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Archive for June, 2016

faith in love

If I tell you

My love will last an age

Would that permit you

To trust the age

And every pain it brings

Though shadowed in the mystery … of future

If I show you

Through faith in only love

That I know it will endure

Because of what it has endured

And how it has grown pure

Would you let it serve

The heart that it deserves … trusting in eternity

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It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence . . . but God is absent also from all Job’s words about God . . . because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order . . . God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself. – Frederick Buechner

Introduction

From the genesis of sentient humanity, mankind has asked, “Why am I here?” Another question follows before the first echo dies: “Is there a way I am meant to live?” If there is a reason for life, logic concludes that there must be a right “way” to live. Even if there is not an overarching purpose, one can still determine that following a particular way of life can bring success, wealth, and happiness. This philosophical conclusion, however, might not play out as intended in real life. This is evidenced by two sacred stories that outline two different quests for “the way”: the Indian tale of Rama and the Hebrew narrative of Job. Both stories convey that effectively following a way is a quest in itself, the end of which not even the wisest know.

Dharma in Rama the Steadfast

Dharma is a primary belief of the main characters in Rama the Steadfast, a book based on the Ramayana, one of India’s earliest sacred texts. Dharma can be defined as “a right and moral conduct, the exercise of duty toward the human community” (Hacker 480). Central practices include obedience to parents, respect for people of higher rank, and an attitude of “friendliness and helpfulness” toward others (Hacker 481). Rama and his brother, Laksmana, portray an attitude of righteousness and justice in their actions, and Rama’s response to conflict is always cognizant of dharma.

The “ideal” life of dharma is that members of each caste and each stage of life honor the particular duties to which they are prescribed; religion, education, vocations, and rituals are all conducted in a “dharmic” fashion (Hacker 483). Dharma has a loose connection with the idea of salvation, as truly righteous actions are not attached to worldly motives and are thereby worthy of an “otherworldly reward” (Hacker 484). Dharma is the motivating and determining factor, thus salvation is “achieved by action” (Hacker 491). The actions of Rama throughout Rama the Steadfast are true to dharma.

Gods and Nature Supporting “Godlike” Man – How Rama Wins the Day

Rama the Steadfast tells the story of a prince about to take his father’s place on the throne when he is exiled for 14 years at the request of his father’s second wife because the king owed her two boons. She claims the throne for her son, Bharata. Rama, true to dharma, follows his father’s command and leaves the kingdom of Ayodhya that day. His wife, Sita, and his brother, Laksmana, accompany him and take on an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness. During their final year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by a raksasa – a demon – and the bulk of the story is the quest of Rama to find and rescue Sita.

As soon as Rama’s exile is announced in the first chapter, it is clear everyone in the kingdom, and the earth itself, grieves his departure:

People in the streets had their faces contorted by tears; joy could nowhere be glimpsed … No cooling breeze blew, the moon did not soothe nor the sun heat the earth; all the world was out of joint. Sons neglected their mothers, husbands their wives, brothers their sisters … everyone thought only of Rama (14).

In the main battle of the epic, when Rama and Laksmana fight the raksasas who carried Sita away, nature and the gods join in support of Rama. The two brothers, pierced with many arrows, lie drenched in blood, near death, yet a god heals them so they can continue fighting: “…their wounds closed and their bodies quickly regained their colour and bloom; their power, heroism, might, vigor and greater qualities – were redoubled” (293). When the final fight begins between Rama and evil King Ravana, again nature is filled with evil signs toward Ravana, but “For Rama … sweet, auspicious signs sprang up on all sides, presages of victory” (345). According to the “way” of dharma that Rama follows, it appears that if a man maintains a just and righteous life, gods and nature will empower an individual, enabling him to succeed.

The Moral Quandary of Dharmism

Not everything about dharma, however, is righteous and just. Scholar Robert Goldman points out that in the various dialogues between Rama and other characters, Rama emerges as the perfectly moral character (25). The quandary that arises is how to view the end of the story, when Rama’s moral character is juxtaposed by his harsh attitude toward his wife. Although this ending does not occur in Rama the Steadfast, in the traditional telling, Rama “rejects [Sita] coldly” as soon as he rescues her because she might have been tainted during her captivity. She plunges into a fire to prove her innocence and is protected by the god “of fire and purity” (Brockington 365).

Later, she is still banished from Rama’s presence because of the questions the people had about Sita’s purity. Finally, years later, Sita is brought before Rama and she calls on her mother, the Earth, to swallow her up in defense of the ill treatment she had received from Rama (Brockington 365). Where other characters in the epic support or contrast Rama’s perfect adherence to dharma, Sita brings into question how deep dharma’s morality goes. How “right” is a way that deals a death blow to women to preserve “their male kinsmen’s honor” (Goldman 32)? Sita’s centrality in the epic complicates issues, making it impossible for one to fully depend on dharma as the right “way” to live and operate.

Words without Knowledge – the Plight of Job

The story of Job, as a basis of both Christian and Jewish values, contains surprising dialogue that draws into question not the goodness and morality of a “godlike” man, but of God himself. Job, the central character, is “blameless and upright;” he has sons and daughters, thousands of cattle, slaves and land, making him “greater than all the dwellers of the East” (Alter 193). Everyone presumes – including Job – that his morality and uprightness earn his position and success. Then everything goes wrong. Job’s livestock, his children, and finally his own health are wrenched away, and he is left scraping his diseased body with a shard of pottery.

Three wise friends visit and sit in silence with Job for seven days. Then they speak the words that are presumably in line with what everyone thinks. They “appear to be constantly arguing on behalf of God, taking His side against Job” (Ehrlich 32). The words Job’s friends speak would have made sense in a world ruled by dharma. They concluded that if Job was truly righteous, God would not have done such things to him, thus either Job or his children must have had secret sin. In spite of their arguments, Job maintains his claim to righteousness. What is more, he demands his day in court … against God. One scholar notes, “Of all the countertexts in the Bible, the Book of Job is the most forthrightly provocative” because of the way it questions the “traditional idea that God always rewards the good and punishes the guilty” (Ostriker 267). Job questions the actions of God.

When God finally speaks, however, Job falls silent. God does not pull back the curtain completely and explain His purposes, but he does lift the veil enough to reveal Himself as the one who knows and commands all things. He questions whether Job can trace the movement of the stars and the birthing of the wild animals in season, or fish for a leviathan with a hook (Alter 215-216). The reader gathers that God’s questions are rhetorical. Bernard Ehrlich observes that Job “does not admit that he understands the reason for his suffering” but that he does acknowledge “his own understanding is very imperfect” (33). What is more, Job does not try to justify the actions of God, as his friends had tried to do, because “any attempt to justify God would really imply passing a judgment on Him” (Ehrlich 34). Job acknowledges that it does not matter if he is righteous before God. He recognizes that God operates outside the confines of human understanding.

Before God speaks to Job, the tortured man proclaims, “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more” (Job 9:33-34). When God does speak, Alicia Ostriker observes that the words of God appear “designed to smash Job and mankind into humility by an overwhelming display of creative might” (271). It is not about goodness or badness, about dharma and karma. It is about the Creator of all things who shines the sun and sends the rain on all manner of mankind, simply because that is what He does. In the end of the narrative, God gives Job twice over what he had lost. This is God’s way, and Job still chooses to follow him. Job’s questions remain unanswered, but beholding God makes the questions irrelevant.

When Quests for the Way Fall Short

The basis of Rama’s morality is his adherence to dharma. Rama’s righteousness earn him respect of men and gods, creatures and nature itself. The story centers on his abilities so much that the character of Rama has come to be “recognized and revered in India as God” (Brockington ix). As such, Rama’s actions toward Sita are even more difficult to explain; dharma is brought into question as an effective and righteous “way.” If the Way is described, as one scholar promotes, as “the extent to which one’s actions express certain virtues” (Cline 108), Rama’s actions cause his “way” to bend away from complete morality.

One wonders what would happen if Rama were to stumble into the presence of the God revealed in the Book of Job, rather than the presence of the gods who gave him strength to defeat the raksasas. Perhaps he would not have maintained his righteousness even while rejecting his own wife. Perhaps, in the presence of an unquestionable God, he would have been struck speechless like Job, failing to depend on his swaying sense of morality. Perhaps he would have also sought for an arbiter, a mediator, as Job did. Ultimately, neither Job’s uprightness nor Rama’s dharma appear to measure up. No matter how just or moral, they are not enough. Both “ways” expose a further need that involves forgiveness and mercy. Their quests fall short; however, the idea of an arbiter to bridge the gap remains. Where mankind fails in morality and actions, perhaps one’s quest for the Way would be successful if a mediator between God and man could be found, one who ensures grace for life and death.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Brockington, John, and Mary Brockington. “Afterthoughts.” Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007): 361-372. Print.

Brockington, John, and Mary Brockington. “Introduction.” Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007): ix – xxxvi). Print.

Cline, Erin M. “The Way, The Right, And The Good.” Journal of Religious Ethics 37.1 (2009): 107-129. ATLA Religion Database. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Ehrlich, Bernard. “The Book of Job as a Book of Morality.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34.1 (2006): 30-38. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Goldman, Robert. “Resisting Rama: Dharmic Debates on Gender and Hierarchy and the Work of the Valmiki Ramayana.” The Rāmāyaṇa Revisited. Ed. Mandakranta Bose. Oxford: Oxford U.P. (2004). Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Hacker, Paul, and Donald R Davis. “Dharma in Hinduism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 34.5 (2006): 479-496. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Job: The Open Book.” Michigan Quarterly Review 46:2 (2007): 267-287. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Puchner, Martin. “The Hebrew Bible.” Trans. Robert Atler. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 193-217. Print.

The Bible: King James Version. Thomas Nelson: Nashville (1972). Print.

Valmiki. Tr. John Brockington and Mary Brockington. Rama the Steadfast. Penguin: New York (2007). Print.

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It Is Well

ocean waves

Call to me

Beyond the sea

Midst upward drafts

Caressing, free

And there, and there

On skies aloft

Stars on velvet

Whispered soft

Might hope alight

And, haunting, tell

It is well

It is well

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The Unfolding Image: a God of Light and Life

A powerful aspect of “The Great Hymn to Aten” is the sense of wonder that the author, Amenhotep IV, weaved throughout the poem. It is not a dry and stark rendition of creation or of an impersonal god, but a personal recognition of a God who has brought light, not only to the world at large, but to the individual. Amenhotep even changed his name to Akhenaten to convey his spiritual transformation in the presence of this God. The hymn reads as though the writer experienced a deep sense of awe at this “Sole God” who created light and, by it, brought all things into existence. In this way, “The Great Hymn to Aten” is similar to Psalm 104 in the Bible, which also reads as a work of worship to a singular God, creator of light and life. Neither writing is a monotonous liturgy; they are more sweeping acknowledgments of a powerful and glorious God who has also worked in the heart of the individual.

In “The Great Hymn to Aten,” the author makes use of overarching word pictures, writing of a God whose “rays embrace the lands” and “nurse all fields” (7, 95), who “makes waves on the mountains like the sea” (89), and who “made millions of forms from yourself alone” (104). The sense to be gained from these lines is one of awe at the magnificent power of this God. The writer also weaves in words and lines that bring forth a concept of the individual attention that this glorious God bestows, stating that God bends his rays “for the son whom you love” (10), and that he “feeds the son in his mother’s womb” and “soothes him to still his tears” (48-49). The poem engages God at the macro level, encapsulating his power over the world at large, yet descends to the micro level and captures a sense of his care for individuals on earth.

Psalm 104, like “The Great Hymn to Aten,” is a writing that attempts to encapsulate the magnificent and creative power of God, describing him as one who “stretchest out the heavens like a curtain” and “walketh upon the wings of the wind” (v. 2, 3). Not only does this God control the heavens and the firmament, but also the world; he “laid the foundations of the earth” and “causeth the grass to grow” (v. 5, 14). This God is not only an impersonal being, however, for a later verse states, “… the Lord shall rejoice in his works” (v. 31). The writer of the Psalm sees God as having humanlike emotions and finding joy in his creation and the works of his hands. This also conveys – though in a different manner from the hymn written to Aten – the concept of a personal God rather than a being completely detached from his creation.

Another Psalm, presumably by the same writer, takes this idea a step further, describing God – “the Lord” – in very humanlike terms. Psalm 23 uses the metaphor of God as a shepherd who provides for those in his care. The writer sees this God as one who provides (v. 2, 5), as one who leads and guides (v. 2, 3), and as one who comforts (v. 4). This author feels the individualized care of his God so strongly that he remarks, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (v. 4). He also trusts in the ultimate promise that he will “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (v. 6). When taken with the context of Psalm 104, one gains an overall view of God that is similar to what is seen in “The Great Hymn to Aten.” Both read as a personal revelation of a God who is magnificent and omnipotent, yet whose presence takes a personal approach in his concern towards the individuals he created.

Although the two authors are from different cultures and their writings are dedicated to two “different” gods, their experience and conception of this creator God of light and life and nature is uncannily similar. These particular writings convey that even though the writers’ cultures and backgrounds and worship were dissimilar, their perception of God was a personal experience that superseded their differences; both came to recognize a God of the heavens and the earth whose glory was clear in all that he had made. What is more, both writings saw God as a being who was focused on the individual creations that he had made.

This concept of an individual or personal God becomes more powerful in light of a line from “The Great Hymn to Aten” that observes, “You made millions of forms from yourself alone” (l. 104). Amenhotep perceives his God, Aten, as not only “lord of sky, lord of earth” (30), but also as the being from whom humanity came forth. The Book of Genesis – the foundational scripts that the writer of Psalms would have been intimately familiar with – conveys the same idea. It states, “And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). If a God stamped mankind with his likeness, infused humanity with his character and personality, it follows that this God would be personally devoted to that creation and would do anything to protect and care for the thing he molded in his image.

Psalm 104, Psalm 23, Genesis Chapter one, and “The Great Hymn to Aten” all seem to proclaim this vision of God. They reflect wonder at a supreme God who controls the forces of nature and the heavens and life itself, but who is devoted enough to breathe life into the nostrils of humanity and ensure that his creation will never completely forget from whence they came.

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