“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story,” said Mark Twain (possibly), and while this is often poor advice for those (like heads of state) who deal with affairs of the external world it is a foundational principle for those who seek to convey truths that transcend the merely mundane. This is particularly the case with myths, tales that seek to convey eternal truths that sometimes can only be transmitted when they are couched in words and images that might, from the perspective of the words and images that our senses perceive, be categorized as “fictional.”
Well-crafted stories can be good medicine, for reading, listening or reciting them can exert an effect on our psyche, both individual and collective, that extends far beyond the rational to the intuitive. These are the sorts of stories that can act as upaya, as remedies for what ails us cognitively and karmically. Each of us is in some way afflicted by something, and we can all always benefit by listening or retelling narrative that require us to focus on the real, the true, the permanent. Focusing our energy in this way enhances the discipline, strength and courage that we need as we continue to negotiate our increasingly complex world.
Many cultures have been blessed with epics, long poems in lofty language that chronicle the feats and vicissitudes of a legendary or traditional hero in the context of a noble quest. Every society has at least one hero (originally a Greek word for “demi-god”), at least one brave, courageous, bold individual (usually a man, often of divine ancestry) who strives to follow the path of righteousness despite the challenges that inevitably arise to obstruct.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata might today well be the most popular epics still regularly recounted on our globe. It has been rightly said that in India and Southeast Asia no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’, in the very fabric of those cultures, where the divine and semi-divine beings that populate them are still widely and sincerely venerated. Part of their utility is as a reminder that “there is nothing new under the sun,” that all the situations in which we may find ourselves have previously been negotiated by others, that we may learn from their experiences. Some have even averred that the Ramayana teaches how life should be, and the Mahabharata, how life really is.
But at a more profound level, reciting and remembering the event-filled lives of Krishna and the Pandavas, of Hanuman and Rama, offers us the opportunity to enter however briefly into the world in which these archetypal beings live, that by establishing or enhancing relationships with these personalities we may permit their awareness to suffuse ours as a remedy (upaya) for the ills that beset we humans who too easily find ourselves the prisoners of our quotidian perspectives. Whether any of the characters in these classics ever “existed” or not as living human beings they have existed as ideals for so long that they now are much more vital than most of us who continue to remember them. In seeking their blessings and guidance we do but open ourselves to the collective wisdom of the ages, distilled into human form.
May all the world’s great heroes sanctify us that we may consecrate our lives to serving others as these great stories serve us!