Heroism is an essential feature of human nature.
But what makes the best type of hero?
Do you have what it takes?
by Kundali dasa
Cultural systems, says author Ernest Becker, serve as vehicles for heroism. And I he greatest hero, he says, is the “Knight of Faith”, that rare person who “lives centered on the energies of his Maker.”
Every so often I come across an article lamenting the shortage of real heroes today. The latest was an amusing piece in Newsweek by Ralph Schoenstein, who describes a visit to his daughter’s third-grade class. He asked the twenty students of eight and nine to name the three greatest people they had heard about:
“‘Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields, and Boy George,’ said a small blond girl, giving me one from all three sexes.
“‘Michael Jackson, Spider-Man, and God,’ a boy then said, naming a new holy trinity.”
Other favorites were Batman, Ronald Reagan, and Mr. T, “a hero who likes to move people by saying, ‘Sucker, I’ll break your face.'” Schoenstein was not impressed. His heroes are more traditional types—Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. Still, he had anticipated hearing from the children the names he did. What surprised him were the eight children who said “Me,” naming themselves as their own heroes. Schoenstein disapproved. He concluded:
“It’s sad to see the faces on Mount Rushmore replaced by rock stars, brawlers, and cartoons, but it’s sadder still to see Mount Rushmore replaced by a mirror.”
Many people would agree with Schoenstein. They would be more disappointed by the eight children who said “Me” than by the ones who named a cross-dresser, a cartoon wall-climber, and a tough-talking brawler as their heroes. As for myself, I wholeheartedly agree with Schoenstein about the shortage of heroes, but I disagree about those eight children. Had I been in that classroom, I would have advised them to be very serious about being heroes. I would have encouraged them to become the best of all possible heroes.
Human Nature and the Heroic
No popular writer in recent times has done a more brilliant job explaining the psychology of heroism than the late Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death, he presents vigorous arguments and clear, scholarly evidence to support his conviction that personal heroism is a universal and essential feature of human nature. Critics praised The Denial of Death as a “rare masterpiece,” and the book won Becker the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Finding many of Becker’s main ideas in agreement with the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, I took the critical acclaim his book had received as an indirect appreciation of the Krsna consciousness movement. His analysis of heroism explains why I disagree with Schoenstein.
According to Becker’s analysis, heroism is a “vital truth” that has somehow not received the attention it deserves. Yet thinkers always knew it was important. Around the turn of the century, William James noted, “Mankind’s common instinct for reality . . . has always held the world to be a theatre for heroism.” But how deeply rooted, how central, the urge to heroism is in human nature, no one had fully appreciated. Now, says Becker, “we have achieved the remarkable feat of exposing that reality in a scientific way.” That urge is the very reason people still thrill to the works of Emerson and Nietzsche: “We like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic.”
Yet surprisingly, we repress our urge to heroism. Becker writes:
We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bankbook to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache for cosmic specialness no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.
But if everyone feels the pang of desire for cosmic specialness, the urge to heroism must be natural. Why, then, do we try to repress it? Why are we intimidated or shocked, as Schoenstein was, when someone honestly admits his heroic urge?
Becker sees a very good reason for this. Imagine what would happen if every man, woman, and child came forward and in unison admitted their urge to heroism, shrilly demanding their due—a primary sense of value—from society. How could any society meet such an honest demand? If suddenly people began clamoring to claim their sense of cosmic specialness, it would wreak havoc everywhere. It would, in Becker’s words, “release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.”
We repress our urge to heroism, therefore, to avoid a social catastrophe. We feign indifference toward heroism while within we long for and quietly work at it. The main function of a cultural system, says Becker, is to provide us with an orderly vehicle for realizing our urge to heroism. Becker describes with precision the workings of a cultural system.
The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over, . . . from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest; the plain everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.”
From here on Becker develops his arguments to show that our urge to heroism is a manifestation of an innate desire to achieve immortality, to deny death, and, ultimately, to become God. How else can a person justify his bid to become the object of primary value in the cosmic scheme? “He would have to become as God,” replies Becker. Then he queries, “What right do you have to play God?”
In a nutshell, Becker thinks it a foolhardy illusion for us to try to become God. He considers the living being too insignificant, too “fragmentary,” to fake God’s place.
Maximum Cosmic Specialness
Becker’s conclusion here agrees with the Krsna conscious understanding of why the pure soul leaves the spiritual world and comes to the material world in the first place: to usurp the position of God, to try to be the biggest hero. Knowing that motive, however, is only a partial understanding of our urge to heroism. On the deepest spiritual level, our urge to heroism stems from the fact that we are, in a limited sense, “as God.”
Constitutionally, each soul is part and parcel of God, the Supreme Soul, who is the epitome of cosmic specialness. Being small “samples” of the Supreme, we naturally experience, to a small degree, a desire for cosmic specialness, because the qualities of the whole are found, in lesser degree, in its parts. (Although unaware of this important ontological fact, Becker, as we shall see, still arrives at a correct conclusion.) A part is never equal to the whole; rather, experience shows that the part serves the whole. This means that the only way we can realize our fullest heroic potential is through our natural relation of service to God.
But how do we realize our fullest heroic potential in relationship to God? Becker’s answer is in complete consonance with Krsna consciousness: “In the game of life and death no one stands taller than any other, unless it be a true saint.”
Consider the logic of this conclusion. After all, if we cannot fulfill our urge to heroism, even up to the extent of trying to become God, then the logical thing would be to become a hero on God’s behalf, by excelling in His service. This intimate and confidential relationship with God, the position of the saint, is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.4.68). The Lord says, “Saints are always within the core of My heart, and I am always in their hearts. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them.” This is maximum cosmic specialness for the minute soul.
The Knight of Faith
To symbolize the heroic stature of a true saint, Becker borrowed the term “knight of faith” from the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. It conveys the image of an ideal knight, one who is pure-hearted, unselfish, courageous, merciful, tolerant, chivalrous, and dedicated to truth and goodness in the struggle against ignorance and evil—all traits we expect to find in a saintly person. Says Becker:
This figure is the man who lives in faith, who has given over the meaning of life to His Creator, and who lives centered on the energies of his Maker. He accepts whatever happens in this visible dimension without complaint, lives his life as a duty, faces his death without a qualm, . . . no task is too frightening to be beyond his courage. The great strength of such an ideal is that it allows one to be open, generous, courageous, to touch others’ lives and to enrich them and to open them in turn. As the knight of faith has no fear-of-life-and-death trip to lay on to others, he does not cause them to shrink back upon themselves, he does not coerce or manipulate them.
The knight of faith is the most awe-inspiring and challenging of ideals. Here is a hero-model fit only for those rare persons who recognize their urge to heroism and who have resolved to go all the way in fulfilling it. Success on this path, however, requires an extraordinary measure of faith—faith only a hero can muster. How else can a person surrender to the will of another, especially of one who is invisible?
Even Kierkegaard, Becker points out, could not muster that much faith. He understood life’s central challenge, but he couldn’t meet it. He couldn’t make “the leap of faith” he considered requisite—for all men who would commune with transcendent God. Nor could Becker meet the challenge. This indicates that to answer the call to full heroism, intellectual understanding is not enough.
How, then, does one develop the necessary faith? “Sainthood,” wrote Becker, “is a matter of grace and not of human effort.” Yet he did not explain how faith is to be achieved. But Kierkegaard did. In Fear and Trembling he indicated that the aspiring knight of faith should follow the example and instruction of an already perfected knight.
I candidly admit that in my practice I have not found any reliable example of the knight of faith. . . . But if I knew where there was such a knight of faith, I would make a pilgrimage to him on foot, for his prodigy interest me absolutely. I would not let go of him for an instant . . . I would regard myself as secured for life, and would divide my time between looking at him and practicing the exercises myself.
The idea Kierkegaard expresses here is a fundamental principle of Krsna consciousness, that one must accept a qualified spiritual master and through him receive the grace necessary for sainthood. Such persons are very, very rare. Kierkegaard confessed that he searched years for one, but to no avail. A spiritual master must be a true hero, a knight of faith who has been trained by his own spiritual master and who is now ready to train others. By precept and by example, he must train his disciple, the would-be knight of faith, to develop full faith in God.
The knight of faith is a hero. His life is an adventurous odyssey, as heroically he strives to overcome all obstacles on the spiritual path. He learns to control his senses, to subdue his passions, to relinquish material attachments, to enlighten others about spiritual life, and to transcend fear of death and death itself. Finally, by God’s grace, he enters the spiritual world, never to return to this place of birth and death. Krsna sums up this ultimate victory of the knight of faith in the Bhagavad-gita (8.15): “After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”
Yet those who are ignorant of the ideal heroism of the knight of faith often look upon him with disfavor. Sometimes they hold that saintly life is irrelevant to society and appeals only to the inept and the weak-hearted. In fact, however, the calling to be a knight of faith is for the strongest, most heroic individuals. This Becker appreciated despite his inability to answer the call: “To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve—and so it is fitting that this should fall to the strongest personality type.
Anything less is less than full development, even if it seems like weakness and compromise to the best thinkers.”
The Crisis of Society
In the knight of faith, we have the highest expression of the urge to heroism and cosmic specialness. Now, what society, what cultural hero-system, is best suited for creating knights of faith?
Alas, here Becker’s brilliance fades. For all his insightful analysis of the psychology of heroism, he could not answer this all-important question. He acknowledged that many religions describe an ideal akin to the knight of faith, but he could not recommend any of them. Since, as he saw things, a religion and the culture surrounding it are inseparable, if for some reason the culture is discredited, “then the church supporting that culture automatically discredits itself.” And Becker discredited Western culture with its emphasis on “the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges,” as ignoble, debasing heroics. Consequently, he found religion “no longer valid as a hero system.” The crisis of society, therefore, is that a wide breach exists between culture at large and the ideal of saintly heroics set by the various religions.
In terms of Becker’s prize-winning thesis that cultural systems are really hero-systems and that the ultimate hero is the saint, the solution to the crisis of society is a social system wherein cultural and saintly heroics are integrated into one smooth synthesis. Becker knew of no current society wherein such a religiocultural synthesis occurred. The Vedic culture of ancient India, however, perfectly fulfills the requirements of a true hero-system.
The Vedic culture—technically called the varnasrama system—by scientifically integrating religious and cultural heroics, aims at making its participants into knights of faith. In Vedic society this is achieved largely by the members individually working on developing saintly character while simultaneously holding their particular social and occupational positions. Saintly character is revered as the topmost heroic achievement and is the common ideal sought by all citizens. In Vedic society, no one has to compete for this topmost heroism, because it depends not on the amassing of money and privileges but on a change of heart.
This is in stark contrast to other cultural systems, where one must invariably earn his sense of heroic worth by subduing or vanquishing his competitors. In the Vedic system, the more a person can help others in the pursuit of sainthood, the more he is successful in his endeavor to be a knight of faith. This paramount concern for others and the offer of topmost heroism to all are the true excellence of Vedic culture. As Becker said, “The great strength of such an ideal is that it allows one . . . to touch others’ lives and to enrich them and to open them in turn.”
Up until about ten centuries ago in India, the Vedic culture existed in an unadulterated state. The system began to disintegrate after India was repeatedly invaded by heroes of other cultures, feverish to earn their sense of cosmic specialness by lording it over others. In recent times, therefore, no one has seen the Vedic system fully operative. What has been perjoratively labeled “the caste system” is but the vestiges of the once glorious Vedic culture of India. Today, it is all but lost. In fact, hardly anyone even has a true conception of Vedic culture. The Krsna consciousness movement, however, is trying to restore it, the only culture designed to produce knights of faith, and even to propagate it all over the world.
The Krsna consciousness movement is based on the ideals of Vedic culture. Even before Becker wrote The Denial of Death, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the Krsna consciousness movement, described Krsna consciousness as “a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of society,” in his introduction to the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Only because of his misconception about what a real hero is, Schoenstein was dismayed by the eight children who named themselves as heroes. He was alarmed to think that young children could be so self-centered. He couldn’t see their potential for becoming the best 6f all possible heroes.
Had I been there, I would have told them about the Vedic culture and encouraged them to take to Krsna consciousness and become knights of faith. Nor would Schoenstein need to worry about Mount Rushmore being replaced by a mirror. A knight of faith is humble; he never seeks profit, adoration, or distinction for himself. His only interest is to be engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He looks upon his fellow knights as the real heroes and aspires to become their menial servant. How about you, would you like to be a real hero?