Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Devi and the Anatomy of Belief

Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(Oct 6, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

Life before life and life after death are like life from outer space or 70 lubricious virgins waiting for a reconstituted corpse to plunder them in heaven... their existence depends on people's belief - as does, of course, the existence of any deity who has ever been addressed by man.

Some supernatural beliefs rise to fact in the direct experience of saints, mystics, shaman adepts, and an assortment of other spiritual persons who can recognize in the accounts of other spiritually experienced persons the natural commonality of Universal Mind. A true mystic has never disagreed with any other true mystic. Their accounts are interchangeable, their exclusive tranquility shared.

Controversy occurs at baser levels among those whose beliefs merely conform to the requirements of social institutions - family, community, nation. A religion's scriptures are taught, and the degree to which a member accepts and follows the rules determines much of his rank and reputation. He need not understand the mysteries of his religion or experience the states of transcendence required of understanding. Faith is regarded as a convincing substitute, even if that faith rises to a standard that is somewhat less than superstition or hunch. Religions are filled with persons who think they know when they only believe and believe - though they may not realize it - in whatever serves their needs.

If their territorial claims to heaven were confined to religion's metes and bounds`, we might all learn to live with the overlapping borders. But the zealous among them persist in extending their heavenly claims to earth matters. Pat Robertson tells his vast TV Christian audience that the president of Venezuela ought to be murdered. Atheists, who are religious zealots turned inside-out, want "God" taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance and - next on their agenda - erased from our currency. "Intelligent Design" is not Ishvara's "non-interference" - it is Creationism's violation of Evolutionary Law (it isn't a theory any more). Al Qaeda lauds the peace of Islam and vows to slit the throat of any infidel who questions its peaceful intention. Faith Healers who do good work with psychosomatic illnesses cannot seem to understand that spinal meningitis is not a disease of the mind. They have prayed numerous children to death.

The question then is, why do people, in the name of religion, accept or suggest solutions that, outside the religious setting, would get them jailed or committed to an asylum?

Some fifty years ago the great Indian film director, Satyajit Ray, created Devi, an exploration of the causes and effects of belief in the supernatural. Why do people readily accept the existence of things that are bereft of empirical proof? And, once believing, why do they then assume that their reasons are the only valid ones and dismiss as superstitious nonsense the differing beliefs of others? What makes people believe in the supernatural world and then suddenly reject these beliefs because they failed to pass an arbitrary test applied in the natural world? And what motivates a man to identify himself as a modern free thinker, unencumbered by archaic superstitions, while yet he "mixes and matches" old and new beliefs to suit his sophisticated fashion sense - and then to be as blind to his own judgments as he is critical of others'?

Ray's plot, taken from a story by Mukherjee on a theme by Tagore, is elegantly simple: we are told in retrospect, that ---

Daya, the girl who will become "Devi" (Goddess), is a fourteen year old bride of a rich landowning widower's younger son, Uma. She is beautiful, kind, and charming; and her new husband lovingly calls her "Devi," his goddess. Uma does not intend the appellation to be taken seriously since he is, at least according to his father, a Christian.

Uma is a serious university student who imagines himself to be westernized and advanced in his attitudes towards life because he has mastered the English language and disdains traditional Indian religions.

Two years before Uma and Daya married, his mother died, leaving his father sad, lonely, and tormented by a leg ailment. But all that changed when Uma immediately brought his gracious bride home to live in his father's house while he returned to his classes in distant Calcutta. Daya gives the older man constant, tender care, bringing him his medicines and massaging his feet. The older man is an ardent devotee of Mother Goddess Kali; and he calls Daya, "Little Maa," Maa being the affectionate name by which Kali's devotees address Her.

But there is more to his devotion... In conversations with Daya, he denigrates his "Christian" son's love for her, insinuating that the young man does not pay proper attention to her, that he doesn't appreciate her the way that he does. Like an oriental pasha, the older man leans back upon his leopard skin draped long chair and smokes tobacco from a hookah pipe while the beautiful girl rubs his feet.

Even a pet parrot in the house calls her Maa, a name it endlessly repeats whenever she enters the room.

Three other people reside in the house: Uma's older brother and his estranged wife and their pre-school son, Khoka, whom Daya adores. The brother is a typical soul in limbo... an heir whose only duty is to wait. He drinks excessively from boredom and a lack of purpose. This behavior has alienated his wife who no longer allows him to touch her. She is a bitter woman who makes no effort to conceal her jealousy of Daya, for her son much prefers the company of his Aunt Daya to hers. He sneaks to Daya's bedroom every night to sleep with her and listen to her bedtime stories. His mother forbids him to go, falsely confiding that his aunt finds his visits annoying. He is not deceived and continues to sneak to Daya's welcoming bed each night. In reality, the child is Daya's only friend and, in fact, the meetings are more like slumber parties at which scary tales are told, his favorite being those she tells about witches who munch on the bones of children.

Whenever we encounter people whose beliefs exceed imagination's possibilities, we find within their character certain peculiar immaturities. It is as if, at some critical point in their life, these people lacked a guide, a role-model, or other source of vital information that would have connected them to an anchoring line of sobering reality. Regardless of childhood's fantasies and mischiefs, the line would remain to hold them steady later in life whenever they began to slip away from the safety zone of reasonable doubt. Without it, though they could appear to be adults, they would lack that one needful thing that would act as judgment's cautionary tale.

The flow of time would capture them as it captures all of us, but they would remain childishly susceptible to superstition, foolish schemes, and the manipulating intentions of those around them.

It is cautionary doubt - not simply cynical negativism - that makes us look deeper, discount surfaces, consider the past and project both it and the present into the future to make decisions - not guesses. When decisions are required, these people cannot decide. They are usually passive and rely upon their own benign nature to adapt to any outcome, and they tend to see in others the active complement of their own benevolence.

Daya's maturity had been arrested by a snag in the traditional cultural process. As most brides of her class, she was expected to function as an appendage to her husband, but this peninsular construct had been eroded by his absence. A bride, especially one of fourteen, who has been taken away from the society of her friends and family, is dependent upon her husband's physical and emotional presence for stability. She does not know how to be an appendage to an absent body, and she cannot be independent. An intellectual understanding of his need to be away from home does not compensate her emotional need of him; and in her increasing insularity she cannot grow beyond childhood's innocent impressionability.

Her antagonists are not so innocent; and all seek to exploit her vulnerability.

A critical moment arrives:

Daya is now seventeen and Uma is home to attend a puja for Kali. After the fireworks and the rejoicing of the crowd, Kali's effigy, according to custom, is released into the river, and the fiesta ends.

As Uma prepares to return to the university to study for his "very important" final examinations, Daya, not wanting him to leave, asks why he requires a degree. He replies, "To work." She reminds him that he doesn't need to work, he's already rich. But he counters that she just doesn't realize how highly he is regarded by his professors, and that his mastery of English is an important achievement. Although he has already accepted a position in Calcutta, he asks her, addressing her as if she were a child: "When I graduate I may have to work in a far away place. Will you go with me?" She ingenuously replies, "Will your father allow it? He depends so much on me."

Uma assures her that he will speak to his father and persuade him to let her go. Then, thinking of Khoka, the nephew to whom she is so devoted, Daya asks, "Can we bring Khoka with us?" Uma laughs. "Of course, we can," he says, adding, "We'll have other Khokas, too." She blushes and hides her face.

Ray let's us see that these are not bizarre people. Their lives are apparently normal within their culture and economic class. The believer in fantasy does not drop from heaven or rise up from a sewer. He sits across the breakfast table in what, in his circumstance, is an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood.

Outside, on the steps of the great house, a beggar sings to Kali, chastising her for having deserted him in all his times of need. "I will never call you 'Mother' again," he vows.

Beggar or king, ordinary belief in a benevolent deity cannot be sustained in the midst of relentless misfortune. Material world desires are satisfied by material world gods - regardless of the spiritual names those gods are given. When belief is limited to itself, praise of god may be effusive; but the words are wasted; condemnations may be "filled with sound and fury" but they signify nothing.

A further hint of the supernatural attributes that will soon be accorded the girl is hissed by Khoka's mother who drags him to Daya, charging, "You have cast a spell on him! He will not listen to me!"

This suggestion of supernatural power is of the "Evil Eye" or satanic variety. It is a common defense mechanism - the person cannot face his own mistakes or shortcomings and so blames someone of whom he is jealous, discrediting the person with insinuations of witchcraft or other demonic intent.

Uma departs for school, and his father, anxious perhaps at the prospects of losing his daughter-in-law, has a vision in which Kali's image merges with that of Daya's. Ecstatic, he runs to tell the household that Kali has incarnated and is there in the person of Daya. Whether he consciously intends it or not, the vision will result in keeping the girl at home with him. He orders everyone to bow down to her. His elder son and his wife do not believe what they consider complete nonsense; but the old man's belief is not to be questioned. Not only is he much respected, but he owns everything.

This, too, is an ingredient in the terrible mix that creates fanaticism. When a powerful person, whose goodwill is vital to an individual or group, asserts that the improbable is true and orders the acceptance of that belief, those closest to him may not believe it, but they will pretend to for reasons of their own self-interest; and in this seeming acceptance they spread the contagion of credulity.

While his wife steps back indignantly, the elder son joins his father in falling to his knees, trying to press his forehead against the recoiling feet of the bewildered girl.

Ray's portrayal of the skeptical sister-in-law seems, at first, to be unduly harsh. But, unlike her husband, she does not mask her skepticism with pious expressions or sell her doubts for the prestige they could purchase.

Daya, hopelessly confused, is placed on a platform, garlanded, surrounded by candles, oil lamps, cymbals, bells, and suffocating clouds of incense,while she receives ritualized worship, decorously presided over by a Brahmin priest who, customarily being well paid for his services, has a financial interest in validating the incarnation.

There is nothing cynical in Ray's acknowledgment of money's influence upon organized religion. The rich are now and always will be given special treatment, and the priestly justification for this is that the money will somehow filter down to serve the needs of the poor. Sometimes this is even true...

A servant, falling to Daya's feet, begs for forgiveness for sins she cannot even name. Khoka, conflating the witch tales with her new supernatural status, shies away from her. Not only are they no longer "equals." but he is afraid of her.

This is the juvenile response - in Jungian terms the Trickster and the Superman phase - the only possible way that children of any age can respond to what they cannot understand.

Strangers and relatives kneel and pray to her, and she impassively receives the adoration because she knows neither how to behave as a goddess nor how to deny a patriarchal vision of incarnation. The only gods she has ever seen are made of stone, and, with the exception of tears that quietly drip down her face, this stolid demeanor is all she can affect. She faints and, when she revives, asks her sister-in-law to write to Uma.

At college, Uma's urgent studies prove to have relaxed their demands. He and a fellow classmate attend a comedy in which the butt of the joke is a Chinese man who speaks about his ancestors. The Indian actors crudely mock the Chinese man at this obvious refutation of the caste system and theory of reincarnation. And Uma, despite his "new generation" broadmindedness, laughs heartily with the rest of the Indian audience.

Later, when his companion confesses that he intends to marry a widow - which will result in his being disinherited, Uma reacts with traditional consternation and doubts that his companion is serious, but his friend assures him that he is sincere. Uma then agrees that since he is now masterful at debating contemporary points of view, he will go to his friend's father and present the case for making an exception to the traditional prohibitions against such a union.

We see here the social cohesion that religious belief provides. As a Christian, he should find no sympathy for the caste system or against the marriage to a widow. But as quickly as a shibboleth can be uttered that serves to identify a native citizen from an alien intruder, a laugh can reunite him with his old beliefs and a friend's romantic plight can switch him to support his new ones. The more superficial the belief, the easier it changes to accommodate another religion's requirements. It is the society that matters, not the dogma.

Uma receives the urgent summons from his sister-in-law; and though he is given no details, he begins his return home.

The beggar who denied Kali earlier now wants to make a deal with the goddess. His grandson has fallen ill; and he returns to the mansion's steps, carrying the boy's unconscious body. "If you cure my grandson, Maa," he says to Daya; "I will be your devoted servant for the rest of my life." He admits that the doctor has given him no hope of cure; but Daya's father-in-law receives the child, assuring him that Kali's power will do what medicine cannot do. The boy is laid at Daya's feet, and the Brahmin priest begins to drip rose and rice water into the child's mouth.

Belief often has a bargaining component. A person believes - providing the god gives him what he wants. If he is refused he withholds the favor of his adoration. But his next desire usually provides another opportunity for the god to redeem himself.

In the morning Uma arrives, stunned by what he sees. He berates his father, "Have you lost your mind? This dream is an absurd fantasy!" His father resorts to an argument that is difficult to refute: He recites ancient sanskrit verses about a son's requirement to respect his father. "Are you calling me a liar?" he asks. The fanatical rationale is reduced to filial loyalty.

And again in his dissection of religious belief Ray lays bare another element. To leave the religion of one's parents is an insult to one's parents. Religion has nothing to do with it. True spiritual appreciation cares little about which religion a child or parent follows - providing it is a legitimate path, one that can lead to the spiritual summit - and that the reasons for joining it are to follow that path to the summit. But when only belief is involved, it is as if religion is inherited, as much a part of one's genetic endowment as eye color.

Uma insists, "She is human. She cannot be a Goddess!" and his father counters (alluding to his Christianity) "Are you saying that you don't believe in incarnation?"

The throwing back upon the objector his own supernatural beliefs is a confounding argument. Point, Counter-point.

And then, in a telling exchange, Uma protests to his father, "In the past three years, you have known Daya at least as well as I." And the implication is clear: does either of them know this girl? And how is it that a husband and father equally know her? "How can you say that she is not human," Uma demands. "Where is the proof that she is the Goddess?"

And as if on cue, shouts of joy announce the revival of the beggar's grandson. "He could have revived by natural means," insists Uma. He immediately decides to remove Daya from the house, and when he asks her to leave, she happily agrees.

But the boy's revival is hailed as unequivocal evidence of Kali's incarnation. Word spreads, and people begin to come to pay homage to the girl and to ask her for favors.

As Daya and Uma hurry to the river to board an awaiting boat, they encounter the effigy of Kali that had been consigned to the waters and now lies on the shore, as if to block their path. Daya interprets this as an omen that she should not leave. The fervor of the believers has created a doubt in her mind. What if she really is an incarnation of Kali? Surely, the gods do incarnate... and who is there to say how it feels to be a legitimate incarnation? She does not know. She knows only that a very sick child revived when he was brought to her. And suppose she is an incarnation and allows her husband to take her away, will this act not bring evil upon him?

Fearful, she asks to return to the house, and her husband, like an indulgent parent, takes her back. Even though he recognizes her helplessness and the powerful forces arrayed against her, he returns to Calcutta, leaving her there alone to face the ordeal - but now it is even worse since word of Kali's miraculous cure has spread, attracting thousands of pilgrims.

We find the same public response to an image of Christ on a grilled cheese sandwich, or to a controversial exhibit at an art museum. It is also the cause that brings pilgrims to Lourdes. Crowds form out of curiosity, or cognoscenti bragging-rights, or hope born of desperation and pain.

Uma discusses his problem with a westernized professor who fatuously confines the issue to the denial of Uma's spousal rights. He, too, converted to another (presumably Christian) religion and experienced conflict with his "traditional" father; but he stood up for what he believed in, he says, and he advises Uma to do the same.

And this, too is part of the dynamics of fanaticism - the objection based not on religious beliefs but on personal considerations, i.e., the denial of spousal rights. Again, in Christian terms, it would have been unthinkable even to consider Joseph's spousal rights. In religion a double standard applies to all supernatural situations. A perfectly natural supernatural occurrence in one religion is deemed unacceptable lunacy when encountered in another.

At home, Khoka becomes ill and his mother summons a physician; but the doctor is reluctant to treat the boy for fear of compromising the validity of the patriarchal vision. Referring to Kali's miraculous powers, he reminds her that many have been cured by Kali; but the child's mother is adamant She wants medical treatment for her son. However, when Khoka cries out for his Aunt Daya and the doctor suggests that she take the boy to Kali and, that if needed, he will return the next day with medicine, she relents.

Daya, dazed and exhausted from weeks of sitting motionless before supplicating multitudes, is delighted to hold Khoka in her arms again. She does not seem to comprehend that he is ill and asks only that he be allowed to stay with her that night. The others leave him with her, expecting a miracle; but there is no miracle. In the morning he is dead.

Daya is once again a mere mortal, friendless in her alien home. The shrine near the front steps where she had sat motionless for weeks is abandoned. The multitudes of pilgrims have vanished. Her sister-in-law denounces her. Her father-in-law kneels before a statue of Kali and pleads to be told what he has done that She should punish him so.

Uma returns, oblivious to his own contribution to the disaster. He blames his father for his blind faith. "You killed Khoka!" he charges, "and you nearly killed my wife when you burdened her with divinity!"

It has all been too much for Daya to bear: Khoka's death, Uma's absence, her own mistaken apotheosis, and the contempt of her in-laws. When she finally sees Uma, she tells him that they must flee. Unmistakably deranged, she whispers , "The demons are after me." He stands there, calling her name as she runs to the river and disappears into the fog.

It is an obvious fact that in order to learn the methodologies of religion we have to be taught. In the application of those methods we can achieve ascendance. Models of the psyche, tales of heroic exploits, scripture and commentaries, explanations of the rules that govern ethical conduct, meditation techniques - all these are necessary - and they require the good will of a teacher. At the base of the mountain there is room for many classrooms.

But the path to the summit is narrow and steep. When a man makes his ascent, he must make it alone. There may be thousands ahead of him and thousands behind; but he climbs in single file.

Alone, his attention is fixed upon the Spiritual Truth that lies within him. If he cannot recognize with impervious confidence that sanctifying Truth, he is hallucinating his ascent. He is still mired at the base and lacks the knowledge to be released from that base. Titles mean nothing, and the accolades of multitudes mean less.

If he is unsteady in his first steps to the starting point, he will receive advice from an uncountable number of people who never made the climb themselves. And it is then that he needs to apply the tests of "motivation and consequence" that Satyajit Ray laid out in his insightful film.

In Devi belief in the supernatural is not questioned. Belief in the beliefs of those who claim to know is what Ray scrutinizes. A belief that is true becomes knowledge and that knowledge becomes wisdom. But belief that is false leads to conflict and catastrophe.

Ray's account is timeless. Fifty years later and we still hear of substituting faith healing and other quack remedies for medical treatment, just as we hear of scientists who think that because they can discuss Light they are enlightened Fifty years later and we still hear of patriarchal devotees trying to write the texts of their own dubious revelations into Law.

One religion's account of creation is fine when it is taught in a religious setting. It has no place in an American public school.

But when it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance or to the motto on our money or to singing God Bless America at a public forum... can we not be reasonable? Where and how is this a violation of our Constitutional rights?

And what would we make of Chief Justice John Roberts' placing his hand upon the Bible and swearing to defend the Constitution, concluding, "so help me God."? This is not the detrimental belief in the supernatural that substitutes prayer for insulin or surgery. This is not mandating Sunday School attendance. It is simply part of our American heritage and violates no one's rights.

As a personal note regarding the Pledge of Allegiance... when I learned it as a child there was no "under God" inserted in it. Today, when I stand and recite it, old age gets the better of me and I blurt out, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Frankly, I like the cadence of the lines better without the insertion. But I remember the horror of World War II. I saw it only at a photographed distance. Dwight Eisenhower saw it up close. He led the Allied Forces that defeated the Nazi madman and his huge war machine. He saw with his own eyes what this godlessness had done to Europe - and was doing also behind the Iron Curtain in every atheistic communist state - the millions murdered, the bombed out cities, the concentration camps and the Gulag. He came home to an America that was unscarred and had retained its blessed freedom. If he saw this difference as divinely providential and therefore inserted "under God" into our Pledge of Allegiance, that is where it has a right to stay.

Humming Bird
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict