Life is war. That is a fact, muthafucka. Every moment of everyday, we are assailed on all sides by forces trying to lead us astray and even when we retreat from the world, we are attacked by inner daemons with names like Doubt, Envy and The Way Things Ought To Be. In the end, we will all be KIA, but only some of us will fight the Good Fight to the end. Many now living are as if dead.
War has always been part of myth, from the Australian outback to the Great Plains of North America. The imagery of war has given shape to the ideologies of countless peoples, many of whom – most of whom – knew war first hand. Another fact for ya, muthafucka: war is the norm, not the exception. I’m not personally armed at this moment, unless you count one little knife, but only because I live in a specific time/place where I’m insulated from the front line. For the vast majority of human history, some contact with intertribal warfare was a given. If I had been born at any other point in history, I would be a battle-scarred veteran, an old campaigner, at the age of forty-five, if I lived that long. I have fought battles, of course, and I have the scars and tattoos to prove it. Those were not battles with swords or guns, but they were – and some still are – just as serious, just as deadly.
Judaism is a religion of war. Sure, all of us are familiar with the nebbish, neurotic stereotype Jew popularized by Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman, and with the even more annoying, whiny JAP, hardly hardy warrior people, but those are the weak and watered-down descendants of fierce and terrible bands of Semites who came up out of the Arabian Peninsula, riding horses and swinging sabers and generally slaughtering the shit out of the peoples of the Fertile Crescent. Read Deuteronomy. Read the Books of Kings. The Semites were some seriously killin’ people. The only real question was whether they would keep the women and animals when they took a city or kill every living thing. Even after they fell from their place at the top, the Jews had a mean streak. Check out Psalm 137, KJV:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song: and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Now, all that sounds just fine and good and I’m sure I’d feel the same way, though I wouldn’t use italics quite so haphazardly, if I was driven out of Virginia, until line 9. Somehow I can’t quite get behind dashing little ones against stones no matter how much I might dislike their parents. But those old Jews were hard people in hard times.
One of the books that has served me well in hard times is The Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of the Lord”. Though technically only part of the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in the known universe, the Gita can stand on its own and is the most popular Hindu text. It takes the form of a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna. The two are on a battlefield; the battle not yet begun. In the two armies which are about to fight, Arjuna sees many friends, relatives, teachers and old buddies and, realizing that he is about to initiate the slaughter of many loved ones, loses his nerve. Krishna stops time and the two have a conversation about the proper way to live. They talk about many things, but it all comes down to this: do the thing that must be done and don’t worry about the outcome.
Arjuna is a warrior. War is his dharma, his duty. For a warrior to suddenly turn into a pacifist at the moment he is about to engage in the greatest battle of his life is simply wrong. Krishna informs Arjuna in no uncertain terms that all creatures die, that all the men in both armies are already dead, that all living things are simply food for His Infinite, Eternal Being. A great and terrible image is presented: the Author of the universe as an infinite number of hands creating all that is created, which is then thrown into an infinite mouth.
Friends, that’s how it is. All of us and all we’ve ever known are just food. Yes, you absolutely must follow your bliss. Yes, you absolutely must do the work that has been put before you to do, even if it means killing all those around you. Yes, in the end you will be thrown into the gaping maw of Divinity. Whenever I feel discouraged, like I can’t go on, I think of the Gita and I know that going on is all I can do and all I am asked to do.
The difference between the Old Testament and the Gita is that the Old Testament is for, by and about a specific group of people, the Jews, and the Gita is for everybody. “Hindu” is actually a catch-all term invented by the colonial British to refer to “the religion of the Hindis”, which is like saying “the Native American religion”. That is, it’s wrong because it’s incorrect and because it’s kinda racist. But “Hindu” has entered our lexicon and there it is. Still, one does not have to be born of a Hindi mother to worship any of the Hindu gods. Go to your local Hare Krishna temple. Chances are the Indians will be outnumbered by the whites by a wide margin. Hinduism is not exclusive.
Judaism is. The only way one can become a Jew is to born of a Jewish mother. The Ten Commandments were given to the Jews and apply only to the Jews. “Thou shalt not kill” means “Thou, a Jew, shalt not kill another Jew”. Killing Gentiles was fine. Judaism is an us/them religion. Actually, it’s an Us/them religion since the “Us” is the only group of people that matters to God. Christianity and Islam, the children of Judaism, inherited the Us/them concept, as well as the imagery of Holy War, which is why both groups employ the language and – too often – the weapons of war.
The Old Testament war stories can be interpreted metaphorically, but they’re about actual wars and real massacres. The Gita pretends to be about historical events, but has always been known to be about the inner conflicts of individuals. Arjuna stands for anyone who is struggling to make a decision about how they should proceed in life.
Say, a young man goes to college to become a lawyer like his father. While at college, he has to take some electives, so he takes an art class. Suddenly, he discovers that he loves art and that he has some little natural artistic ability. Should he pursue art, even though it means upsetting Dad and possibly not making any money? Or should he stick with law, go to work for Dad’s firm and forget about art? This is the kind of situation the Gita is about and the Gita is very clear: do the thing that is put before you, even if it means killing your family. Study art. Or ballet or poetry or whatever it is that calls to you and makes you feel most alive.
Christianity does carry the same message. Christ knew His purpose on Earth and He went willingly to the Cross. So should we be willing to suffer and even die to fulfill our own purposes. Unfortunately, Christians have been doing all they can to expunge Christ from Christianity ever since Constantine. Islam probably has some of the same – I confess I am pretty ignorant when it comes to Islam. I was raised Christian so I know the Old and New Testaments well enough, but I quit monotheism a few decades ago and I’m not that interested in learning more about it. I have a copy of The Koran on the floor by the bed, but I haven’t cracked it.
Certainly, anybody can become a Christian or Muslim. Those two don’t have the rigorous exclusivity of Judaism, but they do have the Us/them attitude.
- Full stop. When the word count gets over 1,500, I start looking for the end and when the end is still pretty far off, to be continued.