Published in Speaking Tree, Jan. 29, 2012


One day, the two brothers, Ganesha and Kartikeya, decided to race three times around the world. Kartikeya, being more athletic, jumped on his peacock and flew around the oceans, the continents and the stars. The elephant-headed Ganesha simply went around his parents, twirling around himself, and declared himself the winner. When asked for an explanation, Ganesha said, “I went around my world. You went around the world. What matters more?”

The world is objective; truth independent of human imagination. My world is subjective; truth dependent on human imagination. Different people of the world imagine the world differently.

Greeks believed you live only once. And the one who does something extraordinary in this life , earns oneself a place in Elysium, the heaven of heroes. In the Greek world, the gods of Olympus were capricious; they sought to keep humans in check lest they rise up in revolt. They feared being overthrown by humans just as they had overthrown the Titans and the Titans had overthrown the Giants before them. Heroes were men who did extraordinary things despite the odds thrown in their direction by the Fates controlled by the gods. Epics spoke of fathers who tried to kill their newborn sons who were prophesized to kill them, and of sons who rose up against father and god and authority, fought the monsters created by them, and after many an adventure, achieved the impossible to become heroes, worthy of adoration. Glory lay in defiance of authority and transgression of rules. This is the recurrent theme in the stories of Hercules, Theseus, Jason or Achilles.

The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) also speak of one life, followed by an afterlife. But the world imagined by them is very different from the one of the Greeks. The Biblical world referred to a kind and loving God who cared for his creation and whose children kept breaking the rules he asked them to follow. So we have the story of the transgression of Adam and Eve, and of various prophets like Moses and kings like David, who struggle to uphold the commandments of God, and make others follow them in faith. Glory here lay in obedience and compliance; it gets you not to Elysium of the heroes but to what the Koran refers to as Jannat for the faithful.

Who is right? Should life be about defiance or compliance, about breaking rules or following rules? If the question was posed to a Rishi from India, he would ask: why should the answer be this or that, why can the answer not be this and that. He would say both are okay depending on the context. So Hindu mythology has Krishna who breaks rules and Ram who follows rules. Krishna belongs to Dvapara yuga and Ram belongs to Treta yuga. But are not Krishna and Ram two different characters? Not at all, said the Rishi; they were two lifetimes of Vishnu, who is God.

The Rishi believed in rebirth. He believed we do not live just one life; we live infinite lives, one life after another, again and again. Death is not a full stop; it is a comma. And so you have the option of living one life in defiance and one life in compliance depending on whether the father, or authority, or deity, of that life is cruel (like Olympian gods) or caring (like God of Abraham). This view is shared by most religions of Indian origin, including Jainism and Buddhism.


Refusal to acknowledge these imagined realities, these ‘my’ worlds, is the root cause of cultural intolerance, human insensitivity and the clash of civilizations. It happened once nearly 2300 years ago on the banks of the river Indus. Alexander, the Great, after conquering Persia found there, what he called a gymnosophist, or a naked wise man. He was perhaps a Jain muni or perhaps a yogi, who sat on a rock and meditated all day and gazed at the stars all night. “What are you doing?” asked Alexander. “Experiencing nothingness,” answered the gymnosophist. Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” Alexander replied, “I am conquering the world.” Both chuckled and parted ways, each one thinking the other was a fool.

For Alexander, the denominator of life is only one; so the value of his existence was the sum total of our achievements. So conquering the world was important to him. For the gymnosophist, the denominator of life is infinity; so the value of his existence – no matter what he did – was zero. So reflecting on the world and seeking its meaning by ‘experiencing nothingness’ was important to him. So who is right: Alexander or the gymnosophist? What is right: one life or rebirth? Intolerance stems from valuing one imagined reality over the other.

Significantly, science in its quest for the objective truth aligns itself with one-life subjective truths. But which one? Greek or Abrahamic? Alexander’s subjective truth works for those who want to conquer the world. But there are many who are not interested.