Mythology of justice

Oct 02, 2011, 07:19 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

Everywhere, I am seeing posters speaking of justice.

Everywhere, I am seeing posters speaking of justice. Angry men and women with placards, Facebook updates, morchas, and fasts, all for justice.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Mythology also speaks of justice, but very differently. In the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions, where you live only once, there is the notion of God and Judgment Day when justice will be served and the righteous shall go to heaven, and the rest to hell.

In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, where you live infinite lives, there is the notion of karma. Good things happen because of good deeds in past lives and bad things happen because of bad deeds in past lives.

Thus, in religious traditions, mythic thoughts were used to establish justice. Eventually, we reap what we sow, in Judgment Day as per linear traditions, and as fate in cyclical traditions. But today we are modern and secular. We have rejected notions of God and soul and karma. That is for the superstitious and uneducated. We believe all problems can be solved through rational human discourse and democracy.

So now the burden of justice falls on human beings, not on gods and other forces. We have set up an elaborate justice system to ensure justice is done, in this lifetime itself, as there is no other. And we are failing miserably. Hundreds languish inside jails for alleged crimes. Thousands teem outside, allegedly innocent. Justice is like salary -- it is never ever enough.

This notion of justice that we celebrate today has its roots in the scientific revolution that swept across Europe in the 15th century. What people often overlook is that it has its roots in Greek thought (hence the word Renaissance, rediscovery of Greek knowledge).

Greek mythology was rather peculiar. The gods were not noble or just. They were Olympians who had become gods after defeating their predecessors, the Titans. And they were forever suspicious of humans, who they feared would overthrow them. And so the Gods used the power of the Fates to control the destiny of man, using their power to make man struggle and stagnate in mediocrity.

They incited wars like the Trojan War to ensure men were kept busy fighting each other and did not turn their attention against them. Men, such as Jason and Hercules, who refused to submit to the cupidity of the gods, became heroes -- worthy of worship. From here comes the heroic narrative that is the cornerstone of every Hollywood blockbuster, who solves the problem created by authority, and creates a world where everyone lives 'happily ever after'.

Rationalists today do not realise that they are trapped in a Greek mythic structure. They are imagining themselves as heroes fighting against the gods -- people in authority who deny justice so as to stay in power. They scream and shout for justice hence revolution not realising that every revolution creates new gods.

We forget the American army has its roots in the American Revolution and the Taliban was created by forces that wanted to destroy what was popularly called the evil Red Empire. The Greek mythic structure makes the individual feel noble and heroic as he struggles for justice. Its obsession for one life also makes us forget the past. Nobody tells us that history has never witnessed justice. In nature there is no justice. It thrives only in mythology -- in God's Judgment Day or in the karmic cycle. 

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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