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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.

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