Monday, January 31, 2011


An 1860s-ish photo of the Kali temple at Dakshineswar! You can see it here, along with a link to a photo of the Durga temple at Ramnagar and some other views of Calcutta, including this Ramakrishna-era shot.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

That Voodoo That You Do

The last straw was a financial crisis: in 2009, Romania’s economy shrank by 7.1 percent. To pay state wages and pensions, the government negotiated a 20 billion-euro loan with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the World Bank. To close the deficit, new sources of revenue were needed. Last September, Alin Popoviciu and Cristi Dugulescu of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party drafted a law wherein all witches and fortune-tellers would have to produce receipts. More problematic was the law’s specification that witches would be held liable if any predictions they made failed to pass. The senate initially voted down the legislation and Popoviciu accused his fellow legislators of being afraid of hexes. Instead, the witch tax was worked into new labor laws for 2011. --Religion Dispatches

So let's see: to pay for the failed prophecies of a group of government-authorized, MBA-bedecked wizards, another group of wizards is annexed into government supervision and told that if their prophecies fail, they will have to pay.

But can the witches force, say, weather forecasters to fund their bad calls? And then the weathermen could get reimbursed by-- I don't know, public-health types whose bird flu predictions go south? And... soon they'll have to hit up lotto players whose kids' birthdays don't pan out. No, I know-- high-school graduation speakers! For each graduate who never joins the high fliers who soar to great heights, that'll be 500 bucks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"There Is Grandeur in this View of Life," Interlude

"I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim."

What if we don't all die in a blaze of existential tragedy? What if we aren't little mind-modules adrift in cold space? What if each of us, if everything, down to the last bacillus and baobab, is a filament of the same Being, and what if we're at home right here and right now? What if we don't need to be redeemed, or spared from the Angel of Death?

I wrote (at length, alas) about Tennyson's view of death and the cosmos because it's close to the way most people in our culture see the world, whether they know it or not, whether they're believers or atheists or faitheists or what have you. Like Tennyson, most of us see death as anomalous, as a disease in search of a cure, whether the pill be heaven, cryogenics, self-sacrifice, or the stiff upper lip of materialist reason. It's fitting that In Memoriam uses the Christmas season as a marker of the passage of time: not only does Christmas signify the redemption that Tennyson craved--a cure for death-- but Christmas is also for many of us the closest we'll ever get to gratuitous grace: a faerie season of charm and surprise, of magic and mystery, and if the child's saturnalia gives way to the adult's headaches and social woes, it is the child's vision we can't escape and that goads us on to Christmases yet to come. And since we don't see grace as perpetual but as a rarity bestowed like a costly gift, and since in the back of our minds we think we have to earn grace and love (and new toys), and since those things live on the high shelf, for the worthy and not perhaps for us-- Christmas grace gets grabby and the magic morning slides into dull dinners revved up by too much booze. It's that way with all holidays, all escapes.

Of course we don't want to hear that death is inescapable, that death is the way of things, and much of the time we can't: our nervous systems congeal the world into a seductively stable "It" even as they hoodwink us into thinking we're an "I": separate from the world, in it but not of It-- unique, ineluctably ourselves and utterly Other from all else. Every human who's ever lived, save some bodhisattvas and avadhutas and a few plain old crazies, has walked this earth utterly convinced of his or her specialness, wondering how It could have existed before them, refusing to believe It could persist one picosecond without them. This illusion of separateness and specialness is what allows us to navigate the world long enough to pass on our genes and memes, and it is what keeps us from the lap of God and causes us untold suffering. It is the lie that makes us, the lie that keeps most of us enslaved until the verge of that last breath, that moment when we know without question that It will outlast us, is outlasting us already and speeding far past even as we try to cling.

Afraid to die and afraid to admit it, atheists make much of the evils of religion, and religionists, also afraid, make much of the evils of other religions (their own evils belong to a safely remote past or arise from simple doctrinal error). I think, however, that much of religion's evil stems from the urgency inspired by that last breath: bitter fear, the misguided wish to rescue, dimwitted innocent joy in one's own salvation/specialness, hindbrain overload at the thought of The End, all overflowing into the fantasy that there is some way out of death, The One True Way. If death is so terrible, if the world is so jumbled and if ruin is a perpetual half-second away, then there must be that one perfect tree to climb to escape the leopard of chaos. There must be a way to keep going, to not have to face It going on without us. 

That fantasy of safety and salvation is the social contract's big lie, exposed in the Third Degree of Masonry and in every true relation of the dealings of God with men and women-- the tree is the leopard, life is death, there is no safety save that of pure surrender, pure loss of self. Oneness with All means your personal bulb merges with the great Broadway, thus there can be no heaven, no afterlife reunion with Aunt Gladys and Mom and Dad. Easeful death means death of self, absorption by a Peace so immense that we need no one, nothing, no past, no love. As waves arise in the ocean and dance and disappear, so do we arise and live and dance and return to the One Thought, our waveness evanescent, all others we have loved and danced with evanescent too. It doesn't mean you can't dance. It means: the dance isn't all there is, the waves aren't the whole deep ocean, life and death are not the antipodes we make them out to be... dying of throat cancer, Ramakrishna saw Kali with a glowing, golden wound in Her throat.