Wednesday, March 13, 2019

“Know it, and do not lose your sense”, Listening for the Gods in the Age of the Demons

There’s a compelling, disturbing passage in the first book of the Mahabharata that comes long before any of the familiar story commences--- the story of family, of succession to kingship, or the tribulations that lead to the inevitable fratricidal war.   It’s very Mahabharata and by that I mean it states as matters of fact truths we do not like to know but must know first before we can know any more. It appears in the voice of the sage Ugraśravas, whose name literally means something like, Ferocious Acclaim. There’s something in that too we should take to heart. But let’s get to his point.

He says,

“All this is rooted in Time, to be or not to be, to be happy or not to be happy. Time ripens the creatures. Time rots them. And Time again puts out the Time that burns down the creatures. Time unfolds all beings in the world, holy and unholy. Time shrinks them and expands them again. Time walks in all creatures, unaverted, impartial. Whatever beings were in the past will be in the future, whatever are busy now, they are all creatures of Time---know it, and do not lose your sense.” (1.1.88ff., see van Buitenen)

We can easily understand this to be another description of fate and of karma, of the processes of death, rebirth, and re-death. We can see it as a familiar table setting along with the metaphysical etiquette that must precede the story. But there’s more here once we take the poet’s last admonition to heart. Know it, and do not lose your sense.

Know what? What sense?

First a little table setting.
It's a dominant trope of the classical Hindu worldview---and shared by Buddhists, Jainas, and virtually all others---that time has been unkind to truth, to betterment, to ethical standards, and to everything we experience that is somehow failing us. It's fundamental to the theory of the Ages or yugas that we are not only in the time of degeneration---the Kali Yuga and please do not mistake the word “kali” here for “Kālī.” (These are entirely different words, with different roots, and we’ll not digress to further explanation.) The theory of the Ages describes a wholistic process of entropy: things were once better and will become only worse for the foreseeable future. Kali’s Age being the fourth of four, and only just having recently started, means that matters are now so depreciated that the worst will only become worse still. Cheery, eh?

There are a few bright sides to this vision but let us not ever miss the premise: once there were golden ages and the future’s only gonna get worse for as far as the eye can see. In fact it’s going to have to end in a complete cataclysmic dissolution before it can return to a more pristine state and begin the whole process over again. But let’s get back to the matter of the bright side. For one, a little good goes a long way. Thus virtue, rare and getting rarer still, can change things by application of even a tincture of decency. Furthermore, those who apply themselves to truth and to goodness will advance quickly through the malaise though prospects for enlightenment are still, by the sheer din of the natural processes of debasement, not much in the way of probable.

Some, like the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta, will argue that their own superior birthright is the only plausible explanation for their own advancement. Abhinava makes quite the case for his own prospects because his parents conceived him in a Tantric ritual that bypasses much of the karmic detritus that clutters the rest of us. I somehow doubt you believe that you too were conceived in a Tantric ritual in which your parent’s superior states of awareness and sublime consciousness brought you into the world. Be that as it may, some people, at least according to Abhinavagupta, have all the luck. (See his Tantrasara introduction for this bit of self-aggrandizing legerdemain.)

You don't have to make this up: the Indian world seems sure that things were once far better, things are pretty terrible now and getting worse, and that you're going to need some real help---be that a Tantric conception, a divine intervention, a guru's grace, _something_ to help you find your way through the devolving debauch that makes up a world that never fails to offer seemingly only more human folly. Good luck with that. Karma is a bitch. And you're likely really in for it. That's how it usually plays. And then: well, maybe Krishna's on your side, Siva appears as your guru, there's a magic wand touch, or some such intervention comes to the rescue. I repeat, good luck with _that_ too.

So it's not all hopelessness and just getting worse though that's actually mostlytrue. There's such a thing as yoga, which Krishna in the Gita tells us can do wonders, God might step in, and there are innumerable examples from the past that can inspire us. After all, things were simpler in that Age before Yudhisthira came to realize that no manner of goodness can persuade the nihilist to be less devoted to burning down the world for nothing more than his own narcissism. Virtue is not impossible nor is it merely futile even when it fails. And that virtue is possible in the face of the menacing facts of life, well, that only makes it more valuable. It's hard to argue with these tough lessons. We can't stop the onslaughts that time will bring but we can put up worthy alternatives to the certain horror even if those forms of goodness remain vulnerable and less than perfect.

Within this theory that implores us to strive and to do good despite the odds and the near certainty of failure there is also a kind of demon's game. While the gods advance the idea that we must work both with and against the terms of the Age, the demons have another take. For the demonic the process is simple enough, their agenda being one of manipulation and exploitation of those eager for another kind of world than the one in which we must actually make our way. The demons know that we humans not only want what we want but that we are also willing to fool ourselves. We can be so be fooled that we can use hope to pretend to get what we want. We'll go so far as to even deny the evidence, refute our own experience, and reject the possibility of our own error just to have a story that tells us what we prefer to believe.

One of the problems that the gods point out is that truth is often discomforting, that some problems are intractable (at least for now), and that we humans will go to nearly any lengths to deny what is true if it meets some immediate desire. When our deeper desires come into play---and when are they ever not?---then our vulnerabilities open even more graciously to the demons' seductions. We should never underestimate their appeal precisely because we should never sell short our human desire for a story that feels good even if that's just for _now_. Being firmly rooted “only in the present" is a surefire way to deceive one's self about what being is about all the rest of the time.

So what's the demons' play? It's got a few simple steps.
First, take an event or situation, something that happens that could cause us anxiety or raise questions about our ability to manage or control outcomes. 
Then complain about how things have become worse, take note about how progress has failed us whether or not this is true, ignore the facts, and confuse the situation with oversimplification and dissimulation. 
Invoking this confusion with an air of authority, the next move is also an easy two-step. First, appeal to some nostalgic past where things were purportedly better. It doesn’t matter if this past actually ever existed but Indian worldviews will help because they insist it has. And this is not uncommon in other cultures because who among us cannot imagine a better world and then project that back with greater ease than what we can envision as a future? And to finish it off ---this being the second step of that last two-step---the demon will then claim only he can bring things back to that imaginary better world. You buy the lie because it looks true and feels like hope and then the demon’s your man, and the next thing you know you are defrauding yourself as if it were the next smart thing to do.
This is, by the way, how Trump became president but let’s not digress; he’s just an example of what Barnum told us about suckers being born every day.

We all want to feel like someone else has the answers. It’s never very comforting to find out that the harder questions are the better path. But saying yes to the flimflam is something the demon can count on because it’s as easy as water flowing down. The hoodwinked believes that the matter has been seemingly demystified; they are in the know nowand everyone else is being fooled. It’s a Dunning-Kruger thing too: the less they know, the more they believe they know. That it’s only more hornswoggle matters not as much as that it feels good to feel it, it feels affirming such that the demon’s gambit is now one’s own personal self-satisfying delusion.

Once this cycle has taken hold, it’s mightily difficult to get through any other message. We love certainty too much to let something as valuable and important as doubt get in its way. So how do we not get taken?

It’s not really possible, you know, to “think for yourself” if by that you mean that you are not already conditioned by time itself. You are never not a someone who has not already been determined by assumptions, values, and circumstances not of your own making. Well, much of it may be of your making but you don’t remember and aren’t going to.  And the rest is collective, intertwined, and inextricable to some greater whole of which you are merely a part.

To put this simpler, you inherit the self, so start there, and if you do then you stand a chance at creating more selves than just the one that makes you believe you can wholly self-determine. We can’t, we don’t, and it doesn’t matter that those facts are facts, they don’t limit us so much as tell us that limitations are not the problem.

The gods proffer a less appealing but more worthwhile alternative--- it’s not nearly as satisfying as the demon’s gambit. It requires us to go back to our premise.

It is not just that time rots us---the catch-all for the ways in which we are held in time, by time, through time as mortal beings. Rather it is that time invites us to break into ourselves so that we can break the strangleholds of time. Then we can instead experience those conditions as our time, the brief, warm, lovely gift of this life. We will have to decide not to wish for some other time, some other life. But we will also have to not give up the feeling that we can live in any time, past or future, through the sheer power of our will and imagination.

We can still ache for a past and dream of a future but we will have to be content to accept that living happens in the space between every moment as it is and how we wish it were. What more it can be is up to us only when we are willing to stay in that seam, when we can go into that place where time cannot rot us because we are no longer in just one time or the other. When we are no longer “just now” wishing it were “just then” there’s room to move inside time, into a place where the false past no longer appeals and the wishful future is no longer remote. It’s not a twilight zone though it contains our shadows. It’s not stable or singular but neither is it unreal. We’ll have to embrace paradox without solving every problem but if we do then we can become more, not bound by time’s one-thing-or-the-other-ness. We can become a third, another, something that is no longer defined by what Time alone declares will rot us. We can enter a place that doesn’t demand we know or control or command so much as it allows us to live in our own skin. We’ll have to talk about this a lot more, but this is a start.