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.