(Photo: Shunya's Notes)
You flick the light switch to ON and the room lights up. Suppose you know nothing about your town's central power grid, generators, transformers or the nature of electricity, it is a pretty good guess that you will associate the light coming on with the position of the switch alone. If your power supply remains uninterrupted and no one ever alerts you to the workings of electricity, you will have no reason to look further than the light switch and you will be none the wiser. The correct correlation between cause and effect is one of the strongest bulwarks of our civilization's progress. Be it science, medicine, psychology, politics or economics, when we make the right connections between events, we understand the natural and man made phenomena unfolding around us.
Superficial or erroneous understanding of cause and effect gives rise to myths. Glamor struck young women may assume by observing the life style and body shapes of celebrities that if only they managed to look a certain way, success and fame in life would be guaranteed . This assumption, for the vast majority will lead to disappointment and for a substantial minority, will give rise to pathologies such as anorexia, depression or substance abuse. Similarly, boys dreaming of lucrative athletic careers, take harmful steroids to boost the odds of succeeding in a competitive field. The young are not alone. Adults believe in myths too - about making money, happiness in love, romance and marriage, gratifying careers, perfect children and yes, attaining the perfect body shape - just like the youngsters. Which is why the market for celebrity driven life style products, self-help books and guides to manage every aspect of our lives, is booming. But these are trivial and most often transient myths.
The purest myths that motivate and sustain people's hopes and aspirations are to be found in the realm of religion. Since religion derives its axioms from unquestioning faith, the basis for religious cause and effect is not rooted in reality. Unlike the enticing claims of consumer products and pop psychology, religious claims are not falsifiable by logic or empiricism. Therefore they have the most tenacious hold over the human psyche. Sometimes the myths they generate are just laughable, sometimes they are scary and at other times heartbreakingly naive.
See Usha Alexander's fabulous, eye witness account of the makings and ramifications of a religious myth of a fairly recent vintage in a faraway place. A tragic case of a dream based on desperate hope, ancient beliefs and the faulty reading of cause and effect.