Between Eros and Thanatos: Transcending the Animal Mind!

Is the legal system in India only now recognising something that has already been discussed and accepted in Indian mythology?

It is the nature of modernity (?) to assume that everything of the past was bad, that tradition was wrong and things have to be made right by revolutionary ideas. There are others, who believe that the past was wonderful and sophisticated, and everything is collapsing and the miseries of the current times remind us of things going bad and spinning out of control. These two ways of looking at the world, one that looks at the past as inferior and one that looks at the past as superior, are known as the principle of Eros and the principle of Thanatos. 

In modern institutions, where we think we are marching towards progress, the principle of Eros prevails. In this world order, we study texts of the past with cynicism and there is a tendency to look down upon them, by trying to figure out their strategic agenda. This is known as the hermeneutics of suspicion. There is also a tendency to look at the past as primitive, therefore, the narratives are often interpreted literally rather than metaphorically. For example, we actually believe that ancient beings thought that gods have many hands and many heads, not realising that these are metaphors to communicate complex ideas about the human condition.  

In the past, people had views on the human condition and one of the things they typically noticed is that the human mind gets attracted and addicted to things that are forbidden by social constructs. So, a man could fall in love with a man or a woman could fall in love with a woman, for gender did not form a barrier to attraction. For example, we have stories in Hindu mythology where Shiva falls in love with Mohini, knowing fairly well that Mohini is the female form of Vishnu. Together they also produce a child Hari-Hara-Suta popularly known as Ayappa.              

There are stories where one falls in love with people who are married. For example, in the Ramayana, there is a story of Ahalya, who has an extra-marital affair with Indra, king of the Gods. 

There are stories of unrequited love. For example, Surpankha is attracted to Ram and Lakshman, but they reject her attraction. Kichaka desires his sister’s palace maid, Sairandhari and when she rebuffs his advances, he tries to force himself on her. 

All these stories reveal a kind of breaking down of boundaries. Boundaries do not exist in nature, they are constructed by culture. In the animal world, animals fight over territories. If the mightier animal can establish his authority over another’s territory, there is no law, no regulatory authority to prevent it from doing so: it is part of life.  

However, in human society we have regulatory authorities, like the judicial system and the legislature. They create boundaries and define what appropriate social conduct is. We are told how to behave in society. This idea of creating laws to control human behaviour can be found in the laws of Hammurabi, in the commandments of the Bible, in the Quran, and in the constitutions of countries. 

We want to create a better society and laws are based on what is considered to be appropriate. Some of these laws are considered to be the hallmark of civilisation, others are seen as the hallmark of patriarchy and there is great debate as to what is considered civilised and what is considered primitive, barbaric and patriarchal. Even today, if you want to change a law you have to prove that the past was irrational and lacked empathy and sympathy for the human condition. 

In the 21st century, we believe that the purpose of society is to enable the human mind to thrive. The human mind may be attracted to people of the same sex or gender, maybe attracted to people who are not bound to them by marriage, maybe attracted to people who do not reciprocate their affections. Therefore, laws are created in order to regulate social behaviour. So, today in the 21st century it is acceptable to fall in love with people of the same gender, for it is seen as a private matter between consenting adults and does not require the intervention of the state or religion. 

But, the state does intervene when individual rights are trampled upon, when a woman’s or man’s consent or a child’s consent is overshadowed. The legal system does believe that children below a particular age cannot be sexually active. These rules are based on what culture considers to be appropriate conduct. So, in ancient times if boys and girls were allowed to have sexual conditions with the permission of tradition at the age of twelve, today that would be ranked as pedophilia and even rape.  

The arbitrary nature of law is something that the ancients contemplated upon and spoke about widely in their mythic texts. We realise that laws are created to regulate the mind. In Hindu tradition, it was very clear that laws and traditions do not really change society. Society really changes when there is a transformation of the mind and human beings transcend their animal instincts and develop a sense of empathy for the other. This, however, cannot be regulated by policy, but one can inspire each other to develop the mind. 

People were encouraged to do so by the sage and the king. They inspired and led people on the path of spirituality, which is essentially a journey from the animal within us to the human within us. We may use words like divinity but ultimately, it is just empathy for the human condition: respecting that different people have different needs and everybody has a right to satisfy their hunger – provided it doesn’t trample on the rights of others. This is easier said than done and somewhere the answers to all our life’s problems lie between regulation on one hand, and psychological development on the other. The former can be controlled by the state, the latter cannot!  

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