Joseph Campbell identifies several purposes that mythology serves, one of which he calls the “pedagogical function.” We look to myths to answer questions about the origin of the universe, but myth is perhaps even more useful when it teaches us how to lead a fully human life in any circumstance. By studying the mistakes and vices of mythological heroes, we learn lessons for the conduct of our own lives.
But for modern audiences exposed to myths from different cultures (or in some cases, even their own), these lessons can easily become lost in a tangle of foreign cultural and religious aspects. As a result, many modern westerners tend to scoff at mythology (which they identify as something “false”), because they don’t see how any rational person could believe these tall tales. And they would be right about this: it wouldn’t be reasonable to think that a man actually fashioned wings out of wax and flew too close to the sun. It’s even more unbelievable that a serpent could outwit human intelligence and initiate a chain of events that would forever condemn the entire human race to a state of sin.
If we understand mythological images and stories as something that happened “out there” at a certain place in the world at a certain point in time, we loose the value that myth can provide. But if we see mythological events and personages as personifications of our own interior reality- of the sorts of universal challenges and pitfalls that all human beings tend to face- then we discover lessons that may help us to lead a happier and more meaningful life.
Like dreams, these messages are often coded and symbolic, and require interpretive digging to uncover meaning. Each person may derive a slightly different meaning depending on how the myth touches him or her. The same myth may even affect the same person at different times in his life. The scientifically minded may scorn this lack of an objective, fixed meaning, but the beauty and power of myth derives from this interpretive, deeply subjective element. It is far easier to describe how gravity affects falling objects than it is to describe how to overcome bad habits, or how to summon the courage to follow your heart, or how to integrate a sublime experience into everyday life. Our culture has no problem accepting the applications and benefits of scientific knowledge; myth has equally valuable lessons of a different sort to impart.
Like all great myths, Indra prods us to open up and reflect ourselves. Although the cultural and physical environments have changed dramatically, there are still certain universals in human nature that are just as true today in Canada as they were millennia ago in India. If anything, asking ourselves questions about the humbling of Indra can provide a message that is more even more pertinent for a time lacking in mythological and moral guidance, such as ours.
As I explored in part 3, a turning point came when Indra saw the army of ants marching in front of him. Seeing the ants catalyzed an internal paradigm shift, as he realized that tumbling down the chain of beings was the lot of all rulers who become drunk on pride. His ego took a hit, and he began to explore the nature of his existence.
Indra is not a literal, historical personage, “somebody” who lived at “some time.” Rather, he’s a symbol of a type of position that human beings periodically occupy. In other words, Indra represents how those times when we rise to positions of power that might make us feel like we are the “king of the gods.”
Seeing it this way, we could easily spot some ‘Indras’ around us: people whose great deeds have allowed them to rise to the heights of worldly power and comfort. We might describe many politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, and businessmen this way. It’s important to recognize, however, that you don’t have to be a member of the power elite to have “Indra moments.” We could feel similarly powerful after getting a promotion at work, or successfully courting a spouse, or even something simpler like teaching your child to read.
Like Indra, we all have the capacity to perform great deeds, to conquer ferocious enemies within and without, and release sweet waters to nourish our little world. And when we’re experiencing good fortune, we often describe it as feeling “on top of the world”- exactly where Indra’s palace was.
As the story shows, there’s nothing wrong with delighting in our achievements; the problem comes with how we feel about them afterword. This is a lesson common to mythologies from all over the world: virtue and selflessness elevate you, while pride and selfishness brings you down. As the Indra myth describes, this lesson “is the whole substance of the secret. This wisdom is the ferry to beatitude across the ocean of hell.” The Greeks expressed this Truth through the story of Icarus, who was also intoxicated by his own power and flew too close to the sun with his wax wings.
These myths seem to warn us about the dangers of letting achievements go to our heads. The Indra myth emphasizes how this feeling of being high on yourself leads many people squander the fruits of their labor in vain projects of self-aggrandizement that have no limit.
For example, the film Inside Job describes how one of the main reasons for the 2008 financial collapse was Wall Street financial managers and CEO’s greed and obsession with competing with each other. In many cases, this took the form of how many vacation houses they owned. From an objective standpoint, any one of the men involved was already extremely wealthy. But even having multiple cars, legions of servants, and private elevators wasn’t enough. In this case, the downfall was rather dramatic, and adversely affected millions of lives.
What gets obscured in selfish splurging and vanity is that nobody succeeds on their own. The raw material and circumstances that anyone has to work with in his life is a gift that we find ourselves with. Much like Indra’s thunderbolts, we do not understand that the power in our pocket is often not of our creation.
Take Bill Gates, for example: a man who typifies the power of individual ambition and innovation like few others, and someone who wields tremendous, Indra-like power. When we hear headlines about the “richest man in the world,” we often don’t see the story of how he got there. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the vast web of coincidence that allowed Gates to succeed.
For one, he just happened to have been born in 1955. This detail might seem insignificant, but being born at this time proved to be a huge advantage, since he was just the right age to benefit from revolutions in computer technology in the late 1970’s: young enough not to be set in his ways, but old enough to already have a base of familiarity with early computer programming.
This familiarity was due to the fact that his parents could afford to send him to a private school whose computer club could fund a sophisticated computer where he learned how to program in 8th grade. He also just happened to have access to an even more sophisticated early computer (which just happened to be within walking distance of his house) at the University of Washington, where he practiced programming between three and six in the morning. This was an opportunity that only a handful of American adolescents were in the position to take advantage of.
All of these factors (plus countless others) contributed to Gates being the right man in the right place at the right time. Undoubtedly, Gates had to work very hard to achieve his success (he often stayed up all night). But isn’t work ethic also an attitude we inherit from our parents, if we’re lucky?
Gladwell’s book is full of success stories of passionately driven, but extraordinary lucky individuals, all of whom wouldn’t have achieved their success without a healthy dose of unchosen environmental factors. Nobody does it all by themselves: we are all born into communal opportunities and are beneficiaries of historical gifts.
There’s one gift that Gates (and the rest of us) received that’s even more difficult to see, perhaps it is so obvious that it goes without saying: that he is a human being.
Can any of us say that we consciously chose to exist? That the “you” that’s responsible for reading these words and succeeding in the world is the same “you” that brought you into the world?
Did I create my body? I don’t feel responsible for bringing myself into the world, even less so for the raw materials this world offers.
Personally, I find it quite odd that more people don’t find this state of affairs quite odd! If the universe were a sort of cosmic casino, we beings have all hit the jackpot (as far as we know). This human body affords us an incomparable (again, as far as we know) degree of choice, volition, and awareness…all through absolutely no choice of our own. A dog or a blade of grass doesn’t have the capacity even to realize that they might have been different.
And yet, most people go about their lives as though life is something they owned. We speak of life as something that we ‘have,’ a possession that must be held onto at all costs. We are like carpenters building a fantastic house without ever stopping to ask where the wood came from.
Just because something feels one way doesn’t necessarily make it true. We look at ourselves in the mirror, and say ‘my hair, my nose, my body.’ But are you responsible for creating your body? Are you really justified in speaking of it as a possession (I have a body)?
Indra began to open up to this larger perspective partially on account of the ants. But your “ant moment” will likely come in a different guise. Almost dying, or falling in love, or taking a mind-altering substance: there are potentially an infinite number of pathways to take to arrive at the point of humility, when you can finally muster the courage to admit “I did not make myself, and have no idea how all this came to be.”
Sometimes it comes gradually, where we slowly begin to awaken to the fact that we are not the authors of our own lives. But from my own personal experience, I can attest that it can often come quickly, and is almost always unpleasant (at least initially).
And when it begins to dawn on you that you’ve been drawn into a fantasy of mistaken identity, it can be quite tempting to run away into the forest and renounce everything, just as Indra was drawn to imitate the ascetic. Upon hearing that you are not who you think you are, it’s quite logical to distance yourself from all the trappings and possession that were extensions and reflections of this identity. Get rid of your car, your house, your job, since it will remind you of that ‘former you’ that had lived his life under such illusion and ignorance. If you want to figure out who you truly are, why not jettison all the masks you wore, and remove yourself as far from anyone who knew the “old you”? For me, I spent long periods doing just this in India, cloistering myself away in silent meditation.
But this story shows this isn’t the solution either! Why?
To put it simply, “renunciation” is usually still ego at work. Building a new identity as the one who is above the “trappings of the world,” or “beyond petty human concerns”: this is just constructing a kinder, gentler, more “spiritual” identity. And you’d better believe that pride is still a problem here (usually more so than worldly pride, because it’s more subtle and hidden).
So it may seem as though we’re stuck here: damned if we stay in the world, damned if we try to leave it. What to do?
Indra, for his part, goes back to what he was doing before all this started. He undertakes his godly duties just as he had done, but the process of reflection has transformed his perspective. No longer is he high on himself. His vision has been “corrected,” and he now sees the larger puzzle of which he is only a part. He carries out the same actions as before, but with humility.
For the rest of us, we all have to discover just what our path (dharma) is. We all need to ask ourselves, given our inheritance, how can we make best use of our gifts? Everyone will take something different from this myth and this interpretation, and each person will have to discover this on his or her own.
Fortunately, as Campbell reminds us, many people have already charted this tangled labyrinth of Self. We simply need to follow the clues and threads they’ve left behind.