Devdutt Pattanaik: Mythology of equality

Is there equality in nature or not? The answer is complex. Nature has no favourites and every plant and every animal has to fend for itself to survive. In that sense, there is equality in nature. But, no two plants and no two animals are the same. Each has its own strength and weakness, with exposure to its own set of opportunities and threats. In that sense, there is no equality in nature.

Every human being, like every plant and animal, is unique, with its own set of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Every human being also has imagination: he/she can imagine having more strengths and opportunities, and less weaknesses and threats. He/can imagine a world where everyone, no matter what their strengths and weaknesses, gets access to the same opportunities, and protection from the same threats. This imagination establishes the 'mythology of equality'. When the experienced world does not match up to this imagined world, we get upset. We demand changes in the world. We yearn for messiahs. We yearn for revolution.


Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

But, humans can also imagine the world differently. A man/woman can imagine himself/herself as special, better than others, and yearn to dominate over others, or be feared or respected by others. This imagination is the 'mythology of inequality' that makes one feel privileged. It is what drives people to compete and be successful. It is what prevents people from sharing, for 'when I have more wealth or knowledge or power, I can dominate'. To dominate feels good.

Publicly today, we all yearn for mythology of equality. Privately, however, there is a great yearning for mythology of inequality: the desire to dominate another, control others, be feared or respected, and essentially obeyed. From the mythology of equality come concepts such as positive discrimination and reservations, to create a fairer and just world. From the mythology of inequality come concepts like meritocracy and free market and political correctness that gags conversations and allows for only one kind of conversation.

The mythology of equality informs Abrahamic mythology. Here, all humans are equal before the eyes of God. Inequality is created by the Devil. The mythology of inequality informs Greek mythology. Here, the hero strives hard to be extra-ordinary, earn a place amongst the gods, or at least in Elysium, the heaven of heroes. But this quest to break free from the mediocre is seen as 'hubris' and it angers the gods, and lands many heroes into Tartarus. In the cosmos, everybody needs to know their place, high or low.

Communism is strongly influenced by Abrahamic mythology, hence the mythology of equality. Capitalism is strongly influenced by Greek mythology, and the mythology of inequality, where the 'best man/woman' wins and so gets rewarded more by the market. Hindu mythology is a combination of equality and inequality. The soul of all beings is equal, but not the body.

And our body is a combination of our mind, our flesh and the property and privileges we acquire or inherit. In the cycle of rebirths, the soul experiences different bodies and eventually realises that it is temporary and the source of all agony. Wisdom lies in looking beyond the body at the soul, and realising that the soul within us and within all those around us is the same. When this happens, we work towards helping everyone around us, strong and weak, find opportunities and avoid threats, knowing fully well that we cannot change their destiny, or alter their desire, or make the world an equal place.

Buddhist mythology does not subscribe to the idea of soul, equality or inequality. It does see desire as the cause of all suffering — desire to dominate in an unequal world as well as desire for an equal world. When we outgrow our desires, we no longer compare and contrast the imagined world with the experienced world. We don't crave for a change. We simply glide with the change.

The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at devdutt@devdutt.com

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