Friday, March 2, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Since the Great Age of Exploration (how “great” it was depends on what continent you were living on at the time), Christian missionaries have spread like weeds throughout the world.  Not only have they preached their own brand of salvation, they have also colored the salvation myths of other religions with their own wrathful, violent world view.  We’ll talk about this on more than one Friday in the future, but today let us look at the dark but temporary underworld of the religion known as Jainism.

Jainism is a corollary of Buddhism and is largely practiced in India, where the man who would come to be known as Buddha was born.  Like Buddhism, it is a religion of five virtues or precepts which, at least on paper, seem easy to understand and follow.  In both traditions the virtues require practitioners to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

Humans being what they are, these restrictions are not always as easy to adhere to as they appear.  Most of us, in fact, will stray from at least one of those abstinences in our life times.  Since Jainism also envisions a progression through many lifetimes, any given soul has a lot of opportunity to fall afoul of the virtues.  When this happens with regularity, or to a degree that is extremely detrimental to others – drug dealing, mass murder or serial rape, for instance – a soul is bound for the horror of Naraka where fire, filth and darkness await.

Unlike the hell of Christianity, a soul is not condemned to Naraka after death.  In fact, a soul is incarnated into one of the seven “grounds” which make up Naraka.  These are situated at the lowest point in the universe and they are populated, alternatively, either with “punishers” and “punished” or simply with souls who must use up their bad karma by punishing each other.

There are no time tables in Naraka.  A soul may stay for as little as 10,000 years or as long as a billion.  The variation is only based on karmic “ripening”.  Once the soul has “burned off” its inappropriate karma, it can once again be reborn into one of the higher realms of the universe. 

Entering Naraka, in some texts, involves the soul passing over or through a river which makes the individual forget their past lives.  This is similar to the Lethe of Ancient Greek mythology, which did the same.  From there, a soul is assigned to its “ground” where it can best work off the karma that brought it there in the first place.

Like Buddhism and some other Eastern religions, the working off of bad karma is imagined as a torturous process.  The descriptions of these tortures are inevitably ghastly including piercings, impaling, dismemberment, boiling in water or oil, roasting over open fires or grates, drinking of molten metals and so on ad nauseum.  Needless to say, the soul’s “body” in Naraka cannot die and will regenerate only to be tortured again.

The text known as the Sutra Kritanga mentions a constant wailing, screaming and whining by the agonized beings in Naraka.  It also speaks of “punishers” who mete out each soul’s portion of misery.  Other texts, however, speak of the “punished” inflicting hurt on their fellows, and on themselves.

Once again, the ghoulish human trait of enjoying other people’s pain comes into play.  One can feel righteous indignation at someone who has, for instance, murdered a child and therefore not feel too bad about imagining the details of that person “burning off” their karma in a miserable torture chamber.  As Christianity attempted to push against the Jain sect, the torture chamber became Hell, the “punishers” became demons and the “burning off” of karma became a permanent judgment. 

The happy ending, if you will, that comes out of Jainism’s Naraka is that the tortured soul will eventually be free.  It will rise to a higher dimension where, incarnate once again, it can strive toward enlightenment and eventual freedom from the wheel of rebirth.  Even in the thickest darkness, the soul has hope.

Header:  Cloth painting from 17th century India depicting the seven levels of Naraka via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Interesting that there are seven levels here, too. So many of these myths overlap and repeat the same themes, so they must be true, right?

Errrrrr, maybe not...

Pauline said...

I guess people think alike regardless of culture, at least to some degree. There is evil and injustice everywhere, and wanting to see that punished somewhere - even in an uncertain afterlife - is a pretty common human desire. I just like that this kind of suffering isn't "permanent" in cases like Jainism.