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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Evil and sin (Mahabharata Notes #11)

Despite the claim that "this is a battle between good and evil" and scary omens that show up from time to time (jackals and wolves howling in the streets, birds flying in the middle of the night, other abnormal natural phenomena), it slowly dawned on me that my frame of reference for words translated as "sin" or "evil" is built upon Christianity, which does not quite fit the context of Indian mythology.

For one thing, the concept of hell (naraka) is more like the purgatory in Catholicism. No one is condemned to torture and misery forever. Sinners pay for their sins by serving time in naraka, and get released afterward. The worst punishment is to reincarnate into earthly creatures life after life after life for a few thousand years, until one reaches enlightenment. But the prison sentence is always finite.

This system cleverly solves a common logic problem in the permanent and dichotomous (heaven or hell) scheme in Christianity. Even the virtuous and pious people are not perfect and commit sin sometimes. Catholicism tries to deal with it by the confession-and-absolution ritual. Protestants just stick with the simple "believers go to heaven, nonbelievers hell" rule of thumb. Simple but unsatisfying. In the Hindu system, even the pious and virtuous have to take responsibility for their life on earth. At the end of Mahabharata (I've finally finished it!), it is explained that all kshatriya kings have to make a round in hell to atone for all the killings they undertake in life, even if they were executed at the direct order of god (or his avatar). Nobody is immune. Everyone has to pay. And then they can go to heaven.

The transient nature of both life and death and even afterlife in this system somehow washes away the vehemence of judgment, leaving everyone and everything in different shades of gray (a lot more than fifty). Morality is still important, but not rigid or obsessive. Certifiable villains die heroically on the battlefield and go to warriors' heaven. In general, a flexible and relaxed attitude pervades this world, giving less soil for the growth of hatred and paranoia -- less but not none, for hatred and paranoia are in our nature, aren't they? Cannot be helped.

There is a kind of mercy in this that I did not quite see in my limited encounter with Christianity. In this world, the gods claim to inhabit everything and energize everything in the universe, including sinners and evil ones, and even sages accept death, suffering, injustice, and pain as inevitable tides of time. There is no promise to permanently eliminate any of these by simply being virtuous or a believer. Therefore, I the audience feel like I am treated like an intelligent person with my own eyes, and reality of the world is respected rather than denied.

It is funny (not funny haha but funny weird) that a lack of a severe and judgmental religion has never prevented countless Chinese people from developing a severely moralistic perspective. Perhaps moral dichotomy is something inherent in human society, while tolerance, complexity, and mercy are the exception. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Karna: The Mondern Man (Mahabharata Notes #10)

The first part of Karna's life story --- being born to a princess and the sun god but abandoned and raised by a charioteer and his wife, thus not recognized for his right to be a kshatriya warrior --- is more modern than any other character in Mahabharata. Rising above his caste, based almost entirely on his talent and skills rather than birth, his success in life is singular in his time and society, but eerily similar to the Horatio Alger, hero of the modern American mythology. Nevertheless, the story also has some typical folklore elements: A hero with a hidden identity and mystery of his birth; he is separated from his real family from an early age and his nobility is revealed only later in life. 

Yet, during the prolonged climax of Mahabharata, ie, the 18-day battle of Kurukshetra, Karna's story takes a turn into the realm of modern fiction. No other character in this story --- perhaps none in any story of the ancient times --- is portrayed with the level of psychological complexity seen only in modern novels.

Karna's psychological struggles are two fold. First, his internal thoughts and external behaviors are incongruous. Before the war, Karna found out that his sworn enemies, the Pandava brothers, are his biological brothers. He promised their mother --- also his mother --- that he would spare four of the five brothers' lives. Throughout his involvement in the war, his heart is not in it. His hands slay the Pandava army and Arjuna's son, but his thoughts are in conflict with his action and he no longer hates his oblivious brothers. He is only motivated by honor and duty. Second, his mind is battling itself throughout the war. On the one hand, he yearns to belong to his biological family and their noble status, which could end his lifelong loneliness and misplacement. On the other hand, to do that means betraying his only friend Duryodhan, the Kaurava prince who leads the war against the Pandavas. The two urges are mutually exclusive. Karna cannot have it both ways. So his struggle is purely internal and directed at the self.

This never happens in ancient literature. The earliest psychological novels are generally considered to emerge in French literature in the 17th century. Madame de la Fayette's The Princess of Cleves is often cited as the earliest sample in this genre. From then on, the psychological turmoil of an individual has become the mainstream of European and modern literature, as novelists delve ever deeper into the dark, contradictory crevices of the human psyche.

This psychological focus is a bit like the (re-)discovery perspective in European art in the Renaissance, before which older paintings were "flat." Old literature, derived from folktales, mythology, and epic poems, is full of characters who are consistent in their internal and external presentations. Even when a character is lying, he is described as being fully aware of his intention to lie and its untruth. There is no hint of self deception or internal conflicts. He or she struggles with other characters, with society, with fate, but never with himself. The only internally conflicted character that predates Madame de la Fayette's novel that I can think of is Hamlet. Even Hamlet's internal conflicts (his reluctance to kill Uncle Claudius) are not as well defined as modern literature, and the tension between his thoughts and actions is not as taut as any 19th century Russian novel. Shakespeare still relied mostly on external rather than internal forces to steer him from the revenge he has to carry out.

Therefore it is astounding that Karna seems like a character written by a modern novelist who somehow managed to time-travel to the past and stick it into Mahabharata. There is nothing like it -- that I know of -- in Greek, Roman, or Nordic mythology. For some reason (unknown to me), Indian mythology and philosophy reached a level of psychological insight at a very early time that was absent in other ancient civilizations. It is no surprise that Buddhism seeped into modern psychology rapidly in the 20th century, much more so than the more popular Judeo-Christian religions.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

War is Drug (Mahabharata Notes #9)

After endless politics, conspiracies, gambling, threats, peace talk, and arguments, the war finally broke out on the field of Kurukshetra. Rivers of blood soaked the earth as the Pandavas and Kauravas tried to vanquish each other. People got shot full of arrows or their heads chopped off or trampled by war horses and elephants. By the end of Day Eight, the troops were too exhausted to collect and burn the piling corpses that had been once their comrades and brothers.

It is no accident that two of the most enduring and beloved epics of human history are about war: Mahabharata and Iliad. Just reading the battle scenes gets my blood roiling and adrenaline surging and I can barely put it down --- Me! A peaceful harmless little woman who can't give anyone a flu shot with a tiny needle. Throughout human history, war defines men, and women are complicit. We love and fear men who fight. In the grip of danger and fear, dopamine rushes out and time slows down, and everything becomes a hundred times more vivid than usual. Like the feeling I got seeing "The Hurt Locker," again it dawns on me that I am no different from the others. I am as susceptible to the appeal of death and violence as anyone.

In "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," Chris Hedges condemns society's myth-making machines and propaganda that glorify war and killing, all the while admitting its intoxicating effects.

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. 

Nevertheless Steven Pinker is convinced that humanity is heading to a more peaceful world, because the rate of violent conflicts and deaths has been declining steadily over the past decades. Perhaps the simulation of war --- competitive sports, violent movies, reading war stories, and thrilling activities (eg, ski jumping, sky diving, extreme sports) --- is the only effective way to quench our thirst for danger and excitement and keep our darker urges at bay.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cold Weather Redux

I am sure I have written about "Cold Weather" before. It's a Mumblecore-Sherlock Holmes hybrid of a gem. Ever since I saw it a few years ago, the movie has stayed with me, tickling the back of my mind, planting a little curiosity for the Oregon coast.

Apparently you can rent it on YouTube for 3 bucks. I highly recommend it and, upon seeing it again, the yearning to see the Oregon coast is stirring again. It has officially gone on my bucket list. Hope to go soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Dangerous Gita (Mahabharata Notes #8)

My friend Eugene made an interesting comparison between the advice from Bhagavad Gita and Wagner's ring cycle and noted that it can be easily used to justify bad things. "Go forth and do what you must. Renounce the fruit (or consequences) of your actions."*

Indeed, this advice is completely morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad, neither kind nor cruel. It tells you to do. It does not tell you what to do.

It can be used by Gandhi to unite his people of different factions for win independence and by Hitler to rally youths to fight and kill for the Third Reich. It can encourage a wavering and fearful pre-criminal to rob a bank and an insecure lover to declare his commitment to an object of his affection.

It is merely a call for action, but it gives one no guarantee or protection from the consequences of one's action. You alone will still have to face these consequences, which may be happy or sad, fabulous or terrible.

In other words, the Gita is not your mother or her substitute, your god. It is all about yourself. Therefore it is a bit of a stretch to call it religion.

Of course, Krishna also says victory accompanies dharma, which seems to be assurance of sort. If you are righteous, you will win. Ah, but there is a trap in this assurance. In Mahabharata, Krishna helped his cousins to victory in the war, in which pretty much everyone on either side was killed. Not only that, but four of the five Pandavas went to hell when they died. Some victory.

So it seems that the ancient Indian philosophers and storytellers had gone through the argument "But the world is clearly not fair or just" many, many rounds. They knew all too well that such a simple assurance means shit. Don't we all believe we are on the side of dharma? Don't we all believe our own morality and good intentions? Aren't we all convinced we are righteous and our competitors or enemies evil? The assurance is no assurance. The guarantee guarantees nothing. When we fail and fall, we do not think, "Oh, that's because we are on the wrong side of dharma." I can claim I know which side is right, but I am not so blind as to deny that everyone else, including those I find appalling and despicable, believes the same of themselves.

George W. Bush said, "We go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world."
The same line could have been uttered by Krishna himself when he egged on his cousins at Kurukshetra and by their Kaurava enemies, and by countless leaders throughout human history.

Yet the Gita says, go forth and choose and act. Just do it. As to choosing which and doing what in the world, you are on your own, baby! In the end it is still your decision and responsibility, and your mom (or god) is not going to feed you the answer. 

(*One could also argue that the advice encourages undue recklessness, but the what kind of reckless people would need advice in the first place?)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Poly and Mono (Mahabharata Notes #7)

No doubt about it. We want to believe the Just-World Hypothesis despite all evidence to the contrary. Perhaps justice is just an excuse. What we really, truly want is a world in which we get what we want, also despite all evidence to the contrary.

Rather than accepting reality, we invent supernatural powers to help us get what we want, even if only in our mind. Why can't we have what we want? Why do bad things happen to good people (ie, me and mine)? And, of course, the ultimate disappointment is that we are all going to die. There are several ways to deal with the problem ---

1. Polytheism explains the world nicely. Some gods are for you and others against you. Yet it is also unsatisfying, for your victory against your enemy lies in the victory of the gods on your side over those on their side. Who is to guarantee that my gods are "better"?

2. Monotheism. It provides the much desired assurance to believers, with no "bad" gods to spoil your fortune. But its logic and congruence with reality have to weaken. If a person and his enemy pray to the same god, how can he know for sure that god is on his side?

To explain all the bad things in the world that make us unhappy and disappointed, one can further expand the possibilities:

A. The god(s) is benevolent.

B. The god(s) is indifferent.

C. The god(s) is malevolent.

D. The god(s) is fickle and/or unreliable.

Ah, herein lies the problem. Even if we are convinced of our own righteousness and worthiness over our enemies, we have to be blind to deny the reality of the world that does not go along with a predictable and consistent single deity. Clearly he/she/it is neither for or against one all the time. Yet we don't like polytheism either. How is one to go on living without despair? Where does one find the protection and assurance to brave the storms of life?

The people of Indian region came up with a unique and rather brilliant solution to the problem. All the logical explanations for bad things, good things, bad people, good people, bad deeds, good deeds, and problems with just reward and punishment can be kicked like a can down the road. The world is a mess? There is no evidence of consistent and reliable justice? All the problems dissolve within the system of cyclic incarnations. All sins are punished and all virtues are rewarded ... eventually.

The only problem with this system, of course, is that nobody remembers the past lives. It takes a leap of faith to accept. The advantage, however, is that it kind of takes away the persistent and nagging question of "Why?" Why do random injustices happen? The system both satisfies the innate need for justice and makes peace with its apparent absence (not always, but frequent enough) in the world.

Of course, the simplest explanation is that justice does not exist outside of our mind. No one but we need and want it. But that's a deeply unsatisfying answer to the question. It is so unpleasant that we dream up elaborate systems and theories just to run away from the indifferent universe. Therefore, a system that can relieve the tension between reality and dream and nudge people to move on --- because it doesn't matter in this life --- has its appeals.

The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard is tackling "the hard problem" of consciousness. The play has just opened on National Theatre in London last month. I have not seen any reviews and am curious to see it at some point.

The last time I saw his "Arcadia," in which he dramatized the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I did not love it. It was clever but kind of lacked emotional impact. Well, I guess it is too difficult to be touched and moved by the inevitable rise of entropy in a closed system ...

Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian recently wrote a fairly comprehensive introduction about the current debate among neuroscientists over "the hard problem." I dunno. From where I sit, there is no convincing logic or evidence to suggest that a physical and material consciousness is impossible. I don't understand this insistence that consciousness is immaterial. Why can't it be as material as the electrochemical signaling system that runs breathing and heartbeats, sends commands to muscle contractions, processes visual and other stimuli, and stores and retrieves memory, etc., etc., etc.? If we are to believe that memory is not elusive but rather material (and we have pretty good evidence now that it is), what makes you believe that consciousness is fundamentally different from memory?

The romantic notion that consciousness is immaterial and therefore unknowable is, in my opinion, just a reincarnation of our past romantic notion of the soul, which itself was a variation of beliefs in one or more supernatural powers (ie, gods) and an afterlife. We are just unwilling to let go of the immaterial concepts, so we transfer this wish from god to soul to consciousness, keeping the romance alive!

I don't know if Stoppard is going with the romantic or the kill-joy approach in "The Hard Problem."

Post Script: From a review of the play, I suppose I should adjust my expectations accordingly. Yeah, I know, I am being difficult here. Is it ever possible to be both scientific and emotionally appealing and resonating? Well ... the answer seems to be no. The truth is usually pretty unappealing to us.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Good vs Bad Guys in Stories (Mahabharata Notes #6)

More than a few times, I have heard American voters complain that the kind of leaders who should win elections are exactly those who do not want to be in politics in the first place. What they mean is that they want their communities or state or nation be run by people with no ambitions or are incapable of deception and manipulation. Of course, that's impossible, not to mention probably wrong anyway. Nevertheless, one could find quite the same sentiment described in Mahabharata, despite its time and political system way back when and where. In the ancient story, the rightful emperor to rule the Empire was Yudhishtir, the son of the god representing dharma itself, a man of impeccable personal and public morality and integrity. He is supposed to be every bit the ideal king/leader for average people across different cultures (if one could overlook a minor vice involving gambling).

What is the essential quality of such an ideal king/emperor/president/governor/head of the school board that everyone dreams of? He does not want it. Yes, such is the paradox. We want the assurance that he is doing this not for himself, but for you all! Oh isn't that sweet and lovely? Except this is neither human nor natural. People have to lie to be so saintly. Even if some are occasionally sincere in their selflessness, as we can see in Yudhishtir, such selflessness can be dangerous.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Memory and Future (Mahabharata Notes 5)

I have just got to the point where the wandering poet Narada sat in the Emperor's crowning party and saw, in his mind's eye, all these great kings and warriors sitting there celebrating and laughing at the moment, would soon die on the Kurukshetra, some with their heads cut off and others with arrows sticking out of their bodies. The earth was soaked in rivers of blood. It was the future that he saw. He drank and said nothing.

The obsession of seeing --- seeing the future --- haunts us. I am quite sure this is but an illusion. When we look back in time at the defining traumatic event in our lives, the mind could not remember its obliviousness in the moment before that. Rather, the memory of itself before and after becomes hopelessly mingled and we can no longer clearly remember what we knew when. We want to believe that we had known and seen before it all happened. It is a trick of the memory because ...

Because memory is a palimpsest. Because we have only one copy of the memory of the past, and every time we take it out to remember, we rewrite it, and write over it, with whatever we feel and want to believe now. There never will be a faithful original copy hidden somewhere up there, unlike the cyberspace. Enough research has shown that. We may think we have access the past (unlike the future), but this access is very unreliable.

Yet, the mind may have unknowingly grasped something about the nature of the fourth dimension. Imagine, you are driving on a highway at a constant speed. Five miles ahead, a wreck is blocking the road. You can't see it, yet, but it is sitting there, waiting, existing with you in the same universe, but you will not know it until you get there, face to face, nose to nose, with the wreck. The fact that you are moving forward and cannot yet see the wreck ahead, does not mean it is there, waiting for you to arrive. And arrive you will, because, as they say, "It is written." Like it's written in the last hundred pages of the book, but you are reading in order and cannot flip to the end without finishing all the previous pages.

I imagine that, at some point, the sages or  philosophers or yogis realized the possibility of this analogy, and began to suspect time is a fully written book that we have to live through page by page. Just because our senses cannot skip ahead, it does not mean the later chapters have not been written. One day, when we look back, do we see the past as a series of free choices scribbled on blank pages or predestined, already-printed text?

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