The Physics Of Myth

“Which is your favorite tree?” asked the children one day.

I am often asked questions like this, especially by the elementary school going son. Your favorite color, your favorite food, your favorite flower and on and on till I shriek in agony, at which point he flips to – when was the first time you ate with a spoon, when was the first time you touched a frog, when did you first climb a tree?

I thought about the favorite tree one though: which one was my favorite tree? Is it the oak tree that I plonked my satchel under every day in school, or the flowering jacaranda trees under which we had steaming hot cups of tea with friends, or the tall eucalyptus tree that edged our street towering majestically against the skies signaling home was nearby, or the fir & pine trees that contributed to many an amateur flower arrangement lending beauty and joy to the surroundings, or the willow that made one want to relax just by its shape and allure, or the gingko tree that makes me smile on a evening walk, or the oleander trees that sag with flowers in the summer, or the fruit trees in my backyard that are so hospitable to squirrels ,or the redwood trees that urge me to be like them: strong, resilient and upright, or the curious, curvy bristlecone trees that remind me they are older than our oldest myths, or the pine tree with an elephant head that reminds me of the time the son as a toddler tried to fit his understanding of Physics into Myth?

 

It was a tough question and I told them so. The son scenting a ‘wild’ story from his childhood asked for the story, and I mock-sighed before telling him:

“One day a couple of years ago, when you were very much a toddler, and had just started attending a preschool, you picked up a book from the library about Lord Ganesha. You were thrilled with the find because Indian mythology is hardly found in the libraries in America, right? Lord Ganesha Curses The Moon – was the title. Appa and you settled down to read together at night.

Anyway, so, remember the story? It went something like this:

The moon used to beam as a full moon every night. One day, the moon laughed at Lord Ganesha when he tripped and fell in the forest.  Ganesha promptly got angry at the moon, and cursed it into oblivion.The whole world plunged into darkness (this was before electric lights remember?). At this, the book painted some gory pictures of the problems faced by the population because it was completely dark. People fell, people bumped into each other, people were robbed. Soon, everyone begged Ganesha to take back his curse. But he couldn’t. His word being law and all that. 

So.

An impasse was reached, and soon the king of Gods, Indra, came to him and asked him to do something about it. Ganesha thought and thought, and finally reached a compromise. He said the moon could grow from no moon to the full moon, and then shrink back again to no moon. That ought to teach him not to laugh at people. The moon agreed, and that is how it remains to this day.

ganesha_moon

After the story, Appa asked you, “What do you think of the story? Do you really think that is what happened?”

You had that serious look on your face as you thought about it, and you said, “Yes, of course. That’s when the moon must have started going around the Earth, and the Earth started spinning, so the moon could grow bigger and smaller.”

“Appa told me what you said later, and ever since I think of that story and remember how you fit your understanding of Physics into that mythological story when I see that fir tree with an elephant head.”

“Did I really do that?” asked the son laughing heartily, and I smiled.

It was true of course. His response had us flabbergasted, for we hardly ever consciously think about how we continually shape our worldly views and understanding. We subtly and subconsciously incorporate the stories we hear, choosing to consider which ones to digest and which ones to leave.

“So, as you see, I cannot only name one favorite tree. I love them all. Just like…”

“We know…. we know! Just like you love us both!”, said the children, and I smiled my favorite smile.

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