Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 13, 2010

First published October 12, 2010

 in First City

The conquest of Fear

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?

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