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Reply To: Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell


Robert, James and Stephen,

I am terribly busy this week teaching a web course. So I don’t have time to write the really long response I’d like to, but just so that you won’t think I have disappeared, here are a few quick points.

1. If I understand correctly, Campbell considers both the Jungian concept of universal symbols and the historical dispersion of mythology across the globe as equally important – and I agree. However, in India, I consider a third process has been at work – bottom-up integration. We had a very diverse pagan mythology scattered across the subcontinent. Most of it is rife with beautiful and frightening symbolism, especially of the mother Goddess and the snake. What the Vedic religion has done is to integrate and subsume all this under their pantheon – make a universal myth, at the same time keeping the regional diversity. So it would be hard-put to find a central theme in our mythical landscape.

The beautiful philosophy of the Upanishads, IMO, is a much later development. Visionary seers delved among all these patently absurd but impossibly beautiful metaphors, to find how it can all be tied together at the level of the human psyche. Tat Twam Asi – Thou Art That – was the result. And I do consider that a valid concept, even though I lean more towards the Buddha’s philosophy nowadays.

2. Most of Indian myth, due its unbroken historical lineage, has elements of the creative and the political elements intertwined. For examples, Asuras (demons) can be considered the unfulfilled parts of the psyche in a Jungian reading: at the same time, they can be considered the demonised enemies of the myth-makers’ Vedic religion. (The Book of Demons by Nanditha Krishna is a good primer on Indian demons, BTW.) I find this dichotomy fascinating, and have come to believe that most myths have multiple origins, and they have become too intertwined to separated out. However, this makes them ripe for political use – something which, in unscrupulous hands, is deadly.

I think one of the tasks of Indian intellectuals today is to look at our myths dispassionately, and separate out the strands of the experience of the numinous from the purely sociological elements. This will teach the people how to integrate myth into their lives while keeping it apart from the political arena – a separation of the Church and the State at the Jungian level. I am planning a blog post on this.