Hero Soul

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Vision of Arjuna

It has often be said that life is a journey and the metaphor is apt – but is it to be an adventure , a struggle for survival, or a pilgrimage of discovery? Is there an in-built goal, a route to be followed – or do we construct it all as we go along? It is a device that the myths and legends of all traditions have used repeatedly to explain the human condition and how best to come to terms with it. The legendary hero is faced with monsters and challenges, with choices and opportunities, with goals and rewards. In this respect we are all HeroSouls on our journey through the apparently inexplicable to the hopefully attainable.

The Guidelines : On our heroic journey through life we encounter difficulties, obstacles, problems. Just like the hero of Myths and Legends, we look for guidance – indications that we are headed in the right direction, re-assurance that the goal is attainable – and worthwhile. The story of the Hero is our own, but “writ large”. He is one expression of the human prototype, so also are we. Some of the guidelines we seek are there in Nature and the physical world, where science can discover them and act accordingly; or in the teachings of great minds, in Holy Books and moral texts; but they are also embedded in the great Myths of the world.

The Symbols : It is often suggested that natural objects symbolize abstract ideas, for example:

that a mountain represents stability; a river suggests the flow of life; a sunset evokes tranquillity. These symbols have been used over the centuries in art and literature, as well as in science, philosophy and mysticism. If we let the symbols speak for themselves (as Joseph Campbell suggests) the ancient meaning will become apparent. We shall realize the significance and be able to make use of them in our own search for Truth. It can be profitable, too, to make the acquaintance of those archetypal characters who inhabit the realms of myth, and to enter their mysterious world.

The Adventure : Any story requires, first, a hero – one who acts; then, a series of actions; and finally, a conclusion. As in the basic structure of a grammatical sentence: there is a subject, a verb and an object. All else is elaboration. So the accepted format will establish: where the Hero comes from, what acts he performs, and why; and what he achieves. There will be preparation or training; this is followed by a time of growth, experience and high activity; then comes a resolution of some kind, drawing the theme to a conclusion. The epic journey will involve adventure and challenge; and the Hero may cover great distances and encounter strange lands and beings, finally arriving home to recount his adventures, as in the Odyssey or the Voyages of the Irish Maelduin.

He may be given individual tests of endurance, as in the Labours of Hercules. He may deliberately seek them out, exposing himself to danger, searching to redress injustice in the chivalrous way of King Arthur’s Knights. Or he may sit patiently waiting for the trials of life to come to him – self-composed and alert, responding intuitively to tests of a more psychological nature, as in the Oriental Tradition. Indeed the Buddha said, “Not by any travelling is the world’s end reached”. For all the heroic journeys of myth and legend (even those of recorded history) are ultimately symbolic of an inner pilgrimage of the Soul. The Hero sets out to learn the ways of the world. In so doing, he discovers his own place in it. He endures, perseveres and succeeds: finds courage through experience, wisdom through understanding, and final repose through acceptance.

The Treasure : In one sense, each Hero-Soul, whether of epic standing or the humble seeker after Truth, can become both guardian and despoiler of the elusive treasure he seeks. In mythical terms, he is both the builder of the treasure-hoard and the discoverer of its hiding-place. He uncovers the hidden gold and longs to bring it into the light of day, to enjoy it and share it with the world.

But the treasure is jealously protected by the monster or dragon, who is fascinated by the bright colours, but knows nothing of its real intrinsic worth. The valiant Hero, the dedicated knight, is dazzled by the unimagined beauty, the intricate craftsmanship, the glory of the vision. He who would be the true Guardian of the Grail will lay down his life in service of the Creator and Craftsman of the Treasure. When we know the nature of the Treasure we seek, it is discovered in the most unexpected places; joy and deep satisfaction come from sharing it with others.

The Importance of Myths : Myths grow out of the historical experience of peoples and the intuitive inspiration of great Sages and Poets. They have something to say to all of us – anywhere, at any time. They have been called “the truest things ever written”. The theme of all good stories, anecdotes or parables relates both to the passing moment and to perennial truths. The great Epics provide us with a universal blueprint for dealing with the ever-changing environment in which we find ourselves – that is their ancient purpose. More than just entertainment, or subjects of quiet academic study, they lay bare the many facets of man’s character. They personify them, and people a world where deep passions find expression in dramatic action; and where also the subtleties and power of the mind open up the way to unexpected conclusions. Through them, we face our own psychological dragons, discover the way out of the self-created labyrinth, and rescue the distressed Soul.

Two Royal Warriors : Gilgamesh and Arjuna

Dramatic tales from the distant past can show us how different life was in those times, but they can also surprise us by the similarity of our basic human problems: the doubts, the dissatisfaction, the search for stability and what is of lasting value. They were recorded in stone, in pictograph and early script, or, equally laboriously, on scrolls. They were intended to survive for the instruction of others: an encapsulated message to be reassessed from age to age.

Thus, from the treasure-house of Myth and Legend have come down to us the stories of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, and Arjuna from India. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hero is a great warrior King, who brings civilisation to his people, but still searches for fame and immortality. In the Vision of Arjuna, the Hero is a royal Prince, obliged to defend his inheritance, but confronted with the moral dilemma of genocide.

The Battlefield : Both these semi-historical accounts centre around a battle: a struggle between opposing forces. It is represented in physical terms, but its deeper significance is psychological, moral and spiritual. The outer conflict is symbolic of a state of inner turmoil. These are the warring factors inherent in human nature, each seeking temporary supremacy: emotion over mind, conscience over heart, body over spirit. This is the Holy War to which all souls are pledged: the attainment of self-mastery, a war of reconciliation. For Man (like the greater world) is an organic whole – growing, evolving, interactive – and his psychological state is both influenced by the world at large, and also, in turn, affects the world, by his thoughts and actions. This is the nature of things.

It is not always clear who the ‘enemy’ is, for both sides appear to represent strong, opposing elements. Any temporary resolution of the conflict gives pause for the hero to reflect and consider future action with its implications. Wounds inflicted on body, ego and psyche are tended to and healed, ideally, through thoughtful recollection. In philosophical terms, earthly affairs must be settled before the soul is free to ascend heavenwards. It is the completion of one cycle in preparation for the next – as it is in the life of any aspiring soul. Questions are to be asked and valid answers sought, before further spiritual progress can take place.

In the case of the epic Hero, these evolutionary stages are played out with great drama and sub-plot (as in the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Odyssey, for example). And they are evident in the lesser-known Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the sacred Hindu poem of the Mahabharata, which contains the ‘Lord’s Song’ of Sri Krishna to Arjuna in the Bagahavad Gita.

(1) The Epic of Gilgamesh :

It is interesting to note that from Sumeria (modern Iraq) comes much that is taken up by the Judaic, Christian and Muslim Traditions. Each considered this region to be the birthplace of Man.

The Sumerians invented writing about 3,500 BC: many clay tablets have been found in the excavations of ancient Uruk (the city built by the legendary Gilgamesh). The Babyloniam poem of ‘Gilgamesh’ is dated prior to the Fall of Troy, and provides a strong model for the classic epics which follow it in the Western Tradition. It was widely known throughout the lands of the Middle East.

This epic tells how the Hero (who is of two-thirds divine and one-third human origin) assumes power and kingship through great physical strength and personal will. He is acclaimed, builds the golden city of Uruk, makes laws for his subjects and commands their obedience. But each day he becomes more of a tyrant, without compassion or moral concern. His people are abused and unhappy and look for a solution; so urgently they pray to the gods: ”Create a companion for Gilgamesh and send them forth to do mighty deeds. He is as strong as a wild bull, the master of the herd; and like a bull he takes from us our daughters and our sweethearts when he wishes to add them to his harem, and we cannot stop him.”

The gods are distant, but listen. “This is your doing” said the god Anu to the goddess Aruru. “Gilgamesh is your child. You have made him too mighty to live among men. Make another like him who will lead him to seek feats of strength and far quests.” So she takes clay, fashions it into the form of the god Anu himself, and breathes life into this new man. As one story tells it : “The stranger upon the earth was called Enkiddu. His body was shaggy with hair; he did not know that he was a man, but ran wild with the beasts of the field. His friends were the gazelles; with them he ate grass and with them jostled at the watering-place. And he sought out and filled up the pits and traps which the hunters had made for his animal friends. The hunters came to Gilgamesh and said: ‘Come against this wild man. Only you are strong enough to overcome him.’”

So, pride and arrogance lead Gilgamesh to challenge Enkiddu. But Enkiddu, once a simple man of the woods, living innocently with the animals, is first seduced by a temple prostitute sent by Gilgamesh (so that the animals will no longer accept his natural presence) and then enticed to enter the City of Uruk. Thus it is that the strong instinctual nature of the man Enkiddu faces the powerful personality of the King. In the physical confrontation which follows, their respective power is well-matched; and from their mutual acceptance of this fact comes, eventually, respect, companionship, and a genuine human friendship. From this understanding, and their combined intent, social justice is restored in the city of Uruk and the people are happy. Many fierce battles are fought by the two Heroes together as equals, side-by-side, “against the dark demons of the world” – and particularly the giant Chumbaba of the Far West.

Exegesis : This first part of the epic could be seen as illustrating the warring aspects of Man, personified by the different characters of the two heroes: ‘natural’ and ‘civilized’, ‘untaught’ and ‘taught’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘egocentric’; and the positive outcome of reconciling this duality. In any case, it presents a strong image of the benefits of co-operation and civil law.

But the second part introduces another theme, and concerns the search for the secret of immortality. When Enkiddu, his beloved companion, falls sick and dies, Gilgamesh is faced with the deeper questions of physical decay and death (like Gothama the Buddha). He is forced to accept, to mourn, to reflect and to confront the fleeting nature of his own existence – for he himself is partly human, not invulnerable like the gods. Audacity and pride have brought him low; and the unreliability of human emotion is demonstrated to him by the revenge of the goddess Ishtar (for she is also the goddess of Love) : enamoured of him, but rejected, she haunts his friend Enkiddu to his death.

He searches for answers, as do all the heroes, in many places – even to the “ends of the world”.

And he is confronted again by Ishtar, who advises him not to pursue his quest, but to learn to be content with the mortal joys of life. In the fragment of an old text recently deciphered she says: “Gilgamesh, why dost thou run about this way? The life that thou art seeking, thou wilt never find. When the gods created man, they put death upon mankind, and held life in their own hands. Fill thy belly, day and night enjoy thyself…let thy clothes be handsome, thy head shampooed, thy body bathed…Let thy wife be happy against thy bosom.” But he persists and she lets him pass, warning him of the dangers to come: it would seem that he has passed the test, the first initiation.

At last he descends to the Underworld, where he meets Umnapishti, on whom the gods have bestowed immortality. Like Noah in Genesis, he has survived the Great Flood which destroyed everything else, and remains a witness for future generations. He lives on the inaccessible mountain island where his boat had once landed. Gilgamesh asks how it is possible to acquire immortality. Umnapishti tells him that it was the gods who instructed him to build a boat when the Flood came and how he and his family were saved – for eternity. That is: he had been given immortal life, he had not earned it, or merited it himself. So we understand that it was a gift of the gods for a specific purpose – which leads to a questioning of whether it is available to all men…and in what manner it can be attained …

To quote from the text of the Epic : Umnapishti says : “Do we build a house forever? Do we seal contracts forever? Does hatred persist forever in the land? Does the river forever raise up and bring on floods? Since the days of yore there has been no permanence. The resting of the dead, how alike they are! Do they not compose a picture of death, the commoner and the noble, once they are near to their fate…” But he encourages him by adding : “It may be that the gods would do the same for you as they have for me. Have you not accomplished super-human feats?” And he challenges him to sit, praying to the gods, for six days and nights without sleeping: “Sleep is a kind of death; if you are overcome by sleep, how can you vanquish death?” But, of course, Gilgamesh cannot resist and he ultimately falls asleep.

So from him Gilgamesh learns something of the meaning of life – its gifts, its possibilities, its implications. The old man would appear to represent the archetypal Counsellor, the sage, the guru, the inner spiritual Guide. He is even told where to find the magic plant which could renew his youth if eaten. It grows at the bottom of a well (symbolic of the Ocean of Life). But, as is the way of such things, having retrieved it, he is again overcome by sleep, drops his guard and loses his treasure. A serpent carries it off into the undergrowth, and as it goes, its old skin falls off, and it becomes young once more. In one version by Lancelyn Green, Gilgamesh sobs: “For whom have my hands toiled? For whom has my heart’s blood been spent? I have brought no blessing on myself after all my wanderings – all I have done is to give fresh youth to the serpents of the earth!” Gilgamesh has misunderstood the true meaning of immortality, that it is not of the body but of the soul. And the Tale concludes with the words : “Sadly he returned to Uruk and lived out his days there as a good and mighty king whom his people loved and honoured for his mighty deeds. And when the end of his life came, Gilgamesh dies as all men must, and went to seek his friend Enkiddu in the dark and cheerless realm of the Land of No Return..” – a very fatalistic conclusion and a deep sense of opportunities lost, potential unrealised. It reflects the times for which it was composed, and is echoed in much of subsequent Northern mythology. The ancient gods of the people of the Euphrates are powerful figures who can be entreated, but keep their distance from the affairs of man. Theirs is a world apart .

Within the vast framework of this great narrative poem we find not only the adventures of the perennial Hero-soul, unfolded in terms of ancient Middle-Eastern mythology, but also the beginnings of civilisation itself, an account of the Great Flood, as well as a debate on the vital questions of death, immortality and lasting fame. What is it that the Hero really seeks? How wide and deep is his vision? How much wisdom is he able to receive and guard with vigilance?

Here portrayed in the figure of the great Warrior-King Gilgamesh, he has yet to break free from the wheel of Fate, to discover the way of Hope and Faith and the Divine Presence “deep-seated in the heart”. Which is where we meet Arjuna, Prince of the Pandavis, and the Way of Liberation.

(2) The Vision of Arjuna

Hidden within the great Hindu Epic of the “Mahabharata”, we find a jewel of sacred mythology, the Bhagavad Gita, or “ Song of the Lord”. The Hero Arjuna is given a vision of the Divine Saviour, Lord Krishna, and of the amazing potentiality of Man, the microcosm, capable of embracing the whole of the universe in which he lives.

Opposing Forces: Once again, Man’s condition is represented as a battlefield: “the perplexity of life among the pairs of opposites” (as one editor writes). And symbolically the sacred instruction of the Lord Krishna to Arjuna is contained within a long narrative poem, telling the history of two great warring families. It has been called “The Story of the World”, so vast is its canvas.

The Gita itself constitutes a tranquil, timeless moment: a spiritual dialogue between Arjuna (the Hero-Soul) and Krishna (his Guide and charioteer), before the inevitable battle begins. As well as confronting a great moral dilemma, it points the Way to final liberation of the soul from the apparent tragedies of earthly existence. This great Dialogue is a separate poem, yet enclosed organically within the Mahabharata. It employs both philosophy and revelation to lift the consciousness beyond and above the concerns of transient life – to resolution of conflict and final transformation.

Two Royal Families: The five princely sons of Pandu, of which Arjuna is the third, have been forced to live in forest exile, and undergo various trials in true heroic tradition, before finally emerging to confront their adversaries, the Kauravas, in battle. As a final insult, they have been refused their right to five small villages: they have been dispossessed of their birthright.

(The symbolism of the five villages is seen to represent the five-fold unity of Man; and the three elder princes to embody the traditional ideals of Justice, Patriotism, and Intelligence. Certainly the searching mind of Arjuna seeks out Truth with the swiftness of an arrow from his own great bow.)

Their opposing relatives, the Kauravas, are said to have a thousand followers: warriors in the great army which is ranged against the disinherited Pandavas. Thus the scene is set, and so far appears to be just part of the ancient epic code; but what is envisaged is nothing less than genocide, for the respective leaders are members of the same royal family.

Both sides have a common progenitor in King Bharata, and over the years they have striven for the possession of a great City. The names are historical, but their lives are embroidered by myth to enhance the drama. It is set at the close of the ancient Indian age of chivalry, when “the whole feudal aristocracy of the land was self-exterminated in a bloodbath of mutual slaughter”.

The families are shown to diverge widely in character: the Pandavas reflect their royal descent, while the Kauravas are divisive and belligerent. From this come inevitable acts of injustice, rejection, revenge and retribution, of survival and death.

The great moral dilemma : It is at this point that we find inserted the 18 poetic chapters of the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord”, one of the world’s most precious scriptures. Krishna has offered to act as charioteer to Arjuna, his friend, to guide him to victory. But, faced with the implications of imminent action against blood-relatives and old friends, Arjuna is suddenly overcome with emotion and doubt. He turns to Krishna for guidance beyond that of a charioteer. He seeks answers to the ultimate questions of duty, life and death. The replies from Sri Krishna give spiritual instruction on the five Paths (or Margas) to the attainment of psychological and spiritual purification.

The Teaching: In retellings of the Story, many editors have given their interpretation; for example: “Arjuna is typical of the hero-soul, baffled and disheartened for a moment by the perplexities of life … for the Soul could never become conscious of its strength had it never to encounter any opposition.” One translator gives the following words to Arjuna: “My limbs fail, my mouth is parched, my hair is standing on end. Better that I myself should die here than that I should initiate this battle. I would not kill. ..” And Lord Krishna piercingly replies: “Whence this ignoble cowardice?….Grieve not for the living or the dead; never did I not exist, nor you, nor these rulers of men, nor can any one of us hereafter cease to be.” Or again: “Your proper concern is alone the action of duty, not the fruits of the action…perform your duty.” And “Krishna assures Arjuna that, even if he wished, he could not actually kill his kinsmen or anyone else, for he is no more than an instrument of the universal will, and all that he appears to destroy is merely a husk, while the inward part is forever beyond the reach of harm.”

The Vision:

As the Teaching proceeds, the Lord Krishna transfigures Himself before the astonished Arjuna, to illustrate His words: “I am the Supreme Lord of All. I take birth in every age… I am the essence of everything, Arjuna…Nothing can exist without existing through Me. I am Time itself…” (We are reminded of the Transfiguration of the Christ before his disciples. He becomes “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.)

Arjuna remains alert to the teaching throughout each astounding transformation. He thus represents the true Thinker. And when the visions cease and Krishna resumes the form of his noble cousin, he has understood that everything and everyone is part of the Divine Being; that war was just another act in the story of mankind, repeating itself throughout the centuries. What is vital is to maintain awareness of the Divine Consciousness within. He will perform his duty, regardless of defeat or victory, and leave the result to God. We are in a perpetual state of becoming; at each stage it is the duty of Man to act with as much courage and integrity as his condition allows.

The Chariot and the Charioteer: One striking metaphor which is used here and in other traditions is that of the body as a chariot (physical vehicle of the soul), guided by intelligence (buddhi) as the charioteer, and mind (manas) as the reins: “Know the Self, the Atman seated in the chariot…the senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses, their roads”. (Katha Upanishad) The body is a God-given vehicle, to be adequately cared for and properly used, a world in itself. “A weakened body means a weakened mind” (Katha Upanishad). The two horses are to be reasonably controlled, not whipped to death with unnecessary asceticism.

“God in all things” : The great triumph of the Hero Arjuna lies in the transfiguring Vision – the blinding perception of the One God in all its aspects: as ultimate Creator, Destroyer and Regenerator of the world. “God in all things and all things in God.” It is this personal experience of Divinity that is the guarantee of final release into the super-personal unity of the Absolute; and this gives spiritual impetus in the flight of the Soul to the Unknown.

The End of the Story: After the Dialogue of the Gita, the main narrative of the Mahabharata itself concludes, and we find the five brothers, now weary, old and disillusioned with life, on their way to the sacred heights of the Himalayas in search of heavenly rest. There, finally, the whole spectacle of life and death, of heaven and hell, is seen to be only illusion (maya), and none of the characters had ever left “the bliss of Indra’s heaven”. From this, we understand that none had truly died – not warriors from one side or the other – for all are together in the After-life. And so the Epic ends.

Thus, the main story of the Mahabharata deals with the adventures and trials of the Hero as mortal man – but the Bhagavad Gita reveals the way of immortality. It is the inner world that has been conquered, the inner conflict resolved. Guided on his journey to self-mastery, Arjuna completes one cycle and knows what it is to be fully human, and to see all worlds as one world – whole and integral, eternal and infinite. Such is the destiny of all true Hero-souls, and promises the start of the journey in God.