“It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”
- Franz Boas (memoirs of the American Folklore Society)
Whenever we hear the word “Myth”, the mind forms a number of interpretations of the meaning, sometimes even leading to doubting the truthfulness of the theory in the picture. The mind often associates myth as something which is not true or is only a fiction of imagination of the human cognition. Etymologically, the word myth traces its origin in the Sanskrit word Mithya which means narration of someone’s first – hand experience. Thus, according to this interpretation myth refers to an interpretation of an experience someone had which created an impact upon his mind or soul and when it is narrated to someone, it becomes a myth.
For example, if person A is going to from one town to another town and during his journey, he encounters a lion. This becomes his experience. However, upon reaching the town when he tells his experience to his friend B, it becomes a myth for B as the veracity of his testimony cannot be verified by B as he was neither present at that time in the jungle nor does he have any means to check whether the information supplied by A is true. Thus, the experience of A becomes a myth for B. Similarly, various folklores, tales, stories told by elders, social customs, norms and commonly accepted social beliefs often find their base in these types of myths.
Through my research project, it is my aim to define the proper meaning and explanation of the term “myth”, establish an interconnection between myth and the society we live in and elaborate on how myth becomes a means to organize and govern the society by looking at its deep delving roots and branches spread across different domains of the society like sociology, anthropology, psychology and many other themes of study. Through various theories of sociologists like , I have conducted a secondary qualitative study after scrutinizing and doing a thorough analysis of a plethora of research articles, books and theories of different philosophers.
The main body of the articlebegins with an analysis of different theories elaborating and deliberating upon meaning and interpretation of myth, its definitions and various theories related to it in the society. Through the theories of Claude Levis Strauss and Rubin Gotesky delivering the role of myth and society in the western communities and sociological backgrounds along with Devdutt Pattnaik’s theories of myth and religion in ancient and contemporary India, I have made a thorough deliberation and discussion on the Indian society where different religions with their diverse practices and beliefs form a part of the sociological decision making process. Under this heading, I have also discussed the role of ancient folklores like Ramayana, Mahabharata and other holy books which carry a deep influence into the minds of people and categorizing them as myths or reality.
I have tried putting up questions on how myths should be treated in the society, how they play a role in regulating the intra societal communications and behavior pattern in the society and how people’s response gets affected towards various religions, communities and even gender. In this, I have utilized the theories of Emile Durkheim in religion and connected it with myths prevalent and brought by it in the society.
Secondly, I have dealt with the discussion upon what impact should a myth make in minds of the people in 21st century modern day society which carries its base on science and rationality where even scientific facts are sometimes taken as a matter of opinion. Thus I have delved upon the standing of myths and whether we should believe them or not.
After that, I have tried analysis of a much – controversial but rational standing of myths, their widespread criticism prevalent in the Indian and international society and their being a sui – genesis social fact per se. In this, I have relied upon dialectical method of Socrates in finding the answers of myths and their role in society through skillful questioning and material facts necessary to establish a link between what should be done as a practice in a society and what is actually done.
Lastly, I have concluded my analysis based upon my opinion on the facts, issues, rationales and opinions formulated and discussed in the main body of the paper along with answering the questions that rose while understanding the meaning of various ideologies to give out a comprehensive view of the topic to the readers.
What does the society actually mean by myth?
The Britannica dictionary of social science defines the word myth as “a symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events and that is especially associated with religious beliefs.” Thus this elaborates and delves upon the facts that mythology refers to a subjective fact of unknown origin that may or may not have been a real event but often finds its backing in religious beliefs. The systematized study of myths is called mythology and often deals with those topics which are either extraordinary or do not find any backing in rationality or science, may even be apart from human understanding. Just like religion has its roots deep instilled into the society since times immemorial, in a similar fashion, myths too are deep instilled into the society.
No society can exist without myth and even humans cannot function without myths as it has given the society various notions. Unlike science, which lays its backing on facts, tests, evidences and measurements, myths are completely severed from the above facets and are only postulated based on beliefs that sometimes may even be apart from human cognition and understanding. Though mythology tries to study deep into the system of beliefs and notions of different logics and rules, it cannot be said to be a material science and is merely a social science.
The deep-rooted relation between myths and society
No human organization can exist without myths. It is the inherent feature of societal interaction that gives birth to myths and such incidences in the society which may be considered true by one organization or sect in the society and may not be given validation of taken into account by another sect.
According to American anthropologist Rubin Gotesky, myths are often equated with false beliefs in the society. People inherently assume the nature of myths to be false and usually away from the truth but actually generalizing the facts of any particular incidence to be false often results in one sided knowledge and as it is popularly known, one sided knowledge or half knowledge is more dangerous than no knowledge. For example, if one assumes the incident that cutting hair on a Tuesday morning may result in monetary loss to someone. This may be considered as a myth in the society and be widely practiced. Many people may question the validity of this myth and equate this with a false notion or belief. However we neither have the means to validate or invalidate this theory in the real world context. Thus, myths are a common feature to both western as well as middle eastern societies which creates a fact that myths are definitely common in every form of a society but only the nature of myths varies from one society to other.
Many a times, myths play a detrimental role in functioning of the society as a whole. According to the famous sociologist and thinker Emile Durkheim, “we humans have a dual role in the society. We are in society as society is in us.” This means that we as humans carry the innate traits of society like social facts, biases based upon gender, religion, nationality, creed etc. along with common feelings of love, lust, anger etc.
In his book “The elementary forms of religious life”, Durkheim has maintained the fact that it is often religion which carries with itself a set of belief which is of common nature to those who follow that particular religion either in hope of some incentive like afterlife or gains in existing life or fear of sanctions like punishments and corporeal hurt to the body. Thus, it is impossible to study the origin as well as rationality of myths.
Correlation between myths and religion
“Religion is opium of the people” is one of the quotes rightly propounded by Karl Marx which states the deep rooted influence that religion carries on the minds of the people. From the impact of religion arises myth as there is hardly any religion which does not carry with itself the religious fables and study of things sacred and profane. After studying the impact of these stories and fables which often do not find a backing anywhere in science, there results a phenomenon called – myth.
For example, in a country having Christianity as the main religion followed by a majority of public, various notions like Holy Water and crucifix are held in high regard while performing functions like baptization or holy works which may be common to that particular society. Using Socrates dialectical approach, can we as ordinary laymen figure out whether there is a difference between that water and any other water? The obvious answer is no. Similarly various healing powers carried out by mystics cannot be judged by ordinary prudence and is often a result of only basic myths prevalent since centuries.
How myths play a role in organizing the society
An organization of society refers to a system where society finds sustainable ways to act in a coordinated manner with followers of different sects organizing them in different patterns according to their own beliefs.
- India – a combination of urban and rural society
- Rural Society
India is a homogenized mixture of rural and urban areas in its being. As said by Mahatma Gandhi, “the soul of India resides in villages in the rural areas”, the villages and the rural society witnesses a high level of dependence upon myths and legends while taking vital decisions involving daily practices and rituals. As said by Talcot Parsons in his theory involving features of rural and urban society, there is a high level of reliance on beliefs that are considered sacred and profane. The society still believes in theological and religious practices more than science and rationality.
Applying this theory in Indian context, we can easily assume various incidents of practices practiced even today like having heavy significance of taking a dip in the holy water of river ganga also called “Ganga Snaan” after every pious work or cutting of hair and going bald by male members of the family after any death in the family. Thus myths bring the rural society closer by binding them to these beliefs and also organizing them into various groups and sub groups.
- Urban Society
In the urban society, there is a lesser quantum of belief over things which are sacred and profane and more reliance over science and rationality. According to the theory of Talcot Parsons, urban society is characterized by excessive belief over issues involving science, rationality and logics than religion and myths. There, the instances of myths are less common as when people migrate from rural to urban areas, they carry with themselves modern beliefs and ideologies that are common to the people living there.
Thus the society gets organized into different strata based upon those who find their beliefs in particular myths and those who rely on rationality.
According to popular writer and mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik, the theory of rationality and mythology may not always be completely contrary to each other. Many a times the society forms an opinion that the ideas of mythology and rationality are totally contrary but there exist different hypothetical scenarios which lay their founding stone on rationality.
For instance, when we take the example of the tradition involving not washing head during menstrual cycle by women, today’s modern society considers it a complete myth but in reality, the evidence of this practice can be found in medical science which lays down a lot of reasons for not washing the scalp as it may lead to sensitivity in the cranium region.
Also, there are different ways through which society gets organized and sometimes divided into different sects, the most common of them being followers of a particular types of rituals and beliefs which lead to creation of a new system.
Taking into account the role of various theories and theorists in determining how important roles are played by myths in terms of organizing the society and creating an impact upon the society.
However, just like a coin has two sides, the role of myths in society is also two faced. Critically analyzing this statement, we understand that myths play both positive and negative role in the society. It totally depends upon the conscience and prudence of the society where people live to understand how negatively myths impact the society.
The negative impacts of myths can be listed down below which are as follows:-
- Many a time myths cause disruption in the peaceful situation of the society due to conflict between beliefs of two or more communities. For example a myth commonly prophesized in the Indian society like restriction on entry of women in Sabrimala temple where lord Ayyappa is considered a bachelor diety caused huge hue and cry along with a series of protests in the state of Hyderabad. There were huge clashes over this myth that the diety inside would get polluted if women from the menstruating age would enter into the temple. This led to a popular judgment of the supreme court in India wherein women were allowed entry into the temple as a matter of right.
- Myths create a rift in the family structure too where those who believe in myths and legends or follow traditions based upon them are looked down by other family members. This also creates the so called generation gap between the family members.
- According to the structuralist theory of understanding myths and mythology, Claude Levis Strauss laid his emphasis on the fact that as a language can be approached step by step to understand its basic nuances and understandings, in a similar fashion the role of myths is there in the society.
- In the book “Myth and meaning”, Claude Levis Strauss also laid his opinion on the fact that many a times people fall prey to occult and immortal practices due to excessive beliefs in myths and mythology. This makes their mind more prone to believing what may even be against the will of nature, laws and principles of natural justice. This creates a scenario where crime may become more prevalent and destroy law and order in the society.
Thus, the onus lies purely upon the people living in the society to decide upon whether it is right or utterly wrong to fall prey to myths and organization of society on the basis of structuralism.
Structuralism and mythology
According to the structural approach by Claude Levis Strauss, we can understand that myths and mythology often find their origin in a particular type of system where society gets organized and revolves around them particularly. Also, the meaning of myths, their stories and legends and their interpretation becomes clear only when a thorough background investigation is carried on anthropologically as well as sociologically.
Also, in the modern day 21st century, with the advent of internet and coverage of Internet over 80% in the urban areas and around 50% in the rural areas, there exists a need to understand the rationality and logics behind the myths and then decode them according to the own needs. Thus, the society will take the shape of an institution where logics and greater good of humanity and society plays a key role in determining whether something is good or bad and how decisions are impacted by them.
The idea of welfare state in the society can also be connected as an organizational structure or the allegory of a cave as given by Aristotle where the enlightened ones can actually observe the true knowledge and decrypt in the truest sense what means to be liberated of false beliefs and values as compared to others who have a fixed gaze and cannot see otherwise.
When even myths are followed with taking into consideration different tenets of logic and rules, the society grows better and bigger which leads to happiness of the stakeholders of the society instead of occult beliefs and practices.
Taking the correlation of myths with different theories like structuralism, the idea of society, divide between rural and urban society and even the allegory of the cave and using ethical dilemmas along with sociological thoughts, we also take various examples of how myths and legends sometimes play a constructive role while at other times they lead to mob mentality and fights.
Also, the need to generate awareness is being talked about in this article where the society needs to invoke inner consciousness using its proponents of different means like education, use of resources like internet and books along with application of mind in determining the roles played by myths and not falling prey to different malpractices in the name of myths.