I want to start by giving what may be to many of you, a new definition of the word myth. As normally used the word myth means an idle tale, a fable, a falsehood, or an idea that is out of date, something untrue. But there is another older and stricter use of the word myth, whereby it doesn’t mean something untrue, but it means an image in terms of which people make sense of life and of the world. Supposing for example, you do not understand the technicalities of electricity, and somebody wants to explain it to you, he wants to explain about the flow of currents. Well, to do that, he compares electricity to water, and because you understand water, you may get some idea about the behavior of electricity. Or if an astronomer wants to explain to you what he means by expanding space, will use the metaphor of a balloon, a black balloon with white spots on it. The white spots represent the galaxies, and if you blow up the balloon, they all get farther away from each other at the same speed as the balloon blows up. In neither case we are not saying that electricity is water, or that the universe is the balloon with white spots on it, we are saying it’s something like it. And so in the same way, the human being has always used images to represent his deepest ideas of how the universe works, and what man’s place in it is. And tonight I am going to discuss certain aspects of two of the greatest myths, in this sense of the word, that have influenced mankind’s thinking. First of all the myth of the universe as an artifact, as something made as a carpenter makes tables, chairs and houses, or as a potter makes pots, or a sculptor makes figurines. And on the other hand the image of the world as a drama, in which all the things in the world are not made, but acted, in the same way as a player acts parts. For these are the two great images that govern respectively the religions of the West descending from Hebraism, that is to say, Hebraism itself, Christianity, and Islam, and on the other hand the myth which governs those religions which have had their origin in India, most particularly Hinduism itself, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism.
And I want to make it perfectly plain, before I go any further, that in talking about these two great religious traditions in terms of images, I am talking about the way they express themselves at a rather popular level. Sophisticated Christians and sophisticated Hindus think beyond images. For example, a Christian may think of God as the father, but a sophisticated and educated Christian does not imagine that God is a cosmic male parent with a white beard sitting on a golden throne above the stars. Nor does a Hindu imagine literally that God is the super showman, the big actor. These images are what it is like, not what it is, and perhaps when I get through with discussing them we will be able to ask the question as to whether any of these images still make sense to us in this twentieth century, when we have a view of the world so powerfully shaped by Western science.
Now let me begin then with a few things about the image of the world, and thus the image of man, as it comes to us from the Hebrew Bible. It says in the Book of Genesis that the Lord God created man out of the dust of the earth, as if He had made of Adam a clay figure. Then he blew the breath of life into its nostrils and the figurine became alive. And it said that the figurine was made in the image of God. For God who is conceived in this particular image as a personal, as a living, intelligent spirit creates in man something like that. But you must know very definitely that this is the creation, as the potter makes a pot out of clay. For the creature that the Lord God has made is not God. The creature is something less than God, something like God but not God.
And you will see some very interesting consequences follow from this idea of the world as an artifact. What follows from it is that the whole universe is seen as a marvelous technical accomplishment. If it is made, there must be an explanation of how it is made, and the whole history of Western thought has in many ways been an attempt to discover how the creator did it. What were the principles; what were the laws laid down; what, another words, was the blueprint that underlies this creation? This image has therefore persisted throughout Western history, and continues on into a time when very many people do not believe in Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam. They are, you might say, agnostics or atheists, but they still carry on something of the idea of the world as an artifact. If you are a Christian or a Jew, you believe that the world is the artifact of creation of the intelligent spirit called God. But if in this culture you are an atheist or an agnostic, you believe that the world is an automatic machine without a creator, something that made itself.
We might say then that our original model of the universe was the ceramic model. The Bible is full of references to God as the potter who makes the world out of obedient clay. But when Western thinkers in the eighteenth century began to drop the idea of a personal God, they kept the idea of the artifact. So we could say that after the ceramic model of the universe, we got the fully automatic model.
And still you see, underlying our way of thinking about things is the question, ‘How are they put together?’ And if you want to find out, one of the obvious ways to proceed is to take them to pieces. Everybody knows that if you want to find out how something is made, you unscrew the parts and see what the secret is inside the box. So Western science in its beginnings took everything apart. It took animals apart; it took flowers apart; it took rocks apart.
And then when they got it reduced to its tiniest pieces, they tried to find methods for taking those apart, too, so that we could eventually discover what the very smallest small things were, and so know what building blocks the creator, or the fully automatic model, used in order to put it all together hopping that that would lead us to an understanding of how life works. Man himself in all this was looked upon as a creation, something made. Only there were some difficulties about this, because if you believe in the world in accordance with the idea of the fully automatic model, you really have got to admit that man, too, is fully automatic, another words, he is a machine rather than a person. Man is something, in other words, doffs his hat and says, “How do you do? I am a person. I am alive. I am sensible. I talk, I have feelings.” But you wonder, “Do you really, or are you just an automaton? Am I real, or am I just an automaton?”
The general result of the Western image of man hasn’t been quite that. What it is come down to, under the dispensation of the fully automatic model, is this: we are living beings, we’re very sensitive, and inside the human skin, by an extraordinary fluke of nature, there has arisen something called reason. There have also arisen “values,” such as love. But these was a fluke because it happened inside a fully automatic universe which is stupid, because it is merely automatic. You won’t, another words, find anything really intelligent outside human skins. And therefore if that is so, the only thing that people can do if they want to maintain reason and love in this universe is to fight nature, and beat the stupid, external world into submission to the human will. So the war against nature is the great project thus far of Western technology, because you see, each one of us has inherited from thousands of years of history a view of man as something made and almost a sort of breath breathed into a pot of clay, or an image of clay. Each one feels himself to be a globule of consciousness or mind living inside a vehicle called “my body.” Since the world outside that body is stupid, we feel estranged from the world.
When we find out how enormous the universe is, that makes us, as individuals, feel extremely unimportant and rather lonely, because you see, we consider ourselves, our basic image of ourselves is of a soul or an ego or a mind, or by itself in its little house, looking out at a world that is strange, and that is not me. I am therefore a brief interval of consciousness between the darkness and the darkness. That is not too happy. I would like to be able to believe that there is more than that. “If I could – so many of us say – if I could only still believe that there is an intelligent and eternal God in whose eyes I am important, and who has the power to enable me to live forever, that would be very nice.” But for many people that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to believe.
Now I want to contrast this image of the world with another, what I call the dramatic image, as distinct from the image of the potter or the ceramic image. And this will be the presiding image of Hinduism. Their idea is this: that God did not make the world like a technologist, but he acted it. That is to say, every person and every thing for that matter, every tree, every flower, every animal, every star, every rock, every grain of dust is a role or part that the Godhead is playing. You must understand of course, the Hindu image of God is a little bit different from the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic. When I was a little boy, I used to ask my mother interminable questions. And when she got sick of it, she said, “My dear, there are some things in life that we are just not meant to know.” And I said, “Will we ever know?” She said, “Yes, if you die and then go to heaven, God will explain it all.”
And so I used to hope that on wet afternoons in heaven we would all be able to sit around the throne of grace and say to the Lord, “Why did you do this?” and “Why did you do that?” And He would explain.
Every child in the West asks his mother, “How was I made?” And nobody knows, but they know that somebody perhaps does and that would be God, and He will be able to explain. Likewise, if anybody gets mentally deranged and claims to be God, we always humor such people by asking them technical questions, “How did you make the world in six days?” or, “If you are God, why couldn’t you change this plate into a rabbit?” That is because, in our popular image of God, God is the supreme technocrat. He knows all the answers. He understands everything in detail and could tell you all about it.
But the Hindus don’t think of God that way. If you ask the Hindu God, “How did you create the human body?” He would say, “Look, I know how I did it, but it can’t be explained in words because words are too clumsy. In words I have to talk about things slowly. I have to string them out, because words run in a line, and lines add up to books, and books add up to libraries. And if I explain to you how I made the human organism, it will take all eternity for me to tell you. Unfortunately to me I don’t have to understand things in words in order to make them happen. Nor do you.” You don’t have to understand in words how you breathe. You just breathe. You don’t have to understand in words how to grow your hair, how to shape your bones, how to make your eyes blue or brown, you just do it. And somebody who does understand to some extent, maybe physiologist, he can’t do it any better than you.
So that you see is the Hindu idea of divine omnipotence, and that is why their images of the gods very often have many arms. You will often see the god Shiva with ten arms, or the Buddhist Avalokiteshvara with one thousand arms. And that is because their image of the divine is of a sort of centipede. A centipede can move a hundred legs without having to think about it, so Shiva can move ten arms very dexterously without having to think about them. And you know what happened to the centipede when it stopped to think how to move a hundred legs; it got all balled up. So in this way the Hindus do not think of God as being a technician in the sense of having a verbal or mathematical understanding of how the world is created. It is just done simple way, just like that. Only if we had to describe this simple way in words it would be very complicated, but God, in their idea, does not need to do so.
But the remarkable difference is that the Hindu does not see any fundamental division between God and the world. The world is God at play; the world is God acting. Now, how could you possibly arrive at such an idea? Very simply. When he tries to think why there is a world at all, because if you think about it is extraordinarily odd that there is anything. It would have been much simpler and would have required a great deal less energy for they’re to have been nothing. But here it is. And why? Well, what would you do if you were God? Or let me put it in the simple way. Suppose that every night you could dream any dream you wanted to dream. What would you do? Well, first of all I am quite sure that most of us would dream of all the marvelous things we wanted to have happen. We would fulfill all our wishes. We might go on that way for months, besides we could make it extraordinarily rich by wishing to dream seventy-five years in one night, full of glorious happenings.
But after you had done that for a few months, you might begin to get a little tired of it and you would say, “What about an adventure tonight, in which something terribly exciting and rather dangerous is going to happen? But I will know I am dreaming so it won’t be too bad, and I’ll wake up if it gets too serious.” So you do that for a while; you rescue princesses from dragons, and all sorts of things. And then when you’ve done that for some time, you say, “Now let’s go a bit further. Let’s forget it’s a dream, and have a real thrill.” Ooh! But you know you wake up. Then, after you have done that for a while, you will get more and more nerves [the courage, strength to do sth] until you sort of dare yourself as how far out you can get, and you end up dreaming sort of life you are living now.
Now why would one do that? The reason the Hindu would say is that the basic pulse of life, the basic motivation of existence, is what we call the game of hide-and-seek. Now you see it, now you don’t. You see, everything is based on that; because all life is vibration, pulsing. Light is a pulsation of light-darkness. Sound is a pulsation of sound-silence. Everything is going da, da, da, da at various speeds. It’s like the motion of a wave, now a wave consists of two pulses, the crest and the trough. You can’t have crests without troughs; you can’t have troughs without crests. They always go together. You can’t have hide without seek; you can’t have seek without hide. Just for example, you can’t have here without there; because if you didn’t know where there was, you wouldn’t know where here was. You can’t have is without isn’t, because yon don’t know what you mean by is unless you also know what you mean by isn’t, and vice versa.
So in that way they think that hide-and-seek is the fundamental game as if the Lord God, the Brahman, as they call it, said in the beginning, “Get lost, man. Disappear. I’ll find you again later.” And then when you know the disappearance gets very far out, then the contrary rhythm begins, and the dreamer wakes up and finds out “Whoo, that’s a relief.” Then after a rest period, in which everything is of course at peace, it starts all over again because the spirit of adventure springs eternal.
The Hindus had extremely vast ideas of space and time for their period in history. They had the theory that the hiding part of the game goes on for 4,320,000 years; a period called a kalpa in Sanskrit. And then the “dreaming” part is followed by the “waking” part. The dreaming is the hiding where the Godhead imagines that it is all of us. Then for another 4,320,000 years there is a period of awakening, and at the end of that begins the dream again. The dreaming period is further subdivided into four stages. The first stage is the longest, and it is the best. During that stage, the dream is beautiful. The second stage is not quite so long, and is a little unsettling. There is an element of instability in it, a certain touch of insecurity. In the third stage, which is not again so long, the forces of light and the forces of darkness, of good and of evil, are equally balanced, and things are beginning to look rather dangerous. And in the fourth stage, which is the shortest of them all, the negative, dark, or evil side triumphs, and the whole thing blows up in the end. But then that is like the bang in a dream, you know when you get shot in a dream, and you wake up, and see it was after all a dream. So then there is a waking period, before the whole thing starts again.
And so the Hindus feel that behind the scene, that is to say, in reality, under the surface, you are all the actor. But behind the scenes, in the green room, you might say in a very back of your mind, in a very depths of your soul, you always have a very tiny sneaking suspicion which you might not be the you that you think you are.