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Episode 0059 Pt 20
I have had much to say in these pages about adversity, disappointment, and even the loss of everything that the protagonists hold dear. But the world’s religious narratives are not, by and large, tragic. In most cases, the heroes and heroines of these stories are victorious in the end. Victory, however, is not simply a matter of attaining personal goals. In the process of trying to achieve their goals, something more important has happened to them. Those who surmount their problems become greater than they were before, in a variety of ways.
At last, after a long war, Rama faces his enemy Ravana and defeats him, freeing his wife Sita from her prison. Sita, too, must face one more terrible ordeal in order to prove that she remained faithful to Rama during her captivity. Once all of this has been accomplished, Brahma, ruler of the gods, tells Rama the truth about himself: that he is not actually the man Rama but the god Vishnu, born as a man in order to vanquish Ravana (Ramayana, volume 3, book 6, chapter 119).
Now, in retrospect, everything makes sense. His father Dasaratha had to exile him so that he could go to the forest and prepare for his fight with Ravana. Once in the wilderness, his meditations had to be interrupted by demons so that he could gain practice destroying them. The gods could not help him when he was desperate because he had to face Ravana himself. And Sita had to be taken from him so that he would hunt Ravana down and defeat him. Now it all comes back to him, and he sees that there was a plan—his plan—working itself out all along.
Something more important than military victory has occurred: Rama has advanced in his development. As a result of his struggles, he is an entirely new person—or rather, he is finally aware of who he really is. Although he has achieved his goal of winning back Sita from her captor, what is really important is not his accomplishments but the change that has come over him as a result of what he has accomplished.
The Hebrew scriptures contain many stories and, consequently, many moments of victory. Jacob, the supplanter, becomes Israel, a prince. Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, emerges as a governor in Egypt. The Hebrew slaves are liberated from bondage in Egypt. The land which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is settled by their descendants. David, for so long a fugitive, becomes king. The people of Judah return from the Babylonian Captivity and rebuild their society under the spiritual direction of the scribes.
But in each of these cases, too, something important has occurred over and above the attainment of the heroes’ goals. In each case, the hero has become a qualitatively different person as a result of his adventures.
After more than five hundred incarnations, the future Buddha attains enlightenment and becomes the Buddha in truth. This is not simply one achievement in one lifetime but rather the culmination of all of his achievements during all of his incarnations. And the result is not simply the attainment of a goal but the transformation of the hero into something greater than he ever was in any of his previous lives.
In the New Testament gospels, Christ rises from the dead and continues to teach his disciples (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21; Acts 1:1-11). Then, on the day of Pentecost, his Spirit empowers them to speak for him with eloquence to people from all parts of the known world (Acts 2). At Pentecost, we see Christs’ disciples as we have never seen them before. No longer mere fishermen, tax collectors, or harlots, they have now advanced to the status of ambassadors for the King of Kings.
In the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Christ arrives to establish his kingdom in America (Book of Mormon, III Nephi 11-26 (Kirtland ed: 5-12)). He teaches the people a new way of life, one that transcends the categories within which they have customarily lived. As a result, their society eventually rids itself of poverty, class divisions, crime, and war (Ibid., IV Nephi 1:1-18 (Kirtland ed: 1:1-21)). People are healed of their bodily illnesses and of all ill-will toward one another. They are no longer Nephites or Lamanites, for they have become one people. They have done far more than achieve a goal; they have advanced to a higher way of life.
Gilgamesh travels to the underworld and learns what he wants to know about mortality. But he does more than that: he becomes wise. Prince Arjuna learns a number of things about Krishna, but he, too, does more than that: he gains the ability to live for Krishna only, putting aside the attempt to enjoy the fruits of his actions.
In each case, something far more important than victory has occurred. The heroes have changed. Indeed, they have changed at such a fundamental level that all aspects of their lives are affected, especially those aspects that are normally considered secular. They do not just feel different; they are different. Nor do they need to go out looking for opportunities to tell anyone about their transformation. The change is obvious.
In retrospect, we can see that this transformation is not an afterthought on the part of the storytellers. Rather, all the obstacles the heroes faced were intended for this purpose: to mold them into exemplary individuals.