Top Ten Tuesday—Awesome Classics

Today makes 11 years since I first properly heard All Things Must Pass all the way through! It’s still one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none.

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Favorite Classic Books (however you define classic) or Top Ten Classics I Want To Read <or spin it some other way…”classics” in a specific genre?>.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. I just can’t give enough love to this book, which was finished somewhere between 1351 and 1353. (You can check out all my Decameron posts here.) It’s held up remarkably well over the centuries, with the vast majority of stories feeling as fresh, modern, and relevant as they did in the 14th century. I even know my two favouritest stories almost by heart.

2. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. This is another classic which has stood the test of the centuries. It’s such a timeless story of a man going on an amazing otherworldly journey to get back on track with his faith and life, all inspired by the great unrequited love of his life. (You can peruse my Dante posts here.) The opening stanza is one of the poems I know by heart.

3. La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this lovely, much-shorter autobiography and poetry collection. Dante’s love for Beatrice raises the question about the line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses the line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to conceal his true feelings as best he can. At the end of the book, we see the genesis of his idea for The Divine Comedy, his way of immortalizing this great love for all time.

4. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. I haven’t yet read the entirety of this book, but I’m really eager to find a good, full-length translation. It’s widely considered the world’s first novel, by a female author, and set during the Heian era of Japanese history. What’s not to love?

5. The Ramayana. This is one of India’s two great national epics; it’s a shame more Westerners aren’t as familiar with it as they are with Greco-Roman mythology. If I said something like, “I feel like Kaikeyi when her mind is confused by the gods,” I’m sure no one would understand what I were talking about. I’d also love to see a retelling from Sita’s POV.

6. The Mahabharata. This is India’s other great national epic, about ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, almost two million words. I got a condensed version of sorts when I read Devi Vanamali’s wonderful book The Play of God, and would love to find a good, complete translation. The sixth volume includes…

7. The Bhagavad GitaOn the eve of the major war between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their hundred wicked cousins the Kauravas (including their unknown older halfbrother), middle brother Arjuna gets cold feet. He wonders about how moral and ethical it is to have to kill good people, his own blood, all because of a petty feud that spun out of control. His charioteer Krishna, his best friend, delivers a sermon meant to lift his spirits and urge him to fight. At the height of this beautiful sermon, Krishna reveals his true identity as Vishnu, and delivers the famous line about how there are many paths to the same God.

Do NOT get the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. A better subtitle would be As It Is NOT!  This arrogant fool had the balls to say his was the only correct translation, and that everyone else hadn’t done it properly.

8. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. This book has meant so much to me since I first discovered it in January ’96, at age sixteen. Every time I read it, I come away with something new. I have the awesome Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation.

9. The Hemptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hoping it’s as awesome as The Decameron. This book was posthumously published in 1558, and consists of 72 stories. It was meant to contain 100 stories in 10 days, just as its inspiration The Decameron has, but only got as far as the second story of the eighth day.

10. The Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. This book is so freaking awesome. So many great books came out of the Enlightenment, and the best ones seamlessly combined a good story with promotion of Enlightenment values. I think my favourite part is when it talks about what a great magician Louis XIV is, but that there’s an even greater magician. “This magician is called the Pope.” Montesquieu used the supposed naïveté of the pretended real letter-writers to criticise French society and the Church.

The Play of God review

Another book review from my old site, about one of the most amazing, most unforgettable books I’ve ever read. Please note that while I refer to Krishna as “Lord Krishna” in the review, that doesn’t mean I’m secretly a Hindu. I remain monotheistic, and sometimes incorporate non-conflicting aspects of other religions with my own beliefs and spiritual practices. But to me, Krishna is just another name for Hashem. I read this book in the Summer of 2002, soon after I graduated from university. Devi Vanamali also has a similar book about Lord Rama, but unfortunately it’s out of print.

***

This is a very moving and exciting book by Devi Vanamali, all about the life of Vishnu’s eighth avatar, Krishna. Unlike other books, this one is special in that it covers His Lordship’s whole life, not just his youth or his role in the Mahabharata, for example. And Ms. Vanamali, a fervent devotee of Krishna, has said that if it came to be shown that Krishna had never existed and was just a myth, Hindus would hardly care. The basis of their faith would not be blown to pieces; the spirit and message of the Krishna story are the important parts, not whether or not this person actually once drew breath and did all the things he’s credited with doing in his most greatest avatar.

Vishnu takes on an earthly avatar whenever the need for divine help is most great, and in each succeeding avatar he’s only gotten more and more important, going from small animals like turtles to eventually human beings, the two greatest of which have been Lord Rama and His Holiness Krishna. He doesn’t do this to try to save the world or to redeem humankind from sinning, but rather because there are evil and danger afoot, and people need help from above. He also bestowed enlightenment on many people as Krishna, and taught them the beauty and simplicity of his teachings. Reading this book reawakened my interest in Hinduism and almost made me wish I were one myself!

Kamsa is a very evil king, but on his sixteen-year-old sister Devaki’s wedding day to the handsome prince Vasudeva, he’s the picture of lovingkindness. During the wedding parade, however, catastrophe strikes and a divine voice tells him that Devaki’s eighth-born son will one day kill him. He’s horrified by this, but soon placated when he realises he’s got a good long way to go, and can prevent this from happening since he’s been tipped off.

Devaki obediently brings all of her newborn sons to her brother, but he’s lenient and lets the parents keep them. The people he rules over are overjoyed at the prophecy, hoping Devaki has her eight sons very quickly so King Kamsa will meet his end all the sooner. (And again, just how suspicious is it that all the women in myths and legends have all these sons in a row yet never once a daughter?)

The party ends when a nasty advisor to the king suggests that Vishnu is the master trickster and that maybe Kamsa’s assassin is already here, since if you put the six sons Devaki now has in a circle, combined with the next two, any one of them could be the eighth, depending on where you start counting from. Kamsa promptly murders his six nephews and throws Devaki and Vasudeva into prison.

During this time, Devaki gets pregnant yet again, but Vishnu realises how important it is to hurry it on up, so the fetus within her womb is magickally transferred into another woman’s womb, and thus Krishna is able to be conceived. This seventh pregnancy became Balarama. Devaki and Vasudeva are chained to opposite walls so they won’t be able to have sex, and radiant light pours into their cell as Krishna is conceived from the power of their strong thoughts.

Kamsa is enfuriated and terrified both when he learns his little sister somehow got pregnant again, the eighth time. He rushes down after she gives birth, and beholds that the baby is a girl, the goddess Mahamaya who took the place of baby Krishna after he was spirited off to an older childless couple named Yashoda and Nanda. Yashoda had given birth to a girl, and by the time her husband came back, he was happily surprised to find that it had become a boy in the time he had been out of the house.

When Kamsa tries to fling the baby to her doom, she reveals herself as the powerful goddess she is, and flies off to assume many other forms around the world. Devaki, who’s still in prison, doesn’t have anymore children after this, and Kamsa rests a little easier, though always fearful that at any moment Vishnu, that master trickster, could murder him.

In fact, during Devaki’s eighth pregnancy, Kamsa was more concentrated on Vishnu than anyone else, constantly seeing him in everything, even grains of rice. His total concentration on Vishnu alone was borne out of fear instead of religious piety, though, but he was still more focused on him than even the religious ascetics.

Krishna has a lovely childhood as the adored only child of his foster parents’ old age. He’s very popular with the other children, and only continues to be so the older he gets, since he performs many miracles, most of them related to saving his village from demons who’ve been sent to try to murder him. Krishna also grows up with his slightly older halfbrother Balarama, the child of Vasudeva’s other wife, Rohini.

The gopis, or milkmaids, are the most devoted followers Krishna ever has, and he teaches them to transcend the concept of modesty so they can serve him with a purer heart. If they’re ashamed to appear naked before him (and he later has sex with all of them at the same time, since as Vishnu he’s able to be in more than one place at the same time), how dare they claim they’re devoted to serving him and laying their hearts and souls bare before the Divine? The seduction and enlightenment of the devoted gopis is his last mission in the village of his youth, before he knows it’s time to go home to do what he took on this avatar to do: slay Kamsa.

Krishna and Balarama are conquering heroes whom the people adore, and Kamsa gets his just desserts when his divine nephew takes him out. Devaki and Vasudeva are also finally sprung from prison. Of course everyone wants Krishna to be their new leader, and he’s an exemplary king, taking many wives and concubines and having ten sons by each of these ten thousand plus women. (Would it be too unrealistic to throw a few daughters in once in awhile?!)

His first wife, and the one he loves the best, is Rukmini, the avatar of his consort Parvati. Women love Krishna, and he’s able to be the model husband and lover to all of these many women at the same time, in all the mansions he’s got them up in. No task is too great for the almighty Krishna to handle!

Krishna’s story intertwines with that of the Pandavas and Kauravas, antagonistic relatives who share the same grandfather, Bhishma. Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva make up the Pandavas, who are just the models of goodness, Virtue, and everything wonderful and positive in the world. They don’t know it at the time, but the mother of the older boys, Kunti, had an immaculately and illegitimately conceived child, Karna, with the sun god before any of them were born, and this boy was taken in by their enemies the Kauravas. They unknowingly are fighting their own halfbrother in the battle that comes later on.

Because of a curse, it’s mortally dangerous for their father Pandu to have sex, so they’re actually sired by various gods. Kunti has a special trick to conceive by a god, which she did for the wrong reasons when she had Karna, and teaches it to Madri, Pandu’s other wife, since she wants children too. Madri is the mother of the young twins.

The Kauravas are one hundred brothers (with a token sister) who are the absolute epitome of evil, selfishness, greed, sacrilegiousness, you name it. Their equally evil and repugnant father Dhritarashtra is blind, and their mother, Gandhari, like a typical Indian wife, is so blindly devoted to him (no pun intended) that she has voluntarily tied a blindfold around her eyes, vowing that she shouldn’t have the pleasure of seeing the wondrous sights her husband will never be able to see.

Many events go on between these cousins, including the attempted murder of the Pandava brothers, their presumed deaths, thirteen years of exile, and finally all-out war. The Mahabharata goes on for only 18 days, yet is India’s national epic and nine times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Krishna plays the role of Arjuna’s charioteer during the epic battle, and to show his great kindness, puts a protective covering over a mother bird and her nest before the battle begins so the fighting won’t disturb her home or inadvertently slaughter her and her young.

Arjuna, Krishna’s favourite of the Pandava brothers, gets cold feet before the battle is set to begin. He sees the ranks drawn and ready, yet is having second thoughts about slaughtering his own kinsmen, and sees these people as fathers, sons, uncles, good people on another side, not as people who deserve to be cut down just because of a family feud that’s blossomed out of control.

Krishna urges him to take heart, and delivers one of the most beautiful sermons ever, the Bhagavad Gita, which means simply “The Song of God.” Arjuna has always viewed his best friend Krishna as an extraordinary man, but never before has he realised that he is God incarnate. Seeing him reveal himself as Vishnu in all of his glory and divine attributes is too much for him to handle and is overwhelming for his mere mortal’s eyes, and he begs him to go back to his safe, familiar form as Krishna. The sermon much cheers Arjuna and makes him ready to fight, as well as teaching him many other things unrelated to warfare and bloodshed.

No surprise, the virtuous Pandavas win the war, but not without a good deal of bloodshed, slaying of close kinsmen, and heartbreak of everyone involved. The mothers and wives on the Kaurava side are particularly driven insane, as all hundred of the brothers are lying dead and murdered.

Particularly painful are the deaths of Bhishma, the grandfather, their beloved maternal uncle Shalya, their teacher Drona, and Karna, whom they found out too late was their halfbrother. These four men were virtuous yet had the rotten luck of being trapped into fighting for the evil branch of the family because they happened to be born into it. And they were only killed because of sneaky strategies which Krishna himeself ordered done, despite protests.

The sons the Pandavas had with Draupadi are also struck dead during the battle, which is heart-shattering to Draupadi, even though she accepts it as part of a divine plan. Bhima and Arjuna also lost one other son each, whom they had with other women. The parents of the evil Kauravas spend the rest of their lives wandering like ascetics, along with Kunti, and later die calmly in a forest fire.

The war was a foreboding of more and more evil things to come, and indeed soon after the horrible age of Kali Yuga begins, with people growing less religious, more evil, disrespectful, hateful, and not following the teachings Krishna’s been spreading during this current avatar of his.

Krishna knows this means the end of his latest sojourn on the earth is coming to a close, and several decades after the war has ended, he’s accidentally wounded by an arrow. The archer is mortified on seeing what he’s done, but the 125-year-old Krishna reassures him that it was a good thing and supposed to have happened. He passes on and achieves his own enlightenment and end of days.

It is also time for the Pandava brothers to go; the world has become too evil for good heroic people like them to still be around. They’re taken on an arduous trek, along with their wife Draupadi and a stray dog, up to where they’re supposed to ascend to Paradise from the top of a mountain.

Yudhishthira, the oldest brother, sees his wife and younger brothers all dropping dead from exhaustion, but keeps on going. He’s the only one left, and at the end of the journey refuses to part from the dog tagging along with him. Upon being reminded that he didn’t seem to care about his own brothers and wife yet cares so much about some animal he’s never even seen before, he retorts back that one should show kindness to all, and that it was time for his brothers to pass on anyway. It turns out that the dog is his father the sun god in animal incarnation, and he is rewarded for his exemplary kindness and refusal to judge someone on the basis of a lowly avatar.

Yudhishthira is shown into Paradise and given a look at his brothers and Draupadi. He sees they’re in agony and being tortured in Hell, while the wicked Kauravas are in Paradise, and he insists on joining his brothers, feeling it’s all part of a plan. The next thing he knows, all six of them are in the real Paradise, and Hell was just an illusion, one final test to demonstrate their magnanimous character. The good guys win in this story.

Krishna’s eighth avatar teaches us how to relate to the Divine in a myriad of ways beyond the tired old Western crap of old man and king. Krishna is a warrior, king, father, son, lover, sneaky little boy, adorable baby, old man, best friend, counselor, so much more than a stern old deity with a white beard and scepter.

He also realises that not everyone will come to him as Vishnu, just like when Arjuna is unable to bear the sight of his best friend in all his divine glory. He taught that however you see him, want him, need him, visualise him to be is how he shall come to you. If a grain of rice, a rock, a female Divine, the traditional view of God, a leaf, the clouds, are how you experience the Divine, then there Krishna is, in the form you feel represents God to you.

He has many names and forms, as many as there are different religions and denominations, yet they all ultimately lead back up to him. This is not some sectarian or local village god; however you see God is how Krishna manifests himself in your life.