Many cultures, one story?

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 18, 2013 20:21 hrs

Here is a hypothetical exercise. Suppose we are tasked with mapping mythologies of the world on an atlas. Can you guess the outcome? The picture emerging finally is expected to be far more complicated than expected. We would end up with a criss-cross of arrows coursing through multiple continents. It would be as difficult to assign a nationality to these stories as it would be to date their origins. But, what this map could possibly establish without doubt is that the world was a global village way before Google or Facebook tried to stitch it together

Myths bind us in a web of big ideas, common themes and universal truths. Almost every culture, for instance, has stories about death and immortality. In some myths, death has to be vanquished and the heroes are on a quest for immortality. They seek the ultimate elixir, the plant or the root or the drink that will banish death from the land of the living. The theme of immortality is also central to the Kumbh Mela, the grand spectacle that is currently playing out on the banks of the Ganges in Allahabad.

The Economist, which recently reviewed a book on immortality (Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation; by Stephen Cave, Crown, 320 pages), had this to say: “…Stephen Cave, a British philosopher, argues that man's various tales of immortality can be boiled down into four basic narratives’. The first is the simplest, in theory at least: do what the medieval alchemists never managed and discover an elixir to simply avoid dying. The second concerns resurrection, or coming back to life after dying, a belief found in all three of the Abrahamic religions. The idea of an immaterial soul that can persist through death dates back, in a formal form, at least to Plato, and forms Mr Cave's third narrative. His fourth narrative deals with immortality through achievement, by becoming so famous that one's name lives on through the ages.”*

The quest of many an Occidental hero, shaped by the philosophy and myths of these cultures, was born out of a need for understanding why we die. In the Orient too, there are similar heroic quests. Garuda, a theriomorph (deities represented in animal form), seeks amrita to free his mother. Gayatri, a popular mantra today but once a metre to which prayers were set to and also a bird, sought an elusive elixir (some myths speak of this as soma and some as amrita) for the gods. Similarly, the story of the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh (believed to be the oldest story ever told) describes his search for the plant of immortality. The plant is in the possession of an ageless man called Utnapishtim, the only survivor of the great flood that engulfed the world — remember Noah? — yet another myth that is common to all cultures.

Gilgamesh and Garuda have a lot in common. Garuda obtained the jar of amrita for the “nagas” but tricked them out of immortality by giving them a set of contrived instructions. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, manages to get the plant but is tricked out of immortality by fate or by the gods because he fails to follow the instructions. The theme of immortality is also central to the story of amrita manthan, which is the underlying myth of the Kumbh Mela that promises salvation and immortality of the soul.

But the narrative takes an interesting twist at this point. While the older myths record the quest for immortality, later ones tell a different story. Heroes in the Indian epics, for example, don’t seek immortality; they are avatars of the gods who are immortal. They look for deliverance of humanity at large and the defeat of evil (as they see it) in the hands of good. Arjun, Ram, Krishna, Indra, Yudhisthira and Karna are all heroes, all on a quest but not for everlasting life. Similar is the story with Homeric heroes Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon and others — none of them was in the hunt for immortality.

As philosophies across the world engaged with and analysed the concept of death, it was not seen as an end of life but as the means to begin a new one. Or, as a sceptic might say, death became a lost cause. The quest was therefore redefined. Like death, so it is with different aspects of life. The common thread that ties all the stories together creates a complicated, yet human and universal, tapestry. Myths are interesting as much for the fantastical worlds they describe as for what they reveal about humanity: that we are more alike than we are different. Or, at least we all love the same stories.

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