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keerthik sasidharan

The God of all Sufferings

The God of all Sufferings

Recently, in a lecture by Slavoj Zizek — a philosophical Santa Claus who comes bearing unsettling gifts — I heard about a corpus of folk humor from the 1970s and 1980s called the ‘Auschwitz jokes’ . These are jokes with the Holocaust as its subject.  Zizek was making a philosophic argument about man’s pragmatic reconciliation with God in face of unimaginable horrors.  Despite any intended nuance, when these jokes are told by lay people, the telling itself traipses on a razor’s edge, on whose one side is a moral obscenity and on the other is a repudiation of civilization itself.  This being said, irrespective of such concerns or even explicit disapprovals, such joke telling still persists.  

Folklorists, who thrive on discovering psychologisms to lend grandeur of meaning to their efforts to catalogue the human experience, argue that these jokes are an effort by humans to extricate recognizable meaning about events which are marked by unprecedented nihilism. Others, with a more historically inflected views, see this joke telling tradition as a means for Germans and Europeans of a certain generation to cope with the Holocaust, to find release or even to resent peaceably the burdens of history placed upon them — wherein the proverbial sins of their fathers and some mothers are visited upon the children. There is also a more subversive subtext to this joke telling tradition — where Jews use this humor to reflect on various philosophical quandaries their historical experience had led them to, including their helplessness in face of the utter irrationality of antisemitism. One joke that drives home this latter point was told by the late Rabbi Lionel Blue. In it, a man watches a Nazi rabblerouser stir up a crowd with the chant: “Death to the Jews!”  When an opportune moment of silence arrives, this man at the back shouts: “Yes, and death to the cyclists!” The Nazi lickspittle is confused and asks: “Why the cyclists?”  The man, almost too ashamed to point out the idiocy of original prejudice, retorts, “Why the Jews?” 

It is this joke that I remembered while reading the manifesto against “non-white” people by the white-supremacist who killed devotees in a New Zealand mosque. Over and beyond the shooter’s pathological narcissism that informed his belief that he could nudge history in another direction, it is the foolishness of his prejudice towards a group of people as an abstraction which, even if not surprising, remains a depressingly familiar mode of reductionism.  Yet the most unsettling question posed by the events in Christchurch or the Auschwitz joke telling tradition is what was God doing when these horrors were underway.  Such line of questioning is famously referred to as the ‘problem of theodicy’. The question is what sort of benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient creator allows for such horrors to occur. 

One obvious answer is to say there is no God. But, for many, including those on the receiving end of the very same horrors, to abandon God would in turn mean abandoning much of historical thought, exegesis, and culture that has come about as a consequence of engagement with particular ideas of God. It would, in turn, mean abandoning that which informs much of their identity. At its extreme, it would be tantamount to abandoning their own selves and become a cipher in human form. Another way — a squaring of the circle, if you will — is to say that while God is there — omniscient, omnipotent etc — his presence is only a formal one.  God, like an absentee landlord, is rarely seen, even if we live on his premises and pay rent periodically in form of worship.  Viewed thus, God and the evil in the world are reconciled through a technique of sidestepping, a pragmatic form of messianism if you will. History, in this view, comprises of events and God exists outside history itself. The two coexist like shadow and body, never to meet, even if on depending on the hour of the day, one looms over the other. To an extent this view is an effort to imagine a God who endows respectability to human free will while stressing the importance of human labor.

The God of the Bhagavad Gita however offers up a theory of events where human labor and God coexist, not as separate phenomenological categories, but as salt and water in the oceans. Distinct but inseparable. In the Gita, while Krishna stresses the importance of human labor no different than the modern individualist creed — according to him, events in the world are birthed by a subtler analytics. He instructs Arjuna on the battle field of Kurukshetra that what we experience — even the painful events — are contingent on a quintet of factors: (i) grounding (adhishtana) (ii) agent (karta) (iii) instrument (kaarana) (iv) effort (chesta) (v) a foreordained order (daivam). The Gita thus argues that the events we experience are a concatenation of history, actors, means, works, and an expression of benediction. No event is possible without all of these causal factors playing a role. What this view does is that it stresses upon individual labors but it also denies the vanity of thinking that the fruits we enjoy are solely from the trees of our labor. Conversely, it also prepares us to recognize that despite all of our labors, the world and actors within it can come together to wreak our best laid plans. This view therefore neither absolves us of all responsibilities and thus facilitate a form of sequestration but neither does it endow our labors with a metaphysics of egotism. At its irreducible essence, what this view tells us is that the burden to improve the world rests upon us. Even Arjuna, who has has Krishna by his side, must still earn the victories on his own. Even in face of all the senseless killings that have come and those that are yet to be planned in the minds of the killers who are themselves yet to be born. []


A version of this piece was published in The Hindu.

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