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.


Neal Stephenson is Amibah the Formless One

Close to ten years ago, some of us had imagined ourselves to be Gods, and thus created a Pantheon. I was War, for whatever reason. Madness was Madness. Kodhi was Disease. Spunky was Death, because, you know, Death looks like Spunky.

And then there was a whole host of “minor Gods”, most of who I don’t remember right now, but most of who were also modelled after real people that we (Madness, Disease and I – the creators of the Pantheon) were very well acquainted with. If I’m not wrong, there was a point in time when we tried fitting every significant person around us into the Pantheon. Anyway.

So as far as Pantheons are concerned a flat organisation is not desirable. There can be minor quibbles among the Gods, which can only be resolved by a higher power. Then, there can be conflicts in judgments of Gods, for which a hierarchy is necessary to determine whose Will will prevail.

One way of doing this is to establish a hierarchical structure, where there is some kind of well-formed ordering among the Gods of the Pantheon. The downside of this, of course, is that there can be quibbles among the Gods regarding their positions in the Pantheon itself, and if they can’t agree on the hierarchy itself, there is very little they can achieve by being Gods.

So a standard solution for this is to have a mostly flat organisational structure, but have a head at the head of it – a King of Gods, or perhaps a God of Gods. So in Indian mythology you have Indra. The Greeks have Zeus, whom the Romans call Jupiter and whom the Norse call Thor (it is interesting, though, that when it comes to days of the week, it is Brhaspati and not Indra who is mapped to Jupiter and Thor. But that is another matter). Given that most of the Pantheonic religions have a King of Gods, it seems like a rather sustainable organisational structure!

And so we decided to have a King of Gods for our Pantheon also. Now, within our peer group we wanted to avoid unsavoury competition, and didn’t want to impose a hierarchy. So we had to get someone from outside the peer group to head the Pantheon (like the Kodhis have Manoj Kumar at the head of their Pantheon). So we created a King of Gods, and called him/her (it wasn’t clear then) Amibah the Formless One. Amibah wasn’t mapped to anyone we knew.

So as I’d mentioned in these pages last month, I recently finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Earlier in October, two days before I was due a day-long flight, I started reading the prequel to that, The Baroque Cycle (this book is so long that at the end of the flight, most of which I spent reading, I was at 6% in the book). I’m now through about a quarter of the book, and it has been absolutely awesome. I’ve learnt much more about late Medieval European history by reading this book than by reading all the other history books I’ve read in the last several years.

That, however, is besides the point. As I have been going through the two books of Stephenson, I’m amazed at how much of Madness’s talking and writing and style is derived from Stephenson. In almost every page, there is something that I read that reminds me of Madness. The similarity in styles is unmistakable. Considering that Madness had finished reading the two books before he wrote all the stuff in which the same style was seen, the causation can only run one way – everything Madness says and does is heavily influenced by Stephenson’s writings.

Madness channels Stephenson in everything that he writes, says and does. If you were to remove the elements of Stephenson from Madness, he gets reduced to virtually nothing. By thus channeling Stephenson, Madness can be considered an ambassador of Stephenson. Nay, he should be considered to be a Prophet of Stephenson.

So if Madness is a Prophet of Stephenson, that implies that Stephenson is a God. But Madness is no ordinary prophet – he is also a member of the Pantheon. That a member of the Pantheon is Stephenson’s prophet can mean only one thing – that Stephenson is a higher member of the Pantheon. Which means he is none other than the King of Gods.

Which means that Neal Stephenson is actually Amibah the Formless ONe.