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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. 

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