Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

February 15, 2013

First published February 14, 2013

 in Speaking Tree

A Billion Years of Fear

Published in Speaking Tree, January 06, 2013.

Natural historians say that life began on earth 3 billion years ago. Before that the world was only filled with ajiva objects, things that did not fight to survive. After that the world came to filled with sajiva organisms, beings that fought to survive.

As long as there has been life, there has been fear: fear of death is what makes a living organism fight for life. Fear of death makes a plant grow towards sunlight and water seeking nourishment. Fear of death makes an animal run: towards pastures or prey or mates, away from predators. In Hindu mythology, this fear was associated with Yama, god of death.

Then something happened a million years ago. One species of apes went through a mutation. Their brain started growing larger than their body size. This led them to stand erect. Now this was dangerous, as their abdomen and genitals, unprotected by any bone, were now exposed. They were easy prey. Naturally, fear increased.

More importantly, the front part of the brain expanded and these apes could do something that no other species could — they could imagine. With imagination came more fear: they could imagine predators even when there were none that could be seen or heard or smelt. With imagination came joy: they could imagine food and water even in drought or flood. Without any stimulus, these special apes could cry or laugh.

Most spectacularly, each of these apes could imagine a world different from the one it was living in, a world very different from nature. No one else could see this world but the ape who imagined it. It was beautiful. The ape desired this imagination; it preferred this to reality. This was Kama, desire for a life different from the one offered by nature.

The ape desperately needed to communicate this with fellow apes. Suddenly there was need for language — words that could communicate ideas that did not exist in nature. It was no longer just about predators and prey, mates and rivals, life was about many more things. This led to the birth of communication — conversation and paintings on cave walls, very different from the communication of survival found in birds and bees. This was Vach, the goddess of speech.

Imagination also created conflict. Not only was every ape capable of imagining a different world very different from the natural reality it experienced, it realized its imagined reality was very different from the imagined reality of other apes. So with communication came arguments and debates: which imagined reality was true and which imagined reality was better.

With imagination and conversation came ideas. And the greatest idea was the ability to control fire and water. This new ape, which was easy prey, became the most feared animal as it could tame fire, control it in a hearth, use it to keep predators away, sit around it all night, unafraid of wolves and lions. This new ape could collect water in shells and dried out gourds and drink water whenever and wherever he wished. This new ape could design tools like sharp stones to defend himself, cut meat even without claws or talons or fangs or teeth. This new ape discovered it could domesticate even plants and animals, so that food was available more predictably. It could store food. It was no longer at the mercy of nature; nature was at its mercy. He could imagine controlling it.

With Kama, came the ability to control. With Kama also came fear of loss of that control. An increased sense of helplessness. The ape wondered — why did he have these powers and where did these powers come from and what was his relationship with nature? From these questions came notions of civilization, of what is right (satyam) and good (shivam) and beautiful (sundaram). This flowering of the brain that transformed apes into humans is described in Indian myths as the blooming of the lotus within which sat Brahma, the human-animal.

Natural history reveals that we have experienced fear for 3 billion years and imagination for a million years. Imagination enables us to outgrow fear or amplify fear. More often than not, we amplify fear. More often than not, we prefer fear to the state of outgrowing fear. A mind that is capable of expanding ends up contracting. From the root “brah”, to expand, and the root, “manas”, comes the word: brahman (pronounced without stressing any vowel). This is the human potential: to expand imagination and outgrow fear.

More often than not, we halt and become Brahma (pronounced by stressing the latter vowel), and we create personalities that are rooted in fear. These are the sons of Brahma — devas, asuras, yakshas, rakshasas — of the Purans. Each one seeks liberation from fear. But each one mistakenly believes that liberation will come from things — more food, more security. It will in fact come from thoughts — that will expand the contracted mind.

To be liberated from fear means to be liberated from dependence on things. It means to become self-reliant and self-contained. This state is called swayambhu. The brahman is swayambhu.

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