Oriental Mythology


Oriental MythologyNew York: Penguin Arkana, 1991, Originally published in 1962.

When we want to learn what the difference is between our culture and its patriarchal roots, so well described by Joseph Campbell in Occidental Mythology, then we are on a path of synthesis, and of unification.

Campbell expresses it in Oriental Mythology in the terms ‘The Indian point of view is metaphysical, poetical; the biblical, ethical and historical.’

We could also say that the Oriental mind is better able to tolerate opposites instead of being trapped by them, and as a result can assume the simultaneous existence and non-existence of reality, god or truth. Or, to use modern terminology, the Orient did not need quantum physics for understanding that life is essentially patterned and nonlinear, not hierarchical and linear.

This is what Campbell calls the still point of eternity, as the spiritual field beyond the dual nature of physical appearances. And from this wistful point of departure of non-dualism, the Oriental mind fosters not opposition to nature, but acceptance of all nature, including human nature. The social outflow of this worldview is the acceptance of the fact that humans are not individuals only, but also part of group life, endowed with social and cultural responsibility.

Oriental culture is pervaded by the idea that we are all inhabiting not only visible reality, but also a greater scheme of intelligence than the intellectual mind, and the divine is seen as inhabiting non-human and inorganic life as well. From this insight, a culture has been created that teaches the dialogue with self not only as a personal hygiene and religious quest, but also as a cultural imperative. While in the West, religion was ritual and dogma, in the East it was inquiry in the nature of reality, a dialogue with self and the universe, and attention to the answers given by the universe to our individual quest for truth. Campbell puts this process in very eloquent terms:

One has but to alter one’s psychological orientation and recognize (re-cognize) what is within. Deprived of this recognition, we are removed from our own reality by a cerebral shortsightedness which is called in Sanskrit maya delusion (from the verbal root ma, ‘to measure, measure out, to form, to build’, denoting, in the first place, the power of a god or demon to produce illusory effects, to change form, and to appear under deceiving masks; in the second place, ‘magic’, the production of illusions and, in warfare, camouflage, deceptive tactics; and finally, in philosophical discourse, the illusion superimposed upon reality as an effect of ignorance. Instead of the biblical exile from a geographically, historically conceived garden wherein God walked in the cool of the day, we have in India, therefore, already c. 700 B.C. (some three hundred years before the putting together of the Pentateuch), a psychological reading of the great theme./13

And as a result, and not surprisingly so, Oriental culture long ago came up with a set of techniques that help to bring about this inner unity which is alignment, peace, and inner growth; and called it yoga. And the inquiry process itself, the observation of inner processes, and the reflection pattern, was called meditation.

The analogy is given of the surface of a pond blown by a wind. The images reflected on such a surface are broken, fragmentary, and continually flickering. But if the wind should cease and the surface become still—nirvana: ‘beyond or without (nir-) the wind (vana)’—we should behold, not broken images, but the perfectly formed reflection of the whole sky, the trees along the shore, the quiet depths of the pond itself, its lovely sandy bottom, and the fish. We should then see that all the broken images, formerly only fleetingly perceived, were actually but fragments of these true and steady forms, now clearly and steadily beheld. And we should have at our command thereafter both the possibility of stilling the pond, to enjoy the fundamental form, and that of letting the winds blow and waters ripple, for the enjoyment of the play (lila) of the transformations. One is no longer afraid when this comes and that goes; not even when the form that seems to be oneself disappears. For the One that is all, forever remains: transcendent—beyond all; yet also immanent—within all./28

As for the oldest religion of humanity, Taoism, this book contains invaluable source references from age-old scriptures and poetic works, such as the works of Chuang Tzu.

In the following passage, Campbell cites Chuang Tzu, Book VI, Part I, Section VI. 2-3:

The True Men of old knew nothing either of the love of life or the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exist from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted their life and rejoiced in it; they forgot all fear of death and returned to their state before life. Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tao, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called True Men. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanor was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go./28

I haven’t found a better description of the integral worldview of the old Taoist sages and their unifying and non-harming, respectful attitude toward life and living—and their true integration of nature in all its forms and expressions. And what few have been able to elucidate, the difference between the Indian and the Chinese mind, Campbell has ventured into and he came up with a quite elaborate distinction. Even more eloquent and daring, when comparing Indian and Japanese religious customs and spiritual traditions, Campbell writes:

These, then, are the signatures of the two major provinces of the Orient, and although, as we shall see, India has had its days of joy in the ripple of the waves and the Far East has cocked its ear to the song of the depth beyond depths, nevertheless in the main, the two views have been, respectively, ‘All is illusion: let it go’, and ‘All is in order: let it com’’; in India, enlightenment (samadhi) with the eyes closed; in Japan, enlightenment (satori) / with the eyes open./29-30

And then again comparing the religions of the Far East with our Middle Eastern religious tradition, Campbell wistfully concludes:

Whereas in the greater Orient of India and the Far East, such a conflict of man and God, as though the two were separate from / each other, would be thought simply absurd./32-33

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