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Contextualizing the beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya

Monday, February 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in real estate it’s location, location, location — in thought space it’s context, context, context ]
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Timothy Furnish offers us context for the newly released video of Islamic State beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians (screencap in upper panel, below) with two striking images of precedents, one of which I have reproduced in part (lower panel), illustrating how the Ottomans beheaded tens of thousands of Georgian Christians:

SPEC DQ christians beheaded

Furnish’s post is titled ISIS Beheadings: Hotwiring the Apocalypse One Christian Martyr At A Time.

**

I am saddened to say that this is indeed part of the history of Islamic relations with Christianity.

I am happy to add, however, that it is not the whole story. In the upper panel, below, you see Muslim and Christian at a very different form of battle, as found in the Book of Games, Chess, dice and boards, 1282, in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial:

SPEC DQ chess and krishna

Religious tolerance in Islam is illustrated as found today in India, in this picture of a Muslim mother in full niqab taking her son, dressed as the Hindu deity Krishna, to a festival — very probably the Janmashtami or birthday celebration of the child-god (lower panel, above).

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It will be interesting to see how President Sisi repsonds to this murderous IS attack on Egyptian citizens.

Ah, Religion: the trailer

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on turning the other cheek once, or even twice, perhaps ]
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The Wall Street Journal has the story:

In a preview trailer for a new action movie, famed Indian spiritual leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan takes on sabre-wielding villains, splinters a log with his fist and rides a monster-wheeled motorcycle in a high-speed chase.

“Some call me a saint, some call me an angel, some call me guru and some call me God,” Mr. Insan intones in a voice-over. “If it is a sin to serve the country and the universe, then I will keep committing this sin until my last breath.”

Sample wisdom:

In another musical number, Mr. Insan, wearing tightfitting gold pants, red boots and an oversize red top riveted with gold stars, performs a patriotic song that he says he wrote himself, dedicated to his followers in the armed forces.

“We’ll live and die for the country,” Mr. Insan croons to a jubilant crowd in an amphitheater with a band playing behind him. “First, we’ll stop them with love, weapons of humanity. If they don’t stop, we will shoot them!”

That, btw, is Plan B: if love doesn’t work, try deadly force.

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Coming soon to a shrine-room near you!

Unholy: perhaps it’s a useful word

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — when religion casts a long and violent shadow ]
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unholy cover
cover art for the Unholy album, New Life behind Closed Eyes

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Unholy may prove to be a very useful word, I think.

It’s not secular, it’s not irreligious, it doesn’t lack for some sort of supernatural influence — in fact it fits right in with the metaphysical implications of such Biblical phrases as (Revelation 12.7):

there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels

and (Ephesians 6.12):

we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places

**

Because, I am arguing, it is neither secular nor irreligious, it fits perfectly, I’d say, the kinds of situation we’re in so freuqnetly, globally, of religiously motivated group violence.

The word jihad — besides focusing entirely on Islamic variants, when in fact Buddhist, Hindu and Christian militians are also in evidence — concedes too much to those who regard their warfare as holy, divinely sanctioned, while other terms make things sound secular and almost normal, as if politics without the religious booster was all we are talking about.

BrutaL and spiritual, spiritual and brutal on both sides — in the Central African Republic, for instance:

It was March 2013 when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka swept into the riverside capital, Bangui, from the northeast. President François Bozizé fled as a vicious campaign of looting, torture and murder got underway. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia soon proclaimed himself the successor; he would later lose control of his ranks and an attempt that fall to disband them would do little to stop the atrocities.

At the same time, groups of militias called anti-balaka had begun to form and train and retaliate against Séléka. Their name in the local Sango language means “anti-machete”; their fighters are comprised of ex-soldiers, Christians and animists, who think magic will protect them. They’re adorned with amulets to ward off attacks and fight with hunting rifles, poison-tipped arrows and machetes.

Amulets and machetes.. warriors and angels.

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Maybe we should say “unholy warriors” and “unholy wars” rather than “holy warriors” or “jihadis” — and “unholy monks” for the Burmese mobsters in saffron robes.

And I’d reserve the use of the term for situations in whiuch at least one side in a conflict openly avows religious motivation. Someone making a treaty someone else feels is foolish or dangerous simply doesn’t meet the bar.

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It’s worth considering the Unholy CD cover art alongside two other recent images:

Moebius Floating City

and:

Wild-Hunt-602

And about that top image from the Unholy album, just so you know:

UNHOLY present their Prosthetic Records debut, a metal massacre fueled with down-tuned guitars, double bass and deep grooves akin to the sounds of Entombed, Crowbar and later Carcass, with members having been in bands like Santa Sangre, Another Victim and Path Of Resistance.

A metaphysical trigonometry

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — from [Inkling] Charles Williams via J’lem & Damascus to TS Eliot, iconology and the apophatic & cataphatic paths ]
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The Second Coming: Orthodox icon and Turkish miniature

The Second Coming: Orthodox icon and Turkish miniature

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The phrase “metaphysical trigonometry” is from Charles Williams, friend of Tolkien and Lewis, and is drawn from the opening paragraph of his book, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

The beginning of Christendom, is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of the Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

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Williams mentions Bethany, the geographic lift-off point for the Ascension of Christ — but where is his Second Coming to be witnessed?

Some Christian telecasters, literal-minded and consequently of the opinion that not only living eyes but even the eye of the camera will be able to capture the event, suggest the Mount of Olives:

Thus Christian Broadcasters’ Cameras Trained on Mount of Olives to Capture Christ’s Return:

Two of America’s biggest evangelical Christian broadcasters have stationed cameras on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, ready to cover the return of Jesus Christ from the Mount of Olives as predicted in the Bible, should any such event occur soon.

Texas-based Daystar Television Network was first to install a 24/7 camera from its terrace overlooking the Mount of Olives, and now Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network has bought the building next door, allowing it the same opportunity. The Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge east of Jerusalem, is rooted both in Jewish and Christian traditions, and is where Jesus is said to have preached to his disciples and later ascended to heaven, according to Acts chapter one.

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I am hoping one of the Latter-day Saint friends of this blog will have more to say on LDS expectation, but have found this reference to Missouri as the site of the New Jerusalem — not quite the same as the place of the Second Coming, but certainly related to some extent:

Building of the New Jerusalem:

Near the time of the coming of Jesus Christ, the faithful Saints will build a righteous city, a city of God, called the New Jerusalem. Jesus Christ Himself will rule there. (See 3 Nephi 21:23–25; Moses 7:62–64; Articles of Faith 1:10.) The Lord said the city will be built in the state of Missouri in the United States (see D&C 84:2–3).

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And in Islam, Damascus, and specifically the Umayyad mosque is the place of expectation, following the hadith reported in Muhammad Ata Ur-Rahim, Jesus: Prophet of Islam:

At that point, God will send the Messiah, son of Mary, and he will descend to the white minaret in the east of Damascus, wearing two garments dyed with saffron, placing his hands on the wings of two angels. When he lowers his head, beads of perspiration will fall from it, and when he raises his head, beads like pearls will scatter from it. Every disbeliever who smells his fragrance will die, and his breath will reach as far as he can see. He will search for the Dajjal until he finds him at the gate of Ludd (the biblical Lydda, now known as Lod), where he will kill him.

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It has been argued that the thrust of Hinduism as of Buddhism is vertically upwards, towards transcendance of this world in moksha, liberation, whereas that of Christianity is downwards, towards immanence, in the Incarnation, indeed in what Henri Nouwen calls “downward mobility”.

In reality, however, the god Vishnu descends into human form in his avatars Narsingh, Rama, Krishna, Kalki — to play lila within creation, while the yogi’s path leads upowards to moksha — and the Christ who descends into time and human circumstance is also the ascended and eternal Christ whose celestial marriage feast is celebrated in each Eucharist…

In short, paths of both ascent and descent are to be found, as perhaps we might have learned from the story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28,12):

and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

Or as TS Eliot puts it in Four Quartets, variously echoing Heraclitus, Dante, John of the Cross:

And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

and:

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

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Going a step further, Cleo McNelly Kearns writes:

The way down is the way of asceticism and abstraction, while the way up is the way of erotic experience, metaphor and imagination. The negative way seeks, through a process of progressive elimination of the partial, to attain a posture of complete humility and self-erasure before the void; the positive way calls for escalating degrees of recognition and self-affirmation proceeding from like to like to a place commensurate with contemplation of the whole. Likewise, the negative way, or way down, seeks to move the consciousness beyond the body and its images, while the affirmative way, or way up, seeks to move it more deeply into them.

The negative, apophatic way, avoids affirmative statements and images because they might be mistaken for idols and worshipped, while the affirmative, cataphatic way uses affirmations and images as icons and symbols through which the unseen may be glimpsed.

And we’re into a whole new areea of discourse.

Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — continuing exploration of the Phineas story as it leads to the recent Larry McQuilliams incident among others ]
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pinchas
Phineas vs Zimri & Cozbi
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I

Paradise is depicted in many traditions as a garden — indeed the very word “paradise” (pardes) means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew. It is a place where the divine presence “walks with man in the cool of the day” — glorious phrase — a green and fruitful garden, rich in beauty and tranquility, where the purity of love is unsullied by despair or hatred.

In our scriptures, myths and rituals, we give expression to all that is noblest and most generous in our nature: the “peace that passeth all understanding” manages somehow to cross the great Cartesian divide between mind and body, promising us both inner peace of mind, and external relief from war and strife.

All is not well in this garden, however. Along with the refreshing breezes and the sounds of voices lifted in praise, our scriptures and religions also offer us reasons for killing and warfare, divinely sanctioned injunctions to the sword as well as to peace. One of the recorded sayings of Muhammad teaches that Paradise is found under the shade of swords.

Christ, too, is reported to have said he “came not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Like a perennial landmine in paradise garden, the story of Phineas (also spelled Phinehas or Pinchas) lies await in the Tanakh / Old Testament for some reader to take a wrong step and explode it once again.

Introducing this series in Phineas Priesthood I: Larry McQuilliams, I said:

Since I shall be discussing how the tale of Phineas / Pinchas / Phinehas has been used as offering divine scriptural sanction for acts of religiously-motivated killing, I shall chiefly focus on the negative implications of the tale .. Accordingly, I’d like to invite my friends in the Jewish and Christian scholarly communities, in particular, to assist me in the comments section by suggesting alternative ways of reading a story which in its most literal interpretation has been the cause of untimely and hateful deaths

That goes for the series as a whole. In later posts in this series I shall follow the trail of Phineas (the lone wolf) and touch on the Maccabees and Zealots (his “group” equivalents), first in the ancient world, and then more recently.

II

The story of Phineas is told in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar, chapter 25:

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord.

In all likelihood, I must have heard this passage read aloud at least once before the age of eighteen in the chapels of the British boarding schools I attended — yet I have no vivid childhood memory of a God who encourages mass hangings out in the open air. The God of my childhood and schooling was caring, loving, far-seeing (which I understood to be one of those divine omni-attributes, thus distinguishing him from my parents or teachers), and wise.

Thinking back on my time as a choir-boy, I imagine those sonorous phrases about the anger of the Lord, delivered in the splendid prose of the King James Version, must have rolled right over me, like Alan Bennett‘s reading of the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man” in his sermon in the satirical revue, On the Fringe — something along these lines:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” Here endeth the first lesson. Let us now sing Hymn five hundred and eighty seven, All Things Bright and Beatuiful.

God, however, has not finished with the Baal of Peor and those who worship it. But whereas in these first verses he had commanded Moses and the Judges of Israel to string some of his own chosen people up in the sun, the next episode describes an independent action taken by someone who knows His divine anger, knows His wishes, and does not need a direct command nor any official permission or sanction to act on that knowledge:

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

That’s a fairly graphic description of a double murder, particularly when one considers that the phrase “pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body” is generally taken to mean that Phinehas caught the pair of them in flagrante and speared them through their conjoined offending parts.

God, who according to other passages in scripture is Love, is distinctly pleased by this turn of events:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Killing is killing, however, and it is only fitting that we should know the names of the victims. Our text continues:

The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.

Cozbi and Zimri: their names have not perished from memory.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

From a counter-terrorist perspective, this is the incipit — chapter one in the still unfolding history of religio-political violence, and our first instance of the “lone wolf” operative.

III

As Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee notes in his article, Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas, the story certainly appears to offer some sanction for religious violence.

At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his “covenant of peace” upon Pinchas as a reward for his “zealotry.” Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

In writing these posts, I take the story of Phineas as emblematic of all the apparent sanctions for religious violence (the “landmines in the garden” of my title) buried in the world’s scriptures, rituals, histories and hagiographies. But the issue is not restricted to Judaism alone, or Judaism and Christianity, or indeed the three Abrahamic religions. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives sanction to Arjuna‘s battlefield violence, and even Buddhism has a prophecy of a righteous war between the Buddhists and Islam in the very same Kalachakra Tantra that HH the Dalai Lama teaches — though in that case, the violence is envisioned as taking place centuries hence.

IV

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its place within the scriptures of two great religions, this story of Phineas, Cozbi and Zimri echoes down the centuries.

It is first retold in Psalm 106, and again, I probably sang these words to the glorious four-part harmonies of the English choral tradition (at the 6.27 mark in this Guildford Cathedral rendition) in my childhood:

Then stood up Phinees and prayed * and so the plague ceased.
And that was counted unto him for righteousness * among all posterities for evermore.

This might seem to add nothing to the account in Numbers, but in fact a subtle shift is already taking place. As Bayme puts it, the Psalmist “quietly transformed the word for Pinchas’s zeal into one connoting prayer.”

It is often the case that the normative teachings of a great religion strongly promote peace and are at pains to offer alternative interpretations of such passages as the Phineas story, while individuals or extreme groups within them still refer to these “landmine” passages for religious sanction.

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In the next section of this post I shall follow the trail of Phineas / Pinchas through the deutero-canonical Books of the Maccabees, in New Testamental, Talmudic and Patristic writings, and perhaps up through Milton and Brigham Young.

A final post will deal with Hoskin‘s book Vigilantes of Christendom, its tie in with Louis Beam‘s theory of “leaderless resistance” and related events of the last half-century or so — and the happily failed attempt at a massacre in Austin these last few days.

I have a lot of work before me, as well as much already written: I look forward to your pointers, corrections and support.


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