Thursday, February 5, 2015

Joseph Campbell takes us on a tour of Eastern religious thought, and it rules.



Masks of God: Oriental Mythology – Joseph Campbell (1962)

            Having read Campbell’s Mythic Image, and Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, I was very excited to dive headfirst into this volume of the Masks of God series.  Whereas the Primitive Mythology volume dealt with the myth systems of ancient humans, as can best be determined through rigorous archaeology, this volume explores the continued development of religious/mythical ideas in the East.
            Human mythological content was of a kind until around 4000 B.C., where a split in thinking occurs.  The Western world proceeded towards a mythology based on the individual, his separation from divinity, and the efforts to connect back to that divinity.  In the Eastern world, the mythology was focused on the eternal, all-encompassing divinity of all creation and how man can remove all the superficial trappings of daily existence and experience a direct communication with the divine, something which is a part of all of us, but which most of us do not register due to the nature of our mortal lives.

Once our heads are on a pike, maybe we will understand.

            These are two very different ways to view the world and man’s place in it, and it is only in the past 100 years or so that the two world-views have been mingling.  Out of the Eastern world, religious and philosophical doctrines developed which promised a way to escape the daily world.  Taoist teaching focuses on following the “Way” of things in life, and not on the individual choices.  Buddhism teaches that following a “middle way” one can achieve a complete disconnect from desire and pain, achieving a state of perfect stillness, beyond pain or bliss, which is called Nirvana.  In essence, the focus of eastern religion is to wipe away illusion and to experience the eternal. 
            This differs greatly from the western world, where Greek Ideals and ideas of Monotheism created religions which sought to redeem a fallen man, or to help an inherently sinful and evil world become a godly and devout one.  What Joseph Campbell does best is show how the evidence points to constantly evolving ideas, which sprout from the same soil.  He explains in excellent detail the various early forms of myths and their symbols and how they developed along the paths mentioned above to become world-changing religions. 
            There are many things I did not understand about Eastern religions, mainly because I am a product of Western religious systems.  Most of the time the information I could get on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, etc., was tainted by the writer’s Western bias.  Joseph Campbell not only explains the factual details but he does an amazing job of describing just why these ideas are what they are.  He puts the myths into their historical context which allows me to better grasp the mindset of the people who tweaked these ideas into new religions.  It also puts into context many of the myths I had read and studied earlier.

This is an excellent book, as are all of Mr. Campbell’s writings, and I recommend it very highly to anyone wishing to explore not just one religion, but how humanity as a whole has dealt with the big issues that require religion and myth to explain.  The next volume is Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, which will likely blow my mind.  I cannot wait!

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