The Thanksgiving holiday is just about over. I have been off since Wednesday, and even though I've had plenty to do, it's been a surreal few days. It goes without saying that the Christmas season is now upon us. I have barely given it a thought. I am not having a Christmas tree this year, nor am I getting involved with the usual level of hoopla, because I am going to London soon after Christmas. No sense putting up a Christmas tree and leaving my cats with a large and dangerous cat toy while I'm away.
My London plans may be changing--I'm not certain yet, but I may end up shortening my stay due to some uncertain circumstances. That's been the surreal part of this week--lots of uncertain circumstances. Everyone I talk to has been having surprises, and not good ones. I look at possibly changing my London plans as the lower end of the surprise scale--I have many friends and acquaintances right now that are dealing with much more serious uncertainties. Even when I stopped off at one of my usual breakfast haunts in Hackettstown, the waitress I know there told me that her husband was fired from his job that week--and told he could reapply if he wanted to in the Spring. Of course, this means no health benefits for her or her husband all Winter long, and if he does get re-hired, it will probably be at minimum wage; he was at the top of his pay scale for his job. There is a lot of this kind of thing going on. At the moment, I am grateful to be employed and to have a house. It's not going to be a great Christmas for a lot of people, and while this does happen to people every year, it does make things a bit sadder (Christmas or not) because these people are my friends. Certainly it's a sobering reminder that life can change at any moment.
I picked up a friend from the airport today, and we were discussing the recent attacks on Americans and British citizens in Mumbai. A mutual friend of ours from Orissa had friends staying in the hotel. The mutual friend had received a text message from that friend, saying she was hiding under the bed, and that "they were coming." They lost contact with her after that, and suspect she is now dead. The growing amount of Islamic fundamentalist attacks is frightening for many reasons. Fundamentalism in any of the religions is a reaction against modernity. While there have been a few cases of Hindu fundamentalism, it is really a monotheistic phenomenon, at least as it is appearing in the world today. We tend to hear about Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism in particular. Both types of fundamentalism have a number of things in common. One is that they believe modernity is bad (though many are not opposed to the use of technology like television and the Internet). Another is that they believe there is one strict interpretation of "God's law", and that God has a specific plan that humanity must follow, and of course they know what it is. Christian fundamentalists derive their document from a literalist interpretation of the Bible (known as Biblical inerrancy). Islamic fundamentalists are working with a strict interpretation of the Qur'an and the Shar'ia law. In both cases, there is a good vs. evil dualism--either you are on God's side (i.e., you accept their worldview), or you are not. If you are not, you are in league with "Satan", and they have the right to try to force you into the right way of believing. For some of them, that means the right to kill you. Islamic fundamentalists hate modern Western countries, because they see their pluralistic influence as being directly opposed to the law of God.
Monotheistic fundamentalism is a dangerous thing. Since there is only one God, and one "right way" for those types of believers, there is no ground for conversation. Globalization has put us in a unique position--on the one hand, secularism puts religion aside, or at least into its own category. It's not the primary social mover with regard to education, law, or politics. Fundamentalists believe that religion should be central--in particular, their interpretation of religion. No one has successfully figured out how to marry these two entirely different worldviews. In fact, looking at it, it just seems well nigh impossible. Adherents of both views frequently live side by side in today's world. The results are not pretty.
This topic will be the discussion of my lecture this week at university, and reminds me of a topic I discussed a couple of weeks ago: theodicy. Theodicy has to do with "the problem of evil", which includes the issue of human suffering. Going back to monotheistic dualisms (paradoxical, I know), we discussed the idea of "Satan". Technically, Satan is not a being, it is a role. In the Bible, "satan" or "shaitan" (Hebrew letters Shin, Teth, Nun) was the role played by an angel that obstructed a human. The Greek equivalent term is "diabolos", the root of the word "Devil", which means "to throw an obstruction in one's path". While we think of obstructions as causing us suffering, that is not necessarily the case. I think of the stories of friends who were stuck in traffic behind a car accident, missed their train, and consequently their job interview or other business in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Certainly these people were grateful by the end of the day to have been obstructed.
I could not help but to notice the similarity between the Hebrew word "Satan" and the word "Saturn". I don't know if they are etymologically similar (the Greek equivalent of Saturn is Kronos, or "time"; the Sanskrit equivalent is "Shani") but they are similar in meaning if you look at both Eastern and Western astrology. The role of Saturn is that of taskmaster--it limits us when we try to move ahead, according to that view. The Vedic astrologer that I visit once a year lamented recently that my mother is in "Shani dasha", or a very long phase of life ruled by Saturn, and consequently full of suffering and limitations. And yet Shani is not viewed as "evil"--Shani is supposed to disabuse you of any illusions you have about life or your identity. It fosters discipline, and keeps us from being lazy and selfish. Similar to "satan", "Shani" is not a being--it is a description of a particular state of things. Even with Hindus performing Shani puja, they are not worshipping Saturn--they are seeking to understand the "Shani" qualities in themselves and their lives.
Whatever you may believe, it is certainly a fact that suffering occurs in life. Like a lot of things, it seems to be cyclical--there are periods of expansiveness, and periods of restriction. I can only hope that those who have been hit by the latest string of sufferings will come through relatively unscathed, perhaps in a better position than they were before.