Growing out of the Prahlada Myth

This letter is dated Sept. 4, 1997. I am posting these old letters with a bit of editing, and not really following the chronological order, which is a bit problematic. I will try to fix it later by putting them in logical sequence.

But, Prabhu, just WHOSE myths are you going to believe? The whole world is replete with myths! Tolkien said that myths are not lies, but they reflect truth and god. What seems myth may not necessary be a lie. We are not the only ones with difficult things to understand!
I am very glad that you have brought up the question of myths and myth interpretation. As I indicated in one of my previous letters, allegorical interpretation is something that seems historically to be an important step in the development of scriptural interpretation in all religious traditions. When a Tolkien or a Jung says that myths are not lies, but that they reflect truth and god, this is to correct a common misuse of the word; it does not mean that these are truths in the same way that a verifiable historical statement is true. The operative word is "reflects." The question, "What is truth?" is in itself an extremely loaded question, and no doubt the truth of even historically verifiable statements is not entirely above argument. But when we talk about the truth of myths, we are talking about truth of a different order.

Sometimes -- often -- actual historical events can take on a mythological aspect. This happens when real people function in archetypal ways. For us, this is nowhere more clearly apparent than in Prabhupada's own heroic personality.

A man who has lived a long, nondescript life, at the age of 70 decides to dedicate his life to an order  his spiritual master gave him 30 years earlier. He leaves everything to go to a strange country where he knows no one, on the way braving death on the high seas, for all intents and purposes penniless, and after facing a year of setbacks, difficulties and tests, starts to transform drug addicts and directionless young people into devotees of Krishna, a god known to none of them before they encountered him. Within a few short years he has created a new society of devotees all over the world, absolutely and selflessly committed to him, transformed. Certainly this is a drama of mythical proportions! Even a non-devotee cannot fail to sense the richness of the archetypal themes in even this superficial, factual summary.

This is why for most devotees, Prabhupada is the only touchstone to reality. Even Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya take on only secondary importance because Prabhupada was the real presence in their lives. It was he who transformed us and not Krishna, not Chaitanya. And yet, in his honesty and his faithfulness to his tradition, Prabhupada never presented himself as anything other than a servant of his guru, of Chaitanya-Krishna, and of the devotees. As such, he also personifies the essence of the guru in more ways than one.

So this is the most important myth for the devotees; it is powerful because it is grounded in reality and in direct personal experience. It has force, because to say that I wish to model my life after Prabhupada is a concrete statement that has real, tangible meaning. We sought wisdom, we found wisdom in Prabhupada; emulate Prabhupada and we will attain wisdom.

The Personal Myth

In these letters, I have been talking a great deal about the problem of institutionalizing or routinizing  charisma, truly a problem of mythic proportions. The ISKCON gurus who followed Prabhupada could not tell the story of their lives in a convincing way, the human and the archetypal remained too far apart, whereas Prabhupada's myth is strong enough to last generations. This is no doubt true. The guru is exactly that: when the inner archetype of the sage manifests externally, you have found guru.

The failure of a guru is often when he ceases to believe his own story. Most individual successes, I think, can be attributed to the clarity of vision of a personal myth. As long as that remains strong, one can continue to seek out specific goals. When there is disruption in the personal myth, then trouble arises, usually consisting of a little trip to tamo-guna.

In the early days of ISKCON, Back to Godhead used to contain, as a regular feature, articles on "How I Came to Krishna Consciousness." These stories were generally told with a strong sense of transcendental destiny; the feeling of inevitability is a strong element in the personal myth. In a guru-disciple relationship, the personal myth naturally shadows the guru myth and also makes use of other stories to nourish itself.

The Prahlada Myth

Now, what other myths are important? I refer frequently to a book written about 15 years ago by Poling and Kenney about the Hare Krishna Personality Type. This is a little book of research based on subjecting devotees from a number of different temples to various psychographic and personality tests. Though its scope is limited, it was interesting to me that the authors (as external observers) pointed to the Nrisingha-Prahlada myth as being of dominant significance in the minds of their respondents. For me, after years of concentration on Radha and Krishna, this observation startled me, as did their discovery that a high percentage of devotees belonged to a single category of personality type.

The Bhagavatam is a wonderful piece of literature, one of India's greatest contributions to world literature, even though in a category of its own. How many different myths there are in that book, tied up with cryptic philosophical discourses and simple exhortations to worship the Lord. In some ways it is comparable to the Bible. A successful religion usually has an encyclopedic selection of myths, some of which can take a central place or be reshaped to suit historical needs, and others that are supplementary and usually have a single moral or didactic purpose. For a Christian, the Christ myth of sacrifice and redemption predominates, but he may "top up" his needs with other stories of significance from the Old or New Testament, like those of Job, Moses, Jacob, or Joseph, to name a few popular ones. And in some cases, those may even take precedence.

Similarly, ISKCON devotees top up their Prabhupada myth with other stories. At that particular moment when Poling and Kenney were doing their research, the Prahlada story meant a lot to many ISKCON devotees, probably because the majority of them were still young and actively rebellious against their parents and society.

Now, I don't think that it is particularly fruitful to debate whether the story of Prahlada and Nrisingha is a "true" story or not. It is important to us because we can identify with Prahlada, a young child  rebelling against his powerful but evil father and his society of asuras and who was in constant danger of being squashed by that unforgiving entity. With the dramatic personality of Nrisingha and the riddle of Brahma's blessing, the story can be told with great effect even in the modern world, but as myth, not history.

The moral is simple: the protection of Nrisingha will see us through. We don't have to believe the story literally, the moral of the story is what we need to believe: That in the service of Truth, Truth will serve the server and protect him against all the dangers of falsehood and evil. Satyam eva jayate. This is an idealistic statement that is completely unverifiable; indeed, in reality, we more often experience the opposite. Bad things do happen to good people, strong believers. The moral universe has to be believed in; the evildoers more often escape punishment and their victims find no succor. They barely can survive to tell their story. Indeed, it is just as likely that we will succumb to torture and not be protected from evil in the way Prahlada was, should we even find the courage to resist it in the way that he did. Thousands of examples of religious or other kinds of martyrs can be found in the pages of history. If we expect that in a situation similar to Prahlada's that a Nrisingha Deva will come flying out of a pillar to save us from the Hiranyakashipus of this world, we may be in for a big disappointment.

The point is that the myth expresses an ideal truth that as such is not empirically verifiable, or even expected to be. It is meant to inspire us to take shelter in the Truth and to resist succumbing to social or parental pressure to compromise with evil, and above all to have faith in the protection of God. Just see how nicely the Prahlada story fits in with and tops up our personal myths. We model our personal story on his through identification, and "incarnate" the Truth of the myth through faith.

Now, the problem with myths arises when we feel obliged to believe in their historical truth before we can believe in the lesson that is being taught. Someone in this position is generally at a lower level of spiritual maturity, because his faith will be lost whenever Nrisingha does not come roaring out of the pillar to physically, dramatically, and ferociously destroy evil and protect his devotee from it. Because such a devotee believes literally, he expects it to manifest literally.

Meaning and myth

Viktor Frankl, the author of Man in Search of Meaning, died in Vienna yesterday at 92 years of age. He lived in an age when the philosophy of the absurd was particularly alive. He himself was a survivor of four years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps and had a lot of insight into what keeps people alive in the most trying of circumstances. Basically, he said that it is meaning. Without meaning, there is no point in living. That is Thanatos, tamo-guna. This is generally where we were before Srila Prabhupada gave meaning to our lives. This is why I continue to pay my heartfelt obeisances to his lotus feet.

Troubles arise when our myths cease to have meaning. When the myths of America and Christianity ceased to resonate with us, we were, knowingly or unknowingly, on the search for a new myth, a new story that would give meaning to our lives. But most myths have a "sell-by" date. They need to be refreshed by new insights and religious experiences that lead to a new level of maturity. St. Paul said to "put away the things of a child." And, quite frankly, many myths are childish in the sense that when their purpose is served, they can be put aside only to be told to the next generation of children for their use. Here it is no accident that Prahlad is a child.

Once we have internalized the dimension of śaraṇāgati that is "seeing the Lord as one's protector," we can dispense with any literal sense of the myth, retaining perhaps some affection for that form of the Lord, the affection a parent has for Santa Claus, for instance, when having children of that age.

It is quite likely that those who were new devotees in 1980 took some comfort from the Prahlad story to see them through there dramatic decision to become Hare Krishnas in a pretty hostile environment, but it is just as likely that they are less concerned with it today. We might say they have grown out of it. This is why I say that it is a naimittika myth, one that serves a specific purpose. The highest and most central myths in a tradition are nitya. Although some devotees seem to be a little confused about which myth that is, it is clearly the cycle of myths surrounding Radha and Krishna, and I would even go so far as to say that it is the Gita-govinda, but we have discussed that elsewhere, so I won't talk about it here.

Again, the problem arises when our belief in the content of a myth is dependent on its historical veracity. Certainly, for most people the content of the Prahlada myth does not depend on our belief in its truth as a historical fact; the inability to distinguish myth from fact is a characteristic of the child. So the first position, separating the content of a myth from its historicity is an important step in rationalization (I here use the term in its primary and not its psychological sense.).

Nevertheless, Nrishingha Deva can still be seen as a real entity, not just as a symbol of God's protection for his devotee. In other words, the scriptural truth is that if Nrishingha is the form of God that attracts you and to which you are devoted, then God will indeed manifest in that form for you, internally, and even externally. Your devotion will make him real. That is the power of myth, and that is how bhakti works.

In the infinity of possibilities that are open to the Supreme Truth, there can be no separation of symbol from reality. But symbols should also be scaled according to their meaningfulness, for which William James' "The Will to Believe" is a very helpful starting point.

See also: Service to Radha-Krishna is our ultimate concern.


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