Myth of Yoga 2: Functions of Myth

Myth as Truth: A Brief History of Mythology

The popularity of yoga in the West has grown exponentially over the past few decades, and I suspect that this is not a passing fad. Looking at this cultural phenomenon we see that there are many different levels of interest in the practice of yoga. For some it is a good way to exercise and move the body. It is fun to go to a yoga class, and perhaps many just have this level of involvement. For others, however, it is a way of life, and a source of connection and community. Why are people drawn to yoga? Is it just a feel good method of bodily health and exercise? Or is something else going on here? Continuing our exploration from Part 1, I wish to guide the reader into considerations of yoga as perhaps a ritual practice of ‘mythic proportions’. Let us see what the elements of yoga are in the sense of “Myth as Truth”.

Before we can speak about yoga in terms of a myth-religion however, I want to take some time to really set the stage properly, and to define what a myth is in the religious sense, and to examine the functions that all myths properly rendered serve. Regardless of the particular belief, whether ancient or modern, east or west, every religion has a basic structure which is common to all religions, just as houses, although trimmed in different styles and painted different colors, all are constructed upon similar engineering principles.

mythmiTH/noun

1.  A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

tcave bear skull

h the human life

High in the Swiss Alps a century ago there were discovered little shrines containing the skulls of bears in small caves. The 1917 Drachenloch cave excavation by Emil Bachler uncovered more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons. Some remarkable findings included a stone chest consisting of a low wall built from limestone slabs near a cave wall with a number of bear skulls inside it. A cave bear skull was found with a femur bone from another bear stuck inside it.

We know that in primitive mythologies around the world prehistoric hunting and gathering tribes had a special interaction with their animal neighbors, whom they were killing and eating all the time. There are countless examples of ritual ceremony involving animals, especially the bear.

During the course of the last ice age, the Riss-Würm glacier period, those caves were frozen with ice and completely inaccessible. And after the time of that glaciation, there were no cave bears on Earth. So these little shrines—with these cave bear skulls, small fires and small artifacts suggesting that there had been primitive religious practice there—date from 200,000 years ago. Here we can see the earliest evidence of mythic practice among humans.

Why do human beings engage in such rituals? Regardless of the culture, language or tradition we universally observe humans in ritual practices in an attempt make sense of the basic mysteries of life. For our Neanderthal cousins, perhaps it was the observation of the mysteries of life and death.

D’où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?

Years ago I was visiting the Boston Museum of Art and unexpectedly came upon this Gauguin masterpiece, which literally took my breath away. I had seen a photo of the piece, but did not realize the massive scale of the original oil painting.

Our practice of yoga today provides us with an opportunity to once again ask those primeval questions which fascinated and perhaps tortured Gauguin…

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going.”

In 1909 The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was working on his magnificent “Symbols of Transformation”, in which he was diving deeply into the well of mythic symbols from around the world. In this exploration, Jung stated that “ it struck me what it means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one.” He asked himself, “What is the myth I am living?” and found that he did not know. Jung wrote that ” I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks.”

Now I want to ask you, the reader, a very critical question. What is the myth by which you are living your life?

Joseph Campbell, in his Masks of God series, surveyed the mythological orders of societies around the world, from the primitive rites of the shamans to the grand high culture forms present today. He identified 4 basic functions which all living myths display. The summary that follows is paraphrased and taken from his work.

The Mystical Function: Awakening in the mind a sense of AWE before the mystery of being.

The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe.

The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order.

The Psychological Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life.

The first function of mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the tremendous mystery of this universe as it is; to awaken and support a sense of awe in the individual before the nature of being itself. This opens up a realization of the mystical dimension, so that by participating in ritual forms, you are made aware, experientially, that behind the surface appearances of the world, there is a great mystery of life and that is also the mystery deep within yourself.

Now the various religions of the world have different answers and inflections in response to this question. But the point is that at some point in our lives we all face this fundamental question of what is this life that we experience.

Question: What does life do? What is it?

Now if you think what it is that life does, what life has to do in order to be life—it has to kill and eat other life. That is the basic thing. An observation of biological life reveals a constant changing of forms, an impermanence if you will. Regardless of scale, whether microscopic bacteria or viewing our planet from space, we can observe the transformation of life, from the oceans through the air. Even within your own body there is a constant battleground as different cellular components wage a ceaseless war within you. This is a rather monstrous thing. And when we see what the situation is, on which your own life depends—when consciousness become aware of the pre-conditions of its own existence, there is often a sense of shock, a sense of horror. Recall the image of the serpent ouroboros consuming its own tail and eating itself. Considered from this perspective, it appears that there is an energy that animates all of creation, and flows throughout the universe endlessly creating new forms and dissolving the existing appearances back into the mysterious circle of life.

egypt oroborus

Campbell observes that the mystical function of mythology “is to put the conscious mind – which is in touch only with the surface phenomenology of the world – in touch with the ground of those phenomena.”

I recently attended a local showing of the film “Cowspiracy” which is an environmental film arguing the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, primarily focusing on the inefficiency of animal agriculture and the carbon emissions that result from meat production. While making many solid arguments in favor of the benefits of moving towards a plant based solution to feed humans on a global scale, towards the end of the movie the filmmaker sets up a very emotional scene in which he witnesses the beheading of a duck.

Poignantly framing his logic with a bloody death scene, the filmmaker is stunned into near catatonia as he proclaims “I won’t have someone else do what I myself cannot do”, climatically exclaiming his ultimate raison d’etre for not eating meat!

While I respect anyone’s individual choice on either side of the meat eating issue, the movie’s overall tone was one of an all too familiar story, namely the argument that eating meat and killing animals is wrong in moral terms. This view is commonly seen today whenever we see PETA members demonstrating for a radical world-make-over in their likeness.

Again to reference the movie’s climax, the “now-found-religion” movie-maker’s emotional reaction was so profound, that it is worthy of exploration. What we have is an up close and personal experience of death. It is one thing to have opinions and thoughts about something, but a primal experience brings a sense of reality that thought cannot render. When a person is faced with death, a certain shock enters into the nervous system. Many times a paralysis of the will sets in. We don’t want to face death, we don’t like death, so we want to avoid anything associated with death. I remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her important life’s work of changing the culture of denial in our medical institutions around death and dying. There is also a psychological aspect of this ‘shock’ that has similarities to a refusal to move forward and through a ‘threshold moment’. It is “initiation time” and the candidate for illumination hesitates and turns his back upon the challenge at hand…Consider Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, or the story of Parzival in the Holy Grail.

My observation is that sitting with an experience of death in any form is an opportunity to be with a very important teacher. If your response to the teaching is a pushing away, denial, formulating a moral judgment, or adopting a protest mentality, then you are pushing away and denying a fundamental aspect of your own nature.

In 1837 the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of an aspect of this experience in his essay The Basis of Morality.  How is it, he asks, that an individual can so forget himself and his own safety that he will put himself and his life in jeopardy to save another from death or pain—as though that others life were his own?  Such a one is then acting, Schopenhauer answers, out of an instinctive recognition that he and that other in fact are one. He is acting not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of a greater truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being. Schopenhauer’s name for this motivation is “Mitleid”, or compassion, and he identifies it as the primary inspiration of moral action. For a moment one is selfless, boundless, without ego.

Schopenhauer showed an early concern for the welfare of animals. For him, all individual animals, including humans, are essentially the same, being phenomenal manifestations of the one underlying Will. The word “Will” which is central to his philosophy is better translated as the word “Energy”. Since everything is basically energy, then humans and animals are fundamentally the same and can recognize themselves in each other. For this reason, he claimed that a good person would have sympathy for animals, who are our fellow sufferers.

Considering “Cowspiracy”, it is a very natural reaction that our empathy and compassion extends to another creature, and I tend to agree with Shopenhauer’s point of view. Nor have I quarrel with PETA!

It is quite interesting to note that Schopenhauer was probably the first Western philosopher to read the Indian Upanishads, having obtained an obscure Persian version translated into Latin. So here we are in 1818 and a German philosopher has fashioned a remarkable synthesis of ideas East & West.  It is well known that the book always lay at his bedside table, and he invariably studied it before sleeping at night. He called Sanskrit literature “the greatest gift of our century”, and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become a cherished faith of the West.

What is curious however, is that Schopenhauer is primarily known for his ‘pessimism’, and one of the key arguments he sets forth in “The World as Will and Representation” is that this “Will” or “Energy” which animates the Universe, IS the Universe. This is a notion readily understood by yogis as it is a common foundational principle in most Eastern philosophies.

So the profound paradox, if I can speak it plainly, is that on the one hand we have on a grand scale the universe of impersonal energy ceaselessly transforming itself, but if we focus upon the separate individual forms we see the personal horror of life eating life. The world “as it is has a central appearance of suffering. Let us recall the 1st Noble Truth of the Buddha– All life is sorrowful. Schopenhauer has taken this Buddhist sentiment and in one of his most famous quotes has written:

Life is something that should not have been”.

Looked at from this perspective, there is no doubt about the suffering inherent in life. The key question I ask myself is:

How do we joyfully participate in the sorrows?

3 Attitudes Towards Myth

Now a general survey of mythologies finds that there are 3 attitudes toward this experience of awe. One is that of affirmation; that is to say, we say ‘yes to life’. The primitive mythologies of the world are all in this category. Life with all of its pains and sorrows was completely embraced by these societies. Just look at any of the initiation rites from Australia or Africa as an example. Some of the Australian rites are almost unimaginable: what those youngsters go through when they’re eleven– thirteen years old. One of the more unappetizing aspect is this of the older men bleeding themselves, and the boys live for weeks on men’s blood—they’re weaning them from woman’s food, the mother milk; and the boys, along with the men’s blood, are receiving manly wisdom. The mythology is communicated through this. The woman gives birth to a nature being. The men’s blood gives birth to a culture being: someone who has been integrated in the culture heritage.

The other attitude is that of rejection; At a certain time in human history (the date is somewhere around the seventh century BCE) we begin to get evidence of strong negative reactions to this. It’s a mistake, a cosmic error. And when this comes, we get a system of myths having to do with withdrawing from it all, which has its strongest statement in Jainism in India and Hinayana Buddhism. These are the prime religions of this absolute negation: the world cannot be corrected and must be just rejected. Now, these are the two primary mythological orientations: that of affirmation, with gratitude, with joy in participation, with rapture; and that of absolute withdrawal.

There is also a third mythological approach to this first function of reconciling consciousness with the world: The third position is that of correction. Now this mythology of correction, which is the one that most of us inherit, is characteristic of the Near East. The earliest example of it in the records is in the Persian religion of Zoroaster. This is a new thing in the history of mythology. And the dating of Zoraster is uncertain, perhaps as early as 1100BCE or as late as 600BCE.

It is one of the characteristics of our modern world that we don’t face these first two alternatives of affirmation or rejection, but we try to say, “Well, I will affirm life. I don’t like people who don’t. But I’ll affirm it on condition that it reforms and makes itself go the way I believe it should go.” We then pick and choose what we believe is the ‘good’ and demonize the ‘bad’.

The Second Function of Mythology

The second function of mythology and religion is to present an image and understanding of the universe that will support this experience of the mystery. In our time we have relegated this cosmological function to science, but as you realize, over the course of the ages, man’s understanding and man’s image of the universe, has greatly changed along with science.

The image of the cosmos must change with the development of the mind and the knowledge; otherwise the mythic statement is lost, and man becomes disassociated from the very basis of his own religious experience. Realize that all of the great traditions in their own time were scientifically correct. That is to say, they were correct in terms of the scientific image of that age. So there must be a scientifically validated image.

The Third Function of Mythology

Now the third function of a living mythological tradition is to validate and maintain a certain moral order and to integrate the individual to his group. These moral orders greatly differ from one society to another. For example, the requirements of a primitive hunting community are very different from those of a primitive planting community. What is required of the young men and women when they mature is in each case quite different.

Likewise, in a complex society of differentiated tasks—with professional doctors, astronomers and scientists, professional governing people, merchants and businessmen, all of these coordinated in one society—we have a quite different social problem, a quite different moral problem from that of a simple primitive community. And so there is this variation from society to society in terms of the social orders. One of the very important ideas in mythology, and in the rites of a mythologically based culture is that the individual must be shaped—he must be made to react in the way that that culture wants.

The Fourth Function of Mythology

The fourth function of a mythology is a psychological one, namely to guide and assist the individual through the stages of life. Societies have changed throughout time, but the problem of the individual in his life course has not greatly changed. Regardless of culture, the problems of adolescence, maturity, old age and death are rather constant in life. The psyche must be centered and unfolded into accord with itself, the society, universe and the mystery of being itself.

In the great living traditions, all of these functions were served simultaneously and harmoniously.

dante3

So we have the 4 functions of Mythology. Consider Medieval Christianity as an example. Every aspect of life was integrated in a singular vision. Entering the great cathedrals of Europe one experienced heaven on Earth. The institution of the Church was manifested in all areas of life, from the awe and wonder of the beatific vision of God, presented in the science of the day as Dante’s cosmology in which the universe is divided into three sections, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. All of this was perfectly reflected in the Arts and Music, the social order of the day, not to mention the universal understanding of man’s place in the mythology, and the stages of human life.

Now since we are considering yoga in this discussion, it is important to understand some of the differences between the Mosaic Religions and those from the East.In the East, the ultimate divine mystery is beyond personification, beyond naming, absolutely beyond categories. You cannot ask, “Is God merciful or wrathful? Does he like these people and not those?” This is a projection of human thought on an ultimate mystery. But that mystery which is absolutely transcendent is the mystery of your being as well: it is completely imminent within you. So you have a saying from the Chåndogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi, “Thou Art That.”

The aim of these Oriental religions is for you to experience your identity with that which is the ultimate mystery of all being; your identity with it, not as a concept but to have an experience and a realization deep within you of your identity with that divine power.

In the West something entirely different happened. Around 2500BCE there came out of the Arabian desert the Semitic Nomads up into the zone of the great cultures of Mesopotamia.

These were comparatively primitive people. They did not have great learned priesthoods studying the organization of the cosmos. They were warrior people who understood the power and function of the individual. And it is at this time that a totally new theme appeared in the mythologies of the Near East. It is this: that man is not divine; that man and the creator are not of the same essence. God created the universe; God created man; God and man are not the same. This is a fundamental idea that now inhabits all of Western myth, and distinguishes it from the Oriental.

The goal of the Oriental thought is unity: that man should experience his identity with divinity.

In fact, the preaching of identity is the prime heresy in this tradition of ours. When Christ said, “I and the Father are one,” he was crucified. When Hallaj, nine hundred years later, said the same thing in Islam—“I and my beloved are one”—he was crucified. Whereas, that is goal in the East. In the West the goal is to establish relationship. The aim is to establish a proper relationship between God and man.

Universal and Local Ideas.

 220px-Adolf_Bastian2

Adolf Bastian, (1826-1905), a German ethnologist and world traveler, recognized in the myths and ceremonial customs of mankind a significant number of essential themes and motifs that were apparently universal. He termed these Elementary Ideas. Bastian theorized that there is a general psychological unity of humankind that is responsible for these elementary ideas common to all peoples. He also noticed that the ideas always appeared in local forms with different inflections, which he termed folk or ethnic ideas.

Bastian proposed that cultural traits, folklore, myths, and beliefs of various ethnic groups originate within each group according to laws of cultural evolution and are essentially the same, merely differing in form because of geographic environment. Carl Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious are thought to have been derived from Bastian’s theory of elementary ideas.

So we have Elementary Ideas such as the world flood, virgin births, death and resurrection of saviors, creation myths of the many out of the one, and all of these themes have countless examples in stories from all over the world.

Joseph Campbell described his work as an attempt to tell humankind’s “One Great Story” — our saga of spiritual awakening and the subsequent development of the many different mythological perspectives that have shaped us throughout time. His central theme is that our seemingly disparate spiritual traditions are neither discrete nor unique, but rather each is simply an “ethnic manifestation” of one or another of those “elemental ideals” that have forever transfixed the human psyche.

One of the most challenging circumstances of the human experience is to gain a global perspective from which to understand our own local culture-forms and the conditioning that each of us has grown into. Our likes and dislikes, our moralities, ideas of freedom and liberty, questions of meaning all are conditioned by the time and place of our birth.

By examining and comparing the myths from religious traditions old and new, we can gain perspective about the universal functions that mythology serves, leading us to a greater understanding of the common elementary ideas that underlay our rituals. In our exploration of yoga, we can better understand what resonates with us in our practices, instead of blindly following instruction that does not serve us. It is my contention that although the myth of yoga’s historical development might be different from what is commonly believed, nonetheless the current practice of yoga in the west is a very important manifestation of mythic proportions.

Myths Provide Inspiration

All of the world’s cultures, from the prehistoric to the great world religions, have grown out of myths, which primarily serve to relate man to his environment. And what these myths have given has been inspiration and fascination.

We can classify the great mythic stories by time and place, and also by the distinction of literate and non-literate societies. Along geographical lines a primary consideration is that of the Old Stone Age tribes inhabiting the great animal plains of Europe, contrasted against the jungle dwellers of the tropical equatorial belts.

The Animal World: Humankind’s First Inspiration

The landscape of the Great Nomadic Hunt was of a spreading plain, bound by a circular horizon, with the sky of heaven above, filled with birds during the day, and with stars by night. The primary food supply was the grazing animal herd, and procuring this was the dangerous province of males within the community. We know that the ceremonial life of these peoples was largely addressed to this relationship and interaction with the animals, which they were continually killing and eating. Now in this situation of constant killing, the energies of the psyche must find a way to integrate and reconcile the emotions that arise from the interaction.

masked-dancers-qagyuhl

And so it was that for the early Homo-Sapiens, the animal world was the first inspiration, and the divinities were animal divinities. And when people are fascinated by something, they act like it, they play it—so in the rituals of the hunting people we find danced buffalo dances, deer dances, and the animals were the center of their ceremony. They were in covenant, so to say, with the animal world. And the notion was that through this covenant, the animals gave their bodies willingly to be eaten. Because only the body dies, the being comes back. If you return the blood of the animal to the earth, the life is in the blood. The earth is the mother of life, and the animal will be back next year. A fundamental hunting rite that is found throughout the world is this: If you want the animals to be back next year, the rituals must be performed.

Out of Death Comes Life: the Plant World as Inspiration

In contrast, the environment of jungle tribes is of a dense and thick foliage; massive trees; no horizon; no dome of the sky; filled with screeching birds and monkeys above, and slithering dangers on the tropical floor. In this world of the tropics, out of the rot and decay of the plant world–fresh green sprouts arise. The communities here witnessed that out of decay, there comes life. And this notion that out of death comes new birth becomes a very important thing in the tropical cultures.

What is seen is often imitated, so all along the entire equatorial belt of the earth, from Africa across and throughout India and Southeast Asia, to the Americas and jungles of Brazil, we can document what is to our sensibilities today very horrible patterns of rituals, human sacrifice—killing people, letting them rot, burying them—with the notion that out of this death there would come life.

Moreover, the influence of these primitive rites entered and inspired much of the mythology of the higher cultures, where it survives in myths and rituals of sacrifice and communion with which many of us are familiar today.

This idea we consider rather distasteful today, but I still recall my visit to the great Shiva Temple in Tanjore, India, where it has been documented that ritual human sacrifice was practiced until the 1800’s.

kali

By one human sacrifice with proper rites, the goddess remains gratified for one thousand years, and by the sacrifice of three men, one hundred thousand. Shiva, in his terrific aspect, as consort of the goddess, is appeased for three thousand years by an offering of human flesh…The wise would do well to add such flesh, free from hair, to their offerings of food.”

Hindu Kalika Purana circa 900CE

Recall once again the first function of mythology, namely to reconcile consciousness with the horrific nature of life eating life. In the Hindu deity of the Goddess Kali, we have a magnificent personification of exactly these energies. What most people do, however, is to concretize the symbol, instead of realizing that it is a metaphor. The primary value of a symbol such as Kali is to remind ourselves that these terrifying images refer to energies within us, not some frightful deity ‘out there somewhere’.

As Above, So Below: Planets and Stars as Inspiration

Individual in Myth

It is not generally understood that the ideals recently developed in the West of the importance of the individual, his rights of freedom and self-determination have no meaning whatsoever in the East, at least prior to our recent experience of globalization. They had no meaning for primitive man.

Liberty for the individual would have no meaning for the early civilizations of Egypt, China, India nor the Near East. As a matter of fact, our present ideals were not shared by most of the peoples of the entire Earth, and would be viewed as ways of life to be abhorred.

With the rise in the ancient Near East from 7000 BCE onwards of settled communities from where the arts of grain agriculture and animal domestication were developed, life became much more complex. As the communities gradually grew in size, highly specialized skills became increasingly important, so that by 3500 BCE we witnessed the first cities of the world, along with their clearly distinguished castes of governing orders, skilled craftsmen, traders and priests.

In a small hunting society you have a community of basically equivalent adults. Every adult is, in terms of that culture’s notion, a total human being. The only divisions are in terms of sex and age groups. But every man, every woman, controls what is necessary in order to be a total member of that society.

Whereas in the past, particularly in the hunting societies the individual was in possession of the entire culture form with very little division of labor, here there is an abrupt change not only in the community, but also in the arts. For here we see, also for the first time, pottery images of geometrical organizations of circular fields with a binding center symbol. Crosses and swastikas emerged as images reflecting the idea of separate parts unified into a whole. For in these cultures, each caste had a separate role to play, and each was but a part of the whole man.

And what were the customs of these Bronze Age cultures? Adherence and conformity to the group and caste was paramount.

Perhaps one the most revolutionary changes on Earth occurred in the fertile crescent of Iraq circa 3500 BCE. It was here that priests observed that the five visible planets, sun and moon all moved at mathematically determined rates through the stars. This is the great Bronze Age realization of the heavenly cosmic cycle, an idea that spread all over the globe and is still present today in the East. Preceding the later Biblical notion “On Earth as it is in Heaven”, the cycle of rising and falling in the sky was to be implemented in the social order on Earth as well.

One of the most amazing examples of what this mythology entailed was unearthed in the 1920’s by Sir Leonard Woolley, in the Royal Tombs of Ur. Known as the home of the Biblical Abraham, the temple compound of Ur was close to present day Basrah in southern Iraq. Woolley was in charge of the excavations, which were organized by the British Museum along with the University of Pennsylvania. Inside the burial site were Sumerian royals and tombs of great material wealth. The tombs revealed large paintings of the ancient culture, along with gold and silver jewelry, cups and other furnishings.

URGRAVE

The excavations discovered multiple graves—graves in which as many as sixty-four human beings had been buried together, all in courtly array. And they were not people in disorderly fashion—thrown into the grave and covered over. They were in rows, without any signs of struggle.

They were mostly people of the royal court. One of the most important graves was that of a Queen who was called Shub-ad, who was buried beside a man who was thought to have been her husband, A-bar-gi. The Queen’s entire court was buried with her, and the King’s entire court was buried with him, under hers. She had a court of twenty-five people buried with her and had been brought in on a sled that had been drawn by asses. Beneath was the court of the king and were buried some fifty people. He had been brought in on a wagon with oxen. All these were in the graves.

Both the animals and the humans had been buried in the graves alive. The ladies lying peacefully in rows, dressed in their finest regal clothes, with ribbons of silver and gold adorning their hair, and necklaces of lapis-lazuli and gold. A girl harpist who had been playing the harp had her skeleton hands still on the harp strings. And the harp itself was in the form of a bull’s body with a beautiful golden bull’s head and a lapis lazuli beard.

When the King died—or was killed, at a certain time in the movement of the planets when the Moon goes down, and the planet Venus along with the Moon, that was the end of an eon—the King and his entire court walked into the grave. They were playing a game; just as the hunters were imitating animals, just as the planting people were imitating plants, so the high civilizations began with princely, aristocratic little groups imitating the stars to the deaths, going all the way. The whole court, at the end of an eon, went in the grave so that another court could come. We find similar burials in every one of the ancient cultures; from Egypt to the early Chinese and India—we have graves with as many as 800 people buried in them.

So what is the point of all this? Just where, I must ask, within societies such as these, is the individual that we so cherish today? The answer is that in these ancient worlds there is no such thing as an individual life, but only a great cosmic law by which all life is governed. Known to the Egyptians as Maat, to the Chinese as Tao, and in India, Dharma, the great point in these early Bronze Age mythologies is that of both a heavenly and earthly social cosmic order, to which each individual must submit.

The neighbors now were the stars and the planets, and this still lives with us in our religions today. All of our religions have inherited this motif from the old Babylonian world. It went out with the higher civilizations to India, to China, even across the Pacific to Mexico and Peru. And you see these great towers—these great temple towers that represent the mountain of the world—and it’s the axis of the world around which the world turns, as it does around the pole star. The whole world and society and the individual in it are like the planets moving in a great course.

The Mythology for Today

So in summary we can observe a fundamental difference in orientation between the hunting and agricultural societies. The former which is represented by the European spirit accents the virtues of individual judgment and independent excellence. The latter communities from the Near East emphasized the value of the group, and the importance of conformity. The myths have evolved as games and stories, first from animal neighbors then to the plant world, and then to the songs of the planets and stars. From societies bound by limited horizons of the forest and plains, we now have broken through from such limitations, and the myths of today must speak of new experiences.

With the rapid advances in science and technology, our understanding of the nature of the universe has changed radically, and the old cosmologies are in disrepute. The myths of the past do not serve us and are broken. In societies with bounded horizons, it is customary to love your clan and to project our aggressions outside onto the “others”. However, now on our planet all dividing horizons have been shattered. We all live on one planet which is home for us all.

apollo-8-earthrise

What you might ask, does all of this have to do with our practice of yoga? This will have to wait, for the most part, until Part 3. I hope that I have provided some clues, and opportunities of reflection for you, so that you might examine why you practice yoga, and how your own life in deepened and enriched. I am observing that there is a transition underway in yoga, and people are moving away from a strictly posture-based focus towards a concern with a deeper transformation of awareness.

It seems that the rigid authoritative style of teaching is waning, and that a new creativity is blossoming in yoga studios around the world. I would like to solicit from you, dear readers, your assistance. In future installments of this series I hope to offer glimpses of inspiring practices that you have experienced. I would appreciate hearing from you with stories or introductions to teachers and practices that you hold dear.

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The universe is no longer the little circle. It is now boundless; there is no protective horizon of the universe where man may feel comfortable. We don’t know what the universe is, where it is, what it is, what we are, what meanings there are—that’s all gone. We can no longer say love is to be held at home, and hate projected abroad.

In other words, the whole mythological structure can no longer work in terms of this dualism between in-group and out-group—there is no horizon there either. And with the individual, as Jung has said—and this is one of his great statement’s—’The individual is no longer to identify himself with the archetypes of the group.’

This is a totally different notion—a much more complicated one about the individual and his relationship to mankind than anything mythology has had to face before. And this is the problem, it seems to me, that our clergy, and professors, and moralists have faced: not working to defend disintegrating mythologies, but working to find how the imageries that have supported men in the past can be applied to this quite new, quite wonderful, quite adventurous enterprise of today.”

Joseph Campbell




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4 thoughts on “Myth of Yoga 2: Functions of Myth

  1. Love the reference to Schopenhauer. You can readily come across stories of the Transcendentalists, and how they came across the Vedic teachings, with it being completely glossed over that their introduction was through Schopenhauer and a few other idealists.

    • Yes, I do believe Schopenhauer was the first. This reminds me of how in many ways our knowledge today is superficial as we seem to have forgotten many of the deep insights of our own Western philosophical heritage.

  2. I eagerly looked for your third installment on myth – what myth can we live by today?

    Have you abandoned your interesting blog? Are you writing a book? Have you posted elsewhere?

    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment and interest. I have been preoccupied with many projects, but hope to have Part 3 sometime this spring.
      I have been examining my own yoga practice over the past year, and have been sitting and listening and observing my own ever-changing
      reasons and motivations for practicing yoga. I also have begun interviewing other yoga teachers, and hope to add some audio blog posts
      in the future.

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