November 19, 2014 By Interactive Features/Writer at large

The Sacred Myth of the Orient


I was watching Francis Ford Cappola’s 2007-fantasy drama Youth without Youth about an old linguistics professor regaining youth after he was struck by lightning. The title says the rest, bringing to light the ambiguities of existence and aging. The film might disappoint you, if you are going to watch it with Cappola’s Godfather and Dracula in mind. For me, it comes nowhere near the former, though it is far better than the latter. Though I rated the film six out ten, I was thunderstruck by the questions about subjectivity and self Cappola spins inside the yarn and its deeply mystical (also mythical) and philosophical narratives. Where did Cappola get the plot to work on it?

The question led me to the philosopher novelist from Romania Mircea Eliade, whose novella was the basis of the film. Having a taste for the exotic, Mircea studied and analyzed the mythical structures in the east. His 1933 novel Bengal Nights, which depict the life of Tagore’s protégée Maitreyi Devi, was adapted in 1988 into silver screen, starring Shabana Azmi, Hugh Grant, Soumitra Chatterjee and Supriya Pathak. But it would be a gross injustice to measure Mircea with these two works.

Mircea is known better for his studies in eastern mysticism and his philosophical novellas and short stories (two more works of his have been adapted into film). He has penned The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954), Yoga (1958), Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987), Shamanism (whose 2004 edition has Wendy Doniger penning the foreword).

The philosophy of Mircea is centered on the sacred/profane dichotomy and the concept of hierophanies. Hierophany is a term popularized by Mircea and replaces theophany (revelation of God). Mircea says that traditional men understand the profane, real work as holding the mythical and spiritual subtext of the sacred. What we call myth is the traditional man’s attempt to give the meaning of transcendence to the meaningless profane, secular world. His/her worship of stones, saints and tombs are part of the hierophany s/he had from those objects. To deny this, according to Mircea, was the legacy of Christianity (which stands for Semitic religion) and the cause of the divided psyche in the secularised, Christian west.

In Scared and Profane, he says: The modern Occidental experiences certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred. He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example. But…what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adorned as stone or tree; they are worshipped  precisely because they are hierophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred.

The traditional man is not replacing God with the gods He is filling the vacuum created by the separation from the God by the sacred, thereby simulating the return to the presence of gods.

Mircea’s views might clash with the monotheistic attitudes and tendencies. Critics have often pointed out the over generalization and lack of empirical data in his books. From another perspective shared not only by the monotheistic and Semitic faiths such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity but by such oriental tradition as Buddhism, hierophanic attachment to the objects has deteriorated to the level of substitution and man has grown from being an infant which is always in need of objects to realize the sacred. Separation from God is part of His will and it’s a constant struggle to bring into the profane the ethical and mystical sparks.

Mircea Eliade’s avid interest in the oriental theology has a political ring to it. His anti-Semitism and association with Iron Guard, a far-right fascist movement in Romania, has been noted by several commentators. We can see, in comparison, FredericNietzsche’s hatred of the Jewish race and his avowal of the law of Manu.

Posted in: Books