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Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell

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    Good day everyone.

    As I have said elsewhere, I consider Joe Campbell to be my spiritual guru – but of late, I found that I am in substantial disagreement with him on some core issues.

    1. Hinduism: Campbell goes by the Enlightenment intellectuals’ concept of Hinduism as a fluid, tolerant faith with a core philosophy of self-realisation leading to identification with the Brahman, the ground of all being. But my readings over the years, and living as a Hindu in India, has convinced that no such thing exists. India has a diverse culture, which had been appropriated by the Vedic religion: they created a fictitious history of a uniform faith based on the Vedas.

    Indian culture has very little philosophical underpinning. It is defined more by orthopraxy – the following of mindless rituals – than orthodoxy. The philosophy of the Upanishads is actually mostly ivory-tower imaginings. Indian culture was – and is – a cesspool of human misery.

    2. Mysticism: It seems to me that both Joe and Jung were mystics to a certain extent. Over the years, I have become more and more of a hardcore rationalist. I am an atheist for all practical purposes now; and I don’t believe that there is any “mystery” out there not accessible to science.

    However, I am a writer – and I do believe that both myth and art proceed from the same source. So on this level, I can still connect with Joe, and deal with all his theories as concepts which are useful for me to connect with my inner muse. You can call me a “spiritual atheist”.


      Nandu; I don’t know if this clip connects with any of your thoughts about Joseph’s ideas or not; but if nothing else it may be food for thought.


        Here is one more that touches on the same sorts of themes of the way we interpret consciousness as categories of thought; and the way we think about our existence as related to them. The East and West; or some may say: “occident vs orient”; varies widely as he points out about the notion of the “individual vs the collective society”; and have much to do with how these symbols and signs he talks about are interpreted:



          Nandu; my apologies for not being able to finish my post explanations for I’ve been having internet connection problems all week. (I’ll try this again.)

          Joseph had no problems with the connection of science to spirituality; at least as I understood him. He saw science as a physical manifestation of what the spiritual was referring to; and that there is no ultimate meaning to existence; but that we provide the context to which these spiritual constructs are referring. The flower of the Buddha’s sermon is a symbol of “isness”; and the idea of “faith” in religion is a concretized interpretation of something that “experience as knowledge” replaces. Science and transcendence are part of the same package. “You” are the God and the creator of your own life; and these symbolic references represent realizations or constructs of consciousness that you are to experience; duality juxtaposes opposites such as God and the Devil; against each other as thresholds to be crossed as working through the various crisis situations you experience. Compassion as opposed to hatred of the other person are actually the war within you that is taking place. That other person is actually “you” as seen from the other side metaphorically. And these levels of consciousness we all must go through refer to these varying points of view within these different spiritual “thou shalt” systems. Some use symbols; some go past them; some exclude them all together. At least this is the way I understood Joseph’s interpretations. This may or may not line up with your thoughts on these ideas. (This took me about 5 attempts to post so it will have to be the best I can do for the moment.) Namaste; my friend.


          Well, Nandu, looks like at the next meeting of the Cult of Campbell there is going to be an excommunication as you are “cast into outer darkness, where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth” (do forgive the biblical phrasing – not sure what the corresponding Hindu condemnation would be).

          This, by the way, would be one of the few times when one of those laughing emoticons would come in handy, so anyone new stumbling across this thread who is new to the forums would realize I’m not being serious. Kidding aside, I think this post would be better titled “Where I Disagree with Joe Campbell,” rather than “Why I Disagree . . .,” as seems there remain at least  a few areas of agreement.

          Even though I am not from India, your criticism of Campbell’s depiction of Hinduism rings true to me, at least to a degree. There is a tendency for outsiders to view other cultures’ beliefs, whether that other culture is Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity, as monolithic in nature (e.g., “Hindus believe this,” or “Christians believe that,” etc.), ignoring the wide range of variations within those belief systems. Indeed, given hundreds of denominations, there are ever so many Christian sects that other Christian sects view as not exactly Christian (indeed, many evangelical churches consider Catholicism as paganism wearing a clerical collar, while the Catholic Church has quite a history of condemning, persecuting, torturing, immolating, or making war on other Christians – and then the majority of Protestants think the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses churches aren’t Christian at all – but still, those of non-Christian faiths, as well as many scholars who do believe in Jesus, tend to refer to Christianity in general terms).

          At the same time, whether or not Hinduism was created “after the fact” to carry the water for the Vedic religion, are you suggesting no one whom we think of as Hindus either now, or centuries or millennia in the past, has ever actually believed in a “philosophy of self-realization leading to identification with the Brahman, the ground of all being”? That doesn’t quite ring true to me.

          Along that line, I am curious whether you are suggesting many of the core myths we think of as belonging to Hinduism were later creations formed all at once by Vedic practitioners and projected backwards in time? That, too, doesn’t seem compatible with the way mythologies  emerge and shift shape over time. I have no doubt many of these myths were co-opted and stitched together, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, by adherents to the Vedic religion, in the same way Christianity has emerged out of and “borrowed” from multiple pre-Christian traditions, but that doesn’t mean the origins of these myths aren’t genuine. Similarly, Arthurian lore consists primarily of tales of gods and heroes in the Celtic tradition updated and given a make-over compatible with the dominant Christian belief system – sometimes consciously, but often note (indeed, some versions present more-or-less subversive disruptions of Christian dogma).

          Those caveats notwithstanding, your disagreement with Campbell on this point does strike a chord – and I’m not certain that Joe would completely disagree with your criticism. Indeed,  in 1954 while visiting India, Campbell certainly bumped up against the difference between idealized interpretations of Hinduism presented by Schopenhauer, Zimmer, and even himself, versus the reality of how it is actually practiced (which really comes through in his personal observations of his trip, recorded in his Asian Journals – specifically, Baksheesh & Brahman; Campbell at times seems at least a bit peeved at the difference between theory and his actual experience).

          Time is a bit of a constraint at the moment, so a little bit later I’ll play a bit with your thoughts about Campbell and mysticism (of course he and Jung are mystics, though I wouldn’t exactly say atheism and mysticism – and certainly not science and mysticism – are mutually exclusive).

          And at some point I will contribute a post or two about areas where I disagree with Campbell.

          Thanks, Nandu, for pioneering this topic. That’s what the current iteration of Conversations of a Higher Order has been missing – controversy and conflict!

          Namaste (whether you like it or not)


          Thanks, James. That first clip of Campbell’s does seem a prime example of Nandu’s complaint – the tendency of Western scholars, starting with Schopenhauer, to take an image and extrapolate it out to Hinduism as a whole, declaring this is what Hinduism is, which seems at odds with Nandu’s actual experience as someone who grew up within Hinduism.


            Stephen; your deep background in Joseph’s work “shines” here and articulates in a much better and more concise way what my feeble version was attempting to convey. Again; my frustrations with my internet connect have probably conjured up some ancient; “God of yore” wanting to have a little fun; so your insights provided a much better job at clarity. (Joseph referred to his computer when talking with Moyers as resembling Yahweh with a lot of rules and no mercy; so perhaps my weakness in this area of knowledge provoked his trickster “humor”; lol) At any rate as you point out;  Nandu’s pioneering spirit indeed deserves appreciation for this is often an area where few attempt to venture. Hope my effort did something at promoting interest!


            There is no doubt your contribution adds to the conversation, James. I fully agree with your point that, at least  in Campbell’s world, there need be no conflict between science and spirituality. Now, does that hold true for someone who is an atheist? That’s a question worth exploring.

            I expect Nandu is familiar with Campbell’s observations you shared (these clips are extracted from the Mythos video lecture series, and also appeared earlier in the troubled Transformations of Myth Through Time production). There are a number of scholars who would definitely agree with Nandu that such interpretations of Hinduism and Kundalini Yoga tell us more about the mindset of the individual doing the interpreting than they do about the actual practice – whereas I tend to think the “truth,” for lack of a better term, lies somewhere in between.

            I really appreciate Nandu’s openness to sharing points of disagreement. If every post in a forum declares “the sky is always blue,” readers quickly lose interest in all the many ways there are to say of saying the same thing (or the sky is indigo, or azure, or . . . etc.). There’s just nothing to talk about.

            But if someone comes along and says, “Well, for you the sky may always be blue, but for me, sometimes the sky is yellow and the sun is blue,” then suddenly folks perk up and take an interest, hopefully ask “what do yo mean by that?” and share their own thoughts. Ideally, the discussion doesn’t devolve into a debate where participants then lob proofs and counter-proofs designed to force those who disagree to admit they are mistaken, but evolves into an edifying, uplifting exchange where everyone involved learns a little bit about how and why things they know to be so can be perceived differently by someone else.


            I have just glanced through your replies, James and Stephen. I will give detailed replies later, after going through them at leisure. 😊


            James and Stephen –

            I have gone through your comments, and I feel that I have not made myself as clear as I would like to.

            Firstly – what Joe Campbell, and other Westerners thought of a “Indian” philosophy, was largely a manufactured one, gathered from various sources. The monolithic Vedic civilisation actually didn’t exist. Dorothy M. Figueira, in her book Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity, talks about how a largely mythical India had been constructed by the Enlightenment intellectuals as a reaction to Christian fundamentalism. (You can read my review of the book here.) This is not to deny that the Upanishads existed – just to point out that these thoughts applied most probably to a very small portion of the society, while the majority lived ignorant (and largely miserable) lives, believing blindly in the karma of their previous births as the reason for their current station in life. (It made a remarkably stable system. Even now, the caste lines are being shamelessly exploited by politicians. Here is an example of the social function of myth resisting all attempts at democratic reform!)

            Secondly – all the symbols, I feel, are highly personal. We approach myth through the filters of our own personas. They are remarkably similar, but all said and done, it’s just a way of firing one’s imagination. I subscribe to the concept of the Anatman, the non-soul, that the Buddha propounded – more in tune with the modern concept of self-awareness than the Brahman of the Upanishads.

            Thirdly – I find the manufactured Vedic myth being used more and more by the Hindu right, in frightening similarity to what Hitler did with the Teutonic myth – and it’s very easy with a population which is extremely relgious. Unless the concept of Indian religiosity is rescued from the Vedic straightjacket and taken back to its scattered pagan roots, I am afraid we may seem something very like Nazi Germany in India in the future.


              I believe in this day and age it is recommended to weigh all pros and cons in areas we deem interesting. With the advent of the computer internet google and other search engines we don’t suffer from lack of information. In fact we now suffer from information overload. I believe this a good thing because it creates more discernible individuals. There are many critiques and criticisms of Joseph Campbell on the web. I enjoy reading them all. I also still enjoy Joseph Campbell after reading what the critics have to say. The rabbit hole that is the internet is also a honeycomb cave. I read all with no fear. I take all with as a grain of salt . I do like salt that Crystal clear Cubic mineral preservative essential for the proper function of life. I enjoy myth metaphor allegory etymology. I thank Joseph Campbell for flaming a spark in my active imagination and streams of consciousness. My life has been enriched for having read him along with many others. It has been and will continue to be Lots of Fun. I live my life as a Wake … as possible thanks to JC JJ et al …

              I like to to think of Joseph Campbell as the reigning priest in the grove of popular myth. Aka the sacred grove of Diana at Nemi. Critics and contenders have challenged. Still none have toppled or conquered JC in this pop grove of myth. Yes there are more knowledgeable specialists in their respective fields. May they propagate harvest produce a bounty . But none come close to communicating with the flair of general knowledge the way JC does through his work and writing.  May  ”The Golden Bough” “Bloom” eternal !!! May the …,phrase you’re,… contemplating wax  wane  reign  forever poetic !!! All hail perennial Humanity !!!

              May JC take his place as a leaf on the Tree of Life !!!

              “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”


              from wiki article on Joseph Campbell.

              “Academic reception and criticism
              Campbell’s approach to myth, a genre of folklore, has been the subject of criticism from folklorists, academics who specialize in folklore studies. American folklorist Barre Toelken notes that few psychologists have taken the time to become familiar with the complexities of folklore, and that, historically, Jung-influenced psychologists and authors have tended to build complex theories around single versions of a tale that supports a theory or a proposal. To illustrate his point, Toelken employs Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s (1992) Women Who Run with the Wolves, citing its inaccurate representation of the folklore record, and Campbell’s “monomyth” approach as another. Regarding Campbell, Toelken writes, “Campbell could construct a monomyth of the hero only by citing those stories that fit his preconceived mold, and leaving out equally valid stories… which did not fit the pattern”. Toelken traces the influence of Campbell’s monomyth theory into other then-contemporary popular works, such as Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), which he says suffers from similar source selection bias.[73]

              Similarly, American folklorist Alan Dundes is highly critical of both Campbell’s approach to folklore, designating him as a “non-expert” and outlining various examples of source bias in Campbell’s theories, as well as media representation of Campbell as an expert on the subject of myth in popular culture. Dundes writes, “Folklorists have had some success in publicising the results of our efforts in the past two centuries such that members of other disciplines have, after a minimum of reading, believe they are qualified to speak authoritatively of folkloristic matters. It seems that the world is full of self-proclaimed experts in folklore, and a few, such as Campbell, have been accepted as such by the general public (and public television, in the case of Campbell)”. According to Dundes, “there is no single idea promulgated by amateurs that has done more harm to serious folklore study than the notion of archetype”.[74]

              According to anthropologist Raymond Scupin, “Joseph Campbell’s theories have not been well received in anthropology because of his overgeneralizations, as well as other problems.”[75]

              Campbell’s Sanskrit scholarship has been questioned. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a former Sanskrit professor at the University of Toronto, said that he once met Campbell, and that the two “hated each other at sight”, commenting that, “When I met Campbell at a public gathering, he was quoting Sanskrit verses. He had no clue as to what he was talking about; he had the most superficial knowledge of India but he could use it for his own aggrandizement. I remember thinking: this man is corrupt. I know that he was simply lying about his understanding”.[76] According to Richard Buchen, librarian of the Joseph Campbell Collection at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, Campbell could not translate Sanskrit well. However, Buchen adds that Campbell worked closely with three scholars who did translate Sanskrit well.[77]

              Ellwood observes that The Masks of God series “impressed literate laity more than specialists”; he quotes Stephen P. Dunn as remarking that in Occidental Mythology Campbell “writes in a curiously archaic style – full of rhetorical questions, exclamations of wonder and delight, and expostulations directed at the reader, or perhaps at the author’s other self – which is charming about a third of the time and rather annoying the rest.” Ellwood notes that “Campbell was not really a social scientist, and those in the latter camp could tell” and records a concern about Campbell’s “oversimpification of historical matters and tendency to make myth mean whatever he wanted it to mean”.[78] The critic Camille Paglia, writing in Sexual Personae (1990), expressed disagreement with Campbell’s “negative critique of fifth-century Athens” in Occidental Mythology, arguing that Campbell missed the “visionary and exalted” androgyny in Greek statues of nude boys.[79] Paglia has written that while Campbell is “a seminal figure for many American feminists”, she loathes him for his “mawkishness and bad research.” Paglia has called Campbell “mushy” and a “false teacher”,[80] and described his work as a “fanciful, showy mishmash”.[81]

              Campbell has also been accused of antisemitism by some authors. In a 1989 New York Review of Books article, Brendan Gill accused Campbell of both antisemitism and prejudice against blacks.[82] Gill’s article resulted in a series of letters to the editor, some supporting the charge of antisemitism or accusing Campbell of having various right-wing biases, others defending him. However, according to Robert S. Ellwood, Gill relied on “scraps of evidence, largely anecdotal” to support his charges.[83] In 1991, Masson also accused Campbell of “hidden anti-Semitism” and “fascination with conservative, semifascistic views”.[84] Contrarily, the “fascist undercurrents” in Campbell’s work and especially its influence on Star Warshave been called “a reminder of how easily totalitarianism can knock at any society’s door.”[85]

              The religious studies scholar Russell T. McCutcheon characterized the “following [of] the bliss of self-realization” in Campbell’s work as “spiritual and psychological legitimation” for Reaganomics.[86]”


              Frazer = ,phrase you’re,




                One more . I leave the rest to those whom to enter the cave of search engines:

                Bashing Joseph Campbell: Is He Now the Hero of a Thousand Spaces?




                Now I’m having fun! Thank you for your amplification – and for adding one more title to my reading list (Ms. Figueira owes you a commission). Your review of Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity should definitely be part of this conversation. All inspire further thoughts and questions, as well as a deeper dive into Campbell’s material on Hinduism (timely, as this summer I devoted many hours to reviewing the text and endnotes of Oriental Mythology in detail, providing a bit of a copy-editing assist to David as prepares the text to publish a new physical edition of this volume during the coming year).

                I too will take some time to absorb your words, letting them and the thoughts they evoke simmer on the back of my brain, before I respond, but I love the idea of discussing this in greater detail. (For example, just tossing out a nugget: Campbell didn’t view Raja Rammohan and the Brahmo Samaj as Hinduism per se, but as a semi-Christian, semi-Hindu monotheistic movement, though one that did influence Hinduism).

                I can see this conversation bifurcating – I wonder if we should perhaps devote a thread  to a critique of Campbell’s perception of Hinduism (what he got wrong, what he got right), and another to the mysticism criticism; if we try to juggle both those balls here, those arriving later to this conversation might have trouble sorting out all those tangled threads. If you don’t mind, I’ll look into admin options to see if maybe we can branch off into a separate thread.

                Of course, my intention isn’t to change your mind on either subject, but to expand our individual understandings through the mutual exchange of ideas (already, your follow-up response has altered my reading of your original post). One area where believe we clearly agree (as, I suspect, would Campbell) is how “the Vedic myth” is hijacked by Hindu politicians, to ill effect.

                Thanks again for airing these areas of disagreement.



                Yes – if Campbell’s ideas are to be taken seriously, criticism is essential, as opposed to hagiography and hero worship.

                Of course, in popular usage the word “criticism” carries a negative connotation, given its relationship to the verb “criticize,” which suggests complaint and negative judgement (“How dare you criticize my choice/beliefs/appearance!”) . . .  but that’s not how Campbell and his colleagues in the academic and literary worlds read the word: for them, criticism takes the form of a critique – an analysis, overview, or evaluation of a work that includes good points and bad, and places the work within a larger picture.

                In an earlier version of this website, we included a Joseph Campbell Amazon aStore, with over a thousand titles: we included a section of works by authors and thinkers who influenced Campbell’s development, another section for works Campbell referenced in his writings, and so on – and we made sure we had a separate category for Campbell Criticism – which included Robert Segal’s and Robert Ellwood’s books, among others. Far from bashing Campbell, most of these authors highlight more than just disagreements – they also log positive contributions from Campbell, and note areas where they wish he had been more clear.

                Some critiques resonate more than others with me, but even those where I feel the author misses the mark (much of Robert Segal’s analysis, which may be because there wasn’t that much of Campbell’s work available at the time, so he missed much that is explained or amplified in posthumous publications), I find them generally worth the read.

                Can’t say the same though for Brendan Gil’s accusations of anti-Semitism, which proved petty and personal. The link you provide to “Bashing Joseph Campbell” does a good job of illustrating how thin Gil’s charges are (especially the absence of evidence or examples, not to mention how Gil, for someone who claimed to know Campbell well, demonstrates ignorance of what “follow your bliss” means and other key elements of Joseph’s mythological perspective), and how that alleged anti-Semitic streak isn’t borne out in Campbell’s work (quite the opposite: respected Cormac McCarthy scholar Rick Wallach, who began his career assisting Joseph Campbell back in the 1960s, and also happens to be Jewish, noted in a personal communication that Campbell wrote the four volumes of The Masks of God as his response to the horror of the Holocaust). Gil’s tantrum is not criticism (not in the academic or literary sense), but simply a personal attack designed to hurt Campbell’s reputation.



                  Your preaching to the choir. No need to attack critics for me. Criticizing the critic is entering the slippery slope toward mutually acclaimed anathema. There is room enough for descension.


                  Joseph Campbell’s place as founding pillar of his institution The JCF is secure. There are many good soldiers in the the army of Joe. G.I. Joe’s one and all. The JCF has its hierarchy in place with many good administrators. May the spirit of Mr. Campbell receive protection and live through his growing institution. May the axis of Mount Campbell never completely solidify concretize petrify. May the wellspring and magma flow eternal from its source. May the growing verdant fertile Bush burn forever bright, “Bloom”, at its pinnacle.


                  I think a mythopoetic etymological study of the name Joseph from a Judeo-Christian perspective would shed some understanding on Joseph Campbell’s position as founding father of his institution. It is very Jungian and archetypical. Which does lead to egalitarian patriarchal structural schema. All hail seminal figures and thinkers that rely on a priori narratives and structures. Joseph Campbell is a giant that stands head and shoulders above the rest.


                  I for one am in favor of some good natured old fashioned hagiography and hero worship being tossed Mr. Campbell’s way. It is become a dying art form. He is a man that darned many a hat wore many a mask during his incarnation his visitation his Journey here on 🌎 this Pale Blue Dot. Perhaps the recruitment of some anonymous pseudonymous writer artists is in order. Someone that could create a Virtual ARQ to float and transverse the abyss of cyberspace bringing us forever by commodious vicus back to this feed.  As food for thought.


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