A fascinating read on two mythologies or grand ideas that influence the way we think about the world and everyone’s place in it.

Is there equality in nature or not? The answer is complex. Nature has no favourites and every plant and every animal has to fend for itself to survive. In that sense, there is equality in nature. But no two plants and no two animals are the same. Each has its own strength and weakness, with exposure to its
own set of opportunities and threats. In that sense, there is no equality
in nature.

Every human being, like every plant and animal, is unique, with its own set of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Every human being also has imagination: he/she can imagine having more strengths and opportunities, and less weaknesses and threats. He/she can imagine a world where everyone, no matter what their strengths and weaknesses, gets access to the same opportunities, and protection from the same threats. This imagination establishes the ‘mythology of equality’. When the experienced world does not match up to this imagined world, we get upset. We demand changes in the world. We yearn for messiahs. We yearn for revolution.

But humans can also imagine the world differently. A man/woman can imagine himself/herself as special, better than others, and yearn to dominate over others, or be feared or respected by others. This imagination is the ‘mythology of inequality’ that makes one feel privileged. It is what drives people to compete and be successful. It is what prevents people from sharing, for ‘when I have more wealth or knowledge or power, I can dominate’. To dominate feels good.

Publicly today, we all yearn for mythology of equality. Privately, however, there is a great yearning for mythology of inequality: the desire to dominate another, control others, be feared or respected, and essentially obeyed. From the mythology of equality come concepts such as positive discrimination and reservations, to create a fairer and just world. From the mythology of inequality come concepts like meritocracy and free market and political correctness that gag conversations and allows for only one kind of conversation.

The mythology of equality informs Abrahamic mythology. Here, all humans are equal before the eyes of God. Inequality is created by the Devil. The mythology of inequality informs Greek mythology. Here, the hero strives hard to be extraordinary, earn a place amongst the gods, or at least in Elysium, the heaven of heroes. But this quest to break free from the mediocre is seen as ‘hubris’ and it angers the gods, and lands many heroes into Tartarus. In the cosmos, everybody needs to know their place, high or low.

Communism is strongly influenced by Abrahamic mythology, hence the mythology of equality. Capitalism is strongly influenced by Greek mythology, and the mythology of inequality, where the ‘best man/woman’ wins and so gets rewarded more by the market.

Hindu mythology is a combination of equality and inequality. The soul of all beings is equal, but not the body. And our body is a combination of our mind, our flesh and the property and privileges we acquire or inherit. In the cycle of rebirths, the soul experiences different bodies and eventually realises that it is temporary and the source of all agony. Wisdom lies in looking beyond the body at the soul, and realising that the soul within us and within all those around us is the same. When this happens, we work towards helping everyone around us, strong and weak, find opportunities and avoid threats, knowing fully well that we cannot change their destiny, or alter their desire, or make the world an equal place.

Buddhist mythology does not subscribe to the idea of soul, equality or inequality. It does see desire as the cause of all suffering – desire to dominate in an unequal world as well as desire for an equal world. When we outgrow our desires, we no longer compare and contrast the imagined world with the experienced world. We don’t crave for a change. We simply glide with the change.

This part of the article was originally published on 1st May, 2016, in Mid-Day.

How does the conflict between these two mythologies (of equality and inequality) play out around us?

In a communist society or a society based on a rigid view of equality, any form of ambition or thinking out of the box will be frowned upon and seen as hubris because it means the individual thinks he’s greater than the collective. The same applies to hierarchical societies or organizations where a person who challenges the status quo and dares to think differently may be edged out. As an idea, hubris is more complex than we think. Who decides if a certain type of behaviour can be characterized as hubris or not? After all, what is ambition for one person may be hubris for another.

Of course, there can be hubris at an individual level where one thinks one is infallible. We often see this in people who are highly successful and who start to believe that they
are the sole architects of their success story and that they don’t need to give anybody else any credit for it. They become very self-absorbed as a result, isolating themselves from others and losing out on all the factors that contributed to their success in the first place – a pattern that eventually leads to
their downfall.

In managing this conflict, one has to move away from the right-wrong paradigm. We have to try and see each other’s point of view. Usually we are too busy trying to be heard to stop and really listen. This happens because we are not interested in solutions as much as in being ‘right’. Since organizations usually reward people who come up with solutions, we want to ensure that our idea gets its due in the final solution. Leaders have to be very careful in the journey of conflict management because there’s a clear agenda of career advancement in motion that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Devdutt Pattanaik is an author and interpreter of Indian scriptures...