What is Mythology? An Answer Grounded in Hinduism with the Thoughts of Jung and Campbell
Mythology can be defined in many ways. Some may call it religion, others stories.
The late Joseph Campbell loved to refer to mythology as metaphor; a means of pointing past the myth to something beyond, in the way that Buddhists encourage not mistaking a finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Mythology provides us with rich metaphors that allow us to better understand our human experience and come to terms with the unknowable and indescribable.
Most every human embarks upon a search for meaning, and mythology is often the map that guides the way. Indeed, this quest for the revelation of our own purpose has driven humans to explore the power of mythology for millennia. Any mythology that has withstood the test of time and is a lasting, living mythology tends to have three key ingredients.
First, as already stated, it is metaphorical—a way to see past our experience to explore the meaning therein. Secondly, mythology is a container that holds all the multifaceted faces our existence so we can come to understand it for ourselves. Finally, mythology reveals the great mysterium tremendum, or numinosity of beingness; it shows us that there is potentially something greater at work in our lives and gives us access to it.
Though these three qualities are all salient features of myth, most simply, myth is metaphor. The great comparative mythologist of the 20th century, Joseph Campbell, often described myth this way. As he explained, metaphor allows us to see beyond the myth to understand it “in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation” (57). In the same way that one of the common references in Buddhism is not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon, mythological metaphor helps us as humans to find our way to what is just beyond the story.
Of all the rich mythologies of humanity, the Hindu myths provide many metaphorical examples of this principle. One of these examples is Hanuman, the monkey god, who is born of a human mother and the god of the wind. His demigod status makes him a precocious youngster and he easily gets into trouble. As he is struck down one morning for trying to eat the sun (he had mistaken it for a mango), the gods curse him with short-term memory loss so he can no longer be aware of his demigod status.
The forgetful monkey then goes to live in the woods and forgets his origins completely. This simple parable is a metaphor rich in meaning for each of us. Like Hanuman, we are all born in a state of rich openness and optimism and with immeasurable potential, only to be struck down by the perils and harsh truths of life. This causes us to easily forget this original state of blissful connection. Many of us spend our lives searching for ways to regain this connection, and interestingly, a rich mythical metaphor like this one can help us to rekindle that original spark.
This myth points past the story of a monkey and encourages us to see that we are the monkey ourselves. Hanuman’s story is a metaphor that tells us not merely a tale of a monkey, but as Joseph Campbell would say:
“The metaphor is the mask of God through which eternity is to be experienced” (Campbell, 60).
When looking at this myth metaphorically, we can see and experience ourselves as this unfortunate monkey, who is trying to rediscover and remember his original state of existence, the state in which he was connected to the mysterium tremendum—that great mystery of being that connects us all. When we use a myth like this as a container, we can then pour our life experiences into it in order to understand something more about ourselves. As Hanuman continues to deal with his forgetfulness, he develops a coping mechanism known as mantra repetition. Essentially, he says something over and over so as not to forget the thing that is most important to him.
We have all used this technique at some point in our lives, whether it was to recite a positive thought before a board meeting in order to reignite our confidence or repeating the name of a higher power so as not to forget that we are not alone in times of stress or need. We have also repeated the names of loved ones to call their spirit to mind after they have passed in order to invoke their qualities or their love. This continuous repetition of a thought places it at the forefront of our minds, over and above the stressful, negative or disconnected thoughts that might otherwise take its place. Hanuman used this technique diligently in order to remember his love and devotion for his best friend—not just when he was attempting impossible feats, but also as he was doing simple tasks like walking through the woods.
As we read into a tale like Hanuman’s, we are reminded of this powerful tool within our own lives, especially at times of forgetfulness. This myth gives us the context for how to deal not only with forgetting simple things, but also with forgetting our own source of power. Hanuman’s power is in his love for his best friend, just as often our power is amplified the more we love others. His story becomes the container that holds the key for us to remember what may have otherwise been lost and to reconnect with what is most important to us.
As a metaphor that points beyond the story itself and as a container into which we can graft our human experiences, myths—like that of Hanuman—become a guidepost on the journey through life. Each of us has struggles and hopes, all of which can be better understood and borne with the help of mythology. Ultimately, a living myth—one that activates human potential—will speak to a great many people, regardless of time, culture or place. Mythologies that address universal human truths and illuminate human nature not only provide solace and structure for groups of people, they also help to bring those people together to create a collective connection between human beings.
When a myth reveals something to us about ourselves, we suddenly realize that we are not alone—we are one of many who have dealt with the same struggle that a hero like Hanuman faces. This symbolic connection is a critical piece in the psyche of humans, as everyone craves connection and it is an essential part of any person’s health and well-being. A mythology reveals its power when it is able to speak to the collective and bring people together as they work through the universal struggles that we all face.
As Jung explains:
“The great problems of life…are always related to the primordial images of the collective unconscious” (220).
As those primordial images of the collective unconscious are dressed with the metaphors of a universal mythology, the architecture of the unconscious archetypes gets cloaked in forms like that of the monkey god, Hanuman. In this way, myth is essentially the unconscious revealing itself to us. This revelatory quality of myth is what allows the story to show us not only the vast human potential that exists outside of us, but even more so, the human potential that lies within.
As Hanuman continues his journey, he uses his forgetfulness and his mnemonic device to consistently remember the love he bears for his best friend. The constant repetition of his best friend’s name helps Hanuman to keep his love and devotion at the forefront of his mind through the most amazing challenges, including building a bridge over troubled waters, defeating an evil demon and saving his best friend’s girl. It is through love and devotion that Hanuman is instrumental in winning the war of good over evil and it is through this unconditional love that he comes to know the fullness of his being.
When we can see ourselves in a myth like that of Hanuman, then we start to shift outside of our limiting and forgetful paradigms to embody the lesson of the myth, and more fully express our capacity as humans. Myths reveal to us what is alive within, and in doing so, they reflect the sentiment of one of Campbell’s seminal statements:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive” (3).
Once again, if we understand myth as the metaphor it is and see that it is pointing us inward to our own human potential, then myth becomes not merely a good story, but a revelatory tool to show us the fullness of our own being. This is mythology’s ultimate potential: to reveal to us our own.
Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Print.
Jung, C. G. Collected Works Of C.G. Jung : The Complete Digital Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4 May 2014.