Philosophy, Ritual, and Myth

By Kundali Dasa

Major religions are found to have these three features. Each serves a particular function. It is helpful to us if we have an understanding of these three, their purpose, and their value in relation to each other. 

Philosophy addresses the question of the purpose of our existence. What is the meaning of human life? What are the goals we should strive for? How and why these are worthy ends for us? What are the evidences or proofs for our truth claims? 

Ritual refers to those actions we perform which aid us in achieving the state of awareness that the philosophy extols. Rituals are tools for self-transformation. 

Myths are illustrations; i.e., stories that aim to demonstrate the philosophy in action. These stories may be made up from whole cloth, they may be based on true events or the life-stories of great souls, or they may be combinations of truth and fiction. One may tell a lie to tell the truth. “Truth” here means the core principles of the philosophy. 

Naturally, myth is entwined with philosophy. This makes it a bit strenuous for the faithful to separate one from the other, but it is necessary to do so. For to focus too much on the myth, to cause the myth to overshadow the philosophy, often defeats the very point of the myth, for it can distract us from the lessons of the myth. As such, it is not important that myths be taken as literal truth. They may be literal truth, they may not be literal truth, they may be a mixture of the two; but whatever the case, the answer to that question is of no real importance, because the purpose of myth in the first place is to guide us in the understanding of philosophy. 

Myths, therefore, are not meant to be the basis of faith or belief; however, it commonly happens that many people who are not properly schooled in understanding these three elements, do not distinguish between myth and philosophy, and take the myths literally. They may take the acceptance or non-acceptance of the myths as the basis of faith and belief. 

A good example is the story of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden. A class of Christians believes that everything stated in the Holy Bible is to be taken as a literal truth, as “the Word of God.” Anything there found to be false, well, that somehow impugns the whole worth of the Bible. Drags it all down. Shatters it. To disbelieve in the literal truth of the story of Adam and Eve is to be faithless, because for this class of Christian, “faith” means literal belief in myths. For other kinds of Christians, faith means to understand rationally the philosophical point that the story of Adam and Eve makes. Those who believe in the literal truth of the story of the Garden, we call them by the derogatory term “fundamentalist”. 

In the Gaudiya or Dwaita Vedanta religious system, philosophy, broadly speaking, is contained in those works we call shruti—comprising the Upanishads and the Vedanta Sutra. Myth is covered in those works we call smriti—the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and other corollary literature. The basic idea here is that myths are created for the sake of those who lack the capacity for direct understanding of philosophy. Myth is an attempt to uplift those who cannot perform abstract thinking very well; it gives them a chance to access philosophy in an indirect way. 

Because this is a dualistic world, every effort to uplift us has a downside as well. For example, the Vedas prescribe animal sacrifice as a means for bringing to bear a sense of responsibility in us towards animals; however, this point can be missed and sacrifice can be used to legitimize meat-eating. Similarly, people can miss the point of myths and instead of using them as a departure point to soar into clearer philosophical understanding, they can become mired in literalism and lose time in futile argument trying to prove (or disprove) the mythic stories rather than focus on the philosophical points the stories make. 

Ritual too has a downside. People can fail to derive any transformation of consciousness, and yet insist on the mechanical performance of the rituals. Reasons for this include: the social status afforded to those who maintain a high standard of ritual performance; losing track of the point of the ritual when it becomes blind tradition; assuming that by the performance of the ritual the Divine somehow becomes obliged to us, like a business deal; and simply to make a show of religiosity. 

In some communities, myth will eclipse philosophy and ritual. In other communities, for example, in parts of South India, ritual will eclipse myth and philosophy. What, however, is the authentic Gaudiya outlook? 

For Gaudiyas, the ritual dimension comes under pancharatri viddhi, and the philosophy dimension is covered under Bhagavata viddhi (which includes the mythical dimension as well). Gaudiyas acknowledge the value of both, and, ideally, encourage the sadhaka to practice pancharatri viddhi and Bhagavata viddhi side by side. However, of the two, Bhagavata viddhi, discussion of the philosophy, is considered more vital.

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