Society is Defined by Heroes

In the previous post, I alluded to the idea that society is built on the stories of heroes, which are produced through a combination of two of the six qualities—knowledge and fame—of Lord Viṣṇu. These heroes can be famed due to other five qualities—i.e. knowledge, renunciation, power, wealth, and beauty. Thus, a hero combines at least three qualities of God (e.g. knowledge, fame, and beauty), and heroes could have all six qualities of God. Every society has some heroic stories that children grow up hearing, and which become their ideals in life. These stories acquire mythic proportions, and no society is free of such mythology. In fact, as I will argue in this post, society is defined by such stories. Every society needs heroes, and societies can only be transformed by changing their heroes.

The Story of Shravan Kumar

There is a beautiful story in the Ramāyāna concerning a young man named Shravan Kumar who is devoted to his parents. Both of Shravan’s parents are blind and cannot take care of themselves; they depend exclusively on Shravan for their day-to-day needs. One day, the parents tell Shravan that they are now getting very old and they might die at any time. Before they die, they want to go on a pilgrimage. Since they are blind and old, they cannot walk great distances. Therefore, Shravan creates a carrier for his parents out of two wooden hampers (commonly made out of dry wooden sticks). He makes his two parents sit on the two hampers and carries them to numerous places of pilgrimage.

During the travel to places of pilgrimage, Shravan comes to a place near Ayodhya, which was at that time ruled by King Daśaratha—the father of Lord Rama. Shravan’s parents are thirsty, and it is rather late in the night. They ask Shravan to find some water for them, and Shravan goes looking for water, finds the river Sarayu and starts filling a pot with water. While Shravan is filling his water pot, King Daśaratha is out hunting. He hears the gurgling of the water pot that Shravan is filling and thinks that it must be an animal drinking water from the river; he shoots an arrow in the dark, which hits Shravan, who cries in pain.

On hearing the cries of a human being, King Daśaratha is shocked because he intended to kill an animal, not a human being. He runs in the direction where he had shot the arrow only to find Shravan lying in a pool of blood. Shravan tells the King that his parents are waiting for him to return with water, and the King must give them the pot filled with water and tell them about their son’s demise. Shravan then dies. With deep remorse, King Daśaratha finds Shravan’s parents, gives them water, and then informs them of the accidental death of their son. Both parents are struck by grief and decide to give up their lives, as there is no one left to take care of them. Before leaving their bodies, they tell King Daśaratha, that he too will die out of separation from his beloved son—which eventually comes true when Lord Rama is sent to the forest for fourteen years to fulfill His stepmother’s request.

The Importance of Heroic Stories

I narrate this story here because I grew up listening to it during childhood, and it had a deep impact on me; Shravan Kumar was considered a hero who had devoted his life to the service of his parents and died in that effort. I wasn’t alone because this was a common story that many children heard from their parents or grandparents, and it indicated the importance society attributed to the care of the elderly. The moral of the story was that young people must take care of the family elders, rather than leave them alone.

Every society feeds stories to its people, particularly during their childhood. These stories are about two classes of individuals—which we broadly call heroes and villains. By defining the traits of heroes and villains, society defines how it expects its members to behave ideally, and what it doesn’t want its members to do. Once these stories are set, they acquire mythic status, and men or women are elevated to heroes and villains.

A modern example of such a story is the American Dream which represents the idea that a common man can become rich, successful, and famous through the sheer dint of hard work and brilliance. John D. Rockefeller is one of the earliest people who epitomized this dream; he grew up in rather difficult conditions but through a combination of hard work and guile became the world’s richest man. Andrew Carnegie is another early example of such cult status because he too grew up in impoverished conditions and rose to be extremely rich, and philanthropic. In recent times, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have attained mythic and cult status by giving up education to pursue their personal dreams. The business and technology world tells their stories over and over; their lives are taught in entrepreneur schools as case studies.

All societies are built on stories of great highs and immense lows. We cannot change society without changing their stories. In fact, you cannot even transform your life without the story of a role model or hero, who you are going to follow. If you haven’t heard of great stories, or you were never inspired by such stories, your life is probably insipid. Everyone who is leading an inspired life has a role model or a hero.

Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes

Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychiatrist, wrote extensively about the collective unconscious—which, for him, epitomized the collection of widespread ideas such as Mother Earth, Wise Old Man, the Tree of Life, etc. which Jung called archetypes. The term “archetype” has its roots in Greek, where the root word archein means “original” and the root word typos means “type”. The word “archetypes” therefore means the “original types”, from which other similar persons, objects, or modified archetypes can be derived.

One of his key archetypes is the division of myths into heroes and villains.

The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious. [“The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” Jung, Carl. Collected Works 9i, par. 284.]

Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterward that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain.” [“The Conjunction,” Jung, Carl. Collected Works 14, par. 756.]

The hero symbolizes a man’s unconscious self, and this manifests itself empirically as the sum total of all archetypes and therefore includes the archetype of the father and of the wise old man. To that extent, the hero is his own father and his own begetter. [“The Dual Mother,” Jung, Carl. Collected Works 5, par. 516.]

One of the most interesting aspects of Jung’s work is that nearly all archetypes are personalities rather than non-living things or impersonal ideas. This is a significant departure from Greek philosophy which viewed the original ideas impersonally as static forms in a Platonic world. It is also a significant departure from Freudian psychology which viewed the human mind as pervaded by lust and sex, rather than some original ideas such as the “Great Mother” or “Great Father” which rule our conscious thinking.

Archetypes – The Basis of Social Organization

Personalizing abstract ideas into forms that live in our minds collectively as heroes of ideal behavior is Jung’s significant contribution. However, Jung did not explore the implications of archetypes on the formation of society itself.

While Jung recognized that all societies have archetypes, he did not go far enough to describe the structure of the society (e.g. whether society is classful or classless), the kinds of activities and moralities that occur in that society, its general direction over time, and it’s values that in turn dictate what the society considers lawfully acceptable behavior, are all dictated by archetypes. I will make that claim here.

That claim rests on the premise that while each society carries many archetypes, only some of these are elevated to heroic status. For example, “The Girl Next Door” is an archetype in many societies that symbolizes simplicity, dutifulness, and honesty, with a warm, charming persona. Similarly, “The Eternal Explorer” is an archetype in many places, and symbolizes a person who is unprepared for a commitment, who doesn’t want to take responsibility, who cannot settle down, is always bored, and seeking a thrill, and fears getting trapped into social conformities. In most “progressive” societies, “The Eternal Explorer” is often idolized but “The Girl Next Door” is not. Conversely, in most “conservative” societies, “The Girl Next Door” is idolized while “The Eternal Explorer” is frowned upon.

“Progressive” and “conservative” societies, therefore, have different role models. Similarly, the East and the West have different heroes. The materialists and the spiritualists worship different idols. And each race and nation eulogize different stars. The reason is that society cannot exist without leaders who symbolize the ideal values of their system.

Leadership and the Structure of Society

There cannot be a society without a “god” or “gods” who embody and personalize its morality, behavior, and norms. Whenever society lacks heroes, role models, idols, and stars, it will decay and will be decimated by another society that has stronger heroes, because that hero will energize, motivate, inspire, and encourage other people to be like him or her. The strength of a society is therefore in the strength of its leaders.

In Vedic philosophy, God is the center of society because He is the hero, the role model, the icon, the idol, and the star. He is worshiped just like ordinary icons, idols, and stars are worshiped. The sign of the hero is that he is a winner—he fights the demons and slays the evil. He is the light that dissipates the darkness. The Christian distinction between God and evil exists in Vedic philosophy as Īśvara and māyā. God or Īśvara is the hero, while māyā is the devil; ironically, though, māyā is not truly “fighting” God; rather māyā creates the circumstances in which God can play the role of the great hero. Every hero needs a villain; in the material world, therefore, māyā is the villain to make God the hero.

The center of the world is light and the edge of the world is darkness; everything in between is society. In Vedic cosmology, the universe is divided into two parts—loka (the lighted part) and āloka (the dark part). Between the loka and āloka lies the lokāloka boundary. Every part of the loka world is considered to have a society or social organization. The world beyond the lokāloka boundary has no society. This means that social living beings don’t exist there because there is no role model, idol, or hero, who can provide inspiration to the common living entities by which they can be organized.

It also means that as we move farther and farther from the center—i.e. the hero or the icon who settles norms of ideal behavior—there comes a point at which we become “free radicals” who have no aim or purpose in life. Without a center that holds us together, we roam the material world aimlessly, looking for that hero whom we can follow, because by following that hero, our life too would become meaningful and not purposeless.

The Strength and Longevity of Societies

Many people in modern times believe that the powers of nations and societies are based on their economics, military might, intellectual abilities, or their racial superiority. This is not true. The strength and longevity of a society depend on the stature of its heroes. If people lose faith in their heroes, then everything—economics, military might, intellect, or racial superiority—will eventually collapse. The smart tacticians, therefore, work not on hurting a society’s economy or military, but to discredit their heroes. Once people lose their heroes, they will roam aimlessly without a vision, looking for a new hero.

Conversely, those aiming to build a new society must aspire to create new role models and icons. A society cannot be organized simply by the strength of power, wealth, renunciation, and beauty—the other qualities which also pervade the world (and which we often consider to be the main ingredients of success). Rather, we require the quality of heroism or leadership, by which a center is created. This heroism or leadership is the idea of goodness or morality that creates trust in society. Leaders are those that most people can trust; society disintegrates when it loses trust in its leadership.

The modern world of democracy is built on the rejection of the Divine Rights of the Kings. The basic premise is that nobody is a leader by default, and leaders will automatically emerge from society. This is not a bad idea, except that society must stress the creation of moral leadership for setting examples that other people can follow. If the leaders become corrupt, the people will lose faith in their leadership and seek other leaders. The old leaders can survive for some time based on the strength of wealth, power, renunciation, or beauty, but they cannot survive for long without goodness.

The Absolute Truth vs. The Hero

With the above background on heroism and leadership, I will now turn to the discussion of these ideas in the context of Vedic philosophy and relate it to the six qualities discussed previously. Śrīla Prabhupāda opens the Śrimad Bhāgavatam with a stunning introduction:

The conception of God and the conception of Absolute Truth are not on the same level. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam hits on the target of the Absolute Truth. The conception of God indicates the controller, whereas the conception of the Absolute Truth indicates the summum bonum or the ultimate source of all energies. There is no difference of opinion about the personal feature of God as the controller because a controller cannot be impersonal. Of course, modern government, especially democratic government, is impersonal to some extent, but ultimately the chief executive head is a person, and the impersonal feature of government is subordinate to the personal feature. So without a doubt whenever we refer to control over others we must admit the existence of a personal feature. Because there are different controllers for different managerial positions, there may be many small gods. According to the Bhagavad-gītā, any controller who has some specific extraordinary power is called a vibhūtimat sattva, or controller empowered by the Lord. There are many vibhūtimat sattvas, controllers or gods with various specific powers, but the Absolute Truth is one without a second. This Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam designates the Absolute Truth or the summum bonum as the paraṁ satyam.

This introduction is amazing for several reasons. First, the distinction between Absolute Truth (knowledge) from Īśvara (God) is amazing because it distinguishes Vedic philosophy from other religions; God is the supreme controller in other religions; however, knowledge is the supreme basis from which everything is created in Vedic philosophy. Second, the comparison of controllers to a government, the relation to various demigods—talking about an earthly and cosmic society—and then going back to the absolute knowledge as the summum bonum, indicates how pervasive this idea is: it exists not just spiritually but also as the principle of control here.

The Absolute Truth contains every quality. The Īśvara is the yashasvi or the famous who is the hero, the leader, the icon, or the star, who takes the role of the central controller. But the hero follows the Absolute Truth. In other words, God as the supreme controller is not the original personality. Rather, the supreme controller is the first and the most ideal manifestation or incarnation of the original person.

The Absolute Truth is Godhead. The Īśvara who follows from this Absolute Truth is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Absolute Truth is the “original idea” and Īśvara is the “best idea”. The “original idea” is the source of all ideas, but only one of these ideas is the best idea. The Absolute Truth, therefore, manifests many ideas, beginning with the best idea. This can be further illustrated by an example.

Think of the idea of a “car”, using which many cars are produced. Some cars have big engines, and others have big tires. Some guzzle a lot of gasoline, while others run very slowly. All such cars which go to extremes in order to improve one particular feature, end up compromising other features. For example, a car that runs too fast is also uneconomical while it is running slowly. That car which can transport a lot of people will occupy a lot of space even when it is carrying a few passengers. Out of these numerous possible cars, there is one perfect car, which balances all the opposites. Such a car is not too big and not too small; it is not too fast, and also not very uneconomical. While other cars may excel in one feature or another, they would be missing the other features which are evident in the perfect car. This perfect car is the icon for every other car to emulate. For example, the goal for every fast car designer would be to economize its fuel consumption, while the goal for every fuel-efficient car would be to increase its speed.

In the same way, knowledge is the basis of all that is produced. But the first thing to be produced from this knowledge is the perfect thing. By manifesting the perfect thing, the original thing sets the example of ideality, before it creates non-ideal things. In SB 1.1.2, the words vāstavam atra vastu śivadaṁ are used; vāstav vastu means the “real thing”, and śivadaṁ means the provider of goodness. The Absolute Truth is the “real thing”, and the perfect instance is goodness. Thus, the first thing to emerge from the “real thing” is the ideal state.

A Brief Description of Vedic Theology

The Vedic texts describe how Kṛṣṇa is everything that exists or sat. He has an “elder brother” called Balarama—who is the chit. And Kṛṣṇa lives for the enjoyment of pleasure—Hara. Balarama is the “elder brother” of Kṛṣṇa because chit is higher than sat. As we have seen earlier, the chit creates the external personality of the soul, but Kṛṣṇa is different from this externally visible personality. Kṛṣṇa is instead defined by His individuality—i.e. the desire for pleasure, which is internal—which is also called Hara.

The chit or Balarama represents the original idea. From this original idea, a perfect idea called Saṅkarṣaṇa is created—and he is the famous hero. From Saṅkarṣaṇa, four other forms called Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha are created. They are respectively the embodiment of wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation. Vasudeva has Lakshmi as His consort, who is the Goddess of wealth. Saṅkarṣaṇa is the embodiment of all power. Pradyumna is the most beautiful and therefore the cupid. Aniruddha is the most renounced; He, therefore, stands solitary as a mark of that renunciation.

The four forms of God—Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha—are the four aspects of the chaturvyūha, denoting the four different qualities (wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation) of God. There is another Saṅkarṣaṇa situated in the middle of this square—as the best and most famous leader. He rules the other four corners not just because he can acquire power, wealth, beauty, or renunciation, but because He has the moral authority based on goodness, perfection, or śivadaṁ. Saṅkarṣaṇa in the middle is, therefore, the most powerful, although his power is not strength, but heroism.

Implications for Social Organization

Like the archetypes in Jung’s theories, the forms of knowledge, fame, wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation, are all persons. There is also a hierarchy in the forms which represents the order in which they are manifest: knowledge precedes the rest, fame follows knowledge and creates the perfect and most famous person, from this fame four qualities, are successively created—wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation. This hierarchy of qualities has some important implications for social organization.

For instance, it means that the leaders in society cannot be selected based on wealth, power, or beauty unless they have moral heroism—i.e. the conviction to use their will to fight evil. Other attributes such as wealth, power, and beauty, come from moral heroism. And once the hero has acquired all kinds of qualities, he can also stand detached from each one of them. The key point is that being a yashasvi who slays dragons and conquers evil is more important than wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation. And even more important than being the hero is being knowledgeable. Thus, a leader is defined first by knowledge, then by the desire to conquer evil, then by capabilities such as wealth, power, beauty, and renunciation, which act as assistants in the battle against evil.

At the present moment, most leaders are elected due to wealth, power, and beauty. Some are even elected due to poverty and being deprived. They are not true heroes and they don’t represent goodness because they have no will to battle evil and deliver justice in society. Furthermore, they have very little knowledge to distinguish good from evil.

The Varṇa System of Social Organization

In Vedic social organization, knowledge is imparted by the Brahmana, the Kshatriya are the heroes who lead the battle against evil and deliver justice, the Vaisya are owners of wealth, power, and beauty, while the Sudra engage in labor and toil. Society is thus divided into four main classes as parts of a single body that must function as a whole.

The Kshatriya follow the Brahmana because they provide the discrimination between good and bad. The Vaisya follow the Kshatriya because they understand that a glorious leader is needed to run society—be the moral example and fight the injustices. The Sudra work for the Vaisya because they have wealth, power, and beauty. In today’s time, knowledge and heroism have disappeared—thereby eliminating the Brahmana and Kshatriya. There are a few owners of all the wealth, power, and beauty—we consider these Vaisyas the leaders of society—which constitute about 1% of the population. The remaining 99% of the population is workers or Sudra.

The Vedic Varṇa system is not an archaic social structure. Neither is this structure just a material principle of organizing society. Rather, the Varṇa system is the most scientific method of organizing society, and its structure is based on the different qualities and forms of Lord Viṣṇu. By imbibing this structure, human society can be modeled after the spiritual society. But if we don’t understand the scientific theory underlying the six qualities, how the qualities are related to the others, or lack the knowledge that the world is built from transcendent qualities, then we will keep trying atheistic, impersonal, and ultimately ignorant models that are widely prevalent today.

The atheistic models appear sweet in the beginning as they are based on the idea that everyone is free, that there is no authority to judge our actions, and that we are the masters of creating our own destinies. But very soon we find that everyone has their own version of the truth, right, and good, everyone is using their free will in whatever way they want, and everybody insists on not being judged by others. Such a society results in disorganization and the quest for truly heroic leaders. The merits of a system are known by the demerits of the alternative.

Society Needs Knowledge and Heroes

Every society is built upon the stories of heroes. However, the ideal society is built upon those stories, which are in turn built on true knowledge. The tree of Vedic literature is hence organized with śruti as the true knowledge and smṛti as the stories based on this knowledge. The śruti is the philosophical basis of the world—i.e. the Absolute Truth. The smṛti represents the perfect incarnation or example of that Absolute Truth. The śruti are meant for the highest class of people—the Brahmana—in society. The smṛti are the real-world practical guides and examples for the other three classes—Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. Both philosophy and heroic stories are needed today.

By listening to the smṛti such as Śrimad Bhāgavatam we can find the lives of heroes to be emulated. By listening to the śruti such as Bhagavad-Gita we can find the philosophical foundations on which we can understand why these stories are perfect and therefore worthy of emulation. The narrations of Śrimad Bhāgavatam are the stories of heroes, and the philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita is true knowledge.