• 20 Jul, 2024

Myths and Legends: Holistic View

Myths and Legends: Holistic View

An exploration into the deeper significance of myths and legends in the Dharmic tradition

A tendency of the modern mind is to deconstruct Reality encoded in myths and legends. The logic of it is that by doing so they can uncover the truths behind them. That in itself is, at best, a myth and, at worst, a superstition of the mind. No amount of breakdown and analysis of parts can awaken within us the sense we get when we view the whole. This is true of a humble blade of grass, of the more daring rose as much as of the galaxies and the stars. However, much we may analyze the contents of an ocean, we will never be able to comprehend its vastness, delight, beauty and magnanimity unless we gaze at it, behold it with our intuitive eye, and eventually, dare to plunge into it.  

For everything comprises two elements—quantity and quality. Quantity is something that is measurable and can be analyzed but quality is subjective, intrinsic and not subject to analysis or measure. We can, of course, try to define quality and, to that extent, make it seem more objective.  

But this effort to define, though necessary for clarity of mind, should not be considered a substitute for the real experience of coming into contact with the truth that the quality embodies. Thus, we have to understand the total truth of things through a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative aspects.  

There is, of course, a third aspect behind these two which perhaps cannot be spoken of—the aspect of Consciousness that has assumed different quantities and qualities and yet is essentially the same everywhere.  

In fact, after we have deconstructed the different phenomenal aspects of Reality as we perceive it, the last barrier that stands is Consciousness. One cannot deconstruct it by virtue of its very nature. It is One and Infinite, as the sages say. We can identify with it and understand something of it, as is reflected in our mental mirrors, provided the mirror itself is clean and the glass free of the stains of conditioning.  

Symbolic representation of Reality  

It is with this background that we delve into the nature of things, but when it comes to myths and legends, this becomes more obvious. To start with, most of us try to understand a myth from the lens of our present mentality. This is to decontextualize it. It is not necessary that the ancients thought, felt and experienced life the same way we do today. Their value systems need not be the same and hence cannot be comprehended accurately by us with our present values.  

Besides, the same value itself shifts and clothes itself in different forms with the passage of time. To judge and evaluate a myth through the lens of our modern upbringing is not only unfair but also very misleading. This is a common and frequent occurrence when we try to probe and understand the myths of any country that is not ours. Instead of deconstructing and decontextualising a myth, we need to decode it. Decoding implies that a myth is a symbolic story. Its characters and the storyline itself are representative of some reality that is not easy to verbalise. Hence, the person has taken not just poetic liberty but used a story to give out subtle and salient truths through the use of symbols. The person has perhaps even tried to evoke certain emotions, to awaken certain impulses, through the use of images just as a painter may try to do.  

The painting is like an open door for us to enter the painter’s consciousness. Similarly, a myth is like another door opening into the author’s consciousness. But for that, we have to steer clear of all preconceived notions. The mirror of our mind must be clean and receptive so that the deeper reality contained in the myth may reveal or reflect itself in the mind. While deconstruction often destroys the intrinsic value of the myth by taking away its very soul, the act of decoding gives it a universal value that is applicable for all times to come.  

Let us take the example of a dissection of a body part by part to understand its functions. It is a deconstruction, in a sense. But when one has unravelled the body and analysed and understood its physicality, one has missed the most important thing—the soul that animates the body. The physical body is an instrument, a vehicle, to express the deeper soul. But when we decode the body, we understand how each organ is symbolic of some deeper reality, at once psychological and occult, thereby enabling us to understand not only the how but also the why behind its functioning.  

Many layers of a myth  

In practical terms, it means that a myth has at least three layers to it. The first is of course the visible outer body, the story. This story itself is modified over time, just as the human body undergoes changes. However, there are two kinds of modifications that take place, one that preserves the basic truth of the myth and hence keeps some essential continuity with its central thought, at least to a large extent. Thus, for example, we have the two prominent versions, among many, of the Ramayana—Valmiki’s Ramayana which is the original and its later version by Tulsidas.  

Although both details and style differ in the two versions, the essential story remains the same; the fundamental truth is also undisturbed. It is just the approaches that are different. While Valmiki seems to approach the personality, life and times of Lord Rama from great spiritual heights, Tulsidas’ Ramayana approaches it from a deeper psychic heart. They beautifully complement each other. But there are now newer versions of the story being written and screened where the author is not at all in sympathy with the times or the character and has often given his own unique twist to suit his ideological or political purpose.  

Take for example this twist that since all history is written by victors, Ramayana too suffers this distortion. The next logical step is that Ravana was actually the good guy, the hero of the plot, whereas it was Rama who was the actual villain. So too with the Mahabharata, where we see some intellectual versions that suddenly turn Krishna and the Pandavas into villains while extolling the Kauravas and Karna and the rest.  

One can only laugh at the puerile and motivated thinking of such readings that take almost a malicious interest in distorting history. To start with, neither Valmiki nor Vyasa, leave aside Tulsidas and many others, were court philosophers appointed by the victors and had no reason or business to distort history. If at all, they were seers and revered in the plot itself. Secondly, if we take a closer look at the characters, we will discover, sometimes to our moral dismay, that the story is not black and white as the modern mind would like to portray it. There are many shades of grey through which the characters and the actual narrative move and evolve. That is one reason why these great scriptures have endured the rub of time since they are closely woven with the psychological fabric of our life where there is no clear division between black and white but there are shades of grey through which we evolve towards the truth of our being.  

It is, in fact, as the Bhagavad Gita itself affirms about Sri Krishna’s mission, about the evolutionary march of mankind, about a stage in the collective advance of mankind rather than a simple moral science book preaching us about the dos and don’ts. The word often used is dharma, which is the term used to denote this evolutionary struggle that runs as the central theme of this plot, and not moral or ethical, a term that is at best its intellectual and modern distortion in an alien language.  

One may even say that if one does not understand dharma then it is difficult to decipher these epics. Often the modern readers are not in sympathy with this profound term because they have lost contact with it, and tend to turn these wonderful epics merely into stories with social and moral themes. Naturally, when the stories do not neatly fit into these definitions, all kinds of explanations are built either to justify or to denounce the epic! This is so because we have failed to decode the real sense of the word, and we cannot, unless we sympathise with the times and life of the people as it was organised then. That is why the elaborate explanations given by intellectuals trained in foreign universities break down with the first proper scrutiny by someone who has delved into the spirit of these scriptures.  

Physical and psychological dimensions of an epic  

The story exists at a symbolic and psychological level as well. But this is not the usual psychology that we are accustomed to reading today. These ‘spiritual psychologists’ or yogis, who wrote these enduring epics were not satisfied with superficial explanations of human behaviour nor content with simply erecting a theoretical construct around human life.  

We see these constructs and theories frequently, often built by studying pathological human behaviour. But even those who study ‘normal’ human behaviour are content with studying it on the surface rather than diving deep within it to discover new possibilities and the hidden capacities of nature. To put it briefly, while much of modern psychology tends to be a projection and derivative of the subnormal and the abnormal, ancient wisdom derived its truths from the supernormal and the a-normal.

The physical story becomes a nucleus, a pedestal for the author to launch into a depiction of human nature in all its varieties and shades. That is how the epics become universal in their quality and contemporary in their appeal. The characters we find in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and for that matter even in the Iliad and the Odyssey, are archetypes that continue to exist within us, driving us towards the heights and abysses of human nature. But this psychology, in the Indian setting, was also a means of cultural transmission, a means to inspire the generations to come with the highest thoughts and possibilities of mankind. It had little to do with outer customs, dress codes and other paraphernalia which were symbolic of those times and had much more to do with the thoughts, feelings and actions of a group of humanity.  

Myths became a means to portray and present before man a living ideal which can become a force multiplier much more than any mere abstract idealism can do. We should be like Rama in strength and courage, like Bhishma in will and statesmanship, like Arjuna in skill and power of concentration, like Karna in generosity, like Abhimanyu in sacrifice and so on.  

There are female personalities who place before us the ideal feminine. Draupadi, the powerful empress who brought down an empire to uphold the dignity of a woman, Sita who was a warrior in the outer as well as the inner life, forgiving, patient and gentle, despite her suffering. Savitri, steadfast in love and wisdom, who by the strength of her tapasya took on Death itself as her opponent and won.  

We need these characters to inspire us even today. They are greatness personified. It may be mentioned here that Indians always strived for greatness and revered it wherever it was found. The Arya, the s restha, the noble is their ideal. This way, generation after generation was nourished by the sap of idealism and the spirit of sacrifice. It was only when burdened under the reign of alien rulers, with the gradual invasion of escapist philosophies and extreme practices such as asceticism, that we drifted away from the Ideal. However, the memory of it is still preserved and continues to haunt us in popular culture, awaiting its hour of revival.  

This revival cannot be brought about by vigilantes and self-proclaimed Hindus but by those who live the truth of the Vedas and the Gita, who realise the deep teachings of the Upanishads and use them in their daily thoughts, feelings and actions. Not mechanical customs and rituals but spiritual awakening, not religion and philosophy but living straight from the deeper intuitive heart is what is most needed. And if we do that, we shall find the secret code of the myth unlocked before us and the script self-revealed in the light of a growing intuition and illumination.  

Occult mysteries of existence  

There is a third layer to the myth. It relates to the occult dimension of our existence. Those who wrote the significant mythologies—the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagawata Purana were not just ordinary storytellers. It was not imagination that they indulged in, nor were they historians in the sense in which it is understood today. They were not interested in merely reporting outer details and apparent ‘facts’ which, in any case, are not likely to be an accurate account of events. Even if, in some way, someone could record not only what was happening but also what was being spoken during an event, there would be no way of knowing all that was going on in the thoughts and feelings of the characters involved.  

It is this fundamental inability that makes all history, whether by an interested or disinterested party, to some extent questionable. It is not about who wrote it or for whom, it is simply the fact that human consciousness is essentially limited in knowing what goes on in creating any event. It records only the surface details and keeps multiplying it as primary and secondary source materials but through all this painstaking collection of information it keeps circling around the Light of Truth that it can neither see nor touch.  

Sometimes, if the historian is sensitive and inwardly developed, he may intuitively sense the Light that is trying to shine through the thick garb of circumstances. The authors of these great and wonderful epics which are believed to be true events by millions of adherents were seers and had found the way to know the hidden forces that move humanity, events and circumstances. Like Homer and Dante, but on a much greater scale and penetrating depth, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are full of beings from various worlds creating panoramic universes where several parallel yet interlacing universes exist within the framework of a story. Those who disregard these stories interposed in the legends as mere imagination, or simply symbols, miss out on a whole world that exists beneath our surface awareness and acts upon us—a world that is sealed to our normal vision and experience. These epics, therefore, contain a wealth of direct knowledge about the workings of occult forces often presented as titanic and godly beings. By reading these epics we understand the total mystery of creation.  

Spiritual core  

However, this is not all. The real value of these epics lies in their divine core and the spiritual substance that runs through the epic nourishing our souls rather than merely informing our minds or stimulating our vital. This spiritual element is what remains in the end as an essence or an aftertaste of the epic.  

The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita, and various other shastras bring home profound spiritual truths for mankind. Books such as the Gita beautifully combine spiritual philosophy, spiritual practices as well as spiritual vision and experience. What we still miss is a living example, an embodiment of spiritual reality or its seeking and realisation, a living personality that can inspire rather than instruct. We require a living philosophy that seeps into our very veins rather than it solely awakening the mind, a practice that is brought home merely by the fact that someone lived that way.  

It is this deeper need of humanity that is fulfilled by these epics and narratives. Not only do they contain profound spiritual philosophy and practice of spiritual truths but above all, they set before us an example of God Himself when He descends clothed in our humanity. It becomes the new standard, the yardstick to be applied to the way one follows it and lives it.  

We normally categorize stories based on their essence or rasa as it is called in Indian thought, like that of love, bravery, horror, etc. Or we label them as history or fiction based on whether or not it is true. We also classify them depending upon the subject, such as philosophy, the occult, psychology, science, art. But this is still a divisive vision. When a book combines all these contrasting opposites and much more, we have a grand epic, a story of the human soul, its struggle and battle against forces that oppose and deny its passage, its rise and fall and eventual victory where forces tangible and occult join hands for or against the triumphant march of God in humans. Above all, we see in them the very image of God stepping forward into the play, in its very midst and thereby we can understand something of His ways of working in us. What is hidden is laid bare, the occult and what is concealed stand revealed in the light of the seer-vision. It is this totality that we find in a ‘myth’.  

A myth is neither fiction nor fact. It is rather a superb attempt to reveal a many-sided, layered, multi-dimensional reality as revealed to the seers. It addresses at once the heart and the mind, the senses and the soul; the vital and the physical itself get engaged as the myth proceeds. At least that is how most Indian myths and legends, especially the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagawata Purana come alive in the consciousness of the reader. Therefore, we need to engage with a myth of such great value as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, not just with our analytical minds but with our entire beings. 

A myth, like any well-written story, discloses its meaning directly to our inner being. In this sense, it is more like a proverb that conveys profound or subtle truths without needing to be literally true. But it needs a holistic rather than an analytical reading to arrive at its intrinsic sense. With a myth, there is much more than an intrinsic meaning, there is a vision as well. Identifying with the myth through the act of reading, we can share this vision and grow into its subtlety and profundity. But analysing it on the surface with its heavy reliance on data and outer images, we lose the meaning and the essence of what the myth represents.  

Seer-vision and imagination  

Thus, we need to approach these myths differently. We need to understand that it is not just a story but one written by a seer. It is how those with a deeper vision of reality saw things and gladly shared their vision with us in words that are easily comprehensible. By reading these mythological tales we come into contact with the characters they contain, we identify our minds with the mind of the seer; and, above all, we are inspired by the unfolding of the sense of the Divine in our lives. This is their supreme value and contribution to mankind in its multifaceted progress.  

Often a myth is not just a tale of the past but a doorway to the future. The seers saw a far-off possibility, like that of a scientist gazing through the telescope, spotting a distant star and studying its spectrum and arriving at an understanding of the remote luminous body that our naked eyes do not behold. Yet by revealing the star, the scientist not only brings information useful to the mind but also fires our imagination. This imagination is very often a creative energy that can foresee a possibility not manifested yet. Have not quite a few of our science fictions become realities? The seers used various faculties to deftly weave a myth which the analytical mind is only too quick to demolish or label as a work of fiction. Yet time cancels our verdicts and while scholars and their research vanish without a trace, the myth and sacred lore survive, return and continue to enlighten and empower the human race!  

Latent faculties in man  

The modern mind lays excessive stress on the evidence of our outer senses while modern science itself has busted this erroneous conception as we realise that there is a whole world that completely escapes and eludes our senses. This world, or possibly these worlds within worlds, surround our physical reality. Even what we describe as physical reality is only a fragment that we inadequately grasp through our limited senses. The senses, in this sense, do not reveal reality. They rather hide it by conjuring before us an image that we take to be true. The practice of yoga, however, releases within us certain other latent faculties which we have either lost or are yet to develop.  

This is easy to understand if we take the evolutionary process into cognisance. Animals have an instinctive way of knowing things, a way of knowing also present in early humans, who were closer to the animal state. Red Indians, for instance, can tell the distance and direction of where a sound comes from by simply putting their ears to the ground. Certain tribes can predict physical events as noticed during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami whence certain animals and tribes in the Andaman Islands became aware and took shelter in high uplands much before the technocrats picked up the signals. Some faculties that lie hidden and asleep in our bodies can awaken and show us what we ordinarily do not see. Thus, for example, some people can read accurately even with their eyes completely blindfolded. [1] How they do it is a mystery, but it is quite possible that they pick up light signals through touch and smell with their brains developed in a way that enables them to read as if it was normal sight.  

The seers however had what is generally called subtle sight and subtle hearing in yoga. It was possible in an age when humanity was not going through hyper-rationality— that which has killed not only our imagination but also every other faculty of knowing within us. Imagination and faith are powers given by nature through which we can know things that are beyond the limit of our senses. But in our present times we hardly develop these gifts of nature; if anything, we decry and deride their presence. Even emotions have a way of knowing that reason does not. The heart, and love, may use dreams, imagination, and almost anything to accomplish its purposes. That the coming together of two hearts may not always result in a happy life together is no proof that the heart knows not. Even rationally-decided and well thought out decisions do not often work out. Mathematical models and convincing statistical analysis too may be proved wrong as time passes and new observations come into the field. To discard the vision of the rishis merely because it does not conform to our rational notions and possibilities is another kind of dogma that prevents human progress.  

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who were yogis and seers of the highest order themselves, refer to the story of Sri Krishna in the Bhagawata Purana and reveal the following:  

Some say Krishna never lived, he is a myth. They mean on earth; for if Brindavan existed nowhere, the Bhagavat could not have been written. [2]      

Sometimes one is led to think that only those things really matter which have never happened; for beside them most historic achievements seem almost pale and ineffective. [3]      

Does Brindavan exist anywhere else than on earth?  

The whole earth and everything it contains is a kind of concentration, a condensation of something which exists in other worlds invisible to the material eye. Each thing manifested here has its principle, idea, or essence somewhere in the subtler regions. This is an indispensable condition for manifestation. And the importance of the manifestation will always depend on the origin of the thing manifested. In the world of the gods, there is an ideal and harmonious Brindavan of which the earthly Brindavan is but a deformation and a caricature. Those who are developed inwardly, either in their senses or in their minds, perceive these realities which are invisible to the ordinary man and receive their inspiration from them. So the writer or writers of the Bhagavat were certainly in contact with a whole inner world that is well and truly real and existent, where they saw and experienced everything they have described or revealed. Whether Krishna existed or not in a human form, living on earth, is only of very secondary importance (except perhaps from an exclusively historical point of view), for Krishna is a real, living and active being; and his influence has been one of the great factors in the progress and transformation of the earth. [4]      

The data that is used to write history is open to interpretation—often the documentation on which it is based is incomplete, the information they supply is poor, and prone to distortion. At best, human history is a long, almost unbroken record of violent aggressions: wars, revolutions, murders, or colonisations. Some of these aggressions and massacres have been adorned with flattering terms and epithets—they have been called religious or holy wars, civilising campaigns—but they nonetheless remain acts of greed or vengeance.  

Rarely in history do we find the description of a cultural, artistic or philosophical flowering. That is why, as Sri Aurobindo indicates in the quoted extract above, in the legendary accounts of things which may never have existed on earth, of events which have not been declared authentic by official knowledge, of wonderful individuals whose existence is doubted by scholars in their dried up wisdom, we find the crystallization of all the hopes and aspirations of humans, their love of the marvellous, the heroic and the sublime, the description of everything they would like to be and strive to become. That, in essence, is what Sri Aurobindo means in the quoted aphorism.  

Mystic key embedded in the story  

This brings us to the important point that only a seer can understand the writings of a seer. What we see today, however, is a tendency of the unchaste human mind to deal with these profound works and in doing so, often either throw the baby out with the bathwater or else cover the baby with all kinds of decorative social and psychological garments, often ill-fitting or force-fitted into shape to suit a particular line of interpretation. This itself would not matter so long as the basic premise is kept intact. The basic premise is that, first and foremost, these myths have been written from a spiritual consciousness that is other than a mental or social consciousness.  

The mind may think that it can understand spiritual things, but the plain fact is that it cannot. At best, it may see some vague shadowy reflection through an obscure and broken glass. It may get a few pieces right here and there but the main body will escape it. Hence the real sense is lost. One needs to feel and reach out for the soul of the epic with an eye to fully comprehend the main body. That must remain intact. Of course, no one can say with any guarantee as to what the seer who wrote the epic had seen, felt and experienced. But in an epic, there are enough luminous hints that provide us with the central theme and the core. It is around this core that the story has been woven and one cannot tamper with that core because that is its soul.  

If one has a problem with what the author has written, one can always let one’s creativity run and write another epic with other characters which may become as real to those who read them. Whether or not these characters born out of human imagination, not in touch with deeper profound truths, will endure is something that only time can tell. But as far as the ancient epics go, one has to keep the soul of the epic intact if one wishes to find its secret. To see this soul, it is important that one should have found one’s own soul or at least opened to spiritual domains.  

To illustrate, in Valmiki’s story of Lord Rama, Sri Rama is described as an Avatara, a conscious descent and manifestation of Lord Vishnu in humanity. He arrives somewhere in the middle of a chain of ten Avataras. The one preceding him is Parashuram while the one who follows is Sri Krishna. To the spiritually awakened and intuitive mind, wherein this epic is born, these things were quite tangible and real. The whole story is woven around Lord Rama as an Avatara of Lord Vishnu who is the great preserver of dharma.  

We are also told that Ravana was a devotee of the Lord, the being who kept a watch over the gates of Lord Vishnu. He fell due to a curse and one of the purposes of Lord Vishnu to take upon a human body was to redeem Ravana and bring him back to his original place in the celestial world of Lord Vishnu. If we keep these fundamental truths intact then the rest of the story becomes spiritually comprehensible. This core is the secret of the entire myth. Let us see how this decodes the story.  

We all have some divine aspect within us that has fallen from the divine heights. That is our true Home but we have fallen from these heights. Our return journey can take one of two roads. One path that we can traverse is of a devotee of the Lord who is also the guardian of dharma. It is the clasp of love. It will liberate us and restore us to the divine heights from where we fell but the journey will be full of delight. The other path is to wrestle with, and seemingly oppose, Him. Whatever path you take, whether that of love for the Divine or an opposition to it, you cannot escape His embrace and an eventual merger with Him in the arena of the world.  

The first coming together will be through delight, the other through pain and struggle necessitated because of the strong ego that resists. We see an interesting correspondence between the story of Ravana, once an angelic being in the courts of God who falls due to pride, and the Christian myth of Lucifer, the angel of Light who falls from Heaven.  

The initial cause of the fall is much the same in both myths. They fall because of pride, forgetting that all Glory belongs to God and not to an individual however high his status may be, even if he is right next to God. The fall itself is the wall of pride and ego that creates a separation between God and man, creating the illusion of a separate personality independent of the Creator. It is an illusion since it is impossible for such a thing to come into existence. However, unlike the Christian myth which starts similarly, the Hindu myth has a remarkable ending.  

While Ravana has forgotten his origin, Lord Vishnu has not. The Divine descends upon earth to redeem the fallen by His infinite Grace. But this Grace is not limited to a group of faithful followers who subscribe to a fixed and formal belief system. It reaches out even to the ones who revolt and to those who oppose His plan; in fact, they serve His cosmic purpose by opposing the divine plan.  

No one has fallen so deep that God’s grace cannot redeem them. Thus, the story of the Ramayana takes a very different hue than what we ordinarily think of as a victory of good over evil. True victory is not merely the killing or destroying of one Ravana or many like him, true victory is to destroy one’s ego so that one can recognise the Lord and be redeemed by His Grace. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path in earnest can see the profound mystic truth in this story. Even those who have not walked the path can intuitively sense something about the Grace of God, who takes a human form to redeem mankind. That is the reason why the epic has endeared itself to mankind for so long and continues to do so. There are many other stories, each a profound mystic truth which we shall have occasion to return to. But in the absence of this kind of spiritual intelligence one tends to completely disregard this spiritual core as nothing but superstition, a hyperbole, or hagiography.  

When the story is read without this mystic key it is reduced either to pulp fiction or a story of a social or civilisational struggle between two racial types. The key is lost and with it the soul. What then remains is merely an outer body, a shell that is filled up with all kinds of human fancy to suit our political ideologies or social theories.  

It is with this background that we can now start looking at some of the myths and legends of India, especially with respect to the Eternal Feminine, the Goddess, the Devi.   


Excerpted from Dr. Alok Pandey’s new book, The Eternal Feminine, published by  Kali, an imprint of  BluOneInk and released on June 19, 2022.  

1 A story was published in the Tribune dated 29 November 2015 about a child, Disha, who had this faculty of reading blindfolded from Grade 1 itself.      

2 CWM -> On Thoughts and Aphorisms -> Aphorism 37      

3 CWM -> On Thoughts and Aphorisms -> Aphorism 39      

4 CWM, Vol. 10, pp. 60–61      

Alok Pandey

An exponent of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s writings, especially on the subject of Yoga, Psychology, Education and Health, he has a medical degree in Psychiatry and has served in the Indian Air Force. He lives and practices in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Pondicherry.

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