Romeo, Rama and the Rebellious Riff-Raff
Posted February 4, 2010
In “The Cry for Myth”, Rollo May makes a powerful case for the need of myth in every society, and that societies and cultures can be seen as byproducts of their collective myths. In this essential service to society, it doesn’t matter at all if the myth is fiction or fact, for either way the myth acts on the collective subconscious of the society, which moulds its identity, values and attitudes around the myth. Even modern society has myths which have molded the character of its people- the courage and confidence of the first settlers as they pressed on westwards into unknown territory can now be seen in the many risk-taking adventures that Americans are famous (and more recently, infamous) for…
In the area of personal relationships, myth also plays a vital role, which may explain the stark contrast between how societies deal with, for example, romantic love- the differences can be traced back to different myths…
Romeo and the Riff-Raff
In western society our ideal romantic couple, the couple which we feel most fully embody ideal love, was portrayed with force and style by Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliette”. In that story, the lovers break all social taboos, all requirements of society…forsaking the desires of their parents, they love only for the sake of love.
On the other hand, in India it is not Romeo the rebellious romantic youth, but Sri Ramachandra, the obedient and loving son who is the hero of the story. Ramachandra’s example has molded Indian society, and thus, it can be seen that even with the influx of western influence into the subcontinent, still nearly all marriages are arranged by the parents, with the child’s consent, and divorce is a rarity. This astonishing phenomenon makes clear the superexcellent holding power of myths.
In the Ramayana, Sri Ramachandra risks all for filial obedience, whereas in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo risks all for the opposite- filial rebellion. Thus, it is no wonder that in Indian society the importance of the desires of the parents, even in regard to career but most definitely in regard to marriage, are foremost, and all the talk in India that this is “old-fashioned” and “outdated” has had little effect, and will continue to have little effect, because their myths are still strongly internalized.
In the West, rebellion is the norm for teenagers, it is even seen as healthy- part of growing up, yet is it? When they rebel against loving parents who only wish to guide them for their own good, the effect is that they become lost and fall prey to their own whims, often ending up as victims of the drug trade. The tendency towards rebellion is further facilitated by the psychoanalytical discovery that most psychological problems can be traced back to the parents’ behavior- this reinforces the Romeo myth, but also may have been born out of it as well, in terms of the original hypothesis- though I am not sure if Freud ever read Shakespeare, or if there was a German equivalent, but certainly the extreme popularity and ready acceptance of his theory reflects our internalization of the Romeo myth of heroic rebellion against domineering parental authority.
Of course, the real issue is which myth is good for us, and in this respect the Ramayana appears to win the race- Indian arranged marriages stay together, with the effect that children don’t have to be traumatized by the break up of their parents. Are they happy together- we may wonder? Would they be happier if they were to marry through choice?
First consideration is whether happiness is more important than duty, and if doing one’s duty can lead to happiness- certainly the Gita is based on this premise. Here we have another myth- with the hero being Arjuna. He was speculating on his future happiness, what we in the West would romantically call “having a dream” but when he forsook the dream for duty, he experienced great joy, which is something that Oprah fans would have been astonished by- we must follow our dreams!
There is joy in duty- it is experienced by the mother who sacrifices her comfort, sleep, time and energy for her child. Contrary to Freud’s theory, the children coming from Indian families do not appear to suffer from following the parents’ desires- they appear to be generally well-balanced, successful and driven. And drugs appear to be less of a problem in India, despite the widespread corruption of its police force (taking bribes is normal).
It may be argued that in many cases, where there is marital conflict, it is better for the child if the parents split, and that social pressure to stay together may result in psychological harm to the children. Still it is far better if there is no conflict, or if conflicts remain contained, and the parents stay together. Divorce has not made marital conflicts any less common, and this is logical. If one knows that one is expected to stay with this person, “come hell or high water”, then naturally one will work on the relationship, work through the difficulties, reach compromises... If one knows that by signing a paper, it can all be over, what is the point in being so tolerant of the other? One who knows that his whole life will be spent with this person, will try to make the situation pleasant- for one cannot live in constant conflict. And this pleasant situation is enjoyed by the children, and gives them security.
Working on conflict, learning to see things from the other’s perspective, surrendering time which would otherwise be spent making money in order to uphold family commitments, all contribute to a quality of life that is nurturing and full of higher value. In the frantic search for happiness we must not forget that it may be found not only in new places (relationships), like the early settlers pressing on westwards, but within ourselves and between the selves that we know. It may be found in places that we least expect it, like in honoring the desires of a wise and caring person, as Arjuna and Rama did. But in order to have faith in that, we must work on dismantling the Romeo myth inside us, which is reinforced by at least half of what Hollywood produces, with the result of blind cynicism of authority figures, and blind faith in one’s own desires- characteristics of “rugged individualism” that can so quickly degenerate into selfishness and thus rupture family bonds. The myths of India, in contrast, have led to a relatively healthy stable family structure. Internalizing such myths, and having such heroes as Arjuna and Ramachandra as our role models, we may be able to replace the heady, whimsical and blindly rebellious role model of Romeo that has led our society down the path of ruination, at least for a large portion of our youth, our future hope….
Clearing Things up a Bit
In writing this, I do not mean to suggest that in every case parents should be obeyed, that arranged marriages are better, or that Indian society as a whole is better than western society. Modern Indian society is a corruption of varnashrama by the so-called brahmanas, but it was only the caste or varna part that they corrupted- for the sake of self-aggrandizement…the ashrama part, including the grhastha-ashrama, has remained relatively uncontaminated over the millennia. Thus, we see a mixture of good and bad in India- very functional families, in a society where many children of lower castes have to rummage through trash for food- unheard of in the West.
Such exploitation of the lower castes is NOT part of any Indian myth, but is the concoction of power-mongers. Still much can be gained from separating gold from mud, particularly much can be gained from the Indian conception of ashrama- which is an arrangement for pursuing duty and spiritual elevation, not for facilitating the overwhelming whimsical, lustful attractions we call “falling in love” which we just as whimsically fall out of. Meanwhile Indian society can learn from our better conception of varna- which is less about inequality (at least in relation to humans), and thus closer to genuine varna …Varnashrama means that all, from washerman to king, are essentially equal, being parts and parcels of God Who dwells in all. Our bill of rights upholds this equality, for humans at least, and thus we have shelters, education and welfare for the underprivileged.
Obedience and duty is served by the Ramayana myth, whereas service to one’s own desires is served by the Romeo myth. Thus vedic traditions can turn our families into ashramas- peaceful places for spiritual evolution, rather than feverish places for pursuing personal desires and attractions. The lessons of the Gita in God-conscious vision can expand our western sense of equality to include animals, the unborn and the environment. Thus the vedic traditions can contribute to social harmony that is the outcome of following varna, and the spiritual elevation that is the outcome of ashrama.
In writing about myth in this context, I do not mean to suggest that the Ramayana or the Bhagavad-gita are not factual, historical texts. I use the word “myth” in the context that the above-mentioned author uses it, which has nothing to do with whether it is fact or fiction, but everything to do with how it molds our collective thinking, attitudes and behavior. A myth is not any less powerful from being fiction, neither is it more powerful from being fact- actually the opposite may be true, because facts tend to engage the conscious and analytic part of our brain, whereas fiction, being more dreamlike, may effect more the subconscious, which has more to do with identity. But whether the stories are facts or fiction is irrelevant for us, as this is the domain of scholars. We are only interested in consciousness, and how to transform it into the Godly type- therefore we do not have to waste time to research how historical our myths are- for to do so detracts us from the purpose and power of their effects on consciousness. Meditating on the myth, our consciousness is transformed, our attitude to life, changed. Through the myth, the role model hero lives in- and through- us all.