Then and Now
Probably the simplest reason the mythologies of the past are still stories that are retold today is that mankind has changed very little. We certainly live in different conditions, most of us. While there are some cultures that remain much as they were hundreds of centuries ago, much of the world lives with modern conveniences such as electricity, which provides comfortable environments that include heating and cooling. We now prepare out foods with fancy gas or electric stoves and ovens and even those who cook their food over a grill do so with intricate barbecue systems. The mixing of milled grains with water and then cooked over a hot stone as bread once first prepared has become gourmet fire-baked pizza. The smoking of meats to preserve them has led to worldwide grill master competitions. And yet, our basic human condition remains unchanged. We still feel pain and joy, are overly concerned with appearances, become angry and jealous, and fail to realize our blessings when we receive them.
The Ramayana is one of two Hindu epic mythologies and it contains approximately fifty thousand lines of verse written in Sanskrit. It is thought to be the compilation of both written and oral traditions gathered by the poet Valmiki somewhere around 200 BCE. The central character is the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu, Rama. I listed these avatars two days ago and, if you remember, there are a total of nine. While the legends in each of the seven books of the Ramayana are about Rama and his earthly life, the core narrative is about Rama’s love for Sita, a very beautiful and virtuous princess.
Rama might have been the earthly presence of the god Vishnu but he had some very human characteristics. His purpose is virtue and yet, he was flawed. Like many who find themselves attached to the dream mate, their ideal here on earth, Rama suffered from jealousy. Jealousy is much more about the person who has it than the object which has caused it. It says that the jealous person has little confidence in their own worth. Rama’s jealousy, as does most, is illustrated by many serious suspicions.
Rama is also more concerned with appearances than happiness – his or Sita’s. Many arguments ensued and resulted in the couple being banished to a forest where Sita is captured while Rama is on a hunt. Here the story introduces a much-loved character in Hindu mythology, Hanuman. Hanuman is called the monkey general and is both trickster and magician. Sita had been captured by a demon so Rama enlists the aid of Hanuman to find her. The army of monkeys throw themselves across the sea to form a bridge which results in Rama being able to rescue Sita.
Once home, Rama hears rumors that Sita was unfaithful to him during her captivity. Concerned about his image, he sends her into exile. It is while in exile that Sita supposedly meets the author of the Ramayana, Valmiki. Unknown to him, though, Sita is pregnant and while in exile delivers twin boys. Years pass and Sita remains in exile. One day Rama has a chance encounter (or is it?) with the boys and recognizes them as his sons. He allows Sita to return from exile but, in her misery, she calls upon Mother Earth to take her. The ground opened beneath her and she threw herself in. It is only then that Rama realizes his own doing in killing his beloved and jumps in after her. They are reunited in heaven and have an eternal happily ever after.
The tale of Rama may seem very disconnected from our living but it really is not. We may not have a monkey general to aid us but we certainly are surrounded by tricksters who would lead us astray if we let them. Mankind still suffers from pangs of jealousy and concern about appearance. While the field of plastic surgery was once all about restoring misconfigurations of physical growth and repairing after injuries, it has become a cottage industry based upon vanity and appearance. More plastic surgery is done in the name of vanity and from jealousy than for any other reason.
The mythology of ancient culture still has relevance today and that is why we read the stories and delight in their movie and television portrayals. In his “Myths to Live By”, Joseph Campbell wrote: “The old differences separating one system from another now are becoming less and less important, less and less easy to define. And what, on the contrary, is become more and more important is that we should learn to see through all the differences to the common themes that have been there all the while.”
There are over eighty-eight thousand chromosomes in the human body. According to the National Institutes of health, “In the nucleus of each cell, the DNA molecule is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome is made up of DNA tightly coiled many times around proteins called histones that support its structure.” These chromosomes contain our history, our present, and our future. They also contain chromosomes that portray our ethnicity, the physical characteristics that define whether we are Caucasian, African, Oriental, Hispanic, South Pacific Islander, or American Indian. Hair type and color, eye shape and color, and skin hue as well as nose configurations and height are often the most obvious of these characteristics. Yet, out of all those eighty-eight thousand chromosomes, only less than two thousand determine those ethnic markers.
Wars have been fought based upon those less than two thousand ethnic markers. Hitler condemned over six million people to death based upon his assumption of what someone of the Jewish faith looked like. He determined what physical characteristics would lead to a superior race of Caucasians and he named it after the name given to all Europeans and invaders. He misappropriated an American Indian symbol and made it symbolic of greed, jealousy, envy, and death. Like Rama, he turned his back on his own because Hitler was, in fact, of Jewish heritage and ethnicity. And like Rama, history says Hitler also took his own life, flaws overriding any virtue that might once have been.
Today leaders of the Taliban are doing the same thing. Their followers are blindly going wherever told without conscious thought on their own. They hide behind religion without living that religion. Their motivation is greed and power and they sacrifice any and everyone except themselves. They sit in a Mount Olympus of their own ego while orchestrating the demise of others. They are not leaders following a divine spirit but greedy, villains who, one day, will find their own deaths written and carried out. Hopefully, few others will perish before that mythology concludes.
Joseph Campbell himself passed away before his most famous book was published. He did leave us with some great advice about how to write some new mythologies instead of simply living the old ones over, making the same mistakes over and over. “It doesn’t help to try to change [an imposed system] to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done.” Both then and now, the answer was and is to live as a human being…with humanity and compassion for all.