Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 3, 2006

First published November 2, 2006

 in First City

Frames of Reference

First Published in First City, New Delhi,May 2005.

Everybody sees the world through a frame of reference. No one, but the gods, have the full picture. At least that is what the following tale from Hindu mythology seeks to communicate:

All the gods of the Hindu pantheon once went to Mount Kailas to pay their respects to Shiva, the destroyer. Brahma, the creator, came first on his goose, followed by Indra, the rain-god, on his elephant and Agni, the fire-god on his goat.  Chandra, the moon-god, came riding his antelope. Vishnu, the guardian of the world, flew in on his eagle, the mighty Garuda. Yama, the god of death, was the last to arrive, delayed as usual by his mount, a buffalo. Garuda noticed that before entering Kailas, Yama’s eyes fell on a tiny sparrow, that had perched itself on a ledge near the gate, chirping a welcome song for all the gods. Yama frowned and crinkled his brow before shrugging his shoulders and joining the gods. Garuda, who was king of all birds, concluded that the days of the sparrow were numbered. Why else would the god of death frown on seeing it? Perhaps the sparrow would die of starvation on the cold icy slopes of Kailas. Garuda looked at the little bird — so young, innocent, eager to see the world. Overwhelmed with parental affection, Garuda took a decision: to keep the little sparrow out of Yama’s heartless reach. Taking the bird in the palm of his hands he flew across seven hills and seven rivers until he reached the forest of Dandaka. There in the hermitage of a sage called Pippalada he found a mango tree. “The sparrow will be safe here,” he said to himself. He built a nest on the mango tree, left the sparrow there and returned to Kailas, pleased with himself. Soon the gathering of the gods drew to a close. The gods began to leave, Brahma on his goose, Indra on his elephant, Agni on his goat, Chandra on his antelope. Vishnu came out along with Yama. At the gate, Yama turned to look at the ledge where he had seen the singing sparrow. Finding it empty, he smiled. Vishnu asked Yama, “Why are you smiling?” Yama answered, “When I was entering Kailas I saw this sparrow here that was destined to die today, eaten by a python that lives in the mango tree that grows in the hermitage of sage Pippalada in the forest of Dandaka, which as you know is far away. I wondered how the sparrow would travel the distance in a day. I was worried of all the repercussions that might follow if the bird does not die at the appointed hour in the appointed place. But somehow things have gone as planned and my account book is balanced. That is why I am smiling.” Vishnu divined what had happened and turned to Garuda. Garuda who had overheard the conversation did not know what to feel.

For the python, Garuda is the food-giver. For the sparrow, Garuda is the life-taker. But after Yama speaks, Garuda is nothing but an instrument of fate, part of a grand narrative not of his own making.

It is possible to narrate the story differently, without Yama and his account book. In such a story, Garuda’s spontaneous act of kindness goes horribly wrong because of the unfortunate coincidence of the python’s presence. In this story, the frame of reference is free will.

It is also possible to add a twist to this story. Garuda prays to Shiva for help and Shiva rescues the sparrow from the jaws of death, restores it to the safety of Kailas, overriding the account books of Yama. In this story, the frame of reference is God, who is greater than the gods.

Fate. Free will. God. Three frames of references that have sustained cultures for centuries. Three frames of references that can never be proved or disproved. Three frames of references that have to be believed. And when believed can help individuals and communities thrive.

Greeks sought Truth using reason: an understanding of the world that when argued at any time at any place yielded the same result.This was logos. Logic. Rationality. It gave birth to science and mathematics. It revealed how people are ‘actually’ born and how the sun ‘actually’ rises. It took man to the moon. But it never gave the reason why man exists on earth in the first place.

Science tell us ‘how’ not ‘why’. Explanations can never ever be solutions. Individuals need solutions. Cultures need solutions. A solution to the conundrum called life. A solution that gives meaning and purpose, tools to cope with crisis, justify ambition and build communities. One has no choice but to withdraw into constructed realities, cling to a frame of reference, any frame of reference with all its inherent limitations. There is no escape from myth.

Myths are however not tangible. To experience the idea of fate, free will or God one needs stories, symbols and rituals — language that is heard, seen and performed. The story of Garuda, for example, depending on the version chosen, helps establish the myth of fate, free will or God in the Hindu mind space. The body of stories, symbols and rituals that communicates a myth to a people is called mythology. All cultures — Hindu, Christian, Greek or American — are guided by a myth communicated through a mythology.

When myths and mythologies of cultures are compared with one another, there are bound to similarities and dissimilarities. Similarities reflect the humanity of a culture, dissimilarities its uniqueness. Hindus and Buddhists are similar in that they both believe in the wheel of rebirths but they are dissimilar in that only Hindus believe in the concept of eternal unchanging soul. Hindus and Muslims are similar in that they both accept God as being all-powerful, but they are dissimilar in that Muslims believe in one life and one way of reaching God, by following the path revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

It has been mankind’s endeavor to find a common understanding for the world, a common frame of reference, a common myth — a uniform civil code. This may not be possible as it would mean getting all of humanity to look at life through the same window and no other. An irrational window at that.

Any attempt to communicate myth rationally is doomed to failure. There are always questions that can challenge the discourse of fate, free will and God. In all cultures, therefore, mythology is far removed from reality and rationality: gods with three heads, demons with eight arms, virgin births, partings seas, promised lands, sacraments of fire and covenants of blood. This indifference to logic ensures myth is not reasoned with, but accepted unconditionally through a suspension of disbelief.

For the believer, myth is real. It makes rational sense. It cannot be argued with. It is sacred. This allows the myth to be communicated across generation and geography without distortion. Myth, however, is not static. Just as it informs history and geography, it is informed by history and geography. This is why beliefs and customs change over time. There was a time when people believed only members of a particular caste can enter a shrine. This belief is no longer encouraged. Myth once said people are unequal. Myth now says all people are equal. Yesterday the inequality of people was real. Today the equality of people is real.

We forget that human life is not governed by logic. Emotions that drive humanity — love, hate, fear, greed, ambition — cannot be rationalized. Human beings therefore cannot make sense of life through scientific evidence-based discourses. For the sake of survival and sanity, they need to believe in a frame of reference. They need myth. And myth needs mythology.

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