Article: Conflict and Resolution in the Myths of Oedipus and Brahma

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Conflict and Resolution in the Myths of Oedipus and Brahma

A reflection of their respective world views

The deep recesses of the human psyche are replete with unconscious memories that seem to dictate lifestyles and destinies, at a collective level


The Hindu version of the Oedipal myth does not hang in isolation – it is integrated organically with its cosmology, its weltanschauung


Man’s is a lonely predicament; and religion has sought to extol his ‘aloneness – sometimes providing a rationale for existence and evolution. All religions, without exception, seek to provide man with a deeper, saner reality – something more fundamental than that which ordinarily meets the eye. At the depths of truth, words conjure up meanings that belie their etymology and therefore words will have to be seen as reflective of states of mind. The deep recesses of the human psyche are replete with unconscious memories that seem to dictate lifestyles and destinies, at a collective level. As to what constitutes the unconscious mind and what impels these unconscious motivations – theories exist – some bewildering the remaining sane.

It is certain that psychology, by no means, holds monopoly over the understanding of the unconscious or the collective unconscious. Early this century the psychoanalysis of Freud resorted to mythology for answers to very disturbing questions about the motivations of the human child. These were the times of the correlation between antiquity and contempronaiety constituted wisdom – you were what you were by virtue of the traditions you belong to. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent points to the interconnectedness of the two. It is commonplace that the Greek heritage is the western tradition and theories about life, motivation and death have inescapably found their roots in the Greek thinkers. Aristotle and Plato will of necessity form the first chapters of any discipline in the humanities. Greek studies are unquestionably foundational to their academics.

Early studies in psychology clearly resorted to the Greek myths for explanations about human behavior. Most of these myths have been made immortal through the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. However, attention needs to be drawn to one Greek myth whose universality is the object of this article. The myth of King Oedipus is a surprisingly potent exhibition of human motives. Oedipal dynamics formed the foundation of the Freudian school of psychoanalysis. Later on, Otto Rank and his other students fell apart owing to differences in opinion. Yet, nothings taken away from the fact that mythology has a lot to do with human psychology. In fact mythology is a keener reflector of human nature. Mythology is like a perpetual background on which a civilisational drama unfolds. As for those who do not have a comprehensive mythology, why, they shall create one. Roland Barthes’ Mythologies explains what new myths are how, they are forming the basics of the modern man, and how he is being “mediated” inspite of himself. Whereas the media forms new myths, their potency can but be understood in the light of how the “traditional” myths are civilisationally apart. The Greeks had very little in common with the Hindus.

For the purpose of this essay, let Greek and Hindu myths be compared – the Oedipal myth and its counterpart in India. There is no denying the universality of the Oedipal curse – how no man escapes it, how man’s salvation or damnation is, but a cultural variation of the same motif. The Greeks had an elaborate narrative for the undercurrents of the mother-son dynamic. The narrative sought to place man in a “helpless” context – driven by nothing but the “motive for self annihilation”. Ethical questions are raised and then pitched against metaphysical issues. The last line of the tale is about ultimate damnation – and yet an implicit sense of victory. King Oedipus goes down with dignity – “an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering soul”. At the end of this going down, a wisdom is born. This wisdom is the sustaining (even moral) element of Greek mythology. Note these lines from Aeschylus – “Even in our sleep/pain that we cannot forget/ Falls drop by drop upon the heart/Until in our own despair/Against our will/Comes wisdom/ Through the awful grace of God”.

In psychological terms, the tale has catastrophic implications. Every child is first of all sexually attracted to his mother. He perceives every male , particularly his father, as a threat. Nurturing the possibility of the loss of his mother to this unknown competitor, he realizes his inability to do anything. He recedes into his own dark recesses and the tale of man’s innate abnormality begins. Freud maintained that the Oedipus complex was the central dynamic to psychic life. The boy has innate sexual drives and wants to possess his mother. At the same time, he knows that his father is stronger and in an open fight the result will be his victory and the castration of the son. Thus, the second dynamic of horror and the fear of the “other”.

Later on, the Oedipus complex was not merely a complex but a statement of the psychology of the child’s mind, whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage to others, a mere plaything of the world or will he be an active center within himself where he controls his own destiny. A note of caution at this stage – the oedipal myth is an open, exaggerated anatomy of the male child’s psychology. It is not the manifest truth in its minutest detail. The west has handled its oedipal theme very fatalistically. There were no later myths that countered the original myth. Levi Strauss stated “ Myths form themselves in the minds of men”, in keeping with the psychological needs of the people that produce them.

Does Hindu mythology have a parallel myth? What do they imply? Are there any counter myths? Is it in keeping with the Hindu cosmology as the oedipal myth was in keeping with the Greek world view? How do Hindus handle their version of the Oedipus complex? The answers are available in some detail but like any comparative study, the analogues are not so obvious, the metaphysical imports not so distinct. Two parallels can be sited – the instance of Brahma and his daughter, and the instance of Shiva’s fight with Ganesha for Parvati.

First the Brahma myth. Brahma is essentially a creative God – the father of gods and men. The laws of Manu would have us believe that in the beginning the world was “darkness unknowable, without form, beyond reason and perception, as if utterly asleep..., the Being wishing to draw different creatures from his body, first by thought produced the waters and deposited his seed in them. This seed became the golden egg, as brilliant as the sun in which He himself was born as Brahma”.

Since the task was Brahma’s alone, he further created four sons from his own body who refused to play to any part in the process of procreation. They left for doing Tapas. Brahma then created a woman from his body. This woman was his own daughter. When he saw this lovely girl he lusted for her and the shy Satarupa moved to his right to avoid his gaze but a head immediately sprang up on that side and continued to gaze. She moved further away and another head sprung up there. Thus the four sides were covered and Satarupa had no choice but to move heavenwards. A fifth head sprung up looking heavenwards. Brahma thereafter held his daughter and there was sexual union. Brahma then wedded his daughter and they retired to a secret place for a hundred divine years.
This apparent act of incest was not without counter-myths. Involved with the Brahma myth is the question of social ethics. We would therefore have it that after the four sons of Brahma left for tapas, he created a fifth son Rudra (later Shiva). Rudra would take it upon himself the task of populating the universe. But Rudra was no ordinary human being, for he had sprung from the wrath and frustrations of the creator. Rudra went underwater for meditation – hoping to create the world asexually. But when he emerged from his meditation a long time later he saw that a population already existed. Rudra saw his father embracing his own daughter – Satarupa, sexually. Ceased with anger, he fired an arrow and cut off Brahma’s fifth head. Then he castrated himself. Rudra had failed. He retreated to the mountains to do tapas.

The parallels with the oedipal myth are obvious. There is in the place of the mother, the daughter. The father does seem to be a competitor. There is vengeance and violence against him and finally self castration. To allow this Rudra Brahma myth to merely rest at documenting the Oedipus complex is to belittle its import. The intention was to show that the mother-son, son-father myth is universal and has been dealt with in the two apparently polar civilizations. The Rudra-Brahma myth grapples with significant metaphysical issues of the self and its destiny. After all, Rudra’s retreat into himself for tapas is preconditional to the experience of samadhi.

The second Hindu myth that substantiates the universality of the Oedipal myth concerns Ganesha. The protagonist of this myth include the primordial man-wife Shiva and Parvati, Nandi and Bhringi. The myth may appear a little superficial because it reduces the gods to the indulgences of petty human feelings. But this then is the nature of all puranic myths. Nandi and Bhringi are two of Shiva’s companions that guard Parvati’s palace. Shiva, rather brazen in his manners, walks in and out of Parvati’s palace unhindered, often to the embarrassment of Parvati. Since the two companions never stop him at the gate, Parvati decides to have her own guard. She fashions a handsome son out of some clay from a pond and calls him Ganesha.

On one occasion, when Parvati is having her bath, Shiva turns up and is stopped by Ganesha, who refuses to let Shiva in because Parvati is having a bath. A battle ensues between father and son over the mother. Ganesha, fashioned by Parvati, has her powers. Both Brahma and Vishnu interfere in the petty battle but to no avail. What is important in Ganesha’s battle with Shiva is that Parvati keeps on supplying Ganesha with weapons which make him invincible. Finally, Vishnu distracts Ganesha with his Sudarshan chakra and Shiva stealthily cuts off Ganesha’s head.

This is not a reversal of the Rudra Brahma myth where the son had cut-off his father’s head. Rather, it is compromise myth where the ‘father’ and the ‘son’ make peace with the help of the ‘mother’. In the above myth, Ganesha is brought back to life, given the head of an elephant and made the head of Shiva’s ganas. He is therefore called Ganapati. This myth serves to resolve the Oedipal complex unlike the Rudra-Brahma episode, where the tensions are uncompromising and the withdrawal of one is a must. In the original tale, Oedipus too withdraws from Thebes and goes to Colonus where his ‘crimes’ are resolved. The Oedipal myth has parallels all over the world. Hindu mythology was chosen as a comparison point owing to the similarities it offers and it resolves the issue at both the physical and metaphysical levels. A self castration of Rudra is a philosophical statement of man’s ultimate purpose – the achievement of desirelessness by the conquest of passion. Thus, the Hindu version of the Oedipal myth does not hang in isolation – it is integrated organically with its cosmology, its weltanschauung.

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