Truth behind the power of myths

16 Sep 2007, 0104 hrs IST,Atul Sethi,TNN

(written in response to the Ram-Sethu  or Adam’s bridge controversy)

Myths, they say, never die. They only sleep. American poet Stanley Kunitz put it aptly, when he said, “Myths lie sleeping, at the bottom of our mind, waiting for our call. We have a need for them, since they represent the wisdom of our race.” In that context, the power of myths is immense. The root of the word ‘myth’ is supposed to be ‘mithya’, which means delusion. So, is being influenced by myths the same as living in delusion? “Not necessarily. Because, there are many types of truth. Myth is also truth — that is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith. It is a common understanding of the world, that binds individuals and communities together. Which is why, all myths make profound sense to one group of people, not to everyone. Myths cannot be rationalized beyond a point. In the final analysis, you either accept them or not,” reasons Devdutt Pattanaik, author of the book, ‘Myth = Mithya, A Handbook of Hindu Mythology’. It is society’s constant search for heroes that creates myths, says ad guru Alyque Padamsee. “Human heroes can falter and they eventually die. Mythical heroes, however, are immortal. Which is why, there is a strong emotional attachment to them, that cannot be explained by cold reason,” he says. Agrees Pattanaik, “There is no evidence of a perfect world anywhere on earth. Perfection, be it Ram Rajya or Camelot, exists only in mythology. Yet everyone craves for it. This craving inspires art, establishes empires, sparks revolutions and motivates leaders — such is the power of myth.” The power of myth also lies in its ability to inspire belief, says dancer Sonal Mansingh. “Every faith is built upon several myths that have resonance in personalities, events and manifestations. Without myths, the life of a common man would become mundane.” What makes myths so appealing is mythology, adds Pattanaik. “If myth is an idea, mythology is the vehicle of that idea. Mythology constitutes stories, symbols and rituals that makes a myth tangible.” All mythological stories, in fact, have plots that defy imagination. Is that why these stories attract? “Mythology tends to be hyperbolic and fantastic to drive home a myth. It is modern arrogance to assume that people in ancient times actually believed in the existence of virgin births, parting seas and talking serpents. The unrealistic content is meant to draw attention to the idea behind the communication,” says Pattanaik. Agrees Padamsee, “All myths start with an assumption of truth, that gets encrusted with exaggeration along the way. What we end up with is an avalanche, that started as a pebble.” So, how does one search for truth in the myth? Or, is it a futile search? Pattanaik sums it up eloquently, “Within infinite myths lies eternal truth. Who sees it all? Varuna has but a thousand eyes. Indra, a hundred and I, only two.”