Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 22: The Role of Mythology in Religion

Myths and legends have a speciality of embellishment as well as a spiritedness which raises human feeling into a visualisation of a blend of glory and power associated with the nature of human instincts as well as the finer aspirations. There is an idealisation of a perception of things as they ought to be, as far as the basic longings of man are concerned, in which internalised ideal perception the mind seems to come in direct contact with a kingdom of values, a world of heroes and divinities, wherein idea finds its fulfilment. Take for instance the grand descriptions of personages in the epics of both the East and the West. In every one of them the authors make it their avowed objective to stimulate human feeling and imagination to a point of perfection where the visualisation of the ideas so portrayed lifts human thought from the frailties and limitations of earthly possibilities and enables the mind to rove freely in that pictured world of expected attainment. The gigantic strength of Rama which could with the power of the toe of the feet lift and throw off the mountainous skeleton of a dead demon, or his superhuman archery that could fell down seven trees simultaneously with one arrow, apart from its diviner side of being able to reach up even to the heavens by its flaming march; the intelligence-motivated action of the discus of Krishna which could rush from Dvaraka to Varanasi and return to Dvaraka after setting the city to flames, or his feat of demonstrating the whole cosmos within himself several times during his life; the wielding by Arjuna of such weapons as embody the invincibility of gods as Brahma and Rudra; Homer's description of the charge of the Greek heroes under the blessings of their Olympian gods in the Trojan war, and the mystifying exploits of Ulysses during the Odyssey of his return home; the bright and poignant descriptions of heaven and hell in Milton's Paradise Lost; the journey through the three worlds of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise adumbrated by Dante; all illustrative of the epic magnificence rooting itself in historical grounds and rising above the circumstances of the earth to regions of the ruling gods, are not mythology in the sense of substanceless conceptualisations, but portrayals of the deep possibilities and profundities of which the human soul is capable and which height of majesty and power and chivalry the soul is able to attain during its sojourn in the region between the lowest earth and the highest kingdom of heaven.

Superhuman picturisations which are the content of epic and heroic poetry transmute and transform for the time being the consciousness of man into the very substance of the vision that is presented through the saga of such elevating poetry. Man is just what he thinks and no thought of his can be merely a flight of empty imagination. There is no thought or aspiration which cannot be fulfilled if only it is sincere and strong enough, and the mythological glories of the epic personalities are intended to foreshadow man's ascending achievements in the process of the higher evolution of consciousness to the full expression of its inherent potentialities. The myths of religion, therefore, constitute active meditations of the religious consciousness on the higher realities of life, and even fables and fairy tales which we enjoy in leisurely readings cannot be considered as empty of some realistic content, because vacuous ideas cannot arise from the mind, all ideas being ultimately rooted in a vivid or faint expression of some degree or percentage of reality. This is the reason why stories with superphysical significance and epic marches of gods on earth charge our feelings, pull them out from the cave of their hibernation and cast them up into the empyrean of ecstatic appreciation, creating deeper and deeper empathies and unknown longings in the mind. The more these exploits are read or heard, the more do they thrill. Their repeated narrations, which form the festive pride of the nations where they have originated, have the power to rebuild vigorously the national spirit of countries and reinforce the love of their culture, as if epic, history and drama are the very diet of the hungering spirit of mankind. Cultures would die if their heroes were not to live before them as paragons not only of an eternal past but also of an eternal future and a glorious present.

Ideas move the world. Thought precedes every action. Events take place first in the realms above physical phenomena and descend gradually through the layers of space-time to the earth of human history, even as outer projects are manifestations of inner contemplations and basic needs essential to human nature. Religion is a comprehensive grasp of all reality in all its forms, degrees and stages effectively bridging the gulf between man and Nature, and between Nature and God.