THE MYTHS WE LIVE BY – THE POWER OF MYTHS

 

 

                                                                        Joseph Mani

 

Another typical article by Joseph Mani (author of the book BEYOND GODS & SCRIPTURES) worth introspection and feedback from our readers.  Isaac Gomes, Asso. Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.

 

I have always wondered why all major prizes for literature (Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel) have gone to works of fiction or to fiction writers. Is it that there are no great non-fiction literary works?

 

May be it is because the prize committee members know that the world is what it is today because of fiction or myths.

 

To understand this let us start with the evolution history of humans.

 

Animals, Ape, Baboons, Art, Music, Piano, Sing, Concert

Today when we say ‘humans’ we think only of ourselves, the Homo Sapiens. This is because for the last 10,000 years we have been the only human species on earth. But this was not always the case. There were many other human (Homo) species which existed prior to and together with Homo Sapiens. We, of course, would like to think that we are unconnected to any other humans, that we had no cousins, siblings or even parents. But the fact is that when we say we are ‘humans’ what it means is that ‘we are animals belonging to a Species called Sapiens in the Genus Homo (Human) which is part of the Family of Apes’. Before 10,000 years there were other human species like Homo Ergaster (Working Man – most of Africa), Homo Erectus (Erect Man-East Asia), Homo Rudolfenis (Man from Lake Rudolf – East Africa), Homo Neaderthalenis (Man of the Neander Valley-Europe and Western Asia), all of whom lived before or contemporaneous with Homo Sapiens (Wise Man –  as we pompously call ourselves)

 

Some of these human species were superior to us in some ways. Homo Erectus survived for 2 million years, a feat we are not likely to achieve; Neaderthals had brains as large as ours, bodies stronger and more flexible than ours. In the first encounter between Neaderthals and Sapiens about 1,00,000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean area, around today’s Syria, we lost.

 

Then how come all these other human species disappeared? The most plausible hypothesis is that we just finished them off, exterminated them, the first ethnic cleansing on earth. This extermination was so complete that not a single member of those other human species has survived. (We could speculate what would have happened if the Neaderthals had survived along with us. Would there have been special reservation for them in government jobs? Would there have been an Act against atrocities on Neaderthals? Would they have thrown up a charismatic leader like Martin Luther King Jr to fight for equal rights with Sapiens?) But the Neaderthals did not survive and we did. How did we manage it?

 

The answer is that Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to create imagined realities, also called fiction or myths. These are realities which do not physically exist, but exist in our imagination. This is what enabled us to write about mermaids and make the carvings in the Dilwara Temple.

 

There are three kinds of realities:

 

Objective Realities: These realities exist whether you believe in them or not. If you fall from a tall tree, you will break a few bones if not die whether you believe in gravity or not; if you expose yourself to radiation for long, you will die whether you believe in radioactivity or not.

 

Subjective Realities: If you believe that you had a vision of Krishna or you are the Prime Minister of India, it is very real to you even if everyone else thinks you are hallucinating or are under a delusion.

 

Inter-Subjective Realities: If a large number of people believe in something, it becomes real to them even if such a thing has no physical existence. Even if tomorrow every employee of RIL from Mukesh Ambani to the last worker and all its factories, offices and physical assets disappear, the entity called RIL will continue to exist as long as people believe in RIL. Apart from creating mermaids and Ganesha, these imagined realities or myths have enabled Sapiens to work together in large numbers for a common goal.

 

Humans are social animals. To survive and prosper we need to cooperate among ourselves. But we can only cooperate with people whom we can trust, and that is possible only with people whom we know closely and intimately. Studies in sociology have shown that such a close group can have only around 150 members. Beyond this number it is not possible to establish close and intimate relationships which is needed for trust which is needed for cooperation.  Hence such cooperation is not possible with a large number of people who are total strangers to one another.

 

But we need to build cities and nations, win wars, build cathedrals and launch space probes. All these require a large number of total strangers to cooperate among themselves. This is where myths play their part. If you can sell a belief to a large number of people, you can get them to work together for a common goal inspired by that belief even though they are total strangers.

 

It is a misunderstanding to think that evolution has no purpose or goal. Evolution has a purpose and a goal and that is survival and reproduction. A species is considered an evolutionary success if it can make a large number of copies of its DNA helixes. Biologically we are wired to survive. But with imagined realities or myths Homo Sapiens, and we alone, can go beyond and even against this biological survival-wiring. You can never persuade a monkey to give up its banana by promising unlimited supply of bananas in a future monkey heaven. But you can enthuse a suicide bomber and a soldier to give up his life by selling him the myth of heavenly bliss or a national enemy. Again, we are wired for mating and reproduction. Yet thousands of Catholic priests and nuns go against this biological imperative and voluntarily choose celibacy not because a Pope has passed on his celibacy-genes to them, but because they have been sold the myth of bachelor elites. It is possible that if Saint Paul was a happily married man he would have exhorted Christians to be like him and enjoy marital bliss; he would have permitted celibacy only for those who are too weak to maintain a happy married life. Celibacy then would have been a sign of moral weakness and not a mark of the specially chosen ones. Archeological or historical evidence about whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Ram was born in Ayodhya is irrelevant to the devout; what is important to them is that they hold, together with thousands of others, a belief that it is so.

 

If I dismiss religious myths because they have no basis in physical reality, then I should also dismiss the idea of limited liability companies, nation states, the Indian rupee, banks, human rights and equality. All these are imagined realities. A certified lawyer, dressed in a black gown, follows all the proper procedures and affixes his unreadable signature to a document of legal mumbo jumbo written on a wonderfully decorated paper and, presto, a limited liability company comes into existence. An ordained priest dressed in a glittering robe follows all the proper rituals and says at the right moment “This is my body” and, presto, a piece of ordinary bread turns into the living body of a person who died more than two thousand years ago. The first is a legal fiction, the second a theological fiction. Both stand on the same footing as far as physical reality goes, but both are real nonetheless, to those who believe in them. In 1776 BCE Babylon was the largest city in the world. The Babylonian Empire had more than a million inhabitants, a huge number for those times. In that year the Babylonian king, Hammurabi promulgated the Hammurabi Code which was to be the cooperation manual for all Babylonians. Hammurabi claimed that the Code was dictated to him by the god Enilil and the god Marduk asked him to promulgate it. The Hammurabi Code classified all humans into three classes: nobles, commoners and slaves and into two genders: male and female. The life of a nobleman was worth (measured in shekels) more than the life of a commoner, the life of a slave was worth almost nothing. The life of a male of any class was worth more than the life of a female of that class. Children had no independent rights of their own, they were the property of their parents. For example, if a man killed a child of another man, the child’s father should kill the child of the killer not the killer himself. Everyone knew his place in society and behaved accordingly. This brought about harmonious relationship among the million people who lived in places as far away as today’s Iraq, Syria and Iran. It didn’t matter whether biologically humans had evolved into nobles, commoners and slaves. What was important was that a large number of people accepted this manufactured reality. (In India we have the caste hierarchy, again supposedly ordained by the gods). About 3,500 years after Hammurabi’s death, in 1776 CE the representatives of 13 British colonies met in Philadelphia and signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In this Declaration the Founding Fathers of America proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This has been the cooperation manual for millions of Americans for generations. There is no evidence that humans were created by a Creator as a one-shot affair; humans are products of millions of years of biological evolution, and there is no evidence that humans evolved as equals just as there is no evidence that humans evolved to be noblemen, commoners and slaves or that humans evolved as Brahmins, Kshatryias, Vaishyas, Shudras and outcastes. According to the American myth, people are equal while according to the Babylonian and Hindu myths people are unequal. Equality and un-equality, while proclaimed to be divinely ordained and universal, have no basis in reality. They exist only in the imagination of people and in the myths they invent and tell one another. Once people accept these myths they can work together for shared goals inspired by these myths.

 

Myths are not permanent. They change with changing circumstances. For centuries the people of France had accepted the myth of ‘the divine right of kings’. Then in 1789 the French Revolution changed that and people accepted the new myth of ‘the sovereignty of people’. For centuries Catholic priests, with some exceptions, had to say in Latin “Hoc est corpus meum” to turn bread into flesh. If a priest had said the same thing in equivalent Hindi or Tamil words, the faithful would have walked out of the church and the bishop would have recommended defrocking the priest. Then in 1965 the II Vatican Council decreed that the same words in Hindi, Tamil, Swahili and a thousand other languages can also work the same miracle. The faithful accepted the new myth because they accepted the myth of the infallibility Church Councils.

 

Ancient Homo Sapiens lived by the myths of having ‘our own’ ghosts and guardian spirits; these myths held the “uncivilized” tribe together and helped them to cooperate among themselves and unite against enemy tribes. Modern Homo Sapiens live by the myths of corporations, nationhood, central banks and guardian angels; these myths hold our “civilized” societies together. Both are imagined realities; both are fictions or myths. Both work because they are commonly held, inter-subjective realities.

 

Myths are the stuff we live by. The problem arises when one group claims that its myths alone are true and others’ myths are, well, just myths. That is like Indians claiming that our rupee is ‘true’ money but the Chinese yuan is not true money. That is ridiculous, but that is what often happens. The Babylonians after 1776 BCE were convinced of the myth of divinely-ordered inequality in society, the Americans after 1776 CE were convinced of the myth of divinely-ordered equality. Each would claim that they are right and the other wrong. It is said that Pythagoras walked on water. It is said that about 550 years later Christ walked on water. In both cases the evidence is the same – hearsay reports by people who did not witness the event. If the religion founded by Pythagoras had survived, Christians and Pythagoreans today would probably be fighting about whose belief is right. Protestants believe that Christ’s suffering and death earned for humans God’s love and God’s love is enough for salvation; Catholics believe that apart from God’s love, we should also use our Free Will to do good and follow Church rituals to attain salvation. Because of this small difference in the interpretation of how God’s love works, Catholics and Protestants have murdered each other by the hundreds of thousands. It is estimated that during the Roman persecution lasting 300 years a few thousand Christians were killed. On 24 August 1572 French Catholics murdered around 70,000 French  Protestants in a span of one day, around 3,000 in Paris alone, in what is known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Far more Christians were murdered by other Christians on that one day than the total number of Christians killed in 300 years by the Romans. The reigning Pope Gregory XIII had special thanks-giving prayers offered and commissioned three frescos by Giorgio Vasari in a room in the Vatican to celebrate this massacre (This room is now closed to visitors).

 

For thousands of years there have been so many conflicts and so much innocent blood spilled –  over myths. That has been and is the tragedy of our species – fighting over myths. It may be OK to live by myths, but should we be fighting and killing over the superiority of one’s myth over another’s myth because some preacher or demagogue or Book told us that only our myths are true? Is that being Sapiens – Wise?

 

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari for many of the facts and some of the ideas in this article.

 

16. 11. 2019

 

 

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