Jayary Newsletter # 74

Philosophy's poor cousin

I keep griping about how philosophy has lost its way, that it's become a specialized academic discipline instead of being the guide that we all deserve, whether layperson or expert. I am not backing out from that claim; if anything it feels even truer today than when I started writing a daily Jayary in January. However, my reading and rereading of Damayanti and Nala's story and the more recent engagement with the idea of pilgrimage has strengthened the conviction that philosophy is better off than religion, which is even more poorly served.

Yudhisthira can ask a genuine question about pilgrimage because it's a living act for him; he has plenty of forests and temples and waters for him to mark the presence of the divine.

What do we have?

Narada mentions two exceptionally important pilgrimages - one to Dami where Vishnu went to cleanse himself after killing the danavas and the daityas, and the second to Vadava where Brahma, the devas, the yakshas, the daityas and the rakshasas arrive to pay their obeisance to Vishnu.

Think about it for a second: Vishnu, who is the object of pilgrimage by the daityas and the rakshasas at Vadava is the one performing the pilgrimage at Dami for killing those very daityas and rakshasas. It tells us that pilgrimage is prior to Vishnu; he too has to submit to karma at some level, however subtle. It also tells us that there's no permanent division between good and evil, making those terms suspect in the description of divinity.

So what is it to worship the divine when the divine itself is embedded in the warp and weft of the world? Don't like the thought that divinity is of the same species as we are?

Tirtha

Narada and Pulastya recount the merits of one tirtha after another - believe me, it's a very long list with specific instructions on what rites to perform in each one. The tirtha's are spread throughout the country, suggesting that sacred geography predates and supersedes political arrangements.

The epic says that Bhishma took Pulastya's advice to heart and visited all the tirthas in his time. Of course, that prompts the question: when did he do it? Couldn't have been before he was recognized as Shantanu's son. I can't imagine him having any free time after he was installed as regent. So, did he leave town after he gave up the throne and handed over power to Satyavati's lineage? Or did he wait until his step-brothers were old enough to rule on their own? Or even later, after Pandu and Dhritarashtra took over the kingdom?

Bhishma the king-in-waiting was at war with his rivals. Bhishma the pilgrim roamed the country, visiting tirthas. I like that juxtaposition: the warrior prince and the matted pilgrim. I like the freedom that comes from the abdication of power. I remember being surprised when I heard that the great Mauryan emperor Chandragupta died as a monk in Karnataka.

A society that allows kings to become mendicants has the makings of a great society. A society that encourages the transition has figured out a fundamental truth.

The Ritual Mind

While not everyone in the modern world is a theoretical physicist or a mathematician, everyone who's reading this sentence has added and subtracted numbers, struggled with word problems and generally being socialized into the mathematical view of the world, i.e., that objects can be measured numerically and that numerical measure in turn can be fed into calculations of scientific or economic value. It's a mental stance we understand even if we don't succeed in mastering.

Now contrast that with Yudhisthira's reception of the litany of pilgrimages. Add to that litany the rites one performs at each one of the tirthas. Does it make any sense?

Humans are ritual creatures. Everyone alive has a favourite ritual or two: brushing one's teeth first thing in the morning or after the first cup of coffee. Sleeping on the right hand side of the bed. Eating the same cereal every day. These are rituals too, but unlike Yudhisthira, these rituals aren't a framework for understanding the rest of the universe.

The fact that I brush my teeth after my first cup of coffee on the days I don't run and brush my teeth first thing on the days I run isn't of cosmic importance or even a sociological fact worth commenting upon. In contrast, if 17% of all male runners brush their teeth first thing in the morning on the days they run while they brush their teeth after coffee the days they don't run - that would be a fact worth commenting upon.

Numbers have value in our cosmology. Rituals, not so much. Sacrifices are rituals. Mantras are rituals. Pilgrimages are rituals. Religious insight is impossible without rituals.