December 02, 2005

A myth for our time

David Johnston
The existentialist psychologist, Rollo May (1991), wrote a book entitled The Cry for Myth where he expressed his conviction in the (urgent) need for myth in our day. Living myth, according to both him and Campbell (1975), contributes to a sense of individual and communal identity, as well as provides the foundation for a moral order. In addition, they each contended, myth can awaken consciousness to the mystery of being or the mysterium tremendum et fascinens of the existential nature of the universe.
In my opinion, Sri Aurobindo's poem Savitri fulfills all these requirements for the new age that is in the process of being bom. The poem is, in fact, a dialogue between a highly individuated individual and the archetypal powers of the unconscious, fulfilling in a superlative fashion Jung's appeal for the need, today, for an active dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. The result is a symbolic myth that speaks directly to what Sri Aurobindo referred to as the "Cosmic Self", that is the individual's innermost being and the "general mind of man" (1970b, p. 800).
Campbell (1973) likened mythologies and religions to great poems. The poet, according to Robert Graves (1978), was originally a priest and seer, at least in the Celtic tradition. This is also true of other traditions including the Hindu tradition, dating back to the time of the mantras of the Vedic cycle, some three to five thousand years ago. Sri Aurobindo is a contemporary poet-seer and Savitri a high order mantric poem. The mantra consists of words of power that find their source deep within, while being "framed in the heart" (Sri Aurobindo, quoted in Pandit, 1967/1970/1972, p. 35). According to Sri Aurobindo, its purpose is to "create vibrations in the inner consciousness" that encourage the realization of what the mantra symbolizes (p. 35). Savitri, in other words, is not only a visionary poem, but its mantric quality renders it a supreme vehicle for the transformation of consciousness and for a life to be organized around the Self.
Perhaps it is not correct to say that there is no coalescing myth or worldview that provides a focus for life today. But, if there is, it is a narrow one organized around materialistic science, technology, consumerism and the profit motive, somewhat modified by humanistic concerns. Moreover, as the industrial age gives way to the information age and the modern mind gives way to post-modernism, a centerless, open-ended relativistic world without reference to any authority is growing, where even this focus is being increasingly subjected to narcissistic individualism and the will to power. This comes along with the quantification of life, social isolation, mass-mindedness and alienation from the instincts and the power of symbols. Jung's observation that everywhere one hears the cry for a Weltanschauung (1967/1975,p. 337), that is a meaningful worldview or philosophy of life, is perhaps more relevant today, at least in North America, than ever.
When a people's myth breaks down, life becomes fragmented and disoriented. This has always been the case, whether it be in the second and third century classical Greece, Egypt of three thousand, BC or the Hebrew world of Isaiah. During the breakdown of classical Greece, Lucretius wrote that he could see "aching hearts in every home ... forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining" (quoted in May, 1991, p. 16). In Proverbs 29:18, we are warned that when there is no vision, people destroy themselves. It is not difficult for sensitive individuals to relate to both these observations today. Increasingly, people find life meaningless and without purpose, while defending themselves in all manner of ways, whether it be through mindless consumerism, obsessive involvement with new technology, or through excessive use of alcohol and drugs, whether legal or illicit. Add to this a popular culture, - movies, music and tv. programs, that appeals to the lowest common denominator, while often celebrating destructive tendencies and shadow qualities, and the situation looks anything but hopeful.
People at all times have had a coalescing worldview that gives meaning to existence and focus to all activities of life and social patterns. At least, this is the case in normal times when society is functioning creatively and productively in tune with its ideals. The most recent period in Western consciousness of an integrated worldview dates back to the middle ages, when all life and art was organized around a Christian conception of life, based on a geocentric universe. There was, however, considerable repression which exploded with the Renaissance, the period when there was a creative shift in consciousness towards more direct concern and involvement with life in this world, along with the exaltation of the human ego. This coincided with a heliocentric conception of the universe and the beginnings of the development of the scientific mind and positivism or objective reason.
Today, not only has our thinking turned more subjective but science has given us a new view of the reality of the physical universe. Now the sun itself is perceived as but a star amongst billions of stars, and our universe a part of a galaxy of stars and planets, amongst millions of galaxies. Meanwhile, leading physicists have come to regard physical reality to be of a unitary nature. In psychology, C.G. Jung (1967/1975) has given evidence for the unitary nature of all reality, both physical and spiritual, in his conception of a unus mundus.
The chaos of the present post-modern condition is giving birth to a deep-seated yearning for direction and purpose, integrated around a spiritual center and wholeness. There is a cry for a guiding myth and an integral Weltanshauung that is in harmony with the most contemporary view of reality, and that does not repress life but fulfills it in all its multifacetedness. There is, in addition, growing awareness, especially among women, of a need for a re-evaluation of the feminine, which in some quarters is acknowledged as a need for a return of the Goddess. As a mythic poem of the Goddess as heroine, who assimilates death in order to release the soul and truth of being into life, Sri Aurobindo's is a remarkable response to all these aspirations. It is a myth for our time.
Sri Aurobindo's epic poem, Savitri, is a symbolic myth that responds to a deeply felt need in the contemporary mind. Not only does it represent a world view that is in harmony with the most recent understanding of scientific reality; but, as a symbol, it penetrates to the essential truth of that reality. It concomitantly describes what is involved in the fulfillment of a spiritually individuated life. This is the goal of Jung's myth of consciousness for our time. Not only is Savitri a vision for individual and collective self-fulfillment, but, as a mantra, it has a directly transformative effect on the inner consciousness. Such a magnificent poem calls for intelligent reflection.
David Johnston is a Jungian psychotherapist with a private practice in Victoria, B.C. You can read more of his work, and see some of his art, at

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