Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Vicarious Sacrifice...

So yesterday was the day associated with the festival of Karwa Chauth.  The fourth day (hence "chauth") after the full moon following Dusshera.  For my non-Hindu readers, I can summarize it as a day when women (by in large, married women) turn into Jesus.  Okay, that's a bit extreme, but the simple form of it is that it is a ritual of willful self-sacrifice (in this case, fasting) for the imaginary benefit of someone else.  It's profoundly nonsensical on the face of it and has no capacity whatsoever to be considered based in any way on reality.  Well, there are so many things I could say about it.  Many of the criticisms about it tend down the path of its inherent sexism because of the fact that only women really have to observe the fast with no reciprocal fasting on the part of the men.  Some argue that it puts the role of the wife as a tool for the spiritual aid of the husband and not as an individual unto herself.  Fortunately, it's not something observed in the part of India from which I hail, but that isn't the case with my wife.  Nonetheless, nobody considers going through it in my house because it's an utter travesty.

In the modern era, it has been commercialized into a sort of Hindu Valentine's Day where fanciful images of romantic love are tied to the rituals.  But just like Valentine's Day, none of those images have anything to do with how the day was originally defined.  Valentine's Day, for instance, was originally a religious feast that celebrated the execution of a martyr.  It only got connected with love in the High Middle Ages when courtly love was basically the primary M.O. of almost all literature of the age.  That too, it only became the dominant mode of celebration in the post-industrial era.  Karwa Chauth is much the same story.  It's only associated with love because mythological literature and Bollywood tells us so.  We associate Valentine's Day with love because Chaucer told us that's how it should be.  We like diamonds because N.W. Ayer & Son told us we don't qualify as humans if we don't.  We give out candy on Halloween because of commercialization of an older practice that involved bribing beggars for future prayers (at least, according to Shakespeare).

But commercialization and sexism aside, I have a problem with the whole vicarious sacrifice issue, as it seems to be a common thing.  The whole premise of Karwa Chauth is the idea that by fasting from dawn to dusk, a woman can provide a divine blessing for health and longevity unto her husband or some other significant member of the opposite sex.  Ummm...  seriously?

The funny thing is that, even if I were to accept the idea that there exist these things called souls which can be reincarnated into different bodies and have this spiritual karmic taint of sin that can be cleared away over several lives in the interest of achieving moksha (release from the cycle of reincarnation)...  even if I assume all that to be true, it still doesn't make sense.  Because ultimately, the weight of karmic taint falls on an individual soul.  If you want to throw the romance angle due to the fact that it's part of the modern into the picture and pretend that souls are intertwined in the bonds of matrimony, well, fine...  but by that definition, both people should theoretically benefit from a penance by either party.  However, that isn't the claim as far as what observing the fast will actually do.  The spiritual benefit is strictly unilateral, and there is no shared responsibility for the penance.  It is, in essence, a vicarious penance.

This is why I made the analogy to the Jesus myth, albeit tongue-in-cheek.  The mythological value of Jesus as a character is the notion that he personally undertook enough suffering and spilled enough blood to forgive other people's sins.  That too, it is a sin not carried directly by the individual, but carried down and inherited from a progenitor woman born of her lover's rib who ate a magical fruit because a talking snake told her to which resulted in the inexcusably horrible crime of acquiring knowledge.  That makes total sense.

So exactly how does this work?  Richard Carrier's caricature of the Jesus myth went along the lines of blood sacrifice being necessary, but only Yahweh's own blood had enough magical power to do the trick, which meant having to take a human avatar.  But this doesn't really carry over to Karwa Chauth very well because I don't think anyone claims that there are magical powers intrinsic to the emptiness of a female stomach that don't exist in the male stomach.  Furthermore, when put into the context of Hinduism, it should be the other way around because women are not really put in any exalted position.  There are relatively few elements built into the Vedanta itself which speak of  a "women's role", but it comes to bear in later additions and interpretations which more or less became accepted as "official" shastras.  Why it happened this way is a separate matter, but suffice to say it makes the concept make less and less sense.

I'd also add that the literary references really don't make out the ritual fasting to be something that is a willful effort on the part of the women, but more of a duty that they must fulfill in order to gain favor from the gods.  It occasionally appears as an act of defiant obstinance against something undesirable, but nonetheless, not for the benefit of the woman.  The original namesake of the festival was never said to have actually taken part in a fast, but merely showed enough anger to pose a threat to a god...  the idea of a fast came in as later interpolations into entirely separate works including Mahabharata and Ramayana and so on.  And in all those cases, I don't think anyone can say that the women necessarily benefit from the act.

Going back into the realm of well...  reality...  can anyone honestly say that there is any logic to any of this?  I don't care if you're talking about Karwa Chauth or Jesus or the self-flogging of Shiite Muslims or whatever.  How on Earth is one act of self-sacrifice supposed to help someone else...  that too, with such specificity?  It's one thing if a martyr to a certain cause dies and said person's death inspires action from his followers...  that at least can be expected, but the effect is also one that can be predicted based on human nature.  You can't really say that about magical forces that are induced by way of worldly activities.  Every force in action here is pretty strictly imaginary, and there is just nothing you can say to support it that trends at all in fact.  You always have to base something in an imaginary force and magic.  Once you've gone there, I'm not the least bit sorry to say -- you have forfeit any privilege you might have had to be taken seriously.  Oh sure, it isn't really disprovable...  excrement.  The claim isn't based in fact, and that's all there is to it.  When magical beings who can proffer longevity on married males comes to be proven fact, that's when the idea is open to consideration...  and not before.  When the death and resurrection of the Jewish Zombie who is the avatar of a magical entity who indicted us all with a criminal taint on our souls is actually verified independent of anyone's personal skin in the game, that's when it can be taken seriously.  Don't like it?  Tough.  If you don't want to play along with reality using reality's rules, the best you can hope for is reality TV...  which is just about as real as the FSM.