On the mythic father quest

I recently watched a TED talk by Shekhar Kapur in which he talked about the urge to tell stories. Kapur said that we tell stories to fill the gaps in our understanding of the universe. For example, it is perhaps impossible for a human mind to fathom the ends of the universe, or the idea of a singularity, or the nature of how the universe came into existence. We are simply too small to be able to make measurements of that order.

But because of who we are, we can’t help asking those questions. So we make stuff up. We imagine reasons that make sense to us. We imagine a deity causing the universe, we imagine a trinity taking care of it, we imagine spirits guarding over our little personal lives. This is how mythologies are born. That is how we answer the questions we ask ourselves. Invariably therefore, our myths about the unknown are based on our knowledge of the known.

The question of origins is a fascinating one. It is also a question that holds universal and undying appeal, at least to human beings. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? We keep asking these questions even though we may have convinced ourselves that there is never going to be an answer. These questions form an integral part of who we are.

The way mankind has answered the question of its origin has often been with an analogy with individual origins. The universe (uni-verse = one poem) is an individual, only slightly bigger. Thus, it must have come into being by the same processes that bring an individual into existence. And how do individuals come into existence?

Individuals come into existence through fathers and mothers.

In myth everywhere, fathers and mothers are often the two ends of the creative forces that cause things to happen. They are the two ingredients that must go into the mix before anything can happen. Of course, at a higher level, fathers and mothers are merely metaphors for more abstract ideas – energy and matter.

Matter is the mother. It is what you – flesh and bone – actually sprung out of. Matter is the obvious and more accessible source of things. You came out of your mother – you are literally your mother’s flesh and blood. All of us are actually made of the same stuff that goes into the making of the world around us (the five elements, carbon molecules and all that). This is why we call nature the mother. There is no denying the fact that we are her children.

The father symbolises energy. It is what causes the mother to conceive you. The creative force that runs through all of nature all the time and keeps it alive. Regardless of the obvious presence of the mother, you wouldn’t be here if the father hadn’t planted the seed inside your mother. You grew out of that seed.

Oddly enough, it is very easy to ignore the father. The validity of the father depends mostly on the mother’s verification. You know that your mother is your mother right from the moment you are born. But the father has to be pointed out before you can figure out his role in your life and your origin. If, by some chance, the father is not around when you come to your senses, you may even carry on with your life unaware of the need for one. Mother nature is always around and you wouldn’t ever doubt her existence, but the energy that flows through every aspect of her is slightly less obvious.

Sooner or later though, most of us wake up to the need for the father – to the need to look for one’s origins. World literature is chock full of stories in which the protagonist goes on a typical father quest. Think of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, think of Hercules the demigod who goes searching for his father Zeus, think of Jesus Christ and his father, think of all the bollywood heroes in the 70s who asked their mothers about the whereabouts of their missing fathers when they realised everybody except them had one. The idea of the father quest is very common in world mythology.

And this quest is always a personal one. The hero must look for his father by himself. Nobody else cares if he finds his father, nobody even cares if he has one. But it is a question that the hero can’t bear not knowing the answer to. The hero can’t explain to others why he needs to know, he only knows that he must know.

What the hero finds is his personal truth. Sometimes the father is someone who has been waiting to be found. Sometimes the father is downright evil. Sometimes the father turns out to be in need of the son’s help. Sometimes the father is dead and needs to be avenged. There are as many kinds of fathers as there are sons. Often, during the journey to discover the father, the son discovers himself. In one particular scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in which Yoda sends Luke into the cave to fight Darth Vader. When Luke slays Vader and looks through the mask, he finds that he has actually killed himself. The father, becomes the son, becomes the father.

In a way, the father and the mother are aspects of the same creative force. Hindus worship the Sivalinga which is, bluntly put, a penis sticking out of a vagina. It symbolises the synthesis of matter and energy that brought the universe into being – the mixing of the male and the female that caused the universe to be born.

Indians have worshipped the mother goddess in various forms since times immemorial. That worship roots from a very practical appreciation of nature and the fact that man is one of the many manifestations of nature’s urge to create life. At the same time, the Indian tradition has also paid great attention to man’s quest for the attainment of Brahman – the all-pervading field of energy that flows through all of nature (like The Force in Star Wars).

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Just as the mother leads to the father, the father may  also lead to a greater appreciation of the mother. You look at nature and wonder what makes it tick. Then you feel the energy and fall in love with everything it does. It is a beautiful circle.