Just finished a terrific book, The Deceivers by John Masters. Set in India in 1825, it’s a kind of secret agent story, uncovering an underground society of “thugs”, a network of hundreds if not thousands of murderers who roamed the roads in India, preying on travelers, killing millions over the centuries. Masters is someone I had never heard of, but I’m on his second novel now, and his descriptions of Old India make excellent reading. What struck me in this novel is his portrayal of these killers as devotees of Kali, the goddess of Death and Destruction. Their rites and murders are firmly bound up in their religion: what they are doing is pleasing to Kali, they believe, and other Indians in the novel seem to accept that as a legitimate approach to finding meaning in life. Kali must have her way. We worship her by killing at will.
This week I also heard Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali author who fled to the West, arguing against the doctrine of the radical jihadists who are wreaking havoc in Nigeria, Somalia, and the Middle East. She maintains that their reading of the Koran, which focuses so much on the afterlife, leads to a devaluing of life in the here and now, a blindness to the needs of the individual, and ultimately to dehumanization. She made the bold statement that any religion that focuses so much on the afterlife is a nihilistic cult of death. She has repeated this claim previously and it has drawn waves of criticism from all sides, even from atheists. But can there be any doubt that many of these jihadists are in the thrall of the Death Goddess? Christians were in the same mindset several centuries ago. If you look at the Christian art of the Middle Ages where the focus is so much on the bloody wounds of Christ or the torments of hell, what can we conclude but that there is a ghoulish pleasure in contemplating these scenes of torture? With that focus on blood, if we’re not careful, we can begin to “love the Goddess” as Masters puts it.
In Seven Sacraments for Everyone I talk about death as a sacrament, the idea that the arrival of death is part of life, and at that time, whether it is hours, days or years in coming, we become more human as we reach out to those around us for comfort, both from our sickbeds and as caregivers. Our spiritual lives become richer at those moments. Those who are dying need us, desperately. Compassion burns within us and we want to help.
Masters describes the antithesis of this. The gruesome, remorseless way in which innocent men, women, and children were cut down or strangled allows no other conclusion than that the thugs had slipped into the Dark Side. Instead of compassion, they sought to destroy in the name of religion. Hirsi Ali makes the same point about the radical jihadists. Let’s make it clear we’re not talking about all Muslims. But judging by the numbers of Muslim youths trying to get into Syria, anxious to become martyrs, it’s something to be taken seriously.
Of the many legends of Kali, the one that is needed most at this point is when Kali becomes drunk on the blood of her victims on the battlefield and is about to destroy the whole universe. To stop her, her husband, Shiva, falls at her feet. In her rage she doesn’t see him and, storming across the battlefield, she steps on his chest. She then sees him, is filled with remorse, and her anger dies. Even Kali can experience compassion, it would seem, once she opens her eyes. Where is the Shiva that will bring her to her senses?