Jayary Newsletter #76

One Hundred and One Days

265 is a nice round number. In a normal year, it would be a hundred shy of the new year, but this is a leap year. That honour belongs to 266, but I will pretend as if every year is three hundred and sixty five days. I am sure at some point a legislator in Texas sponsored a bill declaring that God made the year 365 days long, just before shoehorning pi into 3.14. Then again, the good Hindu that I am it might be better to start an auspicious task with a 101 days in the bank.

So what's that auspicious task?

When I started writing the Jayary this year, I said to myself that I will use the Jayar to articulate Indian philosophy as I understand it. Two thirds of the way through the year, it strikes me that the march of civilization has treated religion worse than philosophy. Why not spend the next hundred and one days digging for the buried remnants of that religion?

As soon as I asked myself that question, I thought of Roberto Calasso. Isn't that his project: to mine the past for the origins of religion and philosophy in literature? I am pretty sure it is; and he finds the mining a lot easier in the Indian past that he imagines from his window in Milan than the Western past he encounters when he leaves the building.

I am not a miner. Digging is not my thing, even as I consider Calasso one of the wonders of our world. Moles and rats have done their duty. I am looking for some other animal to serve as a mascot for the churning of religion and philosophy. Is it Kurma, the tortoise on which the ocean is churned? Or Vasuki, the snake whose ends are pulled by the gods and the demons? I am leaning toward Vasuki, but we have another hundred and one days to find out.

Stages of Religion

I am not a Muslim but it seems to me that Allah is the logical culmination of an entire line of development: a God that's as different from us as possible while remaining in relation with humanity. While Christianity is heading in that direction, it still admits that Jesus is the son of God, a fleshy being who's of the same category as the divine. There's no such possibility in Islam - Mohammed is a prophet, not a divinity.

Contrast that God with the sporadically earthly deities such as Vishnu and the sporadically divine humans such as the Pandavas we have met in the Jaya. Then there are figures such as the rishis who draw respect from both manavas and devas. The border between the human and divine seems porous, even as the devas are on their way out and humans on the way in.

It's no surprise to me that no major world religion has arisen after Islam; later religious traditions such as Sikhism are influential in some parts of the world, but they haven't challenged the dominant religions for market share. It's as if religious ideas developed in two stages: an enormous upswell of insights and intuitions from prehistoric times to the times of the Buddha followed by a period of consolidation for a thousand years - roughly between the Buddha and Mohammed.

I don't think my pre-consolidation/consolidation/post-consolidation division will pass muster with professional scholars of religion. It serves as a heuristic for me and the Jayary because the Jaya gives us insight into the pre-consolidation phase of religion, especially if you cut the main characters - the Pandavas and the Kauravas - out of the story.

The God who forgot Himself

I kind of like the easy commerce between the various shades of humanity and divinity and how one can go from divine to human and the other way around. The rishis are a particularly interesting go-between: beings with supernatural powers who scare the gods with their tapas but also great devotees of the gods. How can they be both? Is there a hint that tapas, karma and dharma are greater than the gods themselves?

Sometimes the encounter between divine and human is tangled in the extreme. Let's take the story of Parasurama's stand-off with Rama. It's a story of two avatars except that Parasurama's avatar has ended -even as the man himself remains alive- and Rama's avatar has started.

In his pride, Parasurama challenges Rama to string the bow that the sixth avatar used to kill the Kshatriyas twenty one times over. Not only does Rama rise to the challenge, he reveals his true form to Parasurama after doing so (behold, I am Vishnu!), just as Krishna was to do so later with the Kauravas when they tried to seize him.

Which makes for an interesting question: how is it possible to for an avatar to not recognize his successor? What kind of amnesia would prevent God from recognizing her own divinity? "The God who forgot himself." That would be a good title for a short story reworking the meeting between Av 6 and Av 7.