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 As normally used, the word myth means an idle tale, a fable, a falsehood, or an idea that’s out of date; something untrue. But there is another, older, 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 the world.
Supposing, for example, that you don’t understand the technicalities of electricity, and somebody wants to explain them to you; he wants to explain about the flow of currents. Well, to do that, he compares electricity with water, and because you understand water you get some idea about the behavior of electricity. Or if an astronomer wants to explain to you what he means by ‘expanding space,’ he’ll use the metaphor of a balloon—a black balloon with white spots on it. The white spots represent the galaxies; then, if you blow up the balloon, they all get further away from each other at the same speed as the balloon blows up.
In neither case are we saying that electricity is water or that the universe a balloon, with white spots on it. We’re 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’m going to discuss two of the greatest myths, in this sense of the word, which 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 as 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 which 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’m 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’ll 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 figurine. And then he blew the breath of life into its nostrils, and the figurine became alive, and it’s said that the figurine was made in the image of God. For God who is conceived in this particular image as personal, as a living, intelligent spirit, creates in man something like that. But you must note very definitely that this is a 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. And if 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, in other words, was the blueprint that underlies this creation? And 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 this idea, of the world as an artifact.
If you are a Christian or a Jew, you believe the world is the artifact, the 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 which made itself.
We might say, then, that our original model of the universe was the Ceramic Model. And 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, and 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 of 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 is the secret inside the box.
And 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 of taking those apart too, so that we could eventually discover what the smallest small things were so we would know what building blocks the Creator or the Fully Automatic Model used in order to put it all together, hoping that that would lead us to an understanding of how life works.
Man, himself, was looked upon, in all this, as a creation; something made. Only, there were some difficulties with this because, if you believe in the world in accordance with the Fully Automatic Model, you’ve really got to admit that man, too, is fully automatic. In other words, he’s a machine rather than a person. Man is something, in other words, that says—that doffs its hat to you, and says, How do you do? I’m a person, I am alive, I’m 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 that image of Western man hasn’t been quite that. What it’s 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. And there have also arisen values, such as love. But this was a fluke. Because it happened inside a fully automatic universe which is stupid, because it’s merely automatic. You won’t, in other 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. And so the War Against Nature is the great project, thus far, of Western technology.
Because you see, each one of us, because we inherit, 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, a kind of—each one feels himself as a sort of globule of consciousness or mind, living inside a vehicle called ‘my body,’ and 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, all 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. And that isn’t too happy. I would like to believe that it was 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’s 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 didn’t 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 which the godhead is playing.
You must understand, of course, that the Hindu image of god is a little bit different from the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic.
When I was a boy, 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 this life that we’re just not meant to know. Well, 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, on wet afternoons in Heaven, we would all be able to round 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 hope that somebody does and that’ll be god and he’ll be able to explain.
Likewise, if anybody gets mentally deranged, and claims to be god, we humor such people by saying—by by asking them all sorts of technical questions: How did you make the world in six days? or, If your god, how come you can’t change this plate into a rabbit?
But that is because, in our popular image of god, god is the supreme technocrat. He knows all the answers, he understands everything 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’ll 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 created the human body, it would all eternity for me to tell you. Fortunately for 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 a physiologist, he can’t do it any better than you can.
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’ll often see the god Shiva with ten arms, or the Buddhist Avalokitesvara with one thousand arms. And that is because their image of the divine is 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 it. 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, Hindus don’t think of god as being a technician in the sense of having a verbal or technical understanding of how the world is created. It’s done in a simpler way, just like that, only if we had to describe this simple way in words, in would be very complicated, but god, in their idea, doesn’t need to do so.
But the remarkable difference is that the Hindu doesn’t 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, it is extraordinarily odd that there is anything. It would’ve been much simpler, and required much less energy, for there 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 a simpler way. Supposing that every night you could dream any dream that you wanted to dream: what would you do?