The Second Labor – To Destroy the Lernaean
(revised version, spring 2016)
second labor is the first task he took on after arming himself with an
invincible philosophy. There are some variations in the story, but the gist is
this. Hercules was asked to destroy the Hydra, a water dragon or serpent,
living in the Swamp of Lerna. It had many heads, at least nine, and was so
venomous that its very breath was poisonous. Hercules lured it out of its lair
with flaming arrows. It caught his foot in one of its coils and the battle was
on. Hercules would smash a head with his club, but a new one grew right back.
In some versions two grew back. Luckily Hercules was accompanied by his friend
and charioteer Iolaus, a role similar to Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita by the
way. With his help the Hydra was conquered. First Hercules would bash a head to
smithereens, then Iolaus would cauterize the neck with either a torch or a
red-hot iron. That took care of all but the last head, which turned out to be
immortal. Hercules cut it off and buried it in the earth, rolling a huge stone
over it to keep it in place. Then he dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood
of the serpent, and headed off for his next labor.
this demonstrates is that problems often are very persistent. As soon as you
deal with one, two more spring up in its place. That’s because we aren’t
getting to the root of the problem, but only dealing with its most superficial aspect,
its face or head. We won’t thoroughly overcome our problems until they are
dealt with at the source. This is by no means an easy task. It takes an intense
fire of intelligence to discern the root of a problem and confront it there.
Most of the time we have to have help; we can’t do it alone.
fact that one of the Hydra’s heads is immortal tells us that we will always face
challenges. A happy life includes knowing how to effectively deal with
problems, because they never disappear permanently.
ordinary activities have a proliferating nature resembling the Hydra’s regenerative
powers. When we decide to do something simple, more and more sacrifices are
necessitated by it. For instance, if a person wants to have sex, they can’t
just walk up to someone and do it, they have to preen and make themselves look
respectable. They have to earn money for a date. They may even have to get
married, which means they have to get a job first, which means they have to
study in school first, and so on. So one simple desire breeds a thousand
necessities before it can be satisfied.
you want to start a business. It starts with a simple impulse, but then there
are endless details to be dealt with. It becomes a never-ending nightmare of
attending to minutia, where the simple act of buying and selling is overwhelmed
in regulations and compromises, in scheming and deceit. And once we engage with
this “monster” of resistance to our goals—what my father used to call the
obstinacy of the inanimate— in whatever form we have decided to meet it, we may
well become caught up in its coils to the point where there is no escape.
can see this myth played out all around us in the transactional world. But the
ancient rishis didn’t write myths to caution us about courting or business
practices. As Dr. Mees reminds us, the purpose of myths “is more profound. The
aim of religion is to make man happier and to help him find peace and bliss,
within himself and in his relation to the world without. It does not make
anyone happier to know how the material world is created (assuming that such
knowledge is possible at all) and how the physical processes take place and can
be controlled.” (The Key to Genesis, p. 9) We must look deeper yet to reveal
what the Herculean myth is getting at.
philosophy in hand, the first order of business for a budding spiritual
aspirant is to confront the negative aspects of the psyche lying buried in the
subconscious. In Vedanta these are referred to as samskaras and vasanas, the
seeds of past actions and misunderstandings, which sprout and proliferate
primarily as hindrances, but also opportunities. A novice treats these as
“evil” and desperately tries to suppress them, and especially to keep them out
of sight of other people, who might then judge the novice as being bad or at
least inferior. Fearing exposure, the ego strives mightily for suppression of
these “monsters from the id,” but suppression causes them to come back
Hydra-like, with redoubled force. Like a steam boiler without a relief valve,
pressure builds up to a maddening degree. At first the system is poisoned, but
eventually the whole tank may rupture, causing a psychic explosion. It is thus
critical to find a way other than repression to curb chaotic inner urges.
actually happened already to Hercules, who killed his whole family in a fit a
madness. His Labors are his means to expiate the disaster he caused. Many of us
ordinary mortals are also initiated into spirituality as a means to expiate our
guilt for bad behavior. If we think of “killing” as including alienating or
emotionally devastating our close friends, then many of us have exploded in a
similar manner to Hercules….
of what passes for spirituality is the dominance of libidinal inner pressures
by a hyperactive ego dedicated to their forceful eradication. By contrast, the
healthy spirituality that Hercules is seeking will be a harmonious expression
of the same inner forces, which are not innately good or evil, but only
subterranean. Antisocial, or even impolite, you might say. The Bible refers to
this aspect in Luke 19:37-40. Jesus’ disciples are excited and carrying on, and
the guardians of social propriety insist that he shut them up, make them
behave. He replies, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the
stones would immediately cry out.” He knew they needed to let off libidinal
processing these inner urges is one of the most complex and pressing tasks set
before the aspirant. The Greek myth counsels us that fire, symbolizing
conscious intelligence, is the key. Intense concentration—intense caring—is
needed to make the fire hot enough. Hercules first coaxes the demon out of its
cave with flaming arrows, which are well-directed and penetrating thoughts
aimed precisely at the problem. The heads are later seared with a hand-held torch,
ever a symbol of the light of wisdom shining forth in the darkness. We can
think of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Luckily, Hercules is already
armed with an excellent philosophy, filled with light. Plus, he has a helper.
This is one task he cannot possible do alone. Our low-grade personal fire is
not likely to be bright enough for the task, but a wise teacher can help us bring
the necessary intense heat to bear in the right places.
rishis speak of roasting the seeds of karma (vasanas) so that they can’t
sprout. The cauterization of the Hydra heads is the same process. They must be
destroyed by the fire of wisdom. Until you really grasp how harmful they are,
how useless, part of the mind wants to trot them out and take a look at them
one more time. It keeps a few in reserve, just in case it wants to play with
them. When you truly understand how past conditioning binds you—like being held
fast in the coils of the Hydra—the realization can develop enough heat to
finally scorch the vasanas once and for all.
referring to the effort involved
with spiritual striving, literally means generating heat, or transforming with
heat. Often this is taken to mean the heat of repressed emotions, stemming from
the conflict between personal desires and scriptural injunctions. The myth and
the rishis suggest otherwise: tapas is the white heat of uncompromising
awareness, of being fully cognizant of what normally lurks in the shadows.
Bringing light automatically dispels darkness. All we have to do is keep
ourselves from shrinking back or running away. There is real courage involved
in entering the demon’s lair.
Bhagavad Gita refers to the equivalent of the Hydra myth in this way: “Here (in
yoga) the well-founded reasoning is unitive, but many branched and endless are
the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.” (II, 41) This means that
the original unity of reality can be viewed as either pro or con, good or evil.
Once that happens, each side can be taken in isolation, and they will be found
to have ever more pros and cons. Each of these increasingly peripheral
arguments has its strong and weak points, and so on, ad infinitum. At each
stage the original unity becomes more remote, until it is obliterated entirely.
club Hercules uses to smash each head might represent the crude examination of
ordinary, or ill-founded, reason. It is obviously inadequate for the task at
hand. It works only for a second. Luckily this crude handling is followed up by
the application of the fire of intelligence by Iolaus, who may well be acting
as his guru. Like Krishna. The fire is applied with a red-hot iron, indicating
intense determination, as in a will of iron. When the coils of karma want to
sweep you off your feet, you have to put all you’ve got into standing firm,
even at times to holding on to your very sanity, which may be severely shaken.
Chaitanya Yati speaks eloquently of this stage of spiritual unfoldment:
When you come to this
level, all single items of experience are like fuel for the fire of your
understanding. That is why the Bhagavad Gita says the fire of wisdom burns away
all ignorance. And what is this ignorance we speak of? In Vedanta, ignorance is
considered to be that which creates a desire.
Desires create the visualization
ways to satisfy them. The visualization of means to satisfactory ends initiates
action; the idea of action builds momentum in you to act; and ultimately the
action brings about an apparently new situation. As the new situation ebbs it
is replaced by a sense of loss, which in turn initiates another desire. From
the new desire arises the need to have another action. Thus one action leads to
another, endlessly. This is called bondage.
[To be released from bondage]
have to make a distinction between taking a relativistic path through life,
with many compromises and half-baked notions about things—in other words, a
pretentious life—and a thoroughgoing search made with great intensity, into
which you put your whole mind and spirit, and where you will accept nothing
less than complete understanding in every situation. This allows you to own
your life entirely and live it with absolute clarity. Until it becomes totally
clear to you, you refuse to take it. That changes your stature from a
relativist to an absolutist.
The contemplative… is not just a
person who sits in lotus pose in a room with his eyes closed, meditating, but
one whose whole life is engulfed in the white heat of a meaningful search. The
search can take any form, but it is its thoroughness, the intensity of the
pursuit, and the minute details to which one's best attention is given in all
earnestness, that [are what is required]. You don't slack up even for a second.
(That Alone, verse 82)
exemplifies this intensity in his battle with the Hydra. If he slacks off for
even an instant he will be destroyed! Sharp fangs and poisonous breath are
assaulting him from every angle. But he stays with it, full of righteous
intensity. One by one the hostile heads are crushed and then cauterized with
last of the heads turned out to be immortal, unkillable. This refers to the
eternal nature of vasanas. Everything we do, good, bad or indifferent, plants
seeds of future travails. Therefore the last vestigial urges of selfishness
cannot be totally destroyed, but they can be pinned down under a rock of firm
determination so that they cannot rise again. I also see this as possibly
communicating the sympathetic humor of some bygone guru, letting us know that
we will never be fully free of vasanas until we are liberated by the grave.
Only when we are safely tucked in the ground with a stone over our head will
the Hydra leave us in perfect peace….
Hercules does an interesting thing: he dips his arrows in the poisonous blood
of the monster. This demonstrates that we must take what we’ve learned from
every encounter. We don’t just walk away and that’s it. The very thing that
caused the repulsion and the striving can become a positive factor to bring to
bear on the next challenge. As Nataraja Guru would tell us, there is no
principle of the excluded middle in this philosophy. Ancient wisdom is
dialectic. Good never triumphs over evil, nor evil over good. Through wisdom
they are brought together in harmony. The modern cliché is we learn from our
mistakes. If there is no connection between our good side and the evil we
encounter, the conflict would be essentially meaningless.
enough, precisely because Hercules relies on his helper’s expertise and not
purely his own, this labor “didn’t count” toward expiating the guilt that
propelled him into his spiritual struggles. Eurystheus, the Mycenean king who
set the labors, did not consider this a victory by Hercules. This may be only an
afterthought, a later addition to the myth, or it may be significant.
Triumphing over the vasanas is a tremendous accomplishment, and few if any of
us will ever achieve it alone. Kings, however, are famous for their
ill-considered opinions in myth and fable and even in actuality. By rights Eurystheus
should represent a wise teacher though. Probably, like Marpa, or for that
matter Nataraja Guru, he is using a technicality, a trick to keep Hercules busy
with his spiritual unfoldment. Realization requires far more than just two
Labors! And it’s reasonable to admit that whatever we do on someone else’s
coattails is preliminary to us exercising our full recognizance.
you read it, Hercules’ second labor speaks to us from the primordial past in
vivid pictorial language, imparting a timeless spiritual lesson for those to
read who will.
I recently came across the Northwest Native American myth of the Sisiutl, which
resembles the Hydra in some intriguing respects. Here are a couple of citations
from the internet:
monster, Sisiutl, roamed the land and sea of the Kwakiutl and Nootka peoples.
It had two heads, and could transform itself into different sizes and shapes.
It was believed that anyone viewing a Sisiutl would be turned to stone, but if
a warrior could obtain Sisiutl blood and rub it on his skin, it would render
his skin impenetrable to enemy weapons. (http://www.metalartsgroup.com/legends.php?lcd=sisiutl)
two-headed sea serpent that guarded the entrance to the homes of the
supernaturals, Sisiutl was believed to kill and eat anyone who saw it; washing
in its blood turned a person to stone. Transformed into a self-propelled canoe
that must be fed seals, this is a creature unique to Kwagiutl mythology.
It makes one wonder if there could be some
arcane connection with the ancient Greeks. Finally, there is a fine book of
Native American stories by Anne Cameron, called Daughters of Copper Woman, (Vancouver,
B.C: Press Gang Publishers, 1981), in which the Sisiutl appears. The
entire story is very powerful, and worth seeking out. I’ve selected two brief
highlights that resonate with the interpretations of Hercules above, and can
serve as a final blessing for us on our journey of self-discovery:
When you see Sisiutl
you must stand and face him. Face the horror. Face the fear. If you break faith
with what you Know, if you try to flee, Sisiutl will blow with both mouths at
once and you will begin to spin. Not rooted in the earth as are the trees and
rocks, not eternal as are the tides and currents, your corkscrew spinning will
cause you to leave the earth, to wander forever, a lost soul, and your voice
will be heard in the screaming winds of first autumn, sobbing, pleading,
begging for release….
you see Sisiutl
the terrifying, though you be frightened; stand firm. There is no shame in
being frightened, only a fool would not be afraid of Sisiutl the horror.