Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book 9: Oriental Mythology

"Those who have identified themselves with the mortal body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything- for them- must end. But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all- including themselves- revolves, everything is acceptable as it is; indeed, can even be experienced as glorious and wonderful"

Dates read: November 12-27, 2015

Rating: 5/10

After examining the mythology of "primitive" societies in his previous volume, here Joseph Campbell turns his examination of mythology to the East, the Orient. He begins with ancient Egypt, before devoting the bulk of his text to the development of various movements (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) in India, concluding with relatively short chapters on China, Japan, and Tibet.

Egypt being included in this volume, while the Middle East is included in the succeeding volume on occidental mythology, shows that Campbell is not above glossing over the finer details in pursuit of making the case he wants to make. In this case, the second volume of Masks of God is where Campbell begins to make his argument that Eastern religion drives its adherents to turn away from the world, accepting one's place in the social strata while seeking to end the cycle of death and rebirth  by detachment. That Campbell thinks Western religion drives its adherents to focus on what they can achieve with their single life, and is therefore ultimately superior to Eastern religion, isn't laid on super thick but is definitely obvious.

But what we get through that sometimes distasteful bent is a well-researched and interesting examination of the development of Eastern religion. The largest portion of the text is devoted to Buddhism and reading about how it developed, grew in India, and then was pushed out to China, Japan, and Tibet (with mutations in each culture that reflect its unique perspective) is genuinely compelling. The chapter regarding Tibet does not shy away from the atrocities committed against the monks there by the Chinese, but one of Campbell's strengths is that he's not afraid to be critical. He certainly has no problem puncturing the ideals that religions would like you to believe about them by discussing the historical realities of how they actually functioned.

There is a similar psychoanalytic frame of reference here as in the first volume, but it's not as prominent (probably because there's more substance here to work from than there was with the first) and so it's not as problematic. Indeed, this volume is superior to the first all around. It's still thick, and fact-dense, and reads like a textbook, but Oriental Mythology is a more rewarding read, both in information and readability (it's still very slow, though) than its antecedent.

Tell me, blog friends...what Eastern country is on your must-visit list?

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