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The World of Myth

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

The 'clash of civilizations' is mostly about the adumbration of religious ideas and the practice of religion. This clash is acted out by Muslim fundamentalists who cut the throats of hapless journalists, engineers and other Christians, born-again or not, lost in the alleys of Karachi or Karbala or Kirkuk. Fellow Christian religionists then drop 3, 000-pound bombs from 30, 000 feet up in retaliation. Meanwhile both seek to poke the eyes of Hindus, who demand from the two some promise of a 'Sarva dharma samabhava' (All religions are equal) which by all accounts is a concept dead on arrival at the Vatican or in Mecca. Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian and other pagan cultures are 'dead and buried' and the tribal cultures and religions of Africa, Australia and South America have been decimated. What is left for the predatory religions are one another and the pesky Hindus who keep pushing wrongly, I believe, the idea of 'Sarva dharma samabhava'.

In a recent conference that I attended, one of the speakers told the Hindu-American audience that if they are confronted with the question - 'So, what is your Bible?' – to tell the questioner that Hindus don't have a single book but a library. This 'sound bite' made us all happy but we were still left with the queasy feeling that the reality on the ground was much harsher and more invidious.

One way it is invidious can be discerned from how 'religions', 'myths' and 'philosophies' are taught in American schools and colleges. I am told that only two American universities offer a PhD in Indian philosophy. It seems as if the learned scholars of Indic and Hindu traditions in the West have taken to heart the assertion by the maverick Nirad Chaudhuri. In his bombastic, know-it-all style, the diminutive Bengali with a Napoleon complex proclaimed that, “There is no such thing as thinking properly so called among the Hindus, for it is a faculty of the mind developed only in Greece and exercised only by the heirs of the Greeks.” (The Continent of Circe: An Essay on the Peoples of India, paperback, p. 163). Chaudhuri also mimicked the Christian missionaries and the Muslim fundamentalists when he compared the books of the Semitic religions with the Vedas: “Their (Vedas) prestige is not accounted for either by their contents or by the use that has been made of them. The Judaic, Christian and Islamic books are revealed scriptures of the type made familiar by these historic religions, but the Vedas are, if I might extend the word used for the religion of the Hindus for their basic texts as well, 'natural' scriptures. They are not the word of any God or gods, but mostly words addressed to gods.”

Because the Hindus are marked as neither having a religion nor expounding any philosophy, then much of what is contained in their scriptures is proclaimed 'myth'. Mythologies can be interesting, profound, symbolic and entertaining. I don't have any problems with mythologies. However, when a distinction is made between mythology and religion and mythology and philosophy, then we see the continuation of the divide between peoples of the 'book' and peoples 'without books' as well as those who have too many books.

The problem struck home when I discovered that a 'world mythology' course taught in our university to bright 13-15 year olds in a 'summer academy' included 'Greek, Roman, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist and Native American mythology' but not any Semitic mythology. The course instructors were my good friends and colleagues, who seemed to have bought into the distinction without a protest. They taught the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as mythology in the course and deleted Christian, Muslim and Jewish stories. The World Mythology text books they used included the Ramayana as myth but did not include any stories from the Bible or Koran. Separate translations of the Mahabharata were prescribed to the teenagers as part of the readings for the class. I protested. The Mahabharata was removed as a separate text, but the confusion continued about what is myth and what is religion. What I have noted is the extreme reluctance to include specific and explicit mention of Christianity in the course.

One can very easily speculate the reasons why the administrators of the program advised instructors what not to include, but it is distressing to see how easily teachers are seduced to teach such intellectually dishonest courses. Whatever the reasons for their decisions, such practices go on to perpetuate the false divide between Semitic / monotheistic religions and the 'other' world religions. Unfortunately, we know that throughout the world the two aggressive monotheistic religions are considered 'great religions', while other religions/ religious traditions are relegated to 'myth' and 'false religions' status. To perpetuate that 'myth', whether benignly or otherwise, in a university or school setting, is extremely dangerous.

Many of the 'World Mythology' textbooks do not include Muslim and Christian stories. Reviewers on the Amazon web site, for example, include comments like these: 'The title is something of a misnomer. This is a fine collection of ancient myths found throughout world history. However, it is intellectually dishonest because the author fails to recognize some of the most powerful myths in human history - namely those found in the Bible and Koran'. You will not find the names of Adam and Eve, or Jesus or Mary, or Mohammed or Allah in these textbooks, whereas Rama, Krishna, Indra, Buddha all make multiple appearances, including pictures of Benares!

I told my colleagues that the Mahabharata is considered by many as the 'Fifth Veda', not just because it includes the Bhagavad Gitabut because Vyasa himself is considered an incarnation of the Gods and Ganesha is his amanuensis. The Ramayana of course is a story about Rama and Sita and all over India they are worshipped as Gods and not merely as 'folk heroes' (as Indian Marxists claim), I reminded them.

I also pointed out that there is a group of scholars, led by S. N. Balagangadhara of the University of Ghent, who have been arguing that 'religion' in the Western sense is scientifically false and that Hinduism is not a religion in the Western/ Semitic sense. Balagangadhara's study of the encounter between the early Christians and the Roman pagans and between the modern Europeans and the Indian pagans, leads him to formulate the following problem: (a) Christianity recognizes itself as a religion; (b) The terms under which Christianity recognizes itself as a religion are also the terms under which Islam and Judaism recognize themselves as religion; (c) Christianity singled out both the Roman and the Indian traditions as rival religions; (d) Judaism and Islam also singled out these same traditions as their religious rivals; (e) Both the Roman and the Indian traditions did not recognize themselves in the descriptions Christianity, Islam and Judaism gave of them: they did not conceive of themselves as rivals to these three.

Without accepting the fact that their religions are 'scientifically false', some Western teachers of 'myth', however, continue to make the distinction between religion and myth, privileging the former over the latter. A little more nuanced in their understanding of world cultures and other religions, some teachers argue that when teaching about myth to young students one has to be careful about their sensitive nature. Thus, Christian mythology is not included for it might distress students to find out that what they believe is 'true' includes 'stories/ fiction'. These teachers define mythology as 'a set of stories, beliefs and traditions of a people, accrued over time'. 'We don't evaluate them as good or bad stories', they proclaim.

But these practices raise some questions in the American context:

  • Are students in these classes only Christian?
  • Are they all of such strong faith and belief that including stories from Christian mythology will shock and discomfort them?
  • Are there Muslim and Hindu students in the classes?
  • Why are Muslim and Jewish mythologies not taught as part of the course if the concern is only about Christian students? Is it because of the fear what the Jewish-American League or the Council on American-Islamic Relations will do if they find out?
  • Is sensitivity to students' concern more important than academic honesty and academic integrity?
  • If students are sensitive about such matters, would instructors then go the extent of not teaching Darwinism and scientific cosmology to Christian students?
  • If there is a Hindu student in class, how are the instructors going to explain why his/ her religion can be taught as mythology and not his/ her classmates' religion?
  • Hinduism is not 'dead' like Roman and Greek and Pagan 'religions'. There are one billion Hindus in the world and they have survived despite the best efforts of proselytizers and marauders to convert them or to erase their religious/ spiritual/ cultural identities. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are part of the daily spiritual life of Hindus all over the world.
  • Most importantly, will the deliberate decision to exclude Christian, Muslim and Jewish mythologies make these teachers willing collaborators in a belief system that categorizes religions as 'true' and 'false'? India is still a battleground and a marketplace for buying and trading souls, as most of the rest of the world is. How will the deliberate exclusion of Semitic faiths from World Mythology courses affect students who then may continue to believe that indeed there is merit to the unverifiable claims of aggressive monotheistic traditions?

Bringing such academic concerns to the fore is tricky. One always has to take into consideration matters of 'academic freedom' and what rights teachers have in bringing in different kinds of material to the classroom and who has what kinds of rights in critically evaluating such practices. I was one among a group of eight Indian-American representatives that met with Emory University officials this past February regarding the idiosyncratic interpretation of Ganesha by Emory University professor Paul Courtright in his book, 'Ganesha – Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings'. I have also written about University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger who was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer calling the Bhagavad Gita 'a dishonest book' that 'justifies war.' Thus, when I found out what was happening in my own school, I had to raise the matter with the administrators of the summer program and the teachers who taught the course.

Some Indian-Americans don't see much merit in complaining about these matters or correcting what is egregiously wrong in American school textbooks or classroom practices. For them, Hinduism is a 'mish mash' of cultural practices accrued over millennia. Most of these beliefs and practices is plain obscurantist nonsense, they proclaim. By conflating the obscurantist aspects of Hinduism with the world of Hindu knowledge and culture, they ignore the explicit practice of religious supremacy and academic discrimination in their own neighborhood. By labeling these concerns  as merely that of the 'Hindu Right' or of the 'RSS' Indian-American activists and academics are collaborating in the decimation of local culture and religious practices in India.

Published on Monday, February 7, 2005.

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