“Those Christians”

We all have that *one* thing that rubs us the wrong way. You know, that one issue that a friend innocently brings up during a poker game that turns you into Mr. Hyde. Perhaps it’s something that embedded in your shadow, or perhaps it’s a cause you’ve silently taken the call to defend. Either way, you find yourself getting extremely defensive when that *one* thing is brought up.

Perhaps I have several such *one* things (just try engaging me in conversation that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic or whether Disney princesses are terrible role models. Go ahead. I dare you.). I think this is a side effect of being a PhD and a mythologist. This is one take-away I’ve gotten from spending the last several years reading Joseph Campbell: it’s impossible to look at people as anything but different versions of the same thing. Sure, I disagree with many other people’s opinions, but my line is whether those opinions are doing harm (physical, mental) to anyone. For example, I support Obama’s healthcare plan because it’s pathetic that people in this country can’t get the medical attention they need, and I disagree with multi-million dollar companies that claim that they will go bankrupt if they are required to provide healthcare to their employees. (but this is an issue for another day…)

So the *one* thing I’m going to touch on today is something I first observed at a Harry Potter conference a few years ago. In the same breath of asking for tolerance, a Potter peep spoke of hating “those Christians” for making her life difficult. Going to Pacifica, a similar conversation is heard on the sidewalks between classes: Why myth is so bereft in this country is because of “those Christians” (and the Enlightenment). “Those Christians” need to step aside and let a more natural mythology (often linked to the Pagan or New Age movements) develop. And I see similar criticisms frequently cross my Facebook feed.

How can anyone ask for tolerance while also being intolerant towards a particular group of people?

Blaming “those Christians” for everything wrong with the world is like blaming all of Islam for 9/11. Blaming the Bible for faulty faith is like blaming Catcher in the Rye for killing John Lennon.

There is a GIGANTIC difference between a religion and its followers. While there are many deplorable events in history that are done “in the name of religion,” the invocation of religion is a cover to justify the selfish act of conflict. Why, then, is it does it appear the be the MO of religious followers?

Joseph Campbell cites four functions of mythology: 1) a cosmology, a sense of where we came from and why we’re here; 2) a religion (as Bones has been saying lately, “We all need a mythology”); 3) social guidelines; 4) a psychological framework. When any of the four is threatened, we react strongly. We don’t like our sense of personhood, even if others see it as skewed, threatened. Because of the nature of humanity, we may react violently, or we may just weep in a corner. Get enough of us together, the mob mind might develop. Unite us behind a charismatic leader we are supposed to trust, say a Pope or a President, the mob mind will justify to itself that it’s okay to do heinous acts against The Other.

But it’s not–and to say that it is okay runs completely counter to most religious tenants. There are also centuries of documented corruption behind the core of all “religious” conflicts. The only way it seems we can overcome these religious issues is to take them off the table, which is why our Founding Fathers separated church and state, a novel idea at the time. However, because religion plays such an essential part in our identity, it’s difficult to leave those matters off the table.

This is one of those *one* things that has no simple resolution, other than perhaps we finally learn what that call for religious tolerance actually means. It doesn’t mean, “Like me for who I am, although I find you stupid.” It means, “I find you stupid, but I love you anyway, because I don’t know anything about you and shouldn’t judge you by the simple label of your religious values.” Tolerance doesn’t mean, “I’m okay with your religious some of the time, but not all the time.” It means, “Your religion works for me, but it doesn’t for me. And that’s okay.”

And you may not agree with my stance on this. And that’s okay.

We are living with half a religion.

Last night I had a dream in which a dear friend of mine went on an uncharacteristic rent about the soullessness of Walt Disney World. In this dream, I responded. We were at WDW, a place I long to visit (having never been), and our public debate was making cast members uncomfortable. Here is what I realized in my dream:

I maintain that there are two myths at the core of the American cultural psyche: Utopia and Manifest Destiny. Tucked under Manifest Destiny lies our relationship to consumption. For the American, there are three modes of consumption:

  1. Survival—well, duh.
  2. Power—By consuming the resources, none of the other kids can have them, making us king of the playground.
  3. Unquenhable Hunger—Our consumption is also a need to satiate a hunger, to fill some kind of spiritual hole.

I am an apologist for consumption. I don’t believe that the solution to number three is to reinfuse myth into our culture. If there is any single characteristic inherent in Americans, it’s our resourcefulness. We have been writing our own myths for centuries, albeit in nontraditional forms. I do believe, however, that the solution to number three is to rewrite the consumption myth altogether, but I’m digressing from my original intended topic.

It occurs to me that number three exists because our country was founded by Protestants. Sure, Protestants brought a strong work-ethic to this country. But Protestants also brought half a religion with them. Protestantism is Catholicism without the mystery and mysticism. I’m not sure why anyone would want to take the mystery and mysticism out of Christianity, but there you have it.

My flavor of Protestantism is Episcopalian. “The Thinking Man’s Religion.” The lineage of the Episcopal Church can be traced to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Henry wasn’t trying to take the mystery out of Christianity; he just wanted power and control over the church. Oh yeah, and a divorce. As such, I grok the mystery of Christianity, but not the mysticism.

Let me also take a moment to point out that today’s Catholicism is not Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism. The Catholic Church has had to change dramatically over the centuries to fight against the allure of the Protestant Churches and, increasingly, other religions altogether. This, and the ease of establishing Protestant denominations/churches, is why Christianity is such a mess.

I’m not suggesting that America would have been “better off” if it had been founded by Catholics. Look at the history of Meso- and South America. At least the Catholic conquistadors were consciously searching for modes of consumption, but they still slaughtered anyone in their path who wasn’t cooperating. There’s that annoying relationship between consumption and power again.

I am suggesting, however, that Americans need to relearn the mystery and mysticism of SOMETHING. Perhaps “traditional” or “organized” religions is not the answer (I’m including Native American traditions here). Perhaps, instead, the secret is to disconnect from the Information Superhighway. I have to give kudos to Henry David Thoreau. While his abandonment of civilization isn’t for everyone (assuming there are still remote parts of America left), his attention to the little things is. How easy it would be to embrace the mystery the Romantic poets saw, and find even a little solace in our Soulless? world.

“The Dude Abides”: The Big Lebowski and America’s Path to Enlightenment

“Way out west there was this fella–Fella I wanna tell you about. Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. Least that was the handle that his lovin’ parents gave him. But he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude–That’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and a lot about where he lived likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interesting.” – The Stranger

One of the questions I have toyed with is the understanding Buddhism by a Western mind. The fundamental teachings of the Buddhist doctrine imply that the practice is available to anyone interested in pursuing it. But from an initial survey, it seems difficult for the Westerner to adopt because Buddhism calls for a type of lifestyle not conducive to the on-the-go, nine-to-five culture currently dominating the United States. The 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, offers a character that is popularly became identified as a Zen master (Green 16). Jeff Lebowski is a slacker, a drunkard, and a chronic bowler with a foul mouth and friends of varying backgrounds. “The Dude,” as he prefers to be called, models not only the shadow side of American culture, but also serves as a bridge to a religious practice different from Christianity. Even though following “The Dude” will not bring anyone to enlightenment, he is a cult figure in American popular culture that helps one see the initial stages of mindfulness.

Firstly, the Dude embodies simplicity. He constantly sacrifices the needs of material life– except for a Persian rug that holds the room together–in favor of leading a daily life in contemplation and mindfulness, which manifests through bowling, lying on the floor listening to whale song, or taking bubble baths while smoking marijuana. He lives an austere life, often accepting the handouts of others and begging for them. Jeff Bridges, the actor who plays The Dude, recognizes a degree of wisdom in his practice:

I like to call it the ‘Wisdom of Fingernails’: the wisdom that gives you the ability to make your hair and fingernails grow, your heart beat, your bowels move. These are things that we know how to do, but we don’t necessarily know how we know how to do them, yet we still do them very well. And that to me is very Dude…. He’s not a guy who has figured out the way to be or anything like that, but he is comfortable with what he’s got…. (Green xiv)

Buddhism has long held an attraction to Western audiences who are attracted to alternative forms of mysticism or alternative understandings of the universe. During the 1950s and Sixties, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions entered the American mythos as alternatives to the Christian establishment, and thus became a part of the counterculture. Alan Watts observes the roots of this, when Buddhism was incorporated into the Beat culture of artists and poets. He notes that this was a crucial point in Western conceptions of Buddhism, because the seeming lack of rule and dogma justified the Counterculture’s rebellion.

Understanding the distinction between true Buddhism and Western, modified Buddhism is essential for understanding the Dude. Alan Watts describes a phenomenon called Beat Zen as the Buddhism of Western counterculture that is designed to allow people to take it easy and to justify lazy behavior (Watts, Beat 24). In other words, Beat Zen is used as a justification to screw around. Watts’ criticism of this lies in the fact that it alters the doctrinal message of Buddhism enough that it barely resembles traditional Buddhism. Primary to this thought is how one can overcome suffering, considered by the tradition to be the ultimate problem of human existence. For the counterculture, this “suffering” is repression from “the Man,” “the Establishment” or any set of rules that restrict free will and free-thinking as opposed to facilitating a step towards liberation or some other transcendental experience. This liberation or transcendental experience was induced through various substances, some of which were still in the experimental stages and not yet subject to governmental penalty. The cycle of addiction and self-medication runs long throughout Western religious history, in part because the modes are not in place for one to transcend on one’s own. The fundamental problem with Beat Zen is that it takes the doctrine of Buddhist teaching and tries to fit it into a particular mold that justifies the accepted behaviors of the Counterculture, which are abhorred by the Establishment.

The Dude is not consciously practicing any form of religion, but he does embody the projected ideal of the Beat Zen movement. He is not held by rules, but he does like to stay within a social paradigm to keep things peaceful. This is well-demonstrated by his hobby of bowling. The sport involves rolling a ball down a long, narrow alleyway to knock over ten pins at the end in a sort of triangular formation. The ball is expected to stay within a set of guidelines, demarcated in the two gutters on both sides, but the outcome of the roll is left to skill and chance. The most skillful bowler will not always throw a strike, just as the most skillful Buddhist may not attain liberation, or the most counter-Beat will not be truly free. The Dude is okay with that. He does not assume a competitive view, although his team mates do. For example, his mate, Walter, a Vietnam veteran with a lot of issues, threatens a member of another team with a gun over a perceived foul. The Dude admonishes his behavior for threatening a pacifist:

Walter: “Well, it’s all water under the bridge. And… we do enter the next round-robin. Am I wrong?”

Dude: “No, you’re not wrong.”

Walter: “Am I wrong?”

Dude: “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

Walter: “Okay then. Play Quintana and O’Brien next week. They should be pushovers.”

Dude: “Man, would you just–just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “You know, that’s your answer for everything, Dude. Let me point out something. Pacifism is not …. Pacifism is not something to hide behind.”

Dude: “Just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “I’m perfectly calm, Dude.”

Dude: “Yeah, waving a fucking gun around?”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.”

Dude: “Will you just take it easy!”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.” (Lebowski Chapter 6, 19:15-20:00)

The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering

The first major tenant of Buddhism is recognizing the truth of suffering: All humans suffer, which means they all experience some crisis of life, whether it is physical pain, emotional distress or grief, or existential frustration and dissatisfaction at the outcomes of life. Modern Westerners, especially Americans, do not experience suffering to the same caliber as other cultures. It is very possible and easy for an American to satisfy basic survival needs, even with the country struggling through economic hard times. The difficulty comes when people confuse their primary wants with the basic needs and this leads to existential frustration. The government has systems in place to assist with shelter and food, leaving the other comforts up to the individual. This is very different from a time when food was harder to come by because there was no commercial agriculture, when shelter was not guaranteed because there was no governmental assistance, and, especially, when diseases had harmful effects on a person because there was no healthcare. The culture surrounding Buddhism was a culture that chose to leave the world behind at a certain age and devote oneself to asceticism, a culturally-sanctioned euthanasia disguised as spiritual growth. In an environment where material needs are so uncertain, a spiritual practice becomes more important. In the West, material needs are satiated beyond abundance. One would think everything should be okay, yet we still experience existential suffering.

The Dude serves as a reminder of the distinction between needs and wants. His possessions are few. When the thugs soil his rug or when his car is stolen, he is rightfully upset, but does not feel it is the end of the world. In fact, the only reason he is upset about the rug is because it really tied the room together, and his car because he was afraid of losing the one million dollar ransom money entrusted to him. Overall, he takes all of the crises thrown in his direction with stride.

The Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering

As just mentioned, suffering comes when one confuses one’s needs and one’s wants. There are various cravings that contribute to this confusion, all of which can be experienced within the American culture. There is the craving for something to excite the senses. We need to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear something. Humans cannot function without some form of sensual experience or another, and need contact with things and people. There is the craving for existence, to be reminded that it is not all a dream, and, by extension, the craving to be known as someone, not just another body with no “success” in life. Conversely, there is a craving for non-existence, the opportunity to “check out” when one needs a break from all the stress and tension of living. All of these cravings root people to materiality and in the here and now, or, at least, in the “someday” when success can be achieved.

The Big Lebowski, a wealthy millionaire confused with the Dude, runs a community organization called the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. These Achievers are given all the resources and support to ensure their success. They are told by the Foundation that they should feel these cravings, thus fueling the hard-working individualism that keeps productivity going. When the Big Lebowski first meets the Dude, he is angered at the Dude’s lack of motivation. He refuses to help the Dude on principle that he is more of a bum than he is a citizen with standing, especially since he does not have a job.

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering through Nirvana

“Because we imprison ourselves in our suffering, we lose the ability to experience the wonders of life. When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy, and freedom” (Nhat Hahn 234). Alan Watts reminds us that the Western practitioner “must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously” (Watts, Beat 8). This suggests that the origins of and cessation of suffering are rooted within culture. To achieve liberation is to transcend one’s own culture, which means to achieve awareness or understanding that reaches beyond everyday observation. “All suffering is overcome when we attain understanding. The path of true liberation is the path of understanding. Understanding is prajña. Such understanding can only come from looking deeply into the true nature of things” (Nhat Hanh 233). The four Noble Truths suggest that if one lives rightly by cultivating virtue, pursuing happiness and wisdom, one can be freed from all of the barriers that tie one to the cycle of suffering. Culture makes a deep imprint on the psyche, one that can transcend the personal unconscious. The quest to attain the Self, whether through nirvana or Jungian process of individuation, involves breaking down these psychic barriers, and the possibility exists that one cannot achieve this goal within one’s lifetime. In fact, the cycle of samsara can repeat as often as needed before the soul is ready to break free. This makes liberation more difficult for the Westerner, with the cultural drive to be liberated now, not in a couple lifetimes from now.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering

“The path I have discovered leads to transcending sorrow and anxiety by looking deeply into their true nature” (Nhat Hanh 234). This is also known as the Eight-Fold Path, which gives simple steps one can add to one’s life to transcend the negativity surrounding suffering. This path is described as “the Middle Way, which avoids both extremes and has the capacity to lead on to understanding, liberation, and peace” (Nhat Hanh 146). Symbolically, this is the bowling alley, and the bowling ball is the individual’s journey down the path. Needless to say, the Lebowski fans, who call themselves the Achievers, see the parallel between bowling and the Eight-Fold Path. “Many times we’ve looked at the Dude and seen a slightly thinner, slightly hairier version of the Buddha. Or, as we like to call him, the Duddha” (Green 16). A diagram of this path is included in Appendix A. The fact that fans use miscellaneous quotes to relate the Dude to the Eight-Fold Path is indicative of Beat Zen and making the doctrine fit the needs, but it is still amusing.

By rooting the individual into the quest for enlightenment, not on some omniscient higher power, Buddhist doctrine teaches devotion to the very inner soul work theorists such as Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung say is missing from central human experience in the West. In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the path to enlightenment for the Buddha, Siddhartha. The prince, driven by a strong calling, leaves his family and throne to seek the truth. He apprentices with several teachers, only to maximize their knowledge. He attempts asceticism only to become weak, deciding that this could not be the process to enlightenment because it invited too much self-imposed suffering. Why would someone want to live like that? It is one thing to shun material goods, or anything that ties one to his or her primal nature, in the name of holy pursuits, but to the point of denying fundamental human needs? Gotama learns and teaches that it is important not to deny the body, as it is the only an imperfect container for the soul. The Middle Path teaches that it is best to make do with the body and resources available, and to do the best one can with it. Under this model, one maintains a mind and body connection and accepts all of the problems inherent with it.

“In early Buddhism, the ultimate goal of religious striving was to reach the state of arhat, a ‘worthy’ a ‘saint’, one who has overcome desire; passed beyond samsara, the world of suffering and cyclical birth and death; and entered nirvana” (Watson 5). Furthermore, “they chose as their goal and ideal the figure of the bodhisattva, one who vows not only to achieve enlightenment for himself but to assist all others to do likewise” (Watson 6). In contrast to this are the pratyekabuddhas, “‘private Buddhas’, or ‘self-enlightened ones,’ beings who have won an understanding of the truth through their own efforts but who make no attempt to teach others or assist them to enlightenment” (Watson 7). In Lebowski, the Dude’s friend, Walter, played by John Goodman, represents a type of character who tries to pass off as a private Buddha, based on his Vietnam experience, but is severely misguided on his enlightenment. He does not explicitly teach his experience, but will offer advice as the situation presents. This type of character provides grounding, but rarely sound competent advice, which often gets the Dude, or anyone who adheres to the teacher, into more trouble than not. It has been my experience that this category is common in the West for various reasons, which makes it difficult to find a good teacher. I contend that when a physical teacher is unavailable, then one can look to the media to see what is available. Hence the Dude: He is an entertaining embodiment revered as a type of bodhisattva by fans. However, it is up to the student to filter through the excessive information, or lack thereof, to find all of the relevant information.

The good teacher leads the student astray, intentionally give him or her bad advice, in order for the student to come to his or her own realization that the teacher is not really needed at all, but that the student should learn to rely on his or her own inner voice as a guide. In doing this, the teacher hopes the student will learn for him- or herself, thus the teacher is more of an illusion than a real, valid “guru.” By learning to contradict the teacher, the student grows through the ability to see for himself the concepts.

One of Siddhartha’s first teachers taught that his teachings are not a “mere theory. Knowledge is gained from direct experience and direct attainment, not from mental arguments. In order to attain different states of meditation, it is necessary to rid yourself of all thoughts of past and future. You must focus on nothing but liberation” (Nhat Hanh 91). I am convinced that this degree of experience is what is so unattainable in my own life. The best thing I can do is rely on the experience of others to model my perception. To me, the Dude embodies the perfect sense of going with the flow, but it could be that my perceptions have been strongly molded by Beat Zen. “The Buddha felt that philosophical speculation about Reality was a waste of time and even a positive hindrance. Realty or Nirvana lay beyond all definition, and nothing was of importance but an immediate and intimate experience of it, and this could only be had by getting rid of trishna. Reality is here and now, but it is concealed by attempts to grasp it in this form or that” (Watts, Zen 7). Alan Watts describes trishna as selfish craving that attempts to grasp life in some form, more especially in the form of one’s own personal existence” (Zen 5). The Buddha’s goal was to free others from suffering, but he had to free himself before he could do so in order to know that the path worked. Freeing oneself from suffering includes freeing oneself from trishna, but Watts further suggests that this is fundamental to Beat Zen. The Beats were so tied to their cravings that they wanted to use Buddhism as a method to justify these vices.

In keeping with the thought that the Dude is a Buddhist monk of sorts, then his confrontation with a bowling competitor, aptly named Jesus, truly responds to the division between East and West:

Jesus: “I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios Mío, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.”

Dude: “Yeah? Well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.”

Jesus: “Let me tell you something, pendejo. You pull any of your crazy shit with us–you flash a piece [a gun] out on the lanes, I’ll take it away from you and stick it up your ass…and pull the fuckin’ trigger till it goes ‘click.'”

Dude: “Jesus.”

Jesus: “You said it man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” (Lebowski Chapter 8, 28:40-29:20)

The West has a notoriously violent history of conflict with people it does not care for. Although Jesus historically is a genuinely compassionate figure, he has become the symbol for the entirety of Christianity. The character of Jesus reflects this violent history. He has a record as a convicted sex-offender. When he moved to West Hollywood, he had to go to every house in the neighborhood and tell them about his crime. He brings this to the bowling alley, and threatens the Dude for Walter’s flashing his gun during league play. Jesus is projecting onto the Dude perceived wrongs that have no bearing other than discomfort of someone different. The Dude, on the other hand, reflects the Buddhist principle of peaceful non-action. He is a self-identified pacifist. He opts to not fight back under any circumstance. He does not fight back or confront Jesus. His sense of peacefulness extends beyond the bowling alley. The one scene where he drops his calm, go-with-the-flow demeanor, his violent friend, Walter, checks his behavior:

Dude: “He hung up, man. You fucked it up. You fucked it up! Her life was in our hands, man.”

Walter: “Easy, Dude.”

Dude: “We’re screwed now. We don’t get shit. They’re gonna kill her. We’re fucked, Walter!”

Walter: “Nothing is fucked, Dude. Come on. You’re being very un-Dude.” (Lebowski Chapter 9, 33:45-34:06)

The lessons of the Dude exemplify mindfulness under pressure. The Buddhist principles he embodies are not used to justify his ultra-lazy behavior, which is one facet of Beat Zen. Nor are they used to pursue a higher path, as in Square Zen. The Dude just is what he is. Having a character like the Dude helps one understand a doctrine that initially seems complicated. The differences between the West and the East are legitimate, but they are nonetheless perceived. The Dude demonstrates that it is possible to embody mindfulness without needing to live in a monastery and study under a particular guru. Conversely, there is a degree of Buddhism that involves a specialized practice. The teacher helps guide the student, so he or she does not fall into the lure of Beat Zen. The clueless Westerner, such as myself, could very easily fall into Beat Zen, thinking that how easy it is to not be trapped in doctrine. But the Eightfold Path demonstrates that there is some doctrine. At least the doctrine is behavioral and can be incorporated into one’s daily life. As long as one maintains a proper meditation practice, then one can avoid the wrathful deities (Trungpa 57).

Cowboy: “How do you do, Dude?”

Dude: “I wondered if I’d see you again.”

Cowboy: “I wouldn’t miss the semis. How’s things been goin’?”

Dude: “Well, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”

Cowboy: “Sure. I got you.”

Dude: “Yeah. Thanks, Gary. Well, take care, man. Gotta get back.”

Cowboy: “Sure. Take it easy, Dude.”

Dude: “Oh, yeah.”

Cowboy: “I know that you will.”

Dude: “Yeah. Well, the Dude abides.” (Lebowski Chapter 21, 1:50:21-1:50:53)

 

“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there–the Dude, takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shush. I sure hope he makes the finals. Well, that about does ‘er. Wraps ‘er all up.” – The Stranger

Appendix A: Image of the Duddha and his Eight-Fold Path (Green 16).

[—-]

Works cited

  • The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Cohn. Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore. 1998. DVD. Focus Features, 2008.
  • Green, Bill, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt. I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
  • Nhat Hanh, Thich. Old Path White Clouds. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
  • Trungpa, Chogyam and Francesca Fremantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia U P, 1997.
  • Watts, Alan W. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959.
  • Watts, Alan W. Zen Buddhism: A New Outline and Introduction. London: The Buddhist Society, 1947.

Feminism, Ethnography and Religious Studies: Problems of Method

I write about feminism as a non-believer; yet, I am able to see its usefulness to the greater improvement of the Western world. Without feminism, the conversation about women would be greatly reduced, especially in the male-dominated social sciences. Within anthropology, feminism allowed for and encouraged a new way of looking at peoples, which vastly improved the overall quality of ethnography.

Ethnography, or the writing about a specific culture or sub-culture, is a central component to the field of anthropology. It collects the data about a culture and organizes it into a concise form. Initially, the founders of the school based their writings on reports brought home by missionaries and other travelers. My cultural anthropology professor called them — with a degree of scorn — “armchair anthropologists,” because they were not actually entering the field and making observations about people. Instead, they simply gathered data that may or may not have been objectively reliable into authoritative editions used to help justify the West’s dominance upon the rest of the world.

As fieldwork was integrated into the ethnographic process, anthropologists were expected to do their own research. Fieldwork relies upon observation and informants, both having major design flaws. Observation is limited to the anthropologist’s abilities and what he or she is permitted to see by the society. Informants provide a double problem. On one hand, they may or may not impart information with any reliable accuracy; on the other hand, the information they do divulge is, more often than not, skewed through translation. Despite these problems, the ethnographer maintains an authoritative stance about the complete culture, even when the report about the culture is incomplete.

Margery Wolf admonishes this behavior, claiming that the job of ethnographers is “not simply to pass on the disorderly complexity of culture, but also to try to hypothesize about apparent consistencies, to lay out our best guesses, without hiding the contradictions and the instability" (355). The feminist movement within anthropology, she further suggests, initiated new methodology for writing ethnography by encouraging researchers to decentralize and defamiliarize themselves from their subject matter. This entails recognizing that one’s personal self is not the same self that interprets culture in order to write the ethnography.

When writing about myth or religion, especially outside one’s own spectrum, it is essential to recognize to what end that spectrum influences the interpretation. Wolf encourages a small degree of personal reflection in the writing to allow the opportunity to address those influences before the ethnography becomes a power play rather than a report about a culture. It is not enough to simply repackage existing biases in a more politically correction fashion. All this does is enhance the power elements of the relationship between the researcher and the researched, especially with regards to women. To truly defamiliarize oneself means to make these biases manifest in some fashion throughout the work, rather than presenting oneself as an authority on a skewed perspective.

This ultimately means that pure objectivity within anthropologist, and indeed for all socio-cultural research, is impossible. The timbre of the research changes with this awareness. The feminist movement brought this methodology to awareness, with the hope that the researcher can strive to deliver a clearer understanding of the culture being studied, and hopefully avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Works cited

  • Wolf, Margery. "Writing Ethnography." The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader. Ed. Russell McCutcheon. London & New York: Cassell, 1999. 354-361. Print.

A Reading of the Secret Messages of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was conceived as a pinnacle representative for the Christian church. It was built according to the biblical dimensions of Solomon’s Temple and decorated with images from the Old Testament and their parallel in the New, thus justifying the foretelling of the coming of Christ. Additionally, the Pope was seen as the spiritual descendent of Peter the Apostle, inheriting the keys to the kingdom of heaven upon gaining the papacy. It is in this Chapel that the Catholic Church holds its conclaves, debating and finally voting on the next pope. Capping the chapel is one of the grandest frescoes in Western Christian art painted by the Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo. He was commissioned by Julius II to paint the ceiling for various controversial reasons, among which include Julius’s on-going “punishment” for Michelangelo’s flight from Rome after his burial tomb project failed, thus forcing him into a medium for which he had little training and familiarity. Jewish “tradition teaches that Mikha-el ha-Malakh, the angel Michael [Michelangelo], is the defender of the Jewish people from its deadly enemies” (Blech and Doliner 43), suggesting that Michelangelo was divinely called to do this ceiling, to capture both the Jewish elements of the Old Testament and to make a statement on the state of the Christian church at the time post-Schism and Black Plague but pre-Protestant Reformation, a time of tension within the Church. Through this commission Michelangelo has created a critique on the Church through Biblical imagery and metaphor that suggests that the history of the Church is not the great innovation in the West, but, rather, its downfall.

Michelangelo inherited the project after a couple false starts. The Chapel was built on the decaying remnants of the Palantine Chapel beginning in 1475, the year Michelangelo as born, under the reign of Pope Sixtus the IV and the decoration of the chapel was begun shortly thereafter (Blech and Doliner 9-10).

[T]here is good reason to believe that the Chapel was conceived primarily as a background for the frescoes. … Austere simplicity had to be reconciled with plans for impressive pictorial representations of the truths which the Church serves as custodian of in this world. The paintings themselves, as always in religious edifices, would be expected to fulfill a double purpose: to remind the princes of the Church of its glorious past and their own responsibilities to it, and to instruct in an edifying manner the pilgrims and other faithful who would be admitted to this great shrine on feast days. (Salvini 9)

Now this Chapel is open on the Vatican tour, an event the pilgrims and faithful line up for hours to attend. The ceiling was initially frescoed with images of stars and the night sky, but due to the softness of Roman soil, the foundation of the Chapel was unstable and the ceiling quickly suffered from cracking. Julius II, Sixtus’ nephew, saw to the restoration of the Chapel during his papacy, including the reinforcement of the foundation and the redesign of the ceiling. When he gave the project to Michelangelo, Julius envisioned a ceiling that depicted the twelve apostles. Michelangelo successfully talked him out of what he considered a boring design, in part because “there was very little scope for him to explore his interest in the human form,” eventually convincing the Pope to give him a degree of free control in his design, something that was unusual and unheard of during this era of the Renaissance (King 59-60). Michelangelo chose to focus on the stories of the Old Testament, specifically Genesis and the prophets, partially due to the lingering impression the sermons of Fra Savonarola, the fire-and-brimstone Franciscan monk, had on him as a youth, and partially due to the popularity of portraying these stories in sculptural relief (King 64). He hired a team of assistants, built a scaffold and set to work.

There are four thematic groupings of the entire fresco: 1. In the center are scenes from the book of Genesis, comprising the central part, or storie, of the fresco; 2. the center is bordered with alternating images of the Jewish Prophets and Greek Sibyls; 3. the corners, or pendentives, each reflect a different episode of “the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel” (“Sistine Chapel”); and 4. functioning as a sort of border for the entire fresco are lunettes, or webs, which depict the Ancestors of Christ, including female ancestors not named at the beginning of the Book of Matthew. For the purposes of this paper, I am going to concentrate on the central panels of the fresco.

The fresco as a whole is supposed to reflect the continued Christian theme that the stories of the Tanakh were nothing more than predicators for the coming of Christ and what later became the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. The symbology of this Chapel visually communicates these stories to any viewers, while also reflecting the power and grandeur of the Church. Michelangelo was not compelled to concentrate on the New Testament, but chose instead a subject matter that is mostly Jewish and partially Pagan. Regardless of his actual intentions, one result of this choice in subject matter shows sensitivity for remembering the roots of the religion, but also for reflecting on the stability the Jewish faith represents. The Christian church at the time of Michelangelo was marred by continual conflict, often squelching out the opposition through battle and the burning of books. The threats towards the church were slowly coming to a fore as the printing press began to make written texts more accessible outside the scholastic community. Initially, the press facilitated in a revival of Greco-Roman texts, and it became a key factor in the publishing of pamphlets promoting the Protestant position.

The selection of the central panels communicate a timeline for the development of the Christian church, as though Michelangelo was demonstrating how Church politics had corrupted the faith by misappropriating the later books of the Old Testament as the foundations for the life of Christ, using the stories from Genesis to reflect how the relatively young church had corrupted itself into a corner. Michelangelo further enhances this message in his Last Judgment, depicting a skull in the blues of the fresco, glaring down from over the altar at the Pope and congregation. It is possible that he painted the ceiling as he did in order to remind everyone who visits the Chapel of the historical/religious roots of Christianity. “It has been conjectured … that the artist’s image of God reflects his personal feelings, that he translated pagan into Christian iconography, and even that Julius II served as the model for God the Father…” (Camesasca 192-193). To further remind the viewer of his link to Julius II, Michelangelo decorated the ceiling with images of oak leaves and acorns that represent Sixtus IV and Julius II, who “were from the della Rovere clan, whose name means ‘of the oak tree’” (Blech and Doliner 29).

There are nine panels going up the center beginning at the altar comprising the Biblical storie: 1. The Separation of Light from Darkness (Gen. 1:1-5), 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets (Gen. 1:11-19), 3. The Separation of Land from Sea (Gen. 1:9-10), 4. The Creation of Adam (Gen. 1:26-27), 5. The Creation of Eve (Gen. 12:18-25), 6. The Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-13, 22-24), 7. The Sacrifice of Noah (Gen. 8:15-20), 8. The Flood (Gen. 6:5-8, 20), and one of the first panels painted since its location over the door makes it less obvious should anything go wrong, and 9. The Drunkenness of Noah (Gen. 9:20-27). There are two ways to approach a “reading” of the ceiling, and both result in fundamentally different interpretations of the latent message of the ceiling fresco. Reading it from the altar to the door suggests the failure of the Christian church as an autonomous religion separate from Judaism. Reading it from the door to the altar gives a message of hope for the Christian church. Both readings are equally valid depending on the vantage point of the reader, but I favor the first reading, because that is the direction of the figures.

The first panel of this reading is the Separation of Light from Darkness, taken from Genesis 1:1-5, in which God, after separating heaven from earth, then separates earth from light and dark. Symbolically, this can be interpreted as the separation of Christianity from Judaism, hence its significant location over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. In this way, the painting initiates Michelangelo’s commentary on the politics of the Christian church.

The second panel is the Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, derived from Genesis 1:11-19. Michelangelo takes some liberty with this passage in order to acknowledge the new astronomical developments of the Renaissance revolving around heliocentrism. This panel shows God from both angles. On the right side of the panel, Michelangelo shows God in the act of creating the sun and the moon, “the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 1:16). God is looking at and pointing to the sun, with an arm extended behind him pointing to the moon. This suggests the importance of the sun, an image associated with Christ, over the moon, again enhancing the message of the first panel, and the "triumph" of the Christian church over the Jewish. To the left of the panel, Michelangelo shows God reaching over a bush, suggesting the creation of vegetation; however, he shows God’s vulnerability in showing not only his back, but his bare ass as well. Already the ceiling is suggesting that the stability of the church is equally susceptible. “God is already, at this earliest moment in his story, a mix of strength and weakness, resolve and regret” (Miles 29). This could also be a rude insult to Julius, slipped in to help Michelangelo “release his pent-up frustration” (Blech 30).

The third panel is the Separation of Land from Sea, from Genesis 1:9-10. This is the last panel Michelangelo paints relating to the creation of the earth, yet it does not exactly depict the separation of land from sea as much as it shows God imposing his power over the land, which could metaphorically suggest the imposition of power of the Church over the people.

The fourth panel is among the most famous segments from the ceiling fresco, the Creation of Adam from Genesis 1:26-27. This panel shows God, supported by his cherubim, reaching, almost straining, to touch Adam, who appears to be returning the touch with only half interest. He does not fully extend his hand to reach God, and maintains a stiff pose with no real interest in making contact with God. Often, this is interpreted as the lifeless Adam just before God breathes life into him. This is the central panel of the ceiling, and the turning point of the story. With the creation of Adam, God is placing a lot of the task of fulfilling his duties onto his human race. Regardless of whether or not he created Adam to be a friend or to be subservient, he nonetheless created a sentient being capable of making his own decisions. From this point on, humanity faces a downfall. Or, to follow our reading of it, this marks the point when the Christian church puts its faith in the Pope to be its leader. With Adam representing the Pope, this suggests that the papacy has not always functioned with the church’s best interests in heart. Also, with the suggestion that Julius served as a model for God, it could be interpreted as Michelangelo’s own ambivalence toward Julius, possibly stemming from his frustration at not being able to complete the tomb project.

The fifth panel is the Creation of Eve from Genesis 2:18-25. Adam is passed out against a rock, while Eve is conversing with God, who stands in front of her, not floating on a cloud of cherubs as he is depicted in the previous panels. It is as though creating Adam has taken a toll on God’s energies, leaving him diminished and weakened. Eve appears to be begging God for something, as though she has it within her power to restore Christianity to it is original grandeur, working behind the back of Adam, as if to suggest that she knows he would not approve of her actions.

The sixth panel is the Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, as told in Genesis 3:1-13 and 3:22-24. The concept of original sin is fundamentally Catholic and really makes no sense to this Protestant girl, but because of the event surrounding the apple, the Christian church, as represented by Adam and Eve, only became further corrupted and removed from God. The serpent could be taken as representing the Black Death, the plague that raped Europe of many of its resources. The papal powers needed to maintain a face of leadership, but the actuality of Christianity was that it was weakened almost beyond repair. Notice that God is not depicted in this panel.

The seventh panel begins the trilogy of Noah panels, just as the first three were God’s creation trilogy and the middle three are the trilogy of the follies of Adam and Eve. The Vatican website describes the Noah trilogy as showing “the fall of mankind and its rebirth with Noah, chosen by God as the only man to be saved for repopulating the earth after the Creator had decided to destroy every living creature in it because of human evil” (“Sistine Chapel”). The Sacrifice of Noah depicts the sacrifice Noah makes to God in Genesis 8:15-20 right after everyone gets off the ark. “In short, the Lord has to be seduced out of his rage by the scent of Noah’s offering” (Miles 44). Genesis 8:21 describes God’s satisfaction at Noah’s sacrifice and vows in that moment not to destroy the world again, “’since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done’” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 8:21).

Yet, curiously, this panel precedes The Flood (Genesis 6:5-8, 20). The technical reason behind this is that Michelangelo wanted to paint The Flood first because it was a topic he found interesting, following the sermons of Fra Savonarola who preached about unloosing floodwaters on the unfaithful as if predicting the flooding of the Tiber (King 91), and because of its location in the Chapel in a relatively innocuous space over the door. This panel was the first Michelangelo painted and would have become the panel he experimented on as he learned fresco technique. If it did not go well, at least it would be out of the way.

Michelangelo shows the episode of the Flood in all its drama in the foreground there is a hill towards which a great multitude of persons, buried under the weight of their personal effects or their relatives, are heading, so hoping to avoid the wrath of God. On the other side they are crowding onto a small island, stretching out their hands to lend aid to those still in danger. In the centre is a boat, about to sink, while in the background is the ark on which, through the will of God, Noah, his family and pairs of animals will be saved. (“Sistine Chapel”)

The Flood panel depicts Noah’s ark landing on the rock after the main tumult of the flood that God set out onto the earth to cleanse it of sin. It reflects the very nature of God’s wrath. “The Lord acts because of his own feelings, his regret; God acts because a cleansing destruction is what the world needs. … The destruction is not a means, it is an end, an expressive not an instrumental act” (Miles 43).

The Drunkenness of Noah is an odd choice of a theme to paint on the ceiling. The story, told in Genesis 9:20-27, reflects a strong degree of shame on the part of Noah’s three sons for their father’s behavior. Camesasca suggests three interpretations for the drunkenness of Noah. First, derived from Michelangelo’s biographies, interprets the panel as depicting Ham mocking Noah while his brothers cover their father, which can be interpreted as Michelangelo’s mocking of the Pope while the bishops and cardinals, perhaps, cover him. The second interpretation, Camesasca’s own, suggests that Noah is actually sleeping, Ham is deriding him, Japheth is covering him and Shem is “reproving the mocker and trying to restrain him" (193). This interpretation suggests the human tendencies towards evil and original sin, which are further interpreted as foreshadowing the Passion of Christ, symbolized by Noah’s planting of the vine on the extreme left of the panel. The third interpretation is that humanity ignores the gifts from God. "Others pointed out that the contrast between filial piety (Japheth), Platonic thought (Shem), and Aristotelian science (Ham), on the one hand, and, on the other, the spiritual drunkenness preached by Savonarola" (Camesasca 193). Noah represents the pope/Church, and the sons are the various participants in the Church: those who criticize and mock, those who hide or ignore the Truth, and those who act as intermediaries between the two.

Bookending these central stories are two prophets at either end: Jonah over the altar and Zechariah over the door. As a prophet, Jonah’s role is that as a precursor to the coming of Christ, and the three days he spends in the belly of the whale is meant to parallel Christ’s time in the tomb. He is an unwilling prophet, and is, to a degree, angry with God for the missions he is called upon to perform and the suffering that they induce. “His place over the altar is neither for his virtues nor for his mission, but for his unique prefiguration, for he turns to look at God above him while pointing to the figure of Christ which once stood on the wall below” and was removed to make way for the Last Judgment (Murray 71-2). The parallels between the adventures of Jonah into the belly of the whale and of the three days Christ was shut in the tomb would not have remained unrecognized. The belly of the whale or of the tomb both symbolize a period of darkness and regeneration. The figure that went into the belly/tomb was dead, but emerges from it alive and altered by the experience. With the fresco of Christ no longer there, it looks as though Jonah is pointing at the altar and looking up at God, who is in the process of separating light from darkness. The path of faith that Michelangelo has painted down the ceiling begins with the altar and suggests an emerging from the darkness, only to fall into sin and need cleansing before reaching the final state of purity.

The prophet Zechariah over the door is “a prophet of gloom, of punishment for the backslidings of the Jews, but he also prophesies the establishment of the Kingdom, the building of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple, the restoration of peace, justice and prosperity, and the destruction of the enemies of Zion” (Murray 66, 68). Zechariah punishes not only the Jews but also symbolizes Michelangelo’s reproachement of the Christian church, but his position holds hope of a future where all of the religious groups get it right eventually. Underneath the image of Zechariah is the coat of arms of Julius II, completing Michelangelo’s commentary by suggesting the destruction of the enemies that Julius represents and offering the possibility of a new and restored religion/faith as symbolized by Jerusalem.

Regardless of Michelangelo’s motivation for the layout he designed, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel stands as reflecting his own critique of the Church. He was probably not along in his feelings, especially towards the Pope himself, but he used his abilities to express them. With the ceiling, he has not only made one of the greatest pieces of religious art, he has also used the teachings of the Tanakh to demonstrate that the grandeur of the Church is only show, that it is built on unstable and vulnerable foundations that reflect the folly of the separation of Christianity from Judaism.

Works Cited

  • Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in th Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
  • Camesasca, Ettore. "Apprendix". The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • The Jewish Study Bible. Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York: Oxford U P, 2004. Print.
  • King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
  • Miles, Jack. God A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
  • Murray, Linda. Michelangelo. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980. Print.
  • Salvini, Roberto. The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • "Sistine Chapel". Vatican Museums. Vatican Museums Management, 2007. Web. 16 December 2009.

Celluloid Images of Jesus

The image of Jesus shifts with every generation, according to the time period, and symbolizes the image of God the Father as a reminder of humanity’s relationship with the divine, becoming the image needed by the cultural unconscious to communicate a particular archetype. I read the Gospels for the first time for this class, and initially found myself quite angry. Reading the Gospels fully debunked the image of Jesus I had developed through the liturgical teachings of my Episcopal upbringing. Furthermore, modern cinema has given us divergent images of Christ, some faithful to the Biblical tradition, and others not so much, creating a wholly different telling of this myth. This new image of Jesus/God is no longer confined to static images, but, rather, to moving images that give it a new personality. A survey of some of the most noted films/videos reflects the culture’s overall split-position on the nature of Christ as a religious figure.

There was a very clear shift in the art between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and this is reflected in the images of Jesus. Perhaps it might be too easy to suggest that the shift from positive, hopeful images of Christ to the appearance of crucified Jesus as a result of the Black Death is an oversimplification of the issue. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the endemic plague that spread through Europe, the images of the Christ child or Christ the good shepherd sent a positive message of the Good News to recent converts to the faith. These images helped further the mission of Christ culminating in the conversion of non-Christians. The Black Death reverberated throughout the whole of European culture. The disease knew no boundaries, affecting people of all classes and occupations, leaving very few people disease-free. This affected the overall cultural psyche of the people, as most catastrophes do, shifting the images of Christ as a good shepherd or an innocent to the images of the pieta or crucifixion, graphically showing the death of Christ. In this instance, Christ represented more than just a figurehead for a religion, he became the defining archetypal image of an entire continent, whose life represented the misunderstood life of a pious son who is still forsaken at the very moment when he needs God the father the most.

In modern cinema, we have the Jesus who is satirized (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Dogma), incarnations of Jesus (Jesus of Montreal), the political radical (Jesus Christ Superstar), the tortured Jesus (The Passion of Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ), and Baby Jesus of various Christmas specials and local Nativity plays, which have been excluded from this paper. The ultimate message that is communicated is that we, as a society, have forgotten exactly who Jesus was.

Satirizing Jesus

The Life of Brian is a film by the Monty Python team spoofing contemporary British issues and the Gospels. Instead of Jesus, the story revolves around a boy named Brian, who, as an infant, is confused for the prophesied Messiah by the three wise men, and later as an adult gains a following of frenzied faithful who are mesmerized by a public comment that he never finished while trying to avoid the Romans. Because of this, he is followed around and all of his deeds are recognized by his followers as being miracles. He is later crucified for escaping the Romans for an earlier incident, and his crucifixion is heralded as heroic, except by his mother who is profoundly disappointed that he is a very naughty boy. In a moment of despair, he is told to “always look on the bright side of life” by a fellow crucified prisoner.

This representation of Jesus affirms the belief of Joseph Campbell, who further writes in the vein of Nietzsche, that Christianity has lost much of its sacred holdings on society. Through this spoof and humor, the Python crew imagines a mistaken Messiah, who lived at the time of the “real” Messiah, but people were disillusioned into following the wrong one. This implies that Christianity may have been established under the wrong auspices, while further implying that the whole of Western Civilization was founded in the name of the wrong person. This political dimension attests to the psychology behind fundamentalism, that the more one doubts a belief then the more one holds fervently onto it. The Pythons show us exactly why that requires more effort than necessary, since it could possibly be for all the wrong reasons anyway.

The Kevin Smith film, Dogma, is a commentary about the state of affairs with the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, and the looming crisis of faith running through American society. It tells of two former angels, banished from Heaven to Wisconsin for questioning God’s authority, who find a loophole that would allow them to be cleansed of their sins and thus return to Heaven. Meanwhile a woman, marked as the Last Scion, or relative of Christ, is called on a mission to stop them from succeeding while the Heavenly Host tries to find the missing God, who takes monthly embodiment trips to earth to play skee-ball on a New Jersey boardwalk. The angels harbor a grudge against God for closing the doors on them, and they are helped by Azriel, a fallen angel who harbors a grudge for having to spend time in Hell. The Last Scion suffers from a crisis of faith because she feels forsaken by God, and only goes to Church as lip-service to her religion. The movie’s ultimate goal is to remind us that Christianity is not about church and whether or not God communicates with us directly, but that it is about feeling God’s love, no matter the circumstance. This movie had to be made as a comedy because otherwise the message would have come across as dogmatic, rather than as a commentary/ reflection on the nature of things.

The overall message that is communicated to me is that it is very difficult to be a Christian in today’s world, in part because we are so far removed from the history and the mythology of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is not a dominant figure in today’s world, though we use him as an iconic image, as a sign pointing to something greater than himself, rather than view Christ as a martyr who, in the name of God, brought about social change in a peaceable fashion. Rather than staging an all-out war against the Romans, who possessed the greater military power, Jesus encouraged a grass-roots movement of peaceful protest and inaction, one of love and charity, over demonstrating who has the greater strength. Jesus behaved like Athena while the Romans behaved like Ares.

The problem of Jesus in our world is also over-simplified by the Nicene Creed or declaration of faith that has been woven into the canon of the liturgy, though several of the protestant services have taken it out in an attempt to stick to Biblical tradition. From the outset, it declared, " We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,/the only Son of God,/eternally begotten of the Father,/God from God, Light from Light,/true God from true God,/begotten, not made,/of one Being with the Father…" thus equating Jesus with his crucifixion and not with the actuality of his life. At the beginning of Dogma, a New Jersey cardinal announces a campaign to "update" Catholicism and make it more likeable. He unveils the image of Jesus that he called "The Buddy Christ" – a laid back Jesus who looks more like a fun-loving hippy dressed in Hebraic robes than either a good shepherd or a crucified Christ.

Movies like Life of Brian or Dogma highlight all that is wrong with the religion, attempting to make us aware of the larger picture of the social ramifications of decisions made by the Church and clergy over the last 2000 years, and, as a mythology student, this is what makes studying Christianity all the more crucial. Because of dogma, there are misconstrued messages going about the field as to what Christianity actually is. Furthermore, because of various ecumenical councils and translations, the Bible itself is miscommunicating the teachings unless one is able to read all available versions and construct a more complete picture.

Incarnations of Jesus

Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) is another movie that attempts to revision Jesus without actually being about Jesus. Like Dogma, this film approaches the question of faith. Daniel Colombe is an avant-garde actor who is hired by a church to stage the Stations of the Cross, yet to update them to attract a larger audience. Through his research into recent archaeological discoveries that suggest that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman and that his mother was unwed (two issues that Monty Python plays with in Life of Brian), he creates a show that suggests a radically new way of interpreting the life of Christ. Initially he has the blessing of the church priest, because the Stations have been staged outside the church for over forty years. Daniel and his friends reenact all aspects of the story, including the archaeological findings in the area surrounding the church, calling the show “The Passion on the Mountain,” receiving rave reviews. The show is cancelled by the priest who hired Daniel, because he feels that they are being too radical with their portrayal and that his superiors are unhappy with the production. Daniel and his troupe stage one final performance. While he is on the cross as Jesus, the police interrupt this final performance and a fight breaks out between the audience and the police. Daniel’s cross gets knocked down and he suffers from fatal head injuries. Before dying, he is briefly resurrected and assumes a prophetic Jesus-like behavior in the subway station. No one believes him, and regards him as a crazy person. He finally collapses and this time does not rise again, though his organs restore sight and life to a couple lucky recipients.

The question of faith appears in the movie two times. The first time is during Daniel’s research in the library. A librarian comes up to him and asks him if he is seeking Jesus. When he replies yes, she responds that Jesus will find him, suggesting that faith is not something to be sought after. One cannot simply go on a spiritual quest and find all of the answers, but wait patiently for the right time when the divine will present itself. In the West, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. The society has been based on the concept of quest and seeking enlightenment, to the point that in modern society, patience is a virtue that very few people actually have. The second question of faith is when Daniel confronts the priest about cancelling the play about the “show” that the church already provides parishioners of hope and cheap plastic Jesus figures. The priest insists that this is necessary because cheap plastic Jesus figures are still better than expensive drugs. People need something in which to believe, regardless of the truth or the lies. As Daniel comes to terms with this, he still struggles with the same facets of his own life, never really reconciling the two.

Jesus the Political Radical

The ultimate question Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice pose is, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” Rather than write an entire story around Christ’s passion, Jesus Christ Superstar re-tells the gospels mostly through the eyes of Judas and Mary Magdalene, showing the fullest extent of Judas’s self-torture for turning Jesus over to the Romans. All he wants to know is why Jesus allowed the movement to extend so far beyond the initial plan, to the point that Jesus actually was equating himself with God. Judas feels is that Jesus allowed the movement to get out of control and was reaping the benefits of having unquestioning followers who are willing to anoint him with expensive oils rather than feed the poor. He believes that the only option is to turn Christ into the Romans, as a sort of intervention for his behavior. Jesus is high on the attention he is getting, and keeps imbibing more and more. From this angle, the passion is necessary, not as a sacrifice for the people of Jerusalem, but for the sake of Jesus’ own soul. Shortly after the Last Supper, Jesus, too, begins to question the loyalty of his followers. He watches them eat and realizes that they could care less whether he was there or not. Or at least, that is how he is portrayed in this version, lacking in some self-esteem. Before he is taken by the Romans, Jesus asks God for guidance – then confesses that he is no longer interested in this plan of God’s, but realizes that he has no choice.

What this reflects is the question whether or not Jesus was just a man or if he really was divine, an age-old question that theologians have debated off and on since the Middle Ages. Judas and Mary Magdalene sing a reminder that Jesus is just a man, one that they do not know how to love, but they want to because they know they love him so much.

Python also accomplishes conveying its Jesus figure in the same manner as that of Webber and Rice in that Jesus is more than just a Messiah, but is also a political radical seeking to free his people from the repressive aspects of Roman rule. He gets angry when he enters the temple, less because he is concerned about the profaning of the Lord, but more because he sees the control of the Roman armies have had on the people, to the point that no place is regarded as sacred.

Tortured Jesus

Perhaps it is because I watched this movie for the first time after numerous viewings of Life of Brian and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I really was unimpressed by The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s recreation of the Passion reflects more of a sensationalist, borderline propaganda piece showing the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. Based on the canonical Gospels and the other movies of Jesus’ crucifixion I have been discussing, Gibson remains faithful to the story. However, unlike the other films in this paper, Gibson ups the gore factor. There are two responses to gore: distancing the audience from the participatory experience because the images are just too horrendous, or complete emotional persuasion because of one’s sympathies towards Christ. The desired effect is the latter, with the hopes that one will be completely moved – also combined with the choice use of music and slow motion images. Gibson also strongly conveys that the Jews condemned Christ, following the tradition that Jews were punished for their action by losing their temple and Jerusalem, being doomed to wander the Earth. This teaching was rejected and forbidden by Vatican II (Blech and Doliner 11).

The creators of South Park commentated on the reaction to Gibson’s film in the episode “The Passion of the Jew.” In this episode, the three main children, Stan (a Jew), Kyle (the level-headed one) and Cartman (the one seeking world domination) watch the movie. Kyle is so annoyed with the time wasted watching it, that he flies to California with his friend Kenny to beg his $2 back because the movie theater does not give refunds. Cartman is moved by the movie into continuing Gibson’s message of ridding the world of Jews and launches his own neo-Nazi movement in South Park. Stan, on the other hand, is convinced that the Jews need to apologize to Jesus. Kyle gets his money back, Cartman’s mission of world domination is foiled and Stan convinces his family that they should apologize to Jesus for condemning him when he did nothing wrong. This reflects the fact that the response to Gibson’s was more of a social response. He was accused of anti-Semitism and simultaneously congratulated for his portrayal of the Passion, which was supposed to be as historically accurate as possible.

Martin Scorsese begins his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ with a quote from the author: “The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God… has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” This version of a tortured Jesus comes from Kazantzakis’ own struggle with this spiritual conflict, and is only loosely based on the Gospels. The Jesus of Kazantzakis’ novel is both enlightened and a political rebel. He is fighting for a cause, but not against the Romans, but against human nature. His weapon is love, but he has a vision that hands him the axe, leading him to declare that he will baptize everyone with fire. He takes up the mantle to fight a war. His enemies are not just the Romans who oppress the Jewish people, but also the Jewish people who oppress each other or show lack of tolerance for each other. He wants to force everyone into loving each other, which ultimately backfires and he is crucified. This is also the approach of the Western mission: try to convert with love, and when that fails to work, convert by force.

But more importantly, this Jesus reflects Kazantzakis’ own struggle between war and love, evil versus good, temptation versus purity. This is how he reflects that the opposing forces work collectively in the human soul to create tension. When we first meet Jesus, he is suffering from delusions and headaches, and eventually leaves home to go on a spiritual quest that will hopefully cure him of the pain. In a way, Kazantzakis’ suggests that Jesus suffered from some sort of psychosis, which leads to delusions of grandeur as he performed his magic on the people. The “voice of God” was no more than a voice in his head, similar to a voice a schizophrenic would hear.

In a bold, controversial move, this Jesus is rescued from the cross by a guardian angel who arranges for him to marry and have a family. This is the last temptation, the fourth and non-Biblical. Jesus in his old age is reminded by Judas that he did not complete his job. Judas unwillingly turned him over to the Romans, yet Jesus did not fulfill his part of the bargain by dying. Judas also helps unveil the guardian angel as the Devil and Jesus finds restored faith in God. Is this an illusion or does it really transpire? Scorsese leaves that up to us.

How is it that all these movies can tell the exact same story of the Passion yet tell a fundamentally different story? Each of these movies were made at different times with different goals in mind. It is not just about retelling the Passion to remind people of its horrors, though, of course, that is part of the motivation. It is also about being so gripped by the story that the writer and/or director need to retell it to make it their own, one of the fundamental aspects of myth. The story itself does not change, but the meaning and message behind it do as it is altered to fit with the sentiments of the interpreter. The Christian mythos needs to be revisioned periodically and not treated like dogma, with stale, static images. Without this revisioning, the religion falls into the trap of which Joseph Campbell is highly critical: stale religions push people away or create fundamentalist (in the negative sense) behavior, and I suggest that this is the dynamic in which we currently find ourselves in American society. We are experiencing a stretched tension between non-believers and fundamentalists, battling out their opposition around those who genuinely still believe in the faith. This tension was especially felt during the previous administration, which kept blurring the lines between the constitutional separation between church and state. Now, under a different administration and cultural mythos, we are in a different state altogether towards religion. The tension has loosed a bit, but threatens at any time to reemerge, especially with talks of universal healthcare and how much the government should provide for the people.

So what does Jesus symbolize? It is too difficult to separate the myth from the man and find a coherent symbol. It is too easy to confuse the fact that Jesus was crucified as a martyr and overlook the political unrest he was stirring among the Jewish people. The Romans and the Pharisees both wanted to eliminate him from the competition because he posed a threat to their power. Kazantzakis suggests that Jesus’ motivation was power for himself, and he was using the Hebrew oppression as a tool to gain followers. The Monty Python crew suggests that Jesus’ motivation was that there was no motivation at all: he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Mel Gibson suggests that it was crowd actions that destroyed him, that the people wanted him dead, not the Romans. None of the movies really make it clear why Jesus had to die. It seems more like he was too vocal in the oppression, and was killed according to the Roman practices of the time. Similar figures in modern time have been killed according to modern practices. The Roman technique is less humane but not unique to Jesus’ situation. Granted that does not necessarily make it okay, but it seems to be the only reason why Jesus is at the forefront of the holy Christian crusade and not some other messianic figure.

There is something rather interesting about trying to write a paper about Jesus at Christmas time. All over the place, I am encountering reminders that the holiday is really about celebrating Christ’s birth, although he was probably born at a different time a year and that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th has to do in large part with the fact that Constantine converted to Christianity and aligned Christmas with a pagan feast day. The other day on the radio, a woman called in and was telling the DJ that one of her family’s traditions is to have a birthday party for Jesus, complete with cake and singing "Happy Birthday." My father-in-law sent me a Christmas e-mail forward of a letter "written by Jesus" to remind us how to be good Christians on the holidays. Yet, this is the idealized hopeful Jesus, the Jesus who is the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace, the one who died for our sins. This is not the Jesus who staged a movement against the Romans for religious freedom and tolerance, nor the Jesus who transformed the laws of Moses into laws of humanity. This is the Jesus whose interests were in taking care of the people who could not otherwise take care of themselves.

Works Cited

  • Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
  • Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Linda Fiorentino. Lions Gate Films, 1999. DVD.
  • The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford U P, 1989. Print.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman. Universal, 1973. DVD.
  • Jésus de Montréal. Dir. Denys Arcand. Perf. Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening and Johanne-Marie Tremblay. Netflix, 1989. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  • The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey. Netflix, 1988. Web. 15 Dec. 2009.
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Anchor Bay, 1979. DVD.
  • The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci and Maia Morgenstern. 20th Century Fox, 2004. DVD
  • “The Passion of the Jew.” South Park. By Trey Parker. Dir. Trey Parker. Comedy Central. 31 Mar. 2004. DVD

Duryodhana: The Antithesis of Morality, A Character Study

"What is in the Mahabharata can be found elsewhere,

but what is not in the Mahabharata cannot be found anywhere."

– Anonymous

The Mahabharata is said to be one of the primary myths governing India, maintaining popularity since its initial writing. The exchanges between the West, especially the British Empire, and India have brought The Mahabharata to a new audience. William Buck translated the epic into a condensed version that simplified the characters, plot, and concepts for this new audience, while also maintaining many of the mythic qualities inherent to the story. One such quality is found within each primary character representing a different aspect of the psyche. Because of the depth of The Mahabharata, their interactions paint a mythic road map, helping a person understand themselves through its images. One such character is Duryodhana, the Kuru prince, who represents the shadow at its most corrupt and morally reprehensible. An understanding of Duryodhana’s character will lead a person, Eastern or Western, to a necessary understanding of the dark side of the psyche. This understanding will bring a person closer to owning the shadow and achieving self-actualization, leading to enlightenment.

From the perspective of the Western reader, Duryodhana is a compelling character because his actions and behavior are counter to anything we find favorable. Within the framework of Western literature, exploring the hidden depths of psyche’s closet is much more interesting and necessary than analyzing the conscious world; thus, the prevalence of hero journeys and antiheroes in the stories. Due to the major differences between Western and Eastern cultures, one should ask why this tale is so compelling? One reason I would attribute to this phenomenon is the interest on the part of the West for the exotic nature of the East. When the British Empire controlled India, there was a vast wealth of exchange between the two societies, including goods, people and myths. The Mahabharata appeals to Western sensibilities because the myth focuses on the feud between cousins, raised as brothers. Western myths and fairy tales often focus on the single hero or ruler, and the story is of his or her quest. The Mahabharata offers five heroes, but they function mostly as a single unit fighting for their family honor against Duryodhana. In the context of chivalry, the match is unfairly numbered, but the five brothers are their strongest when they act as one unit and weakest when separated. Duryodhana is the worthy villain of a Western interpretation because he represents an antithesis to morality, as demonstrated below, showing that many moral tenants are universal and transcendent of culture and historical era.

Psyche’s Road Map: The Characters of The Mahabharata

Myths lay a framework for understanding not only the universe, but the psyche as well. Often, one can turn to myths, which lend themselves nicely to multiple interpretations, and find guidance. This is what Joseph Campbell describes as the psychological function of mythology: to help an individual understand his or her own role in the larger schema of society (Campbell 5). Within this understanding lies the secondary need of understanding one’s self. In the mythic story structure, all elements of the psyche are represented as the various characters. The hero, or protagonist, represents the conscious, complete with all of the moral and behavioral attributes the reader or participant either consciously possess or strive to possess. The antagonist, or villain, represents the primary manifestation of the shadow, the element of the personal unconscious that houses rejected attributes. The lover is the anima/animus, and is often the catalyst that either pushes the hero on a journey or provides companionship during the journey.

In The Mahabharata, the protagonists are the Pandavas. Each of the five brothers represents a particular heroic strength. For example, Yudhisthira demonstrates leadership and dharma, Bhima characterizes strength and fearlessness, Arjuna is the face of patience and compassion, Sahadeva is wisdom and Nakula is beauty. That the brothers are strongest when banded together is due in part to the fact that they are each dominated by a particular, though admirable, characteristic. Together, they reinforce each other, forming an almost undefeatable group. Yet they are weak when working individually. For example, Yudhisthira lost the kingdom and almost his wife too easily to the dice game with Duryodhana, allowing the stakes to rise higher and higher until he and his brothers had nothing left.

The Pandavas’ uncle, Dhritarashtra, is born blind because his mother closed her eyes when approached by Vyasa for his conception. For this reason he cannot be the king, despite being the first-born. He represents the unconscious. In a similar vein, his younger brother, Pandu, the pale-skinned king, represents consciousness. As the family patriarchs, they set the theme for their offspring. Being blind, Dhritarashtra has access to senses most conscious beings take for granted and is therefore likely to act and raise his children accordingly. For example, upon the birth of Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra begins to consider his son for king. Because he cannot see the effects of dharma on the family, his uncharacteristically emotional desire to have his son on the throne plants the seeds for the future disputes. His blindness also manifests itself in his responses to Duryodhana’s subtle manipulation to siphon the Pandavas out of the kingdom. Pandu, on the other hand, is noble and his light skin exemplifies the light in the darkness his sons are meant to bring. His death brought about the coming of darkness.

Duryodhana represents the shadow, which is appropriate for the son of the unconscious. He possesses all of the negative characteristics the Pandavas suppress, and he is also the poster character for the Kurus, because he is Dhritarashtra’s first son. As the shadow, Duryodhana’s behaviors are morally reprehensible. He is blinded by jealousy and greed for the Pandavas’ wealth and good fortune. He is easily prejudiced against them and holds deep grudges. He cheats, lies, and has no concern for any of the suffering his actions may cause (Sutton 307). His character is the antithesis to all heroic traits. In spite of all his ill deeds, Duryodhana experiences a heroic end and receives a place in heaven, the realm of self-actualization, typically reserved for conscious heroes. Similar to Jung’s model of the shadow, Duryodhana’s actions do harm against, not only the Pandavas, but against anyone caught in their feud as well. The goal of the Pandavas, as the sons of consciousness and light, is to "own the shadow" and to find the means of controlling it before it does irreparable harm to the kingdom.

Bhima represents the brute force of the brothers, and it is necessary for him to defeat Duryodhana to restore the Pandava honor. The two cousins were the same age and trained together under Drona’s tutelage. In order for the Pandavas to succeed, Bhima has to counter this aspect of the Pandava shadow, Duryodhana’s might and force, to bring the war to an end, a task symbolic of honoring the shadow. In his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Robert Johnson presents an example of how a little violent action prior to a presentation, such as throwing a wet towel on the ground, releases built-up energy, and enabling him to give the presentation without fear, nerves, or other trepidations (46-47). This violent release allows the shadow a moment to surface and to be acknowledged before it is thrown back into the personal unconscious. In myths and literature, this is represented by a skirmish or a battle between the hero and either a minor or major shadow character. When it is a major character, such as Duryodhana, it enables the hero, consciousness, or heroes, the Pandavas, to finally pursue the boon or achieve the intended task, such as restoration of the kingdom. Because The Mahabharata is the myth of usher in the age of the shadow, the shadow has the last laugh and what seemed like a conscious victory was really a subterfuge: For all their efforts, Duryodhana still manages to receive a seat in heaven.

Briefly, Draupadi is the primary anima of Buck’s treatment of The Mahabharata. She is equally married to all Pandavas and plays the role of first wife, despite the subsequent wives some of the individual Pandavas gain. According to Jung, while the shadow represents the personal unconscious, the anima transcends this realm, helping pull a person into the collective unconscious (Jung 10). Duryodhana greatly insults Draupadi during the dice match, representing the shadow insulting the anima. Continuing the model of the psyche, the insult is the unconscious attempt to not yield completely to the pull of anima into the collective unconscious. It also communicates to the conscious an attempt to keep certain things unconscious. This insult of Draupadi acts as reinforcement of Duryodhana’s behavior while also fueling the Pandava hatred towards him.

The Birth and Death of Duryodhana

Gandhari had difficulties with pregnancy. She was promised by Vyasa to bear 100 sons and one daughter. Because of these difficulties, Vyasa arranged to have the unborn babies removed from Gandhari and buried in jars in the garden. When the time came, they were harvested as fully-grown children, the first one being Duryodhana, harvested on the same day at Bhima. The children of Dhritarashtra were born twice. Often, being born again gives the impression that one is closer to god-like. In Western religious traditions, children and adults are baptized, "born again," to forgive them their sins and enable them access to heaven when they die. In Eastern religions, reincarnation allows a person a second chance at enlightenment by being born again in another lifetime as another life form, animal or human. Duryodhana’s second birth occurs before he is truly born, corrupting him before he has a chance at life. Also, Duryodhana, prior to the incubation period in the jar, is one piece of a "hard ball of flesh," one among many (Buck 33). Because he was born first, Duryodhana was encouraged to become his own individual. This in contrast to the immaculate births of the Pandavas, each fathered by a different god at Kunti’s bequest.

In the last Great Vision of Yudhisthira, he is given the opportunity to visit heaven and is surprised to find Duryodhana there. Although Duryodhana may have lived an immoral life, he had a noble death, dying in battle specifically in one-to-one combat (Buck 367). Yudhisthira passes on a place in heaven, because it was a personal hell to him to share paradise with one so vile. This is Duryodhana’s last success: the shadow conquering the element of the self that is the key to self-actualization. Had the Pandavas been successful they would have defeated Duryodhana in a manner that gained them paradise, maintaining balance.

The Kali Yuga

The Mahabharata serves as the myth to usher in the Kali Yuga, a time that is the "worst of anything" (Zimmer 15). This is the time of social and political chaos, and the time when the world is at its most unbalanced, imaged, according to Zimmer, by a cow trying to stand on a single leg. Also, the Kali Yuga is the time of Kali, the goddess of death and transformation, who represents both creative and destructive principles. During the time of the shadow, Kali employs her destructive function and "takes back and swallows again the creatures brought forth" (Zimmer 211).

When the Pandavas battle Duryodhana, they hope to avoid the chaos and destruction established by the Kurus, beginning with their mutual great-grandmother, Queen Satyavati, who upset the balance of the fates when she asked her first-born son, Vyasa, to conceive heirs with her widowed daughters-in-law. Her primary concern was to keep her lineage on the throne, rather than obey the natural order. Succession was given to Pandu, the second-born of these sons, because Dhritarashtra, the first-born and rightful heir, was born blind and unfit to rule. Before the birth of Duryodhana, the shadow, dharma remained in a delicate balance. When Duryodhana was born, Dhritarashtra began to consider whether or not his son should be the rightful heir, questions that made their way to Duryodhana.

To right the perceived wrong, and to shift the dharma fully out of balance, Duryodhana challenges and cheats Yudhisthira out of his portion of Hastinapur, reversing Dhritarashtra’s gift of a portion of the kingdom to the Pandavas. Through his skills, Duryodhana "managed to undo the Partition of the ancestral kingdom but his actions had reopened the decades-old controversy about whether the legitimate successor to the throne was the oldest prince of the joint family … or the son of the oldest son of the previous king…" (Suri 53). The Mahabharata tells only of how the balance is upset amongst the royal family. In Buck’s rendering, we are given glimpses to how this imbalance affects others outside the family: other kingdoms fearing a battle with Duryodhana, woods people fearing the Pandavas as if they were Duryodhana’s forces, and the terrorization of the demonic forces. We do not see the oncoming shadow forces beyond the realm of the Kurus and Pandavas.

The Kali Yuga is thus also the time of dharma upset, a time when family fights amongst itself. The Pandavas feared this, but could not prevent it, suggesting that the imbalance was inevitable. This is further proven by Yudhishthira’s Great Vision, in which he saw Duryodhana in Paradise being rewarded for his heroic death and the Pandavas in an equivalent to Hell.

Duryodhana in Modern Times

In keeping with the impression that The Mahabharata contains lessons that resonate through mythology, I would like to briefly consider a couple modern shadow figures that resemble, to a degree, Duryodhana. The reason for this is to contextualize The Mahabharata, to bring its messages to a modern reader’s understanding, especially that of Western readers who are not immersed in the epic from a young age and may never experience its texts. This is to suggest that the shadow archetype, regardless of mythology, is dangerous and to ignore it can do damage both to the individual psyche and to the greater social function.

Modern politics is rife with Duryodhanas: leaders who have fought or manipulated election results so they could hold a seat of power. Once in that seat they refuse to let it go, removing or silencing opposition either legally, illegally, or by force. Because modern political seats, or “thrones,” are not passed among blood relatives in democratic societies, it is more difficult to honor and enforce any sense of dharma. Opposition leaders must rely instead on precedent and old documents to enforce their stances. Modern history has seen opponents constantly fight, like the Pandavas confronting Duryodhana, but we have also seen the opponents disappear from public spotlight, as though they were banished like the Pandavas. It is difficult to say which is more prevalent, the fighters or the silent opposition.

Leaders act without seeming to consider the results of their actions and any benefits toward the greater good. The Mahabharata does not give a full account of the kingdom because Duryodhana never fully becomes king. Instead, he manipulates his blind father into consenting with his actions in pursuit of his plans for when he does gain the throne. This includes removing the Pandavas, who are loved and respected, and battling neighboring kingdoms to expand what he intends on one day inheriting. According to Carl Jung, such recognition of a shadow figure’s actions and consequences thereof is “quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil" (Jung 10). This suggests that the shadow figures governing the modern world, the modern Duryodhanas, are bound by their very psychological make-up to behave the way they do. Confronting their true natures, to see themselves, is counter-intuitive to the pursuit of power.

The nature of evil has been studied in countless volumes from all disciplines. It is not my intention to undertake such a heavy task with this paper. I simply want to suggest, following the model for the psyche outlined above and the considerations I have presented of the Kali Yuga, that Duryodhana’s actions extend beyond literary, but represent an inherent collective human need to tend the shadow. I do not presume to imply that all cognizant beings across the world need to honor their own shadows, but, rather, state that to constantly and collectively ignore the shadow will eventually cause it seep into the collective psyche and manifest in the conscious world. I can almost picture this as being Kali’s Last Laugh prior to the launch of the next cycle.

Works cited

  • Buck, William, trans. Mahabharata. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1973.
  • Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Ed. Eugene Kennedy. Novato: New World, 2001.
  • Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Jung, Carl G. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. 2nd ed. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 8-10.
  • Suri, Chander Kanta. The Life and Times of Duryodhan. Characters from the Mahabharat 11. Delhi: Books for All, 1992.
  • Sutton, Nicholas. Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Notical Banarsidass, 2000.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Washington, D.C.: Bollingen, 1946.

Works consulted

  • Gitomer, David L. “Raksasa Bhima: Wolfbelly Among Ogres and Brahmans in the Sanskrit Mahabharata and the Veniramhara.” Essays on the Mahabharata. Ed. Arvind Sharma. Leiden: Brill, 1991. 296-304.

Some Thoughts on the Mahabharata

My fascination with the shadow began during my initial visit/interview at Pacifica, when I bought a copy of Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow with the open house gift certificate. I read the entire book on the plane between Salt Lake City and Austin. The book altered my perspective so much I have found the shadow everywhere since I read it. Perhaps this is a proverbial call to adventure to explore this particular nature of myself; or perhaps it is simply that exploring the hidden depths of psyche’s closet is much more interesting than analyzing the conscious world. When trying to decide what topic to explore of The Mahabharata, I realized I was attracted to two things. Deciding to not write a love letter to Arjuna, I decided to explore the shadow nature of Duryodhana. As a literary character, Duryodhana is cunning like a fox who is afraid of losing the power given to him, which sounds chillingly like most shadow figures in both popular culture and politics these days.

By Western standards, Duryodhana’s jealousy of his cousin-brothers is expected. Duryodhana came to believe he was going to inherit the kingdom, and faced conflict with the family dharma. His prejudice was fueled in part by his rivalry to Bhima. This scenario appears often in Western literature, except that I cannot recall a story in which the banished brother or brothers are allowed to return to the kingdom after a period of time. In the stories I recall, the usurping brother will try to have the unfavored brothers permanently incapacitated, rather than hope the fates will destroy them during the period of banishment. I think Duryodhana genuinely thought his brothers would not survive the exile, but his actions were guided by jealousy, rendering his reason blind.

In my preliminary research of Duryodhana, I came to realize that The Mahabharata acts as the myth to usher in the Kali Yuga. Before this Hinduism class, I vaguely understood through reading Joseph Campbell that the Kali Yuga is a Hindu epoch of time, but I mostly understood the word as the name of Kilik’s Bo staff in the video game, Soul Calibur. At the end of a battle, Kilik cries, "Kali-Yuga, show me the way!" I mention this battle-cry because the Kali Yuga is the time of the shadow: the time when all of humanity’s dragons and demons roam free and create chaos and destruction. Some might call this pure religious bunk, but I cannot overlook the coincidence that our current world is experiencing chaos and destruction through war, epidemics, economic insecurity, and illogical, irrational leaders. To borrow from a Love and Rockets song, the world seems, from my perspective, to be a massive "Ball of Confusion." It seems to me that this is exactly what the Pandavas were fighting against, yet were powerless to prevent. Since The Mahabharata is not a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, I can only speculate whether the paradigm shift was inevitable, or whether Duryodhana’s actions set the change in motion. Perhaps the blame lies not with Duryodhana, but with his great-grandmother, Satyavati, who married King Shantanu only on the condition that her children would inherit the throne. She had to manipulate destiny to produce heirs, and perhaps this is the catalyst that foraged the path for Duryodhana’s jealousy and the epic war between the Kurus and the Pandavas.

When reading The Mahabharata, I kept mentally comparing Duryodhana to the Harry Potter shadow character Lord Voldemort. They each embody a different degree of evil, using whatever techniques are necessary to achieve their goals. However, the question is not the degree to which Duryodhana is evil, but, rather, to what extent his characteristics are found within my psyche. By exploring these characteristics, I will be one step closer to owning my own shadow.