On Hero Worship
When I first moved to Ananda Village I was eighteen. Everyone was older, even my closest friends. I was surrounded by inspiring elders, beginning with Swami Kriyananda and other dedicated members of the community. Needless to say, I had many heroes back then. It is my joy to report that I have just as many heroes now.
This essay is an attempt to articulate what I have learned both as a “hero worshiper,” and one who on occasion has brought inspiration to others. Through meditating on the issue from both sides, and from listening to friends whose work has stimulated the worshiping impulse, I have arrived at the following meditation. Given today’s predicament—a strong belief that there are no heroes, along with a growing despair at a lack of role models—I thought it worthwhile to share what little understanding I have gained.
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Hero worship is an honorable practice that has come down from ancient times. It is an exercise that answers a deep need in our nature. When practiced correctly, it ennobles both the hero and he who “worships.”
Hero worship begins with the acknowledgement of some great act. The individual responsible is identified with the deed done. This person becomes, through the instrument of their ennobling act, a symbol of heroism itself. He who worships draws through the hero the high consciousness and inspiration that goes with that heroic image. The worshiper is uplifted to the degree he or she draws. There is no limit to the inspiration available through hero worship.
To work most effectively, the worshiper must consciously acknowledge that what they are drawing has little to do with the hero. Heroic inspiration is a divine state of consciousness; the hero is a human being. The hero is almost certainly somewhat advanced, at least in the area where he or she has been acknowledged. Yet, unless he has achieved perfection in all aspects of life, he will have flaws, just as the worshipers do. For hero worship to function well and for extended periods, it is necessary for worshipers to allow heroes to be not only divine instruments but human as well.
Another aspect that must be recognized is personal projection. The hero worshiper doesn’t only acknowledge a great deed, he places his interpretation on it. In fact, his inspiration is channeled through the outlines of his interpretation. This interpretation has a great deal to do with the worshiper; it may have little to do with the hero or his heroic deed.
This is all fine and good. Inspiration doesn’t care how or why it is accessed. Yet it behooves the worshiper to recognize that what he is really worshiping is the image of his own heroic potential.
If the worshiper is aware, he will understand this point and use the inspiration he draws through the hero to pull himself to the heights that some part of him longs for, and that his worship hints at. This is the actual purpose of hero worship. If, on the other hand, the worshiper is unaware, he or she will channel his inspiration into a separate image and cast it on the hero. This alien and artificial image is an uncomfortable mantle. The hero will either buck under its weight or ignore it. Either way, it is only a matter of time before the image shatters because of its ephemeral nature.
Which brings us to the downside of hero worship, when it is unconsciously practiced. At these times it often turns (oddly enough) into its opposite: devil worship.
I don’t mean abasement before a horned Nemesis with a pitchfork. I refer, rather, to the subconscious human reaction, when faced with the destruction of an unreal positive image, to swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other and turn completely negative. This tendency is manifested in the demonizing of heroes when they are shown to be human. Suddenly, the heroes are seen not as heroes at all, but villains of the worst type. For those who fall under the delusion of this abrupt but inevitable role reversal, the former hero is no longer a symbol of ennobling qualities, but of debasement. All error then seems contained in the fallen hero’s image—and the “hero worshipers turned devil worshipers” begin to draw through their former heroes the consciousness and energies of the worshipers’ own potential for wickedness. (A potential which, unfortunately, like the potential for goodness, is also universal. However, unlike goodness, wickedness is not rooted in the depths of our being. It is a temporary graft on our soul nature that will inevitably be removed.)
In such a manner, hero worship practiced incorrectly can lead, sadly, to the debasement of the worshiper, and, if he allows himself to be affected, the hero himself.
Today there is a recognition that heroes are only people, but a forgetfulness of the correct practice of hero worship. Since inspiration and spiritual growth are inherent needs, people still look for others to look up to. With the current emphasis on the “mere humanity” of heroes, it follows that people will turn to less exalted heroes for their inspiration, and they have done so. Yet real aspiration remains, and frustration has grown at the lack of genuine heroes.
Yet hero worship is just as practicable today as it has ever been. Conscious worshipers may feed their souls just as others have done in the past. All they have to do is follow the rules with patience, maturity, humility, and gratitude. They may then discover the truth that all heroes have known: that true heroism resides just as much in the worshipers as in themselves.
Richard is a writer and a minister with Ananda.