Jayary Newsletter # 103

Why Sacrifice?

So why did Janamejaya conduct a genocidal sacrifice?

Let's assume that he - or his advisors - desired the genocide. The question wasn't "should we?" but "how should we?" While kshatriyas are within their dharma to bear arms against an enemy, they still need to show that their actions are consistent with kshatriya dharma. Once we ask the question that way, the choice of a sacrifice becomes clear.

If you don't see where I am going, consider Bush's war on Iraq. There too, the question was never "should we invade Iraq?" All of us know that was a foregone conclusion. Instead, the Bush regime wanted to know "how should we invade Iraq?" That's why the whole weapons of mass destruction story was concocted, with Colin Powell making a speech at the UN asserting their existence. That's why the invasion was justified under Iraq's failure to comply with UNSC resolution 1441.

If you want to understand why Janamejaya conducted the sacrifice, try answering the question "why did the aggressors in Iraq bother going through the UN?" The underlying reason is the same: just as violence backed by law is considered justifiable violence, violence backed by sacrifice is also justifiable violence.

By the way, we shouldn't consider this justification as a mere fig leaf. That would be a misunderstanding. Justifiable violence is far more powerful than unjustifiable violence. What's the difference between a dictator and a mafia don? The latter holds a gun to your head and says "pay up or else." His justification is the gun in his hand and because of that, it has to happen behind closed doors. The dictator is more powerful because he holds a gun to your head and says "pay up or else I will have you arrested." His violence is backed by the law so it can be carried out in the open.

The sacrifice, just like the law, provides moral legitimacy to violence.

Sacrificial Governance

One last Jayary about sacrifice.

Let's consider the most violent institution that's ever been invented by humans: the state. Paradoxically, the state conducts its violent affairs by asserting its monopoly over violence. That means I can't kill my neighbour for murdering my son: it's the state's job to do so.

The current consensus is in agreement with the state: we wouldn't want to take matters into our own hands would we? The law backs the state's monopoly, which is underwritten by a constitution that supposedly documents our collective assent to the state's rule. Every constitution I know starts with some form of "we the people...." What does "we the people" even mean?

Anyway, now that the people have signed over their rights to the state, it's the only entity with legal recourse to violence. That's why it can float an army; that's why it can create a police force. The state is the sovereign. Our granting of monopoly rights to the state is the ultimate blank cheque.

What's interesting about the Jaya is how sacrifice replaces the law or a constitution as the legitimizing entity. Jarasandha is able to justify keeping ninety eight kings captive because he's going to sacrifice them one day. Yudhisthira is able to send his brothers in four directions to conquer the earth because that's what he needs to do to conduct the Rajasuya.

What would a state look like if sacrifice was its basis, not a constitution? By the way, I am not saying it will be better or worse. It's pure speculation: what's the shape of governance grounded in sacrifice?

God is Dead

It's time to start wrapping up this year's Jayary - not that I have another year's Jayary planned. I am going to take a break before restarting. But that's for another time: the question at hand is: how to end a year of exploration?

I am going to end the year with thoughts about religion and divinity in the Jaya: today being the day after Christmas after all. Talking about Christmas, it's impossible for us to think about religion without thinking about God. Not gods: God. The dominance of the Abrahamic religions has ensured that this particular interpretation of divinity is part of everyone's background, even if:

  1. You don't believe in any god

  2. You believe in several gods

  3. You have a completely different religious intuition

How would one classify Krishna in this scheme? He's a supreme deity, but also a human who befriends others. He reveals the secret of all secrets but he's killed like any other mortal creature. How do we reconcile this hybrid being with an omniscient God?

Then there's the additional problem that God is dead. I am not the first person to make that claim, and Nietzsche who famously uttered that phrase was only diagnosing the disease. The movement to eject divinity from human experience has a long history; arguably, the history of civilization is the history of gods vanishing from the earth.

In the Biblical story of Genesis, God ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, but one might equally well say that the human earth (given unto us to go forth and multiply) is a world without divinity.

Bottom of the Pyramid Divinity

Whether true or not, there's this widespread belief that mammals survived the asteroid strike because they were small and adaptable while the reigning species - the dinosaurs - died out. Of course, it's also true that most individual mammals and perhaps most mammalian species also died out, but what was merely a catastrophe for mammals was an apocalypse for the dinosaurs.

Let's say that modernity is the asteroid attack on divinity. It's killed God, but perhaps the gods are luckier. I am thinking of a chalu god like Ganesha who rides on a mouse - exactly the kind of animal we think avoided the asteroid. Ganesha is such a protean deity that he's even willing to take dictation from a human being. We have the Jaya only because the elephant god agreed to be Vyasa's scribe.

Plus, the divine Boswell is not even as smart as his Johnson: the god has to be extra careful whenever Vyasa throws a googly at him, which gives the human author time to compose further verses. I very much like the idea of a god with limits.

You can guess where I am going: the omnipotent God who rules over the universe from above is a non-starter today: not even wrong in Pauli's terms. But it's an equally big mistake to assume that divinity can only occupy the apex of the food chain.