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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Myth does it better: the Parade of Ants

Shiva Nataraja – Lord of the Dance
In the last posting I wrote in the Illusion, truth and reality series, I tried to indicate how myth could be a better form of transmitting truth than preaching. It tells a story – and we all love a story. It doesn't have to be dogmatic, and it uses exactly the same method as the great religious teachers such as Jesus and the Buddha used – parable and metaphor. 

This is an example from the Hindu tradition, which tells its greatest truths in epic myths – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in particular. This myth comes from an excerpt from the wonderful book by Heinrich Zimmer (Joseph Campbell, ed.): Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. I gave it to my students in Indian history every year, and always had my suspicions that I could have graded them on their reaction to it.

Here's the story.

The Parade of Ants

The endless cycle of Indras

Indra slew the dragon, a giant titan that had been couching on the mountains in the limbless shape of a cloud serpent, holding the waters of heaven captive in its belly.

   The god flung his thunderbolt into the midst of the ungainly coils; the monster shattered like a stack of withered rushes. The waters burst free and streamed in ribbons across the land, to circulate once more throughout the body of the world.

   This flood is the flood of life and belongs to all. It is the sap of field and forest, the blood coursing in the veins. The monster had appropriated the common benefit, massing his ambitious, selfish hulk between heaven and earth, but now was slain. The juices again were pouring. The titans were retreating to the underworlds; the gods were returning to the summit of the central mountain of the earth, there to reign from on high. ...

   [Indra] summoned Vishvakarman, the god of arts and crafts, and commanded him to erect such a palace as would be worthy of the king of the gods. The miraculous genius, Vishvakarman, succeeded in constructing in a single year a shining residence, marvellous with palaces and gardens, lakes and towers.

   But as work progressed, the demands of Indra became even more exacting and his unfolding visions vaster. ... he developed visions beyond visions of new and more complicated marvels. Presently the divine craftsman, brought to despair, decided to seek succour from [the creator god, Brahma].

   [Brahma assured Vishvakarman that he would soon be relieved of his burden.]

The brahmin boy

The next morning, a brahmin boy carrying the staff of a pilgrim appeared at the gate of Indra. ... The two retired to the hall of Indra, where the king asked: "O venerable Boy, tell me the purpose of your coming."

   The beautiful child replied with a voice that was as deep and soft as the slow thundering of auspicious rainclouds. "O King of Gods, I have heard of the mighty palace you are building, and have come to refer to you the questions in my mind. ... no Indra before you has ever succeeded in completing such a palace as yours is to be."

   Indra, full of the wine of triumph, is amused at the mere boy's pretension to a knowledge of Indras earlier than himself. "Tell me, Child! Are they then so very many, the Indras and Vishvakarmans whom you have seen - or at least, whom you have heard of?"... [The boy says he knew Indra's father, Kashyapa, the old Tortoise man, and his grandfather, ... son of Brahma. ..]

   "Oh King of Gods, I have known the dreadful dissolution of the universe. I have seen all perish, again and again, at the end of every cycle. At that terrible time, every single atom dissolves into the primal, pure waters of eternity, whence originally all arose. Everything then goes back into the fathomless, wild infinity of the ocean, which is covered with utter darkness and is empty of every sign of animate being.

   Ah, who will count the universes that have passed away, or the creations that have risen afresh, again and again, from the formless abyss of the vast waters? Who will number the passing ages of the world, as they follow each other endlessly? And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva?

   Who count the Indras in them all - those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds; those others who passed away before them; or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given line, ascending to godly kingship, one by one, and, one by one, passing away?

   King of Gods, there are among your servants certain who maintain that it may be possible to number the grains of sand on earth and the drops of rain that fall from the sky, but no one will ever number all those Indras. This is what the Knowers know."

A procession of ants

[The boy continued to speak in this manner while, meanwhile,] a procession of ants had made its appearance in the hall. In military array, in a column four yards wide, the tribe paraded across the floor. [This sight set the holy child laughing. At Indra's stammering request, he explains his action]:

   "I laughed because of the ants. The reason is not to be told. Do not ask me to disclose it. The seed of woe and the fruit of wisdom are enclosed within this secret. It is the secret that smites with an axe the tree of worldly vanity, hews away at its roots, and scatters its crown. This secret is a lamp to those groping in ignorance. This secret lies buried in the wisdom of the ages, and is rarely revealed even to saints. This secret is the living air of those ascetics who renounce and transcend mortal existence; but worldlings, deluded by desire and pride, it destroys."

   The boy smiled and sank into silence. Indra regarded him, unable to move. "O Son of a Brahmin," the king pleaded presently, with a new and visible humility, "I do not know who you are. You would seem to be Wisdom Incarnate. Reveal to me this secret of the ages, this light that dispels the dark."

   Thus requested to teach, the boy opened to Indra the hidden wisdom. "I saw the ants, O Indra, filing in long parade. Each was once an Indra like you, each by virtue of pious deeds once ascended to the rank of a king of gods. But now, through many rebirths, each has become again an ant.

   This army is an army of former Indras. "Piety and high deeds elevate the inhabitants of the world to the glorious realm of the celestial mansions, or to the higher domains of Brahma and Shiva and to the highest sphere of Vishnu; but wicked acts sink them into the worlds beneath, into pits of pain and sorrow.

   It is by deeds that one merits happiness or anguish, and becomes a master or a serf. It is by deeds that one attains to the rank of a king or Brahmin, or of some god or of an Indra or a Brahma. And through deeds again, one contracts disease, acquires beauty and deformity, or is reborn in the condition of a monster. "This is the whole substance of the secret. This wisdom is the ferry to beatitude across the ocean of hell." 

   Life in the cycle of the countless rebirths is like a vision in a dream. The gods on high, the mute trees and the stones, are alike apparitions in this phantasy. But Death administers the law of Time. Ordained by Time, Death is the master of all. Perishable as bubbles are the good and the evil of the beings of the dream. In unending cycles the good and evil alternate.

   Hence, the wise are attached to neither, neither the evil nor the good. The wise are not attached to anything at all." The boy concluded the appalling lesson and quietly regarded his host. The king of gods, for all his celestial splendor, had been reduced in his own regard to insignificance.

The old hermit 

The Chinese equivalent
Meanwhile another amazing apparition had entered the hall. [An old hermit, his head piled with matted hair] strode directly to Indra, squatted on the floor, and remained motionless as a rock. [When asked, he says to Indra:]

   "Each flicker of the eyelids of the great Vishnu registers the passing of a Brahma. Everything below that sphere of Brahma is as insubstantial as a cloud taking shape and again dissolving."... Abruptly the holy man vanished.

   It had been the God Shiva himself. Simultaneously, the brahmin boy, who had been Vishnu, disappeared as well.

   The king was alone, baffled and amazed. Indra pondered; and the events seemed to him to have been a dream. But he no longer felt any desire to magnify his heavenly splendour or to go on with the construction of his palace.

   He summoned Vishvakarman. Graciously greeting the craftsman with honeyed words, he heaped on him jewels and precious gifts, then, with a sumptuous celebration, sent him home.

   Indra now desired redemption. He had acquired wisdom, and wished only to be free. He entrusted the pomp and burden of his office to his son, and prepared to retire to the hermit life of the wilderness, whereupon his beautiful and passionate queen, Shachi, was overcome with grief.

   Weeping in sorrow and utter despair, Shachi resorted to Indra's ingenious house priest and spiritual advisor, the Lord of Magic Wisdom, Brihaspati. Bowing at his feet, she implored him to divert her husband's mind from its stern resolve. The resourceful counsellor of the gods... listened thoughtfully to the complaint of the voluptuous, disconsolate goddess, and knowingly nodded assent. 

   With a wizard's smile, he took her hand and conducted her to the presence of her spouse. In the role of spiritual teacher, he discoursed on the virtues of the spiritual life, but on the virtues also, of the secular. He gave to each its due. 

   [Indra ought not to abandon his life, but he most certainly ought to keep the endless cycles of the universe in mind in order to have the proper humility and perspective regarding his works in life.

   The vision of the countless universes bubbling into existence side by side, and the lesson of the unending series of Indras and Brahmas would have annihilated every value of individual existence. Between this boundless, breathtaking vision and the opposite problem of the limited role of the short-lived individual, the myth effected the re-establishment of a balance.

   Brihaspati, wisdom incarnate, teaches Indra how to grant to each sphere its due. We are taught to recognize the divine, the impersonal sphere of eternity, revolving ever and agelessly through time. But we are also taught to esteem the transient sphere of the duties and the pleasures of individual existence, which is as real and as vital to the living human as a dream is to the sleeping soul.]

It doesn't matter if you have problems with the notion of reincarnation, or a profusion of gods. All that's needed is to stand back from the story, and draw out its essential message[s]. 

   That's the beauty of myth. It talks to us at our own level of understanding, and this changes with time and experience of the world. But what we must not do is to treat the myth as historical fact, and defend it word for word as if it were.

Tandava: Shiva's Cosmic Dance p. 151-155
My thanks to the author of a review of Zimmer's book for excerpts, some of which I have corrected. As he is using an invisible page I presume he does not want to be acknowledged. I will happily do so if he wishes.


  1. I am not commenting on this myth as such. It seems very complex and I must read it again. But I am very interested that it, like so many others, seems to begin with a serpent. The biblical one comes to mind and that wonderful aboriginal rainbow serpent. (I certainly I don't wish to go all Lacanian about it.) There must be something that creates a common thread. I find snakes quite interesting but unlike dragons, lions or crocodiles they seem somewhat lacking in grandeur for such a big role in mythology.
    But then ants are very non grand except in large masses! Anne P.

    1. The snake in South and SE Asian myth is not so sinister as the one in the Abrahamic religions. The naga features throughout the region, often positively. It is also the mount of Vishnu [appropriated from those earlier Aryan stories].

  2. Good point Anne. Has made me think about the symbolism of serpents - but also reminds me of seeing a fully grown black cobra in a South Indian zoo.It certainly had grandeur in a very mysterious and terrifying sense!! And I quite like snakes.Perhaps the mysterious quality is what makes them so prominent in mythology, and their silence. You'd know if a lion was under your bed or in your ceiling:)They can go everywhere, and they shed their skin, renewing (reincarnating?) themselves, part of the great cycle of the cosmos. Then of course they are associated with sexuality, potency, the origins of things. In India they are considered sacred, so that anyone who dies of cobra poison is said to have overcome all their karma. They are one category of the dead who are 'purified' enough to be given to the Ganga (river,or any waters, where all bodies are sent) without even having to be cremated.

    Now let's think about the rest of this wonderful story!

    Julie M

    1. The snake in South and SE Asian myth and culture is not sinister in the way it is in the Abrahamic religions. The naga [snake deity] features throughout. It is also the mount of Vishnu [appropriated from those earlier Aryan stories].

      Just going on from my brief comment to Anne: cobras are magnificent, and it's no surprise to see the 7+-headed one guarding Vishnu, or his resting on the coils of the serpent Shesha [I'd imagine that to be quite soft and comfortable!] – even Vishnu arranging for the Buddha to be protected by the serpent [a nice attempt to pull Buddhism back under Hinduism's mantle].

      They also don't cremate those few regarded as specially holy or wise. Nitya told me that non-cremation was to be his fate when he died. He wasn't enthusiastic about that.

      Nitya was one of the most remarkable people I ever met in my life. "Science is to help us avoid the folly of putting our trust in nonsense" was but one of his aphorisms.

      I stray from the point.

  3. Since my mother's recent death and the sorting out of her house/her life, I've been feeling much as Indra did when he realised that building a fancy palace is pointless, and is not what matters. Life is so short (but we are still obliged to make money and behave 'normally' in society:)) That can be such a pleasure and such a great learning, too,but it's so easy to think it is all there is.

    The boy's being Shiva in disguise is another great lesson. Someone said to me once, imagine if anyone you see, on a train or at your workplace, is actually Jesus, but you don't realise it. It makes for a really confronting and fascinating exercise!!

    Julie M

    1. You're messin' with ma mind, Julie!

    2. I'll take that as a compliment:) It's good when we have to refresh our thinking in some way -we have such accustomed responses to most situations/ideas that we forget to see life anew.

      see you soon I hope
      Julie xx

  4. The Hindu Myth of Marandeya greatly appeals to me. I think I read it in one of O'Flaherty's books, but I can't find it now so my account will lose its poetic quality. Marandeya somehow slips out through the mouth of sleeping Vishnu and the world disappears. He then falls back into the mouth of sleeping Vishnu and the world reappears. He cannot figure out which experience was a dream.

    On the serpent. The serpent in the Biblical account is not entirely negative. God has told Adam and Eve that if they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, they will die. Eve has a little chat with the serpent at the foot of the tree, and he persuades her to try the fruit anyway, and that God is wrong. So she eats and doesn't die. The serpent tells her that God lied.

    The serpent seems to know more than the Semitic God, and this, I believe was a big problem for the early Biblical writers. Surrounded by snake cults delivering oracles (Pythia) and eternal life (Utnapishtam of the Gilgamesh story), the Hebrews wrested control by demonising the snake. Supernatural knowledge, often the perogative of women in the ancient world, became verboten, and punishable by symbolic death and banishment from God's garden. Only the male Semitic God had the truth, and certainly women's traditional connection to the spiritual world was to be discredited.

    That's my take on it, anyway. Take back the serpent along with the night.

    1. Interesting problem with words once again.... God's warning I took to mean that Adam and Eve would become mortal if they disobeyed God i.e., they would die, eventually. The serpent must have been persuasive if they swallowed the line that it meant they'd drop dead practically on the spot. Or does it mean that they weren't too clever at detecting deceit? After all their only conversations had been with God, who never lied.

      I do think the Adam/Eve myth, every bit as powerful as if taken literally, is intended to put women in their place – the one clearly expounded in all the Semitic literature from the Old Testament through to Christianity and Islam.

  5. Whether God lied or not has become a topic of Theological discussion, and of course, the Christian Theologians concluded that He did not, and that the death was spiritual or metaphorical rather than physical. Of course, the origin of physical death is also implied, blaming women, as usual.

    What's more interesting about this story is that, like the Flood myth, it has its roots in a far older, Sumerian myth. This one's about the goddess Ninhursaga and her husband, Enki.

    Ninhursaga has a garden in which she has 7 trees, which she prizes. One day, while she's away, Enki eats all her trees. When she returns and sees what he's done, she's furious.

    Enki, having eaten these fertile trees, begins to grow bigger with pregnancy. Because he does not have a vagina, he cannot give birth. Ninhursaga refuses to help him, cursing him with death.

    But a little fox runs to the Council of the Gods, telling them of Enki's plight. They order Ninhursaga to help Enki, so she obeys reluctantly. With her help, Enki gives birth to 7 goddesses out of 7 parts of his body. Out of his rib, he gives birth to the Goddess of Life. Eve in Hebrew means "living" or the "mother of all living", something like that.

    In the end, everyone is happy. Ninhursaga has her 7 goddesses, Enki lives and reconciles with his wife, and life in the garden goes on.

    Now what version would you choose for a foundation myth?


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