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.

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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.

Spiritual Mysticism or Spiritual Naturalism?

As we walked into our standard Best Western’s breakfast room near the Inyo Canyons, there was a transformation. The walls were plastered with what looked like pictures of movie stars. Apparently, this was Hollywood’s favorite location for filming cowboy scenes, and the hotel wasn’t going to let that one slide any time soon.

The surrounding Inyo canyons were looking like that I admit. The horizons widened, the rocks and foliage blended together in beautiful sandstone with broccoli-like vegetation everywhere. The canyons had miles and miles of rock. Flat plains stretching on before hitting the mountain ranges. Pink, red, orange and sandstone. It took us some time to appreciate its beauty. Life seemed sparse yet the possibility of life here seemed abundant. I tried imagining a time in Earth’s history when the place was teeming with life, maybe large dinosaurs spotted the plains with winged creatures careening overhead, and possibly a lush, green surrounding rather than the pink-ish desert looks that were in front of us now.

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I tried imagining the place a few hundred years from now – would it be a city, or a settlement of some kind? Would there be more visible forms of life and humanity? How about a few thousand years from now?

It is definitely heartening to step out of urban life for a brief spell. It is also when you are most capable of doing what you want. Do you want to sing a song? The rocks are your audience. Go for it. Do you want to jump in the middle of the road, the mountains are your witness. So, we spent the day in near by cowboy locations acting out like cowboys and cowgirls. Only these cowboys & girls wore woolen caps and gloves and heehawed like donkeys.

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The fact that we are miniscule in the scheme of things is never more stark than when gazing at nature’s grandeur. I tried looking for that feeling of oneness, and could come up with no better words than Spirituality and Nature. The internet spewed articles on religion and spirituality. But that was not what I felt there. There was no religion except when the cold got a bit much and I said, “Rama! It is so cold!”.

My grandmother would have approved.

Sometimes, Lord Ganesha kept us company. (We saw rocks shaped like dinosaurs and elephants.)

There was awe, humility, peace and the sense of security that our valiant car could provide transport and warmth.

That night after the heehawing in Inyo canyons, I had vague and hilarious dreams of my grandmother running after a donkey in a 9 yards saree. Who is to say that a mouse did not really pull a wooden trundle with Lord Ganesha seated on it across the canyons that night? Spiritual Mysticism? Maybe.

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