Gods, Demons and Superheroes

Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

That is the last of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (I have earlier written about Rule 11). In that chapter, he talks about why suffering exists, and what we can do to get around it. Taking the example of his daughter’s arthritis, which which she has been affected since a young age,  he explains how one should draw boundaries around the time one deals with the suffering, and learn to enjoy the little joys of life (hence the cat and the petting).

In the lead up to this rule, Peterson philosophises about why there exists suffering in this world. To illustrate, he takes the example of the time when Marvel Comics and DC Comics decided to bring together their superheroes, to create stories such as “Batman versus Superman”. The two superheroes, he explains, were so mismatched that DC’s superheroes, who had a bit of a grey background, had to be given massive additional superpowers in order to match up to Superman, and even then, Superman had a huge advantage. And this made those superhero matchup stories not fun.

From this, he draws the analogy to religion (he frequently references the Bible in his book – which for me was one of the more irritating things about it) and talks about how if there was no suffering or negativity, there would be no point of life, since there would be no challenges. And so he says that god wills to bring in some suffering, that is randomly (but not evenly) distributed, which makes life challenging and gives it a purpose.

In some ways, Peterson’s view of why suffering exists in the world is remarkably similar to the Hindu philosophical view. An excellent point to understand the latter is this post by Shrikanth Krishnamachary.  Shrikanth writes:

So to summarize, it is fair to conclude that Indian ideas on the “Problem of evil” are unique and their exceptionalism derives from the ideas of an Agnostic, even playful God, championed in the foundational texts of the tradition, including the Rig Veda and the Brahma Sutras.

Earlier in the post, Shrikanth elaborates about the concept of “Leela” in Hindu philosophy which is sometimes translated as “god’s play”. It is like the gods, in their “play” created evil because otherwise the world would be too one-sided and not fun.

Speaking of superheroes and “fun”, one thing that makes Hindu mythological stories fascinating and fun is that it is not just the good guys that have superpowers – the antagonists have them as well. In fact, a common motif in Hindu myth is of a character performing immense sacrifices and penances, and being rewarded with a boon in the form of a superpower. And then the character proceeds to get arrogant about this boon and starts misusing it, at which point a god with a neutralising superpower is sent to deal with the situation.

So the fact that the antagonist in Hindu myth usually has a superpower means that the task of annihilating them becomes a non-trivial task, and this makes the story fun. In fact, with most Hindu myth stories having evolved over several millennia, it is not surprising that these stories conform to the “Leela model” (god’s play) of evil in myth – both sides get superpowers and the gods have fun watching them face off.

In his post, Shrikanth also mentions about how the concept of evil has changed since the Bhakti movement. He writes:

However in the past 1000 years, the Karmic orthodoxy of the Mahabharata has been challenged by the emergence of the Bhakti movement. This movement, with its roots in Southern India, has traditionally placed a great emphasis on the extolling of divine grace. God’s grace is spontaneous and is as much a part of his Leela as the act of creation itself. Hence Karma does not always have a deterministic linkage with Phala, which is the reason why often evil things can befall the most virtuous of men.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also notable that Bhakti movement era stories have a vastly different model of superhero battles compared to longer evolved Hindu myth. Over the last few days I’ve accompanied the daughter in watching a few episodes of “Little Krishna”, a cartoon series based on the stories of Krishna as a child (produced by Big Entertainment an ISKCON). While the battles in that might fascinate a child, they are hardly engaging.

And this is because Little Krishna has superpowers that far exceed that of the various demons sent by his uncle Kamsa to kill him. The demons do have some superpowers, but all it takes is brute force on the part of Little Krishna to destroy them. This is quite in contrast with traditional myth, where both sides have comparable superpowers, which means that the “good guys” need to engage in some clever solutions, including the odd episode of cheating, in order to win their battles.

PS: Apart from Jordan Peterson’s analogy, one other connection of this post with superheroes is one reason I find superhero movies boring – just like in Bhakti-based stories, or stories from the Bible, or even Superman vs Batman, I find that superhero stories have superheroes possessing superpowers vastly in excess of the “bad guy”, making these stories not fun.

 

Jordan Peterson’s Chapter Eleven

So I read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life last month. It took a bit of an effort, and there were a couple of occasions when I did wonder if I should abandon the book. However, my stated aim of reading at least 50 books this year made me soldier on, and in the end I’m glad I finished it. Especially for Chapter Eleven of the book (Do not bother children when they are skateboarding).

Now, this is a long chapter, and Peterson spends considerable time rambling about various controversies he has got involved in over the last few years – such as his stand on political correctness, or his stand on environmentalism (in fact, he has an interesting take on the latter – that environmentalism and climate change worries have an adverse impact on mental health of people, so I didn’t mind reading him on that!).

The chapter is about risk – one thought (which has also been expressed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in one of his books – which one I can’t remember), is that people have a “natural level of risk”. And if you, for whatever reason, prevent them from taking that risk, they will find other ways to take risk, perhaps indulging in riskier activities.

And in order to explain why we are fundamentally wired to take risk, Peterson talks about gender, and relationships. He talks about friend-zoning, for example:

Girls aren’t attracted to boys who are their friends, even though they might like them, whatever that means. They are attracted to boys who win status contests with other boys.

And winning these status contests involves taking risk! Peterson goes on about relationships, about the crisis in the United States nowadays where women are more educated than men (on average), and then choose to remain single rather than “marrying down”.

This is the bit which really caught my attention – the apparent contradiction between the desire for women to do well, and this desire resulting in their not being able to find partners for themselves. And there are no easy solutions here. The desire for a woman to “marry up” is biological, and nobody can be faulted for being ambitious and wanting to do well for themselves in life.

Now, it is easy to go all ad hominem about this argument, calling Peterson a chauvinist and a traditionalist (as his opponents, mostly on the political left, have done), but the problem he mentions is real, and as the father of a (rather young) daughter, it hit hard for me – obviously I want her to do really well in life and make a mark professionally; but I also want her to propagate my genes, and do a good job of that.

I’m hopeful that as the daughter of Marriage Broker Auntie, she’ll be able to sort things out. But them, she may not want to listen to her mother – at least in these matters!

There were other places where the book was really inspirational. Chapter Twelve had a simple message – that there are times when you go through shit, and a way to get through them is to appreciate the smaller joys of life. In fact, Peterson is at his best when he talks about clinical psychology – which is the topic of his everyday research.

He does a fantastic job in Chapter One as well, and I may not be exaggerating by saying that the chapter was thought-provoking enough to make me analyse how I might have ended up with depression, and then make a conscious effort to avoid those actions that either betrayed depression, or made me feel more depressed. And that makes me get why people contribute so much to him on Patreon. Some of his advice can indeed be life changing.

However, I have no plans to pay him anything more than the £9.99 I paid Amazon for the book. And that is partly because the psychology parts of the book are indeed brilliant, he frequently goes on long rambling thoughts on religion (Christianity in particular, since that is the religion most familiar to him) and philosophy. And in those parts (there’s an especially long sequence between chapters 7 to 10 of the book), the book gets incredibly laboured and boring.

I recommend you read the book. The clinical psychology parts of it are nothing short of brilliant. There’s a lot of religion and psychology you will need to go through as well, and I hope you find more insight there than I managed to!

Here are the notes and highlights I made from the book.