Jayary Newsletter # 98

The Serpent and the Rope

The Serpent and the Rope. First, the serpent.

A loaded metaphor, if ever there's one: serpents are a sign of evil, a sign of greed and a sign of danger. Snakes play all three roles in the Jaya, but the sacrifice at the beginning is triggered by Takshaka's greed: the naga king steals the earrings that Uttanka was taking to his guru's wife as dakshina.

As we know, brahmins are quick to anger. The loss of wealth prompts Uttanka to urge Janamejaya to avenge Parikshit's death by killing all the snakes in the world. Which prompts me to ask two questions of the king and his instigator:

1. Why kill every snake for the deeds of their king? Sure, Takshaka should be brought to justice for killing Parikshit, but why kill every single snake in the realm? Where does genocidal rage come from?

2. Why do we not pay attention to the guru's wife and her greed? She desired jewellry worthy of a queen. Is that a legitimate desire? Let's turn it up another notch: should anyone - queen or commoner - desire jewellry that can prompt a genocide?

However we look at it, the snake is a symbol of everything slippery, explosive or uncontrollable. What Nietzsche would call the Dionysian rather than the Apollonian aspect of our nature. What if reality itself was snake-like? That's brings us to the rope.

Slipping Away

We know the standard version of the serpent and the rope: let's say you're walking down a dimly lit path in Hosur while talking to a friend and almost stumble upon a serpentine object. Do you run away or keep walking?

Most people would run away: there's no cost to running away - though startling a snake might be a bad idea whether you keep walking or run backwards. A false positive is OK; a false negative could be fatal.

Descartes inaugurates an interesting version of the serpent and the rope. He says that you can never be sure if there's a serpent or a rope, but you can be sure that you saw a serpent. You are certain of what you experience, whether it's a hallucination or reality.

Is that really true? By the time I am done experiencing, the experience itself is in the past: at best, what I can be certain of is that I have the memory of experiencing a snake. Even that's shaky, actually: by the time, you are done having that memory, it too is in the past and the best you can do is have a certain memory of a memory of experiencing a snake.

And so the snake keeps slipping away: there's no avoiding infinite regress in the space of memories. Certainty can't be found in experience. That's why philosophers turned to logic and mathematics: even the devil can't deny that 2+2 = 4.

Expanding the Gap

Descartes was worried that the devil might prevent him from seeing the world as it is: making him see a snake when there's nothing more than a rope. Or worse: substitute a rope for a snake. So he retreated inward to the certainties of perceptual experience, to be replaced later by the certainties of logic.

I am not being fully accurate: Descartes had a more radical worry than a rope being replaced by a snake. Instead, what if an object out there - let's say, an apple - was replaced in perception by something entirely different: a snake. In other words, what if the relationship between perception and reality is entirely random?

The Rope-Snake model starts from a different assumption: that perception and reality are correlated, if not the same. It's possible to mistake a rope for a snake, but not an apple for a snake. If so, reality is never too far; even the illusion has a built in link to the real thing. It's more like predicting a victory for Clinton and missing out on the Trump groundswell, but as my leftist comrades will tell you, the gap between the two isn't that large.

Which isn't to say that the gap, however small, isn't important. While the Christian thinker is worried about eternal damnation and metaphysical errors, the Jaya takes a different perspective: it says that a small gap between the rope and the snake can expand and expand until there's a wide chasm separating the two.