The Power of the Story

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I

There is an acute observation in ancient Indian Yoga texts that the ordinary state of the human is that of the paśu (Latin pecu, “domesticated animal”; pecūnia, “wealth” is by semantic extension from “live-stock”). The mark of the domestication of the animal is that in spite of strength it submits to the will of the master, and a domesticated horse or elephant is happily led by a child. Paśu includes man as a biped (dvipada) paśu: dvipáde cátus padeca paśáve (RV 3.62.14).

The horse is controlled by the harness and other fittings, and the dog by the leash, whereas the human paśu submits to an even more powerful control by stories.

If you have seen dogs abandoned by their masters awaiting adoption, you would have noticed them making anguished eye contact with those walking around in the rescue center, beseeching to be adopted. Humans have an equally desperate need to be connected to some story or the other.

Successful stories engender powerful communities. The word “cult” is usually used as a pejorative for religious groups by outsiders — that is academics or journalists who believe they have superior intelligence — , or less seriously to describe devotion or excessive admiration for a person or a fashion. Those in the cult do not have open minds and their agency has been compromised by their total faith.

In reality, cults are everywhere around us and have been a prominent part of history. They are to be found in all segments of society: amongst the unschooled and the highly educated, as well the rich and the poor.

II

Some say that the power of story is from the myth embedded in the culture.

Myths such as parting of the waters, night journey on a heavenly beast, ascension to the seventh heaven, resurrection, raising the dead back to life, which are the literal truth for the believer have shaped history during the past couple of thousand years.

The believers wished to take their stories to new lands. Wars were waged and millions killed and enslaved.

Many dismiss this past as old, irrelevant history, because we now live in the age of science and enlightenment. This dismissal is naïve and not only are the mythic stories based on impossible events powerful, so are even lesser, prosaic ones.

The story need not be true. The more unlikely the story, the more its power. Consider the famous phrase:

Credo quia absurdum.

I believe because it is absurd. -attributed to Tertullian

Some say this is not the best summary of Tertullian’s text:

et mortuus est dei filius: [prorsus] credibile est, quia ineptum est.

et sepultus resurrexit: certum est, quia impossibile.

And the Son of God died; it is [utterly] credible, because it is unfitting;

and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.

In my view, no hair-splitting can change the understanding that Tertullian belief was based on the impossibility of the events. Such beliefs are not just true of ancient history, they are very much a part of coontemporary life and of society and academia.

Self-deception is more common than one imagines; it is the normal human condition.

III

Simple stories lay behind events that were to cause real human suffering and war.

The Taiping Rebellion in China during 1850 to 1871 was led by Hong Xiuquan who was the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. Believed to be the bloodiest civil war in human history, it led to over 20 million dead.

Uplifting tales about equality and justice were behind the murderous careers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

The mission to civilize and to inculcate discipline was behind the practice of chopping the hands of the workers who failed to meet the daily quota of rubber in the Belgian Congo.

To protect the honor of a long-deceased prophet, blasphemers are punished by death. When they hear the exhortations of a crowd, friendly, pleasant, and normally law-abiding people can step out to kill someone they think has insulted a memory. Or they can kill their own daughter for wanting to go the beach and dance for fear this will bring dishonor to the family.

Serious people compassionate for the entire humanity do not want women to go out unveiled because men are bad and it is not proper to tempt them.

IV

If the life of the animal is body- and instinct-centric, and in this sense superficial, so is the life of the body-centric human. Modern West has embraced the idea that there is nothing beyond the body, which is only half the truth, and this is a major cause of despair and addictions.

In Indian theory, body-centric view is called asuric, whereas one focused on thought and introspection is called daivik. One needs a balance between the asuric and the daivik to live a harmonious life.

The West has moved beyond a balance and tilts heavily into the asuric. In such a meterialistic perspective, the only thing that matters is physical triumph. Not much good can come out of such an approach.

The asuric view is behind feelings of hate and otherness and the urge to kill non-believers.

V

And then there is fear — real or imagined. I know of people whose response to Covid was to literally lock themselves up in their homes, with groceries delivered and sanitized, and they did not meet family or children for over a year. This, when at other places, everything was going on as before, including building and industry, school, children’s games, and parties.

Stories can lead to collective madness. For several years the Left media has insisted without evidence that Donald Trump is a Russian agent. The politics of a country has remained pivoted around this story, and repeated endlessly it is believed by millions of people, including the well-travelled and the well-read.

One can imagine that the passions behind the spread of the missionary religions were quite like this.

Other conflicts are over stories related to aesthetics. These are like the war waged in Lilliput over which end of an egg is right to crack.

Technology has made it easy for people to freely exchange stories on the social media. Powerful people and governments are using bots to increase the currency of their own stories. The paśu and the bots are on a level playing field.

Those who exercise judgment or don’t get stampeded into believing the story they have been told by “experts” are few and they are in touch with the paśupati (compare the suffix with Greek –potis, “master”) within them.

It is the touch with the self within that makes an individual free.

But for most, once there is complete investment in the story, individuals don’t want out, no matter how ridiculous the story really is.

Wishing to be recruited into servitude is more common than one imagines. Demonic possession — or if you prefer to call it delusion — is real but so commonplace that few notice the phenomenon.

The idea that college education sets the mind free is a fantasy. In the best case, college education is to convert students to the story-line of the elites who dominate society or different academic disciplines. Most theories about the lived world are simplistic generalizations and wrong.

Sed nescio quo modo nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosphorum.

There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it. ― Marcus Tullius Cicero

The really wise philosophers and teachers are hard to find in colleges.

Also Read:

The Emperor’s New Medicine Chest

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