The dangers of mythic consciousness

March 13, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

My country, India, claims to be a multi-cultural, multi-religious country. Though there is a sizeable Muslim and Christian population here, 80% of Indians are Hindu by faith. And unlike Christianity or Islam, the tenets of Hinduism are not put down in a book like the Bible or Q’oran. In fact, the Hindu religion has no specific tenets. Religious beliefs, customs, rites, and rituals, vary from region to region (and in some cases family to family). And unlike followers of other major religions of the world, Hindus do not worship any particular god. In India, it is very common for one Hindu to ask another, “Which God do you worship?”  While Hinduism does have its mythology, there is no “official” version put down in Book X or Book Y. You simply believe that a certain god exists, and believe your community’s version of the life history of that particular god.
 
This mythic form of religion contrasts strongly to the rigid and institutionalized religions of the west. One could also say that Hindu beliefs are transmitted through a ‘mythic consciousness’, as opposed to western religions which rely on a consciousness that is linear in nature. While science requires tangible evidence to confirm an event or object to be true or ‘real’, western religions such as Christianity or Islam consider any mention of that event or object in their holy book to be evidence for truth or ‘existence’ of that event or object. Note that western religions still rely on the principle of evidence; it would not be fair to characterize western religions to be completely “illogical.”  On the other hand, Hinduism gives its followers the freedom to take as many leaps of logic as they like, as long as they stay in its very hazy boundaries. This mythic form of religion gives its followers the freedom to choose what they believe is true, and what is not.
 
One would assume that such mythic religions make it difficult for scientific thinking to flourish, but that is not the case. In fact, such mythic religions are known to be some of the most tolerant in the world. Because there is no official version of the truth, Hindus have little problem absorbing alien beliefs into their mythology. Thus, you will find no particular objections to the concept of ‘evolution’ in this country. Facts established by science can be easily absorbed into the mythology of such religions. Similarly, Hinduism is open to the influences of other cultures and its own mythology is often influenced by the mythologies of other cultures.
 
There is a downside. The flexible nature of this mythology is sometimes exploited by unscrupulous individuals interested in making a quick buck. If you claim to be a god-incarnate, you are bound to get at least a few believers who incorporate you into their roster of gods. Also, in such cases, psuedo-science finds it extremely easy to sell itself in the garb of religion. One needs to only switch on the television here, to find a barrage of telemarketing scams which sell religion-related products. Last year, my mother wasted no time in buying a piece of glass crystal which a telemarketing capsule claimed would please the gods you worship, bringing good luck to you and your family. There is no religious authority to rubbish such nonsensical claims and con artists can have a free ride in creating and selling such myths. In fact, the success of these religion-related telemarketing scams has led to many more spurious products not directly related to the version of religion being advertised. These include herbal teas which claim to cure all ailments, from obesity to diabetes to cancer, and more infuriatingly, magnetic shoes which claim to increase your height!
 
So while these scamsters are laughing their way to the bank now, will the future see consumers who are enlightened enough to see through these scams? In my opinion, no. As the world gets more technologically advanced, most people are less likely to understand the world around them. As tasks become easy to the point of seeming magical, a mythic consciousness is likely to be further inculcated, sending logical scrutiny for a toss.  To most people, the technological miracle has become an everyday phenomenon. They do not know how computers, television or radio works; most are not interested. Rather than understanding how these things work, they just know that they work. What is to stop such people from believing in miracle shoes or some other panacea then? If a way has been found to ‘miraculously’ transmit images across the world, they reason, surely a way to miraculously increase one’s height must exist!
 
Our schizophrenic existence, and impatience, also ensures that the makers of these products need not worry about accountability. The makers of miracle magnetic shoes only need to ask buyers to wear the shoes at all times for 6 months. Few people would be dedicated enough to wear these shoes for more than a month, after 6 months, they would have most likely forgotten they ever bought the shoes! In my opinion, scientists and skeptics striving to inculcate critical thinking skills in the masses have a tough challenge ahead of them. A heady consumer culture and rapid technological advances are encouraging less and less thinking.

As time goes by, more corporations and individuals are likely to milk the dangerous notion being held by an increasing number of consumers: “In today’s world, anything is possible.”

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Category: Culture, Education, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Technology

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and 'miracle-men' make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their 'powers'. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ben says:

    I have heard mostly good things about Hindus (for example, peaceful and kind). However, I consider myself quite a bit more enlightened than the average Joe. In fact, I would bet my last dollar that most Americans consider Hindus and Muslims to be *exactly* the same.

    We have plenty of snake oil-salesmen here too, just turn on the TV on Sunday morning. The difference is, they actually think they are doing God's bidding (or at least they are VERY convincing). It really irks me whenever I hear the naive sounding southern accents preaching…GAWD is your SAVYAH! JAYSUS CHRAST DIED FO AAWWWL of US!

    On the lighter side, the magnetic shoes will work, but only if you have complete faith in them.

  2. Vicki says:

    Sujay, I think what you are mostly talking about is simple magical thinking: If I want something bad enough it will happen. We all engage in magical thinking to a certain extent when we do the same things over and over and expect a different result. As in "I know this pickup line didn't work on the last 100 women I tried it on, but this time it will!" or "I know he's just like the last 5 irresponsible jerks I dated, but this time I will reform him through the power of love!"

    There is certainly a lot of pseudo-scientific and religious snake oil out there packaged just right to take advantage of people's fears and illusions about themselves. Sometimes it helps to de-construct the mythic archetypes that others may be using to influence you. You can be just as dominated by gods you don't (consciously) believe in as those you do.

  3. Jared says:

    Sujay, interesting article, but I believe you are misusing the term “mythical consciousness.” Although, almost all classic religion has its basis in myth, and began in a time in which “mythical consciousness” was the prevalent way of thinking, the majority of world people today experience the world through a “theoretical consciousness.” Even the most avid religious people believe more in science then in a god or gods as the cause of things. While many do believe their god or gods is the supreme force governing the universe, they accept every day events as having a cause – effect relationship and accept nearly all general scientific explanations to explain natural phenomena. When mythic consciousness was prevalent, the general world view was that humans are surrounded by powers or gods that they are directly connected to, thus they must stay in good terms with these gods to solicit desired natural blessings. This way of thinking was, and still is in remote tribes, manifest in animist belief systems. The shift from mythic to theoretic conscious was thought to have occurred between 1000 and 500 bce with the “the discovery of things” during the birth of modern philosophy and thus modern science.

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