The Shape of Stories

devi myth teachings Jul 02, 2024
Hanuman before Rama and Lakshmana: Folio from the dispersed “Mankot

(Hanuman before Rama and Lakshmana: Folio from the dispersed “Mankot" Ramayana series. ca. 1710–25. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/37986)

Myths, often dismissed as mere tales from the past or entertaining distractions, reveal profound wisdom when seen through the interior gaze of Vedic philosophy. This ancient Indian philosophical system provides a unique perspective, a distinct portal to plumb the outer realm of facts and delve into their inner realm of meaning. In this light, myths emerge as profound maps, each carrying a transformative potential that can stabilize our embodiment of our  personal place in the world and the ultimate value of this life.

Therefore, proper understanding and education in mythology lies in understanding the deeper meanings of myths rather than solely focusing on their surface-level entertainment value. Education in this context is not reading commentaries and analysis of myths. They have their place to guide us when we are new, a starting point for our own embodiment. Education comes from the Latin to find our place in the universe. To approach myths as education is to find the stories within us to inform our personal unfolding journey, a map to the inner unexplored terrain.

Ultimately, we need to decode the story within ourselves to understand our place in the world of infinite forms as we appear and disappear in our inherent spectrum from formless and empty to form and fullness.

This process of decoding is a process of embodying and is crucial in understanding the transformative potential of myths and their relevance in our lives. 

Myths are not just stories; they are personal and collective atlases in a narrative form that transcends time. Traditionally, they were spoken words that invited participation through the circle of listeners and the curvature of the repeating themes. By integrating the past, present, and future into a single, continuous narrative, myths connect us to a larger, timeless story that we can participate in anew.

Approaching myths from a purely psychological standpoint risks stripping them of their mysterious essence. We inadvertently rob them of their power to enchant and captivate our imagination by reducing them to mere symbols or archetypes. Recognizing the transformative potential of myths underscores their relevance and importance, compelling us to consider their impact on personal and societal growth.

Myths point us beyond our known confines and concepts.

Mythical expressions are akin to dream symbols. Just as dreams have a depth and richness that transcends the literal language of our waking lives, myths, too, possess an inherent bottomlessness and unlimited potential for interpretation. Relegated by conventional boundaries, language fails to capture the nuanced layers of meaning myths encapsulate. Mythic and dream language allows us to understand the pristine Consciousness from which all language and thoughts arise. Instead of limiting these languages to conform to the confines of the waking state language, we can learn their language and translate, thereby expanding the waking state language rather than associate within the known thought loops.

Myths, dreams, and poetry are cognate languages of unfettered Consciousness. Because we often dismiss these languages, we are disconnected from the source of understanding ourselves and the inherent harmony that we have of belonging. We seek outer power to control what we feel disconnected from, which is part of this personal self. As life loses inner significance and becomes even more transactional and essence is lost in mechanical timesheets and productivity outputs, we seek outer power and control where we have no outer recognition of our inner value.

While chances are high that anyone reading these musings understands and mourns this loss of significance and value, it may still be a significant and strange leap to seeing the value and role of myths. While many enjoy a good story, some only enjoy it if it wields power and gives something practical. How can fanciful tales of flying monkeys and constant battles restore meaning and place? Wouldn't it involve decoding symbols, and who has time for that?

Yet, there is a place where we accept symbolic language and never dismiss it as unreal or a waste of time. It permeates every part of our life and, on deeper dimensions, our Consciousness. Math. It usually appeals to our sense of certainty through its unquestionable logical conclusions and appeals to our inner resonance for symmetry and order. Solving a confounding and complex problem around numbers and symbols is enormously satisfying. There's a quiet elegance to its certainty. We approach the infinite and nonlinear through the symbols and language of linearity.

I propose that myths are challenging, confronting, and ultimately 'solving' similar problems of Consciousness through another symbolic language.

For instance, just as math uses symbols to represent complex equations and solve problems, myths use symbols to represent abstract concepts and guide us in understanding the world and ourselves.

Scientists can speak of gravity, and the Rishis spoke of Ganesha; one can speak of black matter or Pratyangira. Or, what about the finite sequence of infinity? I suggest we invoke that as Mahālakṣmī or Laḷitā. I don’t want to reduce these Īṣṭadevatā Consciousness fields to singular concepts that our linear and singular dimensional minds can grasp only in static ways. Īṣṭadevatās are multi-dimensional, linear and nonlinear, sequential and simultaneous, and also not that. We usually think in a dualistic paradigm, either this way or that way. But as Nāgārjuna pointed out in his famous catuṣkoṭi

  1. It is,
  2. It isn't
  3. It is, and it isn't
  4. Not it is, and not it isn't[1]

Īṣṭadevatās are not static concepts but include concepts within their matrix. The point remains valid that we use symbols in our language to understand the ineffable. Yet, math securely falls into the category of hard facts and logic. Except for the forbidden dividing by zero.

On an outer level, numbers are universal symbols of the quantity of things. Delve into algebra and geometry, and we have symbols of symbols, and then we have the most revealing and confounding language of symbols in calculus. To me, calculus investigates and reveals Consciousness through symbols of reality, from emptiness to form, which I see in the symbols of zero to infinity.

Galileo Galilei said, "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."

Zero revolutionized our fundamental understanding of...well, everything. Add it to one side of the equation with a humble decimal point, and you reduce; add it to the other side and increase. It is a magical symbol with infinite powers. And infinity lures and taunts the scientists and the mystics. It taunts through its emptiness (or its symbol in math, zero).

Empty of Self, another dimension dawns. How do we empty of self, fulfill our worldly activities, and come to integral nothingness?

Some practitioners have very often heard me say that as science has its mathematical equations, Consciousness has mythological correlations. This brings to mind the astounding Śrīnivāsa Rāmānujan, who had unprecedented math genius and was primarily self-educated. He said he received insights from his Īṣṭadevatā Nāmagiri (a form of Mahālakṣmī) in the dream state.

Śrīnivāsa Rāmānujan said, "An equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of God."[2]

Dreams are as real (or as unreal) as the waking state. We would benefit significantly from inquiring why we consider the waking state real or more accurate than the dreaming state. In Śrī Vidyā, we see that both arise from the underlying turīya state. So why does one arise as "real" and one as unreal"? The bias arises from our understanding of what is real. We collectively take what is stable and can be confirmed by the senses to be real and other things to be unreal or at least suspect. The dreaming state reveals an inner geography of personal history, philosophy, and psychology, while the waking state shows the collective experiences of the above. They exist interdependently, not separately. Outside of the confines of waking state temporality, the dream state is often expressed in intuitive flashes and circular sensual impressions.

In our times, myths are dismissed as falsehoods and nonsense and often criticized because of the different interpretations and levels on which somebody can read them. And how frequently they change! For some reason, critics want them to be the same static version in each telling. Yet the audience changes, the times change, and the storyteller changes. We grow and transform, and so do myths. This varying quality is essential. There are many ways to understand, and we can imagine multiple options in each situation.

If the story always ends the same, then we limit our freedom and creativity to meet things as new and different.

A static formulaic response propagates a mental monoculture. Each experience carries within it the possibility of being wholly unique and fresh, even with the same people and circumstances. Oral stories change as the storyteller changes.

When the story belongs to you, you have the power and the capacity to alter it. When the story is your body, it is yours to change, grow, and transform.

Ascertaining cosmic value and inherent meaning in a consumeristic and transactional society is challenging. Our everyday dualistic and linear language cannot convey this depth. This is likely why all who fall in love, at some point, start to feel poetic, seeking a more evocative voice for their experience.

We need a more encompassing way to point to something whose significance is greater than us. Myths guide us to understand our place in the world and our relationship with the Divine through language and unconfined meaning. Myths invite us to participate newly, breaking the linearity of conventional time. They integrate the past, present, and future into a single, continuous narrative. Indian myths do not begin with "once upon a time"; as they do not start in time, but rather in a curvature of space encompassing all time, including this moment where we participate anew.

Transcending the limits of time and its consequentially limited expressions, through the shape of mythology, we find a circle that allows changeability while always keeping us equidistant from the center (the power of its geometry) where the unchanging reposes.

Linear time is irreversible, at least at the speed of light. This mortality is its precious gift, and its shadow is its unidirectional vector. In contrast, circular time (Nityā Devyāḥ, for example) offers new opportunities for the same situations to arise again yet differently and freshly in this new context for each of us in this very moment and circumstance of our curve of time.

We have another new chance to float with the changing and choose different potentialities on the wave of the unchanging.

Participatory circular language allows us to experience, for instance, what Hanumān in the Rāmāyaṇa experienced, but in a fresh, new way within our limited temporal reality. In this manner, mythologies remain alive when they are embodied. We are not merely recapitulating or reenacting myths; we are delving into infinity and eternity, newly expressing timeless stories like the Rāmāyaṇa or the tale of the Maiden with No Hands, a heartbreaking and empowering story of trauma and its liberation. By living these narratives anew, we transform the dynamics of what can happen, a legacy we owe to future generations. Otherwise, they inherit a museum relic that is dry and dusty, devoid of the arch of infinity.

The circularity of time enables us to experience transcendence and immanence simultaneously. It allows us to stand on what never changes and flow with the part that changes. There is no definitive end in this changing continuum—something remains, continuously expressed in different forms. Thus, the circularity of time gives voice and body to the unchanging. When linearity and circularity are combined, they form a spiral, representing dynamic and harmonious communication and entanglement. This spiral of symbols and reality illustrates that we stagnate  if we do not change and are locked in repetition (saṃsāra).

Infinity persists until time ends; eternity exists beyond time.

Here lies the spiral dance of emptiness and form, from zero to infinity, embodying the illogic of dividing by zero. 


[1] Here, I see correspondences to the four avasthā. What would be the fifth if Nāgārjuna used the pentadic system of Śrī Vidyā going from the fourth avasthā turīya to turīyātīta?

[2] This quote is often cited in various sources, including the book "Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician" by S. R. Ranganathan (1967), and it is frequently mentioned in discussions about his life and work, illustrating how his intuition and religious beliefs played a crucial role in his mathematical journey​.