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Devdutt Pattanaik: The impact of Abrahamic mythology

In the beginning, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden because of a transgression (the Original Sin). Their descendants, all of humanity, shall eventually return to Eden if they follow the path of the prophets, who are messengers of God, one of them being Abraham.

Later, God sends his prophet to liberate the enslaved children from Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land, where they will have freedom, respect and prosperity. The Promised Land is actually the land where the slaves came from long ago, before they were enslaved. Going to the Promised Land is actually a return to the Promised Land. The tale of the Promised Land mirrors the tale of Eden: returning home to perfection.

Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

Faith in Eden and Promised Land are the cornerstones of Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths. Despite enormous differences between, and within, the three major world religions, all are anchored to the tales of Eden and Promised Land. For religious radicals, Eden and Promised Land are objective truths. For the rest, they are subjective truths (myths) that shape the worldview of a people. They form part of the body of myths known as Abrahamic mythology, Abraham being one of God's earliest prophets. This mythology is distinct from rebirth mythologies of Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, and the polytheistic mythologies of the Greeks.

Originating in what is now called the Middle East, a unique feature of Abrahamic mythology is that it is uncomfortable with alternate truths, hence insists on 'the' truth. Hence, the idea of subjective truth, or myth, discomforts, subscribers of Abrahamic mythology. This worldview spread because of Jewish migration, and the proselytising work of Christian and Islamic missionaries. Because of colonisation, it dominates the world today, especially many secular and political discourses. Its most powerful impact can be seen in nationalism.

The nationalist discourse typically speaks of the glory of the nation-state before the arrival of colonisers. The purpose of the freedom struggle was to remove the colonisers and reclaim the original glory, Eden, Promised Land.

Depending on the orientation of nationalists, the glory to be reclaimed varies. In India, for many Left Liberals, it was the glorious Islamicate established by Akbar, ruined by colonisers. For Right Radicals, it was the glorious Hindu rashtra which was 'pure' from Vedic to Rajput times, before the Muslim hordes arrived and replaced temples with mosques. For Dalit extremists, it was the time of the Buddhist kings who were overthrown by Hindu casteist savarna Brahmins.

In America, for Donald Trump, it was the time before political correctness, before feminism, before 9/11. In Russia, for Putin, it was the time when Russia dominated the world, before LGBTQ rights and human rights. In Britain, it is before the European Union, before World War, when their Queen ruled the world. In many African nations, it was the time before nations disrupted old tribal structures. This is what political leaders around the world are promising with increasing frequency during elections.

Perhaps this subjective truth has its psychological roots in the human desire to return to an imagined childhood, when we were loved, when there were no bullies, or maybe earlier, in the womb of the mother, safe in the amniotic fluid sac before being shoved out of Eden, into the big bad world.

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

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