By Devdutt Pattanaik
It begins with castration. Chronus cuts the genitals of his father, Uranus, as he makes his way out of his mother Gaia’s womb. From the cut genitals rise the Furies, who embody divine vengeance, as well as Aphrodite, the goddess of passion. This then becomes a recurring theme in Greek mythology, with sons killing and overthrowing fathers. So we have the story of Oedipus, who kills his father, and Perseus, who kills his grandfather. At the heart of the Greek worldview is the idea that the younger generation eventually, and violently, overpowers the older generation.
This Greek worldview shapes the modern scientific-atheistic worldview, with its irreverence for all things past, especially ideas that have long bound together tribes, communities and nations together. It fuels our desire to replace old phones and old computers with something better, in our quest for the good life. For, like the Greeks, we are conditioned to believe that the future will be better. We are moving from the chaos of the past to the order of the future.
The sages of India will only smile: for them, there was chaos before and there will be chaos after, order before and order after, violence before and violence after. In dismay they watched Europeans say “never again” after the First World War. In dismay they read posters at Holocaust museums that demanded history should be remembered, not repeated. That was like hoping humans could prevent the next thunderstorm. It revealed a failure to recognise the nature of humanity.
In Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythology, the world functions on the principle of karma: actions create reactions. The present is an outcome of the past and cause of the future. Cultural violence is an outcome of various predisposing and precipitating factors. As long as these exist, violence will resurface again and again. Laws that seek to domesticate man, like farm animals, only amplify these predisposing and precipitating factors. The only way to break free from the violent instinct is to outgrow our hungers and fears. This a sage can achieve through rigorous mental re-conditioning, but he also realises that such an enterprise cannot be forced on a population. It remains an individual endeavour, and can never be a collective enterprise. Which is why Indic sages typically are observers, even when they participate.
Violence and meaning
Violence existed before culture, before man, in nature. Animals kill for food, and this violence establishes the food chain. Animals fight over food and mates, and this violence establishes the pecking order in herds and in packs. It also helps define territories. The violence of animals, even plants (though unseen), as they go about surviving, is intense and relentless. As per the earth clock, if Earth established itself 24 hours ago, life, hence violence, came into existence five hours ago, and humans with their culture came into existence less than a minute ago. Since the arrival of humans, violence has taken a different form. It is not just about food, or mates, or security, it is about meaning. In the act of killing, or being killed, I give myself meaning.
The Vikings, for example, got people to raid villages through a narrative that promised them a place with the gods in the Hall of Valhalla. They would be taken there by beautiful swan-damsels known as Valkyries who would select the bravest of the brave from the battlefield.
A similar narrative now informs young Islamic terrorists, who are being told that “jihad leads to jannat [paradise]” – that by killing non-believers they will help establish the Kingdom of God on earth, as it was in times of the Islamic Caliphate, before it was overshadowed by the West. In exchange, they believe, they will be given a place in paradise, full of all the pleasures denied to them in their earthly life.
Most scholars of Islam are horrified at this narrow and literal reading of the Quran, but that is the nature of extremism – to simplify a complex narrative for the benefit of people who seek simple answers to life’s complex issues. Such a discourse is often accompanied by contempt for the intellectual, who is obsessed with nuance and who does not care for simplistic binaries. We find this trend in extremist nationalism, where patriotism for the state takes the place of submission to God.
Control and delusion
In the desire to show that Hinduism is also violent, and not as non-violent as it claims to be, Western academicians often compare and contrast Krishna with Buddha, very much like many modern writers compare and contrast Gandhi and BR Ambedkar. So, the Bhagwad Gita is presented as a book that justifies war and that dharma-yuddha is equated to jihad. This is a willful misreading stemming from the academic, even political, desire to show either that “all religions are equal” or that “all religions promote violence”. They overlook the fact that the Abrahamic worldview, which forms the basis of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, speak of paigambars, or messengers of God, who tell humanity how to function, while Hinduism speaks of digambaras, or naked ascetics, who withdraw from the world, and its violence, not because they denounce it, but because they outgrow the need to indulge it, and are fully aware that they cannot stop it as it is part of the karmic cycle. For the ascetic, control is humanity’s greatest delusion.
The Gita is a book that challenges the hermit’s withdrawal and demands enlightened engagement in the world, not to establish the Kingdom of God but to contribute to society without expectation. Sometimes, this takes the form of violence. But there is no escaping from the consequences of war even if you are on the good side, or right side, or the noble side. Thus even Krishna is cursed, and Arjuna loses all his children, as they fight and kill to establish social order in Kurukshetra. Greater complexity of life is presented in the epic Mahabharata, of which the Gita is a part, when the Kauravas, who are the villains, end up in heaven, and Pandavas go to hell, based on karmic reasoning that defies human notions of justice and fairness.
As the Mahabharata tells us, as long as humans destroy nature to establish culture, like the Pandavas who burned the forest of Khandavaprastha to create the city of Indraprastha, there will be refugees (Nagas, in the Mahabharata), who will strike back at being deprived of their homes, their lifestyles, and the affluence created by the destruction of their homes. Kept out of the table, they will fight. The entitled devas will fight the invading and envious asuras, who feel tricked and cheated and rejected. And this fight will continue as long as humans fail to display empathy for the other (para, in Sanskrit). Which is why in Hinduism, God is addressed as Parameshwara, one who embodies the infinite other. No exceptions can be made.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian mythologist and writer known for his work on ancient Indian scriptures.
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