Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Oriental Mythology

Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell
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Apr 22, 12

bookshelves: religion, non-fiction, history, philosophy, psychology, spirituality
Recommended for: Anyone Interested in Asian Religions and Philosphies
Read from April 14 to 21, 2012, read count: 1

From the beginning I liked Oriental Mythology quite a bit more than the first volume Primitive Mythology, even if like that first book, it could be rather dry and scholarly and somewhat rambling in its arguments. I think part of that is I felt I could trust his arguments more. So much of Primitive Mythology is based on archeological finds it made me continually wonder how many of his "facts" had been overtaken by new discoveries in the over 50 years that passed since the 1959 publication of that first volume. In this volume, however, covering the mythologies of Egypt, India, China and Japan he's on more solid ground, with written scripture forming the basis of his study rather than archeological finds or the fluid rituals of indigenous peoples.

I found the first part of this book comparing and contrasting Oriental (Hindu, Buddhist) and Occidental (Judeo-Christo-Muslim and Classical Greek) mythologies fascinating and illuminating. He sees the two cultures, though joined at the root, "branching off" into divergent and distinctive worldviews. What is key in oriental theology Campbell believes, is the "myth of eternal return" i.e. reincarnation until and unless you can break through the unending cycle to find the divinity within. He further sees a distinction between Hinduism ("let it go") and Far Eastern Buddhism ("let it come."). Western mythologies in contrast have a vision of creation/fall/restoration in a cosmic conflict where sides must be chosen. The role of the individual in the two different worldviews are also very different. Campbell states of the Western view:

Not life as a good soldier, but life as a developed, unique individual, is the ideal. And we shall search the Orient in vain for anything quite comparable. There the ideal, on the contrary, is the quenching, not the development, of ego.

I'm not sure I'd describe the Western tradition as so different in those terms. Certainly the Christian mystical and monastic tradition emphasizes self-sacrifice, renunciation of the world and quenching of the ego as well. Although Campbell also mentions the idea of another strain in Western mythology distinct from the monotheistic "People of the Book." The Greek idea of theology as poetry and play rather than dogmatic scripture, and the Greeks in the conflict between Man and God are on Man's side--as encapsulated in the myth of Prometheus. I have to admit, if I'm aligned with any mythological school as described in the book, it's this rebellious one I find most attractive, and it's an interesting way of looking at the various mythologies. I'm curious how he'll further develop those themes in the next volume, Occidental Mythology.

But most fascinating was Campbell's demonstrations of the connections between and elucidations of Asian religions, mythology and philosophy. I don't think I've yet squeezed all I can out of his survey of Indian, Chinese and Japanese history and culture. I'll need to reread this book someday after further reading on the subject. Parts were so dry I admit I did some judicious skimming, and wished to skim more. Yet it's rare that I read a book that both makes me understand better other ideas and books I've come across and leaves me hungry for more. In the course of reading this book I put together for myself a 14-page timeline of history and was busy each night after reading chapters of Oriental Mythology googling articles on Indian and Chinese history and Hinduism and Buddhism and was browsing the Religion and History section of my neighborhood bookstore recently looking for more to read on the subjects Campbell touched upon. The book made me want to reread Lao-Tzu and Confucius and delve into Sanskrit literature--hopefully after reading Oriental Mythology with more understanding. Right to the last sentence Campbell was offering up piercing insights.
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