goddesses, heroes and villains, demons and monsters. Nature became animate, a creature to be adored and feared. Life became a stage and humans became actors. Stories justified the power of the strong and celebrated the love for the weak. Stories explained why men should have one or many wives. Stories gave sanction to laws and rules. Stories made life less fearful.

But the problem was that different people created and transmitted different stories. Each set of stories gave identity to different sets of human beings. Each set of human beings clung to their set of stories. When told that they were products of the imagination, they became defensive and snarled, like beasts. “My story is not imagination. It is the truth,” they said. But they were eager to point out that other people’s stories were certainly myths!

Suddenly stories became territories, to be defended at all costs. Like beasts, territories were sprayed and war was declared at those who challenged the territory. These human territories, propped up by stories, were more sophisticated – they created not just physical territories but also emotional territories and intellectual territories. That is why humans fight not just for food, like animals do, but also over ideas, what we believe is true, good and beautiful.

Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Truth, Goodness and Beauty. These are not natural phenomena. These are manmade constructions. They depend on structures and rules and ideas. Structures, rules and ideas are propped up and propelled by stories. And stories come from our imagination. Stories tell us that we live only once; stories tell us there is an afterlife after this life; stories tell us that there is rebirth; stories tell us that rational methods are superior to irrational ones; stories makes us feel righteous and noble and powerful. If there were no stories, we would perhaps still be animals. The tragedy is that, today, we use stories to reinforce our animal nature. We refuse to accept the power of the human imagination that creates all things we think are ‘right’. If there is anything that can be ‘right’ in the human world – it would be the ability to outgrow the beast within us, outgrow the desire to dominate and mark territories and stick to a lifetime of patterns. But is anyone listening?

  • gayathri

    Very impactful.

  • …. ‘law of the fishes’, they could reject the law of nature – everything that is born must die.

    IS this how u intended it to be or

    While they could reject the ‘law of the fishes’, they could NOT reject the law of nature – everything that is born must die.

  • Ipshita

    A very profound article. And very simply put that the biggest challenge for man today is “the ability to outgrow the beast within us, outgrow the desire to dominate and mark territories and stick to a lifetime of patterns”

  • Beautiful and precise like every article. Only one thing sticks to my mind though which I thought I should ramble a bit so you could clear the context of saying Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

    I fully agree that Satyam Shivam Sundaram is man-made as language is human construct. I do agree that Truth Goodness and Beauty are man-made too as what is True Good or Beauty is relative and can be judged differently.

    The debate about Gods and idol worship is thrashed in the Upanishads in several places where logic prevails over emotions. However could you explain your views on the Upanishads and the concept of Satyam as SatChitAnanda as well …

  • We are listening. :-)

    That’s a great story of evolution religions, nations, sects, caste, creed and all the social hierarchies.

    Thanks for bringing it to life in such a lucid way.

  • I felt i had something to say here and added what i felt could be a feedback…
    Beautiful construct of a theme that can be almost ideologically explain the myth of a human mind and construct a vision that can be demanding in every sense. But to carry forward the theory we need to explain a lot about Nature that we all belong to..
    About that Nature that pervades in our every physical being of life as we see it, live it and carry forward. The mortal and immortal aspect here again becomes a construct that we will keep debating in years to come as a positive trait of the human story making ability to imagine the impossible.
    But again as we understand Truth and relatively speaking is still elusive if I go by the law of Nature. Truth in nature is its being and its aliveness.

    Let us have the story explore and unfold a little more to understand if we reach somewhere..

  • beautiful piece….

    thanks for this


  • jasmine suri

    excellent analogy

  • Gopi Krishna Bhamidipati

    Hello Dear Mr.Pattanaik,

    Firstly, i would like to congratulate you for your innovative views on mythology. You have really made those epic stories seem believable and all of a sudden stories are becoming more than just mere stories. I really love your articles.

    Well, I am a journalist myself and yes you are right when you say that we have become addicted to stories. I cannot survive without stories, good or bad. They shape my thinking.But it only becomes dangerous when people like to manipulate stories for their own ulterior motives. It is this aspect of human beings that has to change. I really wish that you can do this through your platform.

    Wish you all the best,


  • Sakthimani

    Beast has fear only when it smells the enemy physically, but man has imagination to construct a enemy and fight with him too.

    Beast has only two options, escape or die. Man has many options which makes his life miserable (Knowledge = Problems).

  • Raghav

    Hi Devji,
    below is a link to a video

    which shows how a lioness in Samburu,Kenya adopts an antelope calf.Eventually it gets eaten by a lion,but this lioness goes on to adopt more of them,starving itself to death.Locals believe the lioness to be a godess.Wildlife conservationists believe it is psychology and trauma.My point is-why can’t we humans have the purity of emotion that an animal has?
    Even the most ferocious predator will not harm an ant if its stomach is full.(as you have already beautifully put it-is anyone listening) :-)

  • Mihir

    There’s a typo. “While they could reject the ‘law of the fishes’, they could NOT reject the law of nature – everything that is born must die.” The “NOT” appears to be missing.

    This article only seems to convey how we gradually progressed towards fearing more complex and abstract things and how we started dealing with that fear. But I don’t see how you are closing this topic of the conquest of fear…Man still has not conquered fear of many things. Neither basic fears nor the more complex fears arising out of our complex social interactions.

  • Indranath Banerjee

    A very good article…

  • Sudeep N

    Great dissection of everything…But i don’t quite get the conclusion. What after we ‘outgrow the desire to dominate and mark territories and stick to a lifetime of patterns’???

  • Beautiful article! When do you find time to write esp. since you have a CBO job?


  • Nonyameko Afiya

    Wonderful article! Love all of your articles!

    Yes, we are listening! I believe we can end poverty and suffering if we can fight the beast within us; our own selfishness.

    Nonyameko Afiya
    Seneca, SC (US)

  • ramaswamy

    A big fish will eat the small fish only to satisfy hunger. But man will eat another man to satisfy his ego and the other man will be finished financially or otherwise

  • Priya

    Mastery of mind is what i believe can conquer fear ! But ur writings are very intelluctually stimulating ! Truly the power of writing is amazing ,

  • Babulal Lorenzo

    Awestruck..Mind blowingly awesome..such is the power of ur words oh teacher!