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Of Gods and Men

Creativity & Innovation

Last time out I made a rather off the cuff reference to the Hindu goddess Kali when talking about the importance of being willing to kill off ideas that aren’t working.

This got me thinking about the relationship between creativity and religion and about what we can learn from ancient beliefs about the nature of creativity and how these mystical ideas align with modern theory (how’s that for associative thinking, eh?).

Before I begin, I’d like to state that religion is complex. During my research for this piece one thing became clear; there’s no single interpretation for pretty much anything when it comes to belief systems that are thousands of years old. Where I make statements about religious beliefs I do so in the full knowledge that my interpretation is merely one of many, and nowhere near the most informed.

So, who is Kali? Well, Kali is the Hindu goddess of destruction and some might say she’s a bit bad-ass. I first learned about this particular figure reading Arthur C. Clark’s The Hammer of God in which an asteroid is hurtling towards the Earth and is named Kali by its discoverers. Kali also gets a mention in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in which the chant “Kali wants a sacrifice” can be heard echoing around the temple during that bit where the scary guy pulls out a person’s heart with his bare hands.

But we’d be wrong to focus entirely on the bloodthirsty and death-dealing elements of Kali. Because, in Hindu belief, Kali is not just about destruction. Kali is goddess of time and change, intimately linked not just with destruction but with renewal and growth. After all, one cannot create without also destroying (I’m desperately trying to resist the urge to use my favourite Picasso quote again) and Kali is, in this sense, essential to the creative process.

It seems to me that Hindu scholars of thousands of years in the past understood what we now think of disruption and its role in creativity. What Clayton Christensen explores in The Innovator’s Dilemma would not have surprised them. Without the disruption caused by Kali, how could anything new ever come to be?

And Hinduism is far from the only place where supernatural beings are involved in creativity. The ancient Greeks believed that all inspiration was derived from the nine daughters of Zeus, known as the Muses. Interestingly, while we will frequently talk about “a muse” in connection with art and design (film directors are sometimes said to have a muse; usually a young, attractive actress for some unfathomable reason) but the ancient Greeks associated the Muses with science and mathematics, among other things. It seems they had a more mature view of what it means to be creative than many modern cultures.

We can also look to the Judeo-Christian world and see that the idea of the supernatural being directly involved in creativity is alive and well. We’ve all heard of the idea of divine inspiration; when a person is moved to great feats of creativity it was not uncommon in the past for this to be seen as a direct act of god, working through people to create great art and literature. Even in our increasingly secular world we still find remnants of these ideas in the words we use. The word ‘epiphany’, for example, is derived from a word meaning “manifestation of divine beings”.

Of course, when the ancient Greeks named the Muses as the source of great ideas, and when the Christian concept of divine inspiration was first developed, they didn’t have fMRI scanners and they didn’t know about the way our subconscious mind works away in the background, digesting and analysing the information that we take in. What we now call the result of incubation, they explained as the activity of the Muses or the gods speaking to us. It’s astonishing how closely their ideas match what we now understand.

Today we know a lot about creativity and how it happens. We’ve watched the neural pathways of the brain light up when people solve tasks. We’ve explored the way our subconscious, associative mind compels us to find connections between things that we see. We’ve developed techniques based on this learning that help people to become more creative. But perhaps we haven’t learned much that the ancients didn’t already know.

Maybe we’ve just followed Prometheus and taken the power to create out of the hands of the gods.

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