Creation, by Gore Vidal
(originally blogged at Heterodoxia)
In the beginning…
A historical novel by Gore Vidal,
Creation is an Odysseus styled dialectic on religious dogma. The main character, Cyrus Spitama, is the grandson of Zarathustra, and his encounters with other 5th century sages are clearly the highlights of the novel. Cyrus is fixated on the question of creation, or the origin of the universe or human existence. Initially he was indoctrinated by Zarathustra, specifically the dualistic ontology of Zoroastrianism. Convinced with this religious truth, he sets out to test the alternative answers or non-answers of other wise men, such as those from the East: the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, and the West: Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and etc. However, the book demonstrates how much of a fatal flaw the question of creation was for Western philosophy, because it always was the wrong question.
Zoroastrianism in the book was an obvious stand-in for all our modern monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), since it insists on a beginning and an end to existence, and a dualistic aspect of existence in which the forces of good and evil are equally matched until the end of times.
Contra Zoroastrianism’ thesis of a beginning and an ending, Anaxagoras proposes that there is NO nothing, because even empty space itself is filled with something. Anaxagoras criticizes the traditional Greek dogma of creation and destruction, because there is only mixture and separation of things that exist. Instead of creation, there is generation; instead of destruction, there is separation. Nothing is truly generated or destroyed. This metaphysical explanation does not satisfy Cyrus’ requirement of creation, that these “things” are self-existent, because it fails to explain exactly what makes these “things” merge and fall away. Anaxagoras answers this with the “mind.” All things were at rest, at first. Then the mind put all these things in order. That only begs the question where were all those things before the mind put them in order? Anaxagoras says they were everywhere. While this might not be a satisfactory answer, it is due to the unsatisfactory nature of the question. Cyrus speculates that perhaps this mind that put everything into order was the Wise Lord himself, the God of Zarathustra, Ashura Mazda.
Zarathustra, by Edward Potter
Since the Wise Lord created his twin brother, Ahriman, the being responsible for evil, this brings up the question of theodicy – why did Good create Evil? Cyrus claims his grandfather Zarathustra said the following: “neither our thoughts, nor our deeds, nor our consciences, nor our souls agree.” This appears to be a statement of binary opposites, but it fails to explain why the Wise Lord created an evil twin. In order to answer the skeptic, Cyrus explains that there is a distinction between infinite time and long dominion, within which the human race exists. At the instant of creation there was only infinite time. Then the Wise Lord established a trap for his evil twin within the long dominion. Once this long dominion ends, the evil twin Ahriman will be defeated. For the skeptic, this seems absurd – why go to all that trouble? Why create evil? Cyrus confessed that he tried asking the same from other wise men – Gosala, the Buddha, Confucius and the rest.
Cyrus travels to the East on a mission for King Darius, in order to gather first hand knowledge of the Indian states, as well as their religious beliefs. He meets the Jainist Gosala and asks him what is true. The Jain asserted that he could not tell Cyrus what is true. Merely, that one moves closer to holiness by not killing any creature or telling a lie or seeking pleasure. However, by starting in negation one approaches affirmation, which is the truth. And for Gosala, the truth is that every one starts as a monad, and this monad is required to experience 84,000 rebirths, from the original atom and proceed through each of the four elements, until reaching complex objects like rocks, plants, living beings of all kinds, including gods themselves – until the last rebirth. Afterwards, the monad is freed – expired. There is no escape from this chain of rebirth – no secret shortcut, no virtuous life that can make a difference. To Gosala, Zarathustra must have been young because he was obsessed with correct religious procedures and that he conceived of heavens, hells, and final judgment. For Cyrus, this was a bleak, near nihilistic portrait of existence. If good and evil were mere accidental conditions of a given monad’s current position on the rebirth chain, then there would be no reason to do good if one was in the early stages of the 84,000 rebirth chain. Without good action, civilization cannot exist, much less salvation at the end of all existence.
Next, Cyrus meets the Jain monk, Mahavira, who achieved kevala after 12 years of isolation and self-abnegation. Kevala is a state of complete oneness with the cosmos. Cyrus attempted to instruct Mahavira the teachings of Zarathustra, and Mahavira replied that there are as many gods as there are men and mosquitoes. All gods, men and mosquitoes are composed of the same substance – life monads that come together and break apart in various forms. Some ascend and other descend. The difference between the monad and the atoms of Anaxagoras is that the former contains life. Cyrus asks Mahavira how this process of ascension and descent began. Mahavira simply offers a non-answer: there is neither beginning nor end. All men are fated to ascend or descend, as always, and will continue do so. However, he asserts that he is the last “crossing-maker” which means everyone will descend from now on. Each life monad is a crystal that contains colors of six karmic colors, or colors of fate. Each evil act will darken the color, and each holy act will purify it. But the purest monad cannot turn a person in to the crossing-maker. One must be born a crossing-maker. Cyrus insists that there is a similarity between the purity of the life monad, and the struggle between the Wise Lord and Ahriman. Mahavira claims that in every religion, there is a tension between the idea of good and the idea of evil. But all religions fall short of the absolute truth, that they cannot accept the end of human personality. They insist on a place or a home where the individual can continue to exist forever as himself. But this is immature – whatever began must end, and whatever did not begin cannot end. Whatever ascend, must descend. The only escape is to become complete by integrating oneself with the universe – kevala. This is done by self-abnegation, because the body is transient and unclean. Mahavira claims that he ignored his physical needs until his life monad became crystal clear. In fact, he has resisted the last temptation – to become a god. Furthermore, he claims that Ahura Mazda had chosen to be come the Wise Lord. Had he been truly wise, he would have taken the last step and merged himself with the cosmos – with everything that exists – the very creation itself that constantly rearranges itself until the self is released like a bubble to the sky, and it pops – finished. Cyrus asks him the same question: when did the cycles first begin, and why do they continue? Mahavira only answers: what is endless, is without beginning. Creation was not “created” because time does not exist – because it is a serpent that devours its tail. A circle, a circular continuity that neither begins nor ends.
At first it seems Mahavira held similar views with the Buddha, but he was only a maker of river-crossing, and the Buddha crossed the river. While Pythagoras and Gosala and Mahavira all shared a belief in the transmigration of souls, the Buddha was indifferent to transmigration because he did not believe in existence. We are not here or there. “We only imagine the fire that sputters.”
Sariputra, a Buddhist, told Cyrus that the Wise Lord was just like Brahma pretending to be a Persian. In fact, Brahma visited the Buddha twice. First, Brahma asked the Buddha to set the wheel of the doctrine in motion, so he himself could be reborn as a human and obtain nirvana. The only way Brahma could achieve nirvana is through the Buddha. Apparently, the Buddha allowed this, which was a sacrifice on his part because he already achieved nirvana, and was no longer here or there. The second time Brahma visited the Buddha, he announced himself as the king of the gods, the uncreated who created the world. But the Buddha answered, “If you exist, Brahma, you were created. If you were created, you will evolve. If you evolve, your aim must be release from the fire and flux of creation. Therefore, you must become what I already am. You must take the last step on the eightfold path. You mus cease to evolve and to be.” This indicates that Brahma, like the Wise Lord, was not all-powerful. If he was, then he was capable of not-being. Otherwise he would not have asked the Buddha to set the wheel of the doctrine in motion. Such blasphemy!
Cyrus insisted that Zarathustra heard the answers of the Wise Lord, but the Buddhist interrupted him and said that Brahma heard the answers of the Buddha. Cyrus challenges the Buddhist, asking whether he rejects that the Wise Lord was the creator. Sariputra claims that he and Cyrus both do. Largely because if the Wise Lord was an all-powerful creator, then why did he create his evil twin, Ahriman in the first place? Then go on to battle him throughout the “long dominion” of human existence? And then demand that his creation must fight his first creation, Ahriman? Even if good eventually triumphs, then what is the point of the battle?
Cyrus claims that it is the will of the Wise Lord, that he created all human souls at once. They exist within him until their turn to live as human beings, and make a choice – to follow the Truth or the Lie. Truth awards them merit, and the Lie, destruction. The Buddhist is not satisfied with this answer – why make everyone suffer? Cyrus asks how can evil be overcome otherwise? The Buddhist offers a solution: by removing first world then self. Cyrus insists on the brute fact of the world’s existence, of the self’s, of evil and of good. Everything is necessary.
The Buddhist declares that it is better not to be, and that is done by following the eight-fold path. The Wise Lord is just like Brahma, proud and tricky, but he is in the dark with the rest of creation. He doesn’t know where he is going because he doesn’t know where he comes from.
Buddha statue at Kamakura, Japan, by Daina Falk
At their meeting, Cyrus told him Zarathustra’s doctrines of good and evil. The Buddha only answered:
“Since no one can ever know for certain whether or not his own view of creation is the correct one, it is absolutely impossible for him to know if someone else’s is the wrong one.”
Cyrus wasn’t ready to quit. He asked if this world was an evil, then why does the world exist? The Buddha began to elucidate the first truth, that the world is full of pain and suffering, and that other truths become self-evident, and the eight-fold path must be followed. But Cyrus interrupted him, saying that nirvana may or may not extinguish the self. Who could create a world full of purposeless suffering and pain? The Buddha answered with a story of a soldier being struck with an arrow. Would the soldier want to know who fired the arrow, or have the doctor remove it? Since the wounded soldier would rather survive the wound first before learning the identity of the assailant, then the Buddha can only offer the eight fold path as the freedom from pain and suffering of the world. Once the path is followed, then the question of the world’s existence no longer matters. It is but a mirage, conditioned by the self, and once the self disappears, the world will, too.
The goal of existence is sunyata, which is nothingness, which is also the Hindi word for the circle that stands for nothing – a zero. For most people, there is only constant death and rebirth, with a few exceptions of “nirvana, which is nothing, and sunyata, which is what it is if it is.” Cyrus thought these concepts were dissimilar, because the Buddha’s conception of sunyata was too slippery of a truth. He concluded that there was a void at the heart of Buddhism, but not the much lauded nirvana. It was atheism.
Lao Tzu, by Blackobull
As Master Li in the book, Lao-Tzu elucidated the concept or non-concept of the Tao. It literally means the road or the way, but the Way is a wordless doctrine. It is a condition where there are no opposites or differences, because concepts are meaningless, except in relation to other things. They are all one to the Way, although they appear many to human beings. It is not possible to rebel against the facts of existence – e.g., life and death are the same because without one the other cannot be. Neither exists except in relationship to one another. There is nothing but the “always-so.”
Cyrus thought that the primal unity was feasible but there must be a true difference between good and bad actions such as the Truth and the Lie of Zoroastrianism. Master Li agreed that there are apparent good and bad actions in the relative conduct of a given life, and that they agree on what constitutes on such. But the Way transcends these differences. Cyrus asks what are the fundamental laws of the universe and who created them. Master Li answers that the universe is the unity of everything, and to accept the Way is to accept this unity. The laws of the universe is simply the laws of becoming. This acceptance achieves wu-wei, which literally means to do nothing. Master Li means nothing that is not natural or spontaneous. Cyrus thinks that the wise must do everything possible to support the good and defy the evil. But Master Li insists that this is the source of trouble. Don’t DO! Forget good or evil, because neither exists without relation to one another. Forget the relationship. Let things take care of themselves. To do nothing is a tremendous spiritual labor because the wise person lacks ambitions. Thus he will never fail. Finally, Cyrus asks who created the Way. Master Li only looks at his hands and says, “I do not know whose child it is.”
Confucius Statue at Yushima Seido
Easily the most interesting character in the book, Confucius however offered the least concrete religious answers. For Confucius, to be good is to act in accordance with the will of heaven. But what was heaven to Confucius? He claimed it was the dispenser of life and death, good fortune as well as bad. It was where the “original ancestor” dwells. This answer led Cyrus to believe that Confucius did not believe in heaven or the original ancestor, because he was an atheist. At least he was an atheist that believed in the primacy of ritual and ceremony of the ancient Chou dynasty. Because the common folk believe in metaphysical entities like gods, and the ruling class believed in their descent from a series of ancestors who watched over them, Confucius employed these beliefs in order to render the harmonious society. The Chou dynasty was championed only because Chou was the last son of heaven. Since Confucius feared a bad ruler, he upheld the virtues of the old dynasty.
After Cyrus informed Confucius about the Wise Lord, and the visions of Pythagoras, the enlightenment of the Buddha, he was only amused. Confucius then said that he tried mediating without food and without sleep for a day, with utter concentration. His mind was empty, blank. But he saw nothing. Understood nothing. Therefore, he said it was better to study real things in the real world. Confucius did not believe in an afterworld, or day of judgment, or bother about creation or teleology of existence. But to Cyrus, and to Vidal, he was the wisest of the wise men.
Democritus of Abdera
Where Confucius was wise, Protagoras was just clever. He spoke Greek, which is the language of debating and sophistry, but not the language of God. They would object to any conception mentioned in the above, just what is meant by them, and continue to chop them to pieces, until nothing left is true or false.
Democritus, who composed the story, has the last word. If there is no Wise Lord or bridge at the end of days, or the judgment that divides those who followed the Truth from those who followed the Lie, given that Zarathustra said there was a time the Wise Lord did not exist, then it’s possible that everyone goes to wherever it is that the Wise Lord came from. Because there’s no way to answer that question, then perhaps the wise men from the East are right, that the question of creation is not to be answered. He claims that Cyrus never found the answer to his question of creation, and lacked the conviction that befit the grandson of Zarathustra in his doctrines. In the end, Cyrus was resigned to the possibility that there was neither beginning nor an end to creation, since it existed in a state of flux, infinitely. Therefore, the Wise Lord of Zarathustra was just a symbol of a circle that represents the cosmos, for the primal unity, for creation.