Divided (and seeking to divide themselves) by every conceivable difference possible, the human race can still be found to exhibit a deep-rooted similarity in some of its fundamental attributes — say, thought, faith and purpose. Shared experiences and beliefs can be found in cultural works beyond literature, cropping up in some unexpected places — in national and religious epics, film songs and hymns, and the like.
Myths, as one of the earliest and abiding forms of the human condition, are a good place to start. The story of the world’s creation, the first man, the role of gods (especially personifying the beneficial and destructive forces of nature) and, particularly, a great flood that wiped out all existing humanity, save one righteous man, are common motifs in all ancient cultures spanning continents.
Then recall a demigod, invulnerable everywhere except his heel?
Commonalities in myths can be traced to the interplay between ancient civilisations or what anthropologists call “acculturation”, but the exact nature of this is lost in the mist of times (though the example above may be traced to the impact of Alexander the Great’s foray into the South Asian subcontinent). There are similarities galore, if you pore deeply — and widely — enough.
Let’s begin with an example from a “shloka” from that profound Hindu scripture, the “Bhagavad Gita”, in which Lord Krishna advises his cousin Arjuna, not keen on confronting his relatives in battle, on duty, action, and the transcendence of human life.
In its Chapter 4, “Gyaana-Karma-Sanyasa yoga”, Verse 8, the Lord sets his purpose as “…paritranaya sadhunam/vinashaya ca duskritam/dharma-samsthapanarthaya/sambhavami yuge yuge ” (roughly, “Whenever righteousness declines and unrighteousness rises, then for the deliverance of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the restoration of the right, I appear in the world from age to age ”)
The Gita, a part of Mahabharata, is believed to have been composed anywhere between the fifth and second centuries BC, but in the first century, the great Latin poet Publius Vergilius Maro, in his work about the founding of Rome, attributed the roughly the same purpose in life to the Romans.
Aeneas, the last of the Trojan princes, manages to flee invaded Troy and after a series of vicissitudes around the Mediterranean, lands on the Italian mainland and is counselled to travel to the underworld where he speaks to his recently-deceased father Anchises and is offered a prophetic vision of the Romans’ destiny.
“Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento/(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,/Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos” (Roman, remember by your strength to rule/Earth’s peoples (for your arts are to be these):/To pacify, to impose the rule of law,/To spare the conquered, vanquish the proud).
On the other hand, John Donne, one of the greatest poets of the English language, and a leading light of the Metaphysical school, delivered a key message on empathy and connection, known very well from inspiring the title of Ernest Hemingway’s epic on the Spanish Civil War.
However, Donne didn’t do this in a poem but in a sermon, titled “From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623), which begins “Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris” (Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die) and goes on in its fourth paragraph to say: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Three centuries earlier, the same sentiment was expressed by the Farsi poet of the incomparable “Bostana” and “Gulistan”. Abu Muslih bin Abdallah Shirazi, better known as Sheikh Sa’di, who wrote: “Bani Adam a’aza-ye yek digarand/Ke dar aafrinesh ze yek goharand/Che ovze bedard aavard ruzgar/Digar uzveha ra namaanad qaraar/To kaz mohnat-e-digaraan bighami/Nashayaad ke naamat nihand aadmi” (“Adam’s tribe (ie human beings) are members of a whole,/In creation of one essence and soul./If one member is afflicted with pain,/Other members uneasy will remain./If you have no sympathy for human pain,/The name of human you cannot retain”).
Finally, take Henry Francis Lyte’s popular Christian hymn “Abide With Me” (1847), and the song “Ae Maalik Tere Bande Hum, written by Pandit Bharat Vyas for V. Shantaram’s “Do Aankhen Barah Haath” (1957).
Though both are appeals to the supreme deity, the song is more prescriptive, seeking intercession to make the applicant a better person on this plane of existence, while the hymn beseeches God’s presence throughout life, through trials, and through death. Both, however, use similar metaphors, such as growing darkness to convey the soul’s apprehensions about the world’s tribulations and the sun breaking through to show a better world. A comparison of the lyrics may reveal more common patterns.
There may be more examples, but the point is that however different you think you are, there are always similarities with others. Acknowledge them.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted [email protected])