Sunday, November 30, 2014

A look at rising tension between Muslims and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka

Buddhist monks are leading attacks on Muslim shop owners and worshippers in the nation of Sri Lanka. This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 13, 2014.

Buddhism is widely known as a peaceful religion. The first of the Buddha's five precepts is the oath of nonviolence. Yet today in Sri Lanka, some Buddhist monks are leading a militant campaign against the nation's minority Muslim population. Despite being long established in Sri Lanka and economically successful, Muslims find themselves held suspect and treated as a demographic threat.

Recent violent incidents by Buddhists against Muslims in Sri Lanka

On April 20, 2012, a large Buddhist mob that included monks vandalized a mosque in the city of Dumbulla. Police did not intervene, and the government later ordered the mosque to be removed on the grounds that it was in a Buddhist area, although the mosque had been there for decades.

On March 29, 2013, monks led a mob in the vandalization of a clothing store owned by Muslims.

On Aug. 10, 2013, a Buddhist mob in the capital city of Colombo threw stones at a mosque during evening prayers, three days after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Several people were injured, including two policemen who were guarding the mosque, and there was residential property damage.

Buddhist monks had protested against the same mosque the previous month. It was a new building, sited close to a Buddhist temple. The objecting Buddhists had asked for the mosque to be relocated after the end of Ramadan. They were angry because Muslims were still praying there.

Ironically, the complaint that these Buddhists levy against Muslims is that the rival religion promotes extremism. They also wish to preserve Buddhism's majority status, and they are concerned that Islam seeks converts. This claim is sometimes also levied against Christians.


Sri Lanka is an island to the south of India with a population of 20 million. It is known to the West for its exports of spices, tea and gems.

About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists; these people are largely of Sinhalese ethnicity. Another 8 percent are Muslim, 7 percent are Hindu, and 6 percent are Christian. Muslims and Hindus are largely of Tamil ethnicity. As a result of over 1,000 years of international trade, many of the Muslims are of mixed Arab-Indian descent. They are known as Ceylon Moors.

Sinhalese and Tamil are the nation's two official languages. As far back as the 16th century, Muslims in Colombo - which was then a majority-Muslim city - wrote the Tamil language in Arabic script, but today they write in Tamil script.

Interfaith relations

Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil war from 1983-2009. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as the "Tamil Tigers," wanted an independent state for the Tamil ethnic minority. Nearly 70,000 people died in the conflict. The government eventually claimed victory when the Tamil Tigers' leader, Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

The Tamil Tigers were not a religious group. They followed a secular Marxist/Leninist ideology and opposed all religion. Sri Lanka's government, too, is officially secular, even though the nation's constitution says that Buddhism will be privileged. Many Tamil-speaking Muslims assisted the government in the strategic fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The question of why Sri Lankan Buddhists participated in Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic violence, despite their religion's strong message of nonviolence, is addressed in the 1992 book "Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka" by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah.

While the war was more about ethnicity than religion, strong ethnic tensions of the past have undoubtedly fed into the religious tensions that are growing today. Over the course of the war, the Muslim population grew at a rate twice as fast as the Buddhist population. Muslims "control at least half of small businesses and hold near-monopolies in the textile and gem trades," according to a Fox News article. Some Buddhist nationalists claim that there is a Muslim conspiracy for demographic domination, including even secret sterilization campaigns allegedly perpetrated by Muslims against Buddhists through the sale of poisoned underwear.

Attention now falls upon the monks of Bodu Bala Sena (the name means Buddhist Power Force), an order founded in 2012 by Galagoda Atte Gnanasara and Kirama Wimalajothi. They organize rallies at which they raise their fists and promote pro-Buddhist, anti-Muslim rhetoric. They deny organizing any attacks. Nonetheless, they instill enough fear that Fox News had difficulty finding any critics of Bodu Bala Sena who were willing to speak on the record for their article in January 2014.

Prospects for peace

A peaceful Buddhist organzation active in Sri Lanka is Sarvodaya Shramadana, a non-political organization promoting social services, empowerment, and interfaith collaboration. "Sarvodaya believes that peace is a social goal as well as a spiritual goal for each individual. These two forms of peace are inextricably linked in Sarvodaya's Engaged Buddhist vision," George Bond explained in "Sarvodaya's Pursuit of Peace," published in "Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka."

Interfaith tensions pose problems in many countries. These problems can be addressed. Through consistent work for peace, including goodwill, education and reconciliation, Sri Lanka, too, can have a promising future.

Photo: Ketchimalai Mosque in Beruwala, Sri Lanka. Muslims have lived in Sri Lanka for over 1,000 years. Posted by Wikimedia Commons user 'yimhafiz' © Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The character Lord Varys in 'Game of Thrones'

Lord Varys is a character in the HBO television series "Game of Thrones," based on the books by George R. R. Martin. He originally came from a land "across the narrow sea" (as Lord Baelish puts it), was castrated young, does not have a family name, and now sits on the Council of King Robert Baratheon. His epithet is "The Spider," and the small children who serve as his spies are referred to as his "little birds." He is played by the actor Conleth Hill.

Each season of "Game of Thrones" has ten episodes, one hour each. Below, Lord Varys's activity in the first four seasons is summarized, episode by episode. Although this summary carries implicit information about the saga's overall trajectory, there are not many significant "spoilers." Let's put it this way: Many central characters die in the lethal kingmaking battles and intrigues, but Lord Varys survives the first four seasons.

Before you read!

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Season One, Episode Three: “Lord Snow”

The character's first appearance in is this episode. Lord Stark arrives at the hall where the King’s Council is meeting. Lord Varys greets him, saying, “I was grievously sorry to hear of your troubles on the Kingsroad. We are all praying for Prince Joffrey’s full recovery.” Lord Stark replies: “A shame you didn’t say a prayer for the butcher’s son.” [The young prince Joffrey and the butcher's son had a dispute, resulting in the prince's injured hand and the butcher's son's death.] Lord Stark is then informed that the King will not be attending the Council. “His Grace has many cares. He entrusts some small matters to us that we might lighten the load,” Varys explains. Varys also has the closing lines of the scene: “You are the King’s Hand, Lord Stark. We serve at our pleasure.”

Varys appears a second time in the same episode. Lady Stark travels to King's Landing to learn more about a thwarted attempt on the life of her ten-year-old son. The creepy Lord Baelish invites her to a secret meeting, and when she arrives, she’s astonished and insulted to realize that she is inside a brothel. Baelish confesses that he knew she was coming to King's Landing because Varys told him. Varys emerges from behind a red fringed curtain. Varys greets Lady Stark: “To see you again after so many years is a blessing. Your poor hands.” She asks Varys how he knew she was coming. He answers: “Knowledge is my trade, my lady. Did you bring the dagger with you, by any chance? My little birds are everywhere, even in the North. They whisper to me the strangest stories.” He is able to identify that the dagger used in the murder attempt is made of Valyrian steel, but he says he doesn’t know who it belongs to.

Season One, Episode Four: “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”

The King’s Council continues to plan for a tournament. It is an expensive affair, and the king already has a staggering debt, but he has insisted upon the tournament. Varys, trying to say something positive about the event, says that tournaments are a morale-booster and an economic boon for the people.

After the Council adjourns, Lord Stark speaks privately with Grand Maester Pycelle. He asks if Jon Arryn death’s could have been caused by poison. Pycelle rejects that theory:

“The Hand was loved by all. What sort of man would dare—”
“I’ve heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon,” Stark interrupts.
“Yes. Women, cravens and eunuchs. Did you know that Lord Varys is a eunuch?”
“Everybody knows that.”
“Yes, yes, of course. How that sort of person found himself on the king’s council, I will never know.”

Lord Baelish points out to Lord Stark as they walk around the courtyard: “Do you see that boy there? One of Varys’s little birds [i.e. spies]. The Spider has taken a great interest in your comings and goings.”

Season One, Episode Five: “The Wolf and the Lion”

Hearing that Lord Stark's young son is paralyzed but with sound mind, Lord Varys responds: “A blessing, then. I suffered an early mutilation myself. Some doors close forever; others open in most unexpected places.” He then says he’s going to say something that would get him executed if the wrong person heard. “And who would mourn poor Varys then? North or South, they sing no songs for spiders.”

He tells Lord Stark that, based on the people who have been observing him, he seems to be a man of honor. “I would like to believe I am another, strange as that may seem.” Varys tells him that Jon Arryn — the king’s Hand for 17 years, a man of peace — was killed by a colorless, tasteless poison, because “he started asking questions,” and that the King will suffer the same fate.

Lord Baelish suggests that Lord Varys visits his brothel, and he offers to give him a boy there. Varys replies: “I think you’re mistaking business with pleasure.” Baelish says, "We accommodate all inclinations,” at which Varys tries to get info from him about who has what scandalous, cruel and illegal fetish. Baelish asks: “Tell me. Does someone somewhere keep your balls in a little box. I’ve often wondered.” Varys replies: “Do you know, I have no idea where they are. And we had been so close.”

At the Council meeting, the King frets about the risk posed by the pregnancy of Daenerys Targaryen, based on information that Varys acquired from the slave-trader Jorah Mormont. Someone challenges the King: “You want to assassinate a girl because the Spider heard a rumor?” Varys defends his position: “It is a terrible thing we must consider, a vile thing. Yet we who presume to rule must sometimes do vile things for the good of the realm.”

Season One, Episode Six

Varys is not in this episode.

Season One, Episode Seven: “You Win or You Die”

Suffering in bed from a hunting injury, the King reconsiders his position and admits to Lord Stark that he was right about standing up to him about his plan for Daenerys Targaryen and that the advice of the other Council members, including Varys, had been “worthless.”

Varys stands outside the King's room. He implies that the King’s assistant may have conspired to cause his death, giving him wine before he confronted the boar. Stark asks Varys to cancel the orders to kill Daenerys Targaryen. Varys says: “I’m afraid those birds have flown. The girl is likely dead already.”

A boy delivers a message to a man in exile: “The Spider sends his greetings and his congratulations. A royal pardon. You can go home now.”

Season One, Episode Eight: “The Pointy End”

Varys smuggles in a drink to Lord Stark who is chained in the dungeon and has to sample it first in front of him. “I promise you, it isn’t poisoned. Why is it no one ever trusts the eunuch?” Varys then reports to him in a creepy, non-empathetic way that most of his family has been slaughtered. Stark complains to Varys that he stood idle in the violent dispute; Varys pointed out that he had no weapon. Besides, he says, “When you look at me, do you see a hero?”

Stark asks: “Tell me something, Varys. Who do you truly serve?”
Varys says: “The realm, my Lord. Someone must.”

Varys also has lines at the end of the episode in the chamber before the new King Joffrey. He breaks the news to the Commander of the Kingsguard that he will be given comfortable, but forced, immediate retirement, as the Council has decided.

Season One, Episode Nine: “Baelor”

Varys visits Stark in the dungeon again, telling him that his daughter is pleading for his life, and claiming that he doesn’t want him to die either. He will not rescue Stark, but he explains what Stark has to agree to do to save himself.

“When I was still a boy – before they cut my balls off with a hot knife – I traveled with a group of actors through the free cities. They taught me that each man has a role to play. The same is true at court. I am the master of whisperers. My role is to be sly, obsequious and without scruples. I’m a good actor, my lord.”
“Can you free me from this pit?”
“I could. But will I? No. As I said, I’m no hero.”

Season One, Episode Ten: “Fire and Blood”

Before the Council begins, Varys comes upon Baelish staring at the throne. He asks Baelish what he would do if he were King, and Baelish says he would behead everyone. “A man with great ambition and no morals," Varys says. "I wouldn’t bet against you!” Then Baelish asks Varysh the same question.
“I must be one of the few men in this city who doesn’t want to be king.”
“You must be one of the few men in the city who isn’t a man.”
“Tsk. You can do better than that.”
“When they castrated you, did they take the pillar with the stones? I’ve always wondered.”
“Have you? Do you spend a lot of time wondering what’s between my legs?”
“I picture – a gash. Like a woman’s. Is that about right?”
“I’m flattered, of course, to be pictured at all.”
"Must be strange for you, even after all these years. A man from another land, despised by most, feared by all."
“Am I? That is good to know. Do you lie awake at night fearing my gash?”
“But you carry on, whispering in one king’s ear, and then the next. I admire you.”
“And I admire you, Lord Baelish. A grasper from a minor House with major talent for befriending powerful men and women.”
“A useful talent, I’m sure you’d agree.”

Season Two, Episode One: “The North Remembers”

Cersei asks Lord Baelish to find the missing girl, Arya Stark, who she wants to recapture she she can negotiate with the Starks. Lord Baelish says: "You could ask Varys where she is. He'll have an answer for you. Whether you believe it–myself, I have always had a hard time trusting eunuchs. Who knows what they want?" (Cersei then demonstrates to Baelish that she has the power to order her guards to slit his throat at any moment. It is clear that he ought not to trust her, either.)

Season Two, Episode Two: “The Night Lands”

Varys is flirtatiously conversing with Tyrion Lannister's girlfriend at a kitchen table in the Lannister house in King's Landing when Tyrion arrives home.

"You should taste her fish pie," Tyrion Lannister says wryly. "I don't think Lord Varys likes fish pie," the woman laughs. "How can you tell?" Varys asks. "I can always tell." "Men like Lord Varys and I can't let our disadvantages get the best of us," Tyrion interrupts, referring to his own exceptionally short stature. "We'll make a fisherman of him yet."

Varys then says to Tyrion, in front of the girl: "Unfortunate that your father didn't want her to come. But rest easy, my lord. I am very good at keeping secrets for my good friends." Tyrion says: "Your discretion is legendary – where your friends are concerned."

When the girl leaves, Tyrion whispers to Varys: "Threaten me again, and I will have you thrown into the sea."

Varys replies: "You might be disappointed in the results. The storms come and go. The big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling."

Season Two, Episode Three: “What is Dead May Never Die”

Tyrion tells three different stories to the elderly, dotty Grand Maester Pycelle, to Varys, and to Baelish. He gives them all instructions not to tell Queen Cersei. (Varys coos: “Oooh. ‘The Queen mustn’t know.’ I love conversations that begin this way.”) When Cersei hears Pycelle's version of the story, Tyrion knows that Pycelle is untrustworthy. Pycelle initially denies it and unsuccessfully blames Varys. “The eunuch has spies everywhere,” Pycelle pleads, while Tyrion plays with a nutcracker and retorts, “Cut off his manhood and feed it to the goats.” “There are no goats, halfman,” his thugs report. “Well, make do,” Tyrion says. The thugs cut off Pycelle’s beard and drag him off to prison.

Later, Varys drinks wine with Tyrion and says: “Well played, My Lord Hand.” (By contrast, Baelish wasn’t pleased to have been used in the ruse.) They note the apparent risk of serving on the Small Council. Varys says, “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?...Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?” The riddle is unanswerable. Varys expounds: “But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?" Eventually, he concludes: "Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

(The DVD has a feature with commentary from the child actors, who, reflecting on this scene, describe Conleth Hill in the role of Varys as "insane," "spooky," "sarcastic." "He changes," they say.)

Season Two, Episode Seven: “A Man Without Honor”

Varys makes little or no appearance in Episodes Four, Five, Six, and Seven. However, in Seven, there is a pejorative reference to "eunuch." Prince Theon is anxiously looking for some people he'd like to have captive. When an advisor suggests they call off the search for the night, he becomes violently angry. “I’m looking at spending the rest of my life being treated like a fool and a eunuch by my own people. Ask yourself, is there anything I wouldn’t do to stop that from happening?”

Season Two, Episode Eight: “The Prince of Winterfell”

Varys comes in to help plan a battle and compliments the City Watch efforts, saying that theft has declined. The man on the City Watch explains that he rounded up all the known thieves so that they wouldn't steal all the food to profit off it while the city is under siege. Varys defends him to Tyrion: “Given the circumstances, my Lord, I believe extreme measures are warranted.”

Later, Tyrion speaks privately with Cersei about Varys.

Cersei: Odd little boy. [of the wine pourer]
Tyrion: I have a certain sympathy for odd little boys.
Cersei: You and Varys both.
* * *
Cersei: Do you know why Varys is so dangerous?
Tyrion: Because he has thousands of spies in his employ. Because he knows everything we do before we do it.
Cersei: Because he doesn’t have a cock.
Tyrion: Neither do you.
Cersei: Perhaps I’m dangerous, too. You, on the other hand, are as big a fool as every other man. That little worm between your legs does half your thinking.
Tyrion: It’s not that little.

Next, the sociopathic child king Joffrey complains to Varys that he isn't providing enough information.

"You’re the Master of Whisperers. You’re supposed to know everything," Joffrey says. "No man can be in all rooms at all times. I have many little birds in the North, my Lord, but I haven’t heard their songs since Theon Greyjoy captured Winterfell," Varys apologizes.

Tyrion and Varys speak alone on a rampart.

Tyrion: You’re an intelligent man. I’d like to think I’m an intelligent man. Varys: Oh, no one disputes that, my lord, not even the multitudes who despise you. Tyrion: I wish we could converse as two honest, intelligent men. Varys: I wish we could, too. Tyrion: What do you want? Tell me. Varys: If we’re going to play, you’ll have to start.

Then, Varys tells him: "In the Summer Isles, they worship a fertility goddess with 16 teats." Varys reveals to Tyrion that Daenaerys Targaryen lives and that she has three dragons.

Season Two, Episode Nine: “Blackwater”

As bells ring loudly, Tyrion's assistant helps him put on his armor.
Varys: I’ve alway hated the bells. They ring for horror. A dead king, a city under siege –
Tyrion: A wedding.
Varys: Exactly. 'Podrick,' is that it? [asking the name of Tyrion's assistant]
Tyrion: 'Is that it?' Nice touch. As if you don’t know the name of every boy in town.
Varys: I’m not entirely sure what you’re suggesting.
Tyrion: I’m entirely sure you’re entirely sure what you’re suggesting.
Varys then brings up the "old powers" and the "dark arts," implying that he believes in them. In this context, he says to Tyrion, "I don’t believe I’ve ever told you how I was cut." "No, I don’t believe you have," Tyrion replies. "One day, I will," Varys promises.

Season Two, Episode Ten: “Valar Morghulis”

Varys comes into a woman's chambers at Baelish's brothel. She disrobes. Varys removes his hood and says "No need for that, my dear...I'm not like most men." The woman does not know who he is. She gropes him and then uncomfortably withdraws. He raises one eyebrow at her and says, "You're afraid. Why? Nothing dangerous down there." She says, "I know who you are." He says, "And, unlike your current employer, I protect those who work for me. I don't abuse them to satisfy royal whims or force them to abuse each other." (He is referring to an incident she suffered at the hands of King Joffrey.) He explains to her what he wants: "Littlefinger [Baelish] looks at you and sees a collection of profitable holes. I see a potential partner." Then he hints to her that, although Baelish is dangerous, he has a weakness.

Varys visits Tyrion in his sickbed. (Tyrion was wounded in the previous episode.) Varys breaks the news that Tyrion's father and sister are now in control, leaving Tyrion vulnerable. "I'm afraid we won't be seeing each other for some time, my Lord," Varys says. "And I thought we were friends," Tyrion says. "We are," Varys says. He rises to leave, but turns and thanks Tyrion for his valor in battle. "There are many who know that without you this city faced certain defeat. The king won't give you any honors, the histories won't mention you, but we will not forget."

Season Three, Episode Three: “Walk of Punishment”

Varys appears in a Small Council meeting at the beginning of the episode, where he has a few lines but does not say anything especially remarkable.

Season Three, Episode Four: “And Now His Watch Is Ended”

Tyrion has inherited Baelish's position as the Master of Coin, but he does not have spies, and so Tyrion approaches Varys asking for proof that Tyrion’s sister is trying to kill him. Varys, instead, tells him the story of his castration.

Varys: “As a boy, I traveled with a troupe of actors through the free cities. One day in Myr, a certain man made my master an offer too tempting to refuse. I feared the man meant to use me as I’d heard some men used small boys, but what he wanted was far worse. He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a hooked blade, he sliced me, root and stem, chanting all the while. He burned my parts in a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call. I still dream of that night. Not of the sorcerer, not of his blade. I dream of the voice from the flames. Was it a god? A demon? A conjuror’s trick? I don’t know. But the sorcerer called and a voice answered. And ever since that day, I have hated magic and all those who practice it. But you can see why I was eager to aid in your fight against Stannis and his red priestess. A symbolic revenge of sorts."
Tyrion: "Yes. I feel the need for actual revenge against the actual person who tried to have me killed, which will require a degree of influence, which –"
Varys: "– you do not possess at the moment. But influence is largely a matter of patience, I have found. Once I had served the sorcerer’s purpose, he threw me out of is house to die. I resolved to live to spite him. I begged. I sold what parts of my body remained to me. I became an excellent thief, and soon learned that the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse. Step by step, one distasteful task after another, I made my way from the slums of Myr to the Small Council chamber. Influence grows like a weed. I tended mine patiently until its tendrils reached form the Red Keep all the way across to the far side of the world, where I managed to wrap them around something very special."

At this juncture, Varys unbolts a coffin-like box, where he keeps the sorcerer, trembling and whimpering incoherently.

In another scene, a former prostitute tells Varys that she believes Baelish plans to put Sansa Stark on a ship.

Then Varys interviews the Margaery Tyrell's grandmother, Olenna, who refers to Varys' "nonexistent" sexual parts:

Are you here to seduce me?
A little obvious, perhaps?
No, please. Seduce away. It’s been so long. Though I rather think it’s all for naught. What happens when the nonexistent bumps against the decrepit? [Varys glances nervously under his robe] A question for the philosophers. But you’ve come mincing all this way for something.

Varys tells Olenna that Sansa Stark is still too young to be either an ally nor an enemy. He passes on the information that Baelish has his eye on Sansa. “If Robb Stark falls," Varys says, "Sansa Stark is the key to the North.” He adds that Baelish "would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.”

Season Three, Episode Six: “The Climb”

Varys and Baelish discuss the Iron Throne. According to legend, it is made of 1,000 weapons of Aegon’s enemies, but Baelish says he’s counted and it looks like less than 200. Varys notes that it’s his second-choice chair. Then, they philosophize:

Baelish: “It is flattering, really, you feeling such dread at the prospect of me getting what I want.”
Varys: “Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.”
Baelish: “You’re so right – for instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells. If I’m going to be honest, I did feel an unmistakeable sense of enjoyment there. But your confidant – the one who fed you information about my plans – the one you swore to protect – You didn’t bring her any enjoyment and she didn’t bring me any enjoyment. She was a bad investment on my part. Luckily, I have a friend who wants to try something new. Something daring. And he was so grateful to me for providing this fresh experience.”
Varys: “I did what I did for the good of the realm.”
Baelish: “The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies. A story that we agreed to tell each other over and over till we forget that it’s a lie."
Varys: "But what do we have left once we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all."
Baelish: "Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

Season Three, Episode Ten: “Mhysa”

At a Small Council meeting, the young king Joffrey reveals gleefully that Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are dead. Varys makes an ineffectual protest against Joffrey's sadism.

Joffrey: “Write back to Lord Frey. Thank him for his service. And command him to send Robb Stark’s head. I’m going to serve it to Sansa at my wedding feast.”
Varys cautions: “Your grace, Lady Sansa is your aunt by marriage.”
Joffrey's mother Cersei smiles: “A joke. Joffrey did not mean it."
Joffrey: “Yes, I did. I’m going to have it served to Sansa at my wedding feast.”
Tyrion: “No. She is no longer yours to torment.”
Joffrey: “Everyone is mine to torment. You’d do well to remember that, you little monster.”
Tyrion: “Oh, monster. Perhaps you should speak to me more softly, then. Monsters are dangerous, and just now, kings are dying like flies.”

After some discussion, Joffrey cries petulantly, “I am the king!”, sweeping his hand, nearly hitting Varys’s face. Varys closes his eyes with exasperation or horror.

Later, Varys talks to Tyrion’s lover and gives her a pouch of diamonds, advising her to leave the city and resettle somewhere else comfortably. “You have one name, as do I. Here, only the family name matters,” he tells her. He further explains: “I’m not asking you to leave him for money. I’m asking you to leave because your presence in the capital endangers him.”

Season Four, Episode Two: “The Lion and the Rose”

At the beginning, Varys speaks with Tyrion, warning him that his girlfriend, Shae, also known as “the whore,” is in danger from his father, who disapproves of the relationship.

Tyrion: Lord Varys. Breakfasting with the King?
Varys: I’m afraid foreigners aren’t welcome at such exclusive affairs.
Tyrion: Oh, to be foreign.
Varys: Shae has been noticed. Sansa’s maid saw her with you. She already told your sister. It’s only a matter of time before your father hears.
Tyrion: So I’m guilty of being seen with my own wife’s handmaiden. My father will ask you if there’s anything more, and you’ll tell him some clever lie.
Varys: No, I will not. How long do you imagine your father and sister would let me live if they suspected me of lying? I have no pet sellsword to protect me, no legendary brother to avenge me. Only little birds who whisper in my ear.
Tyrion: Forgive me if I don’t weep for you.
Varys: No one weeps for spiders — or whores. I have friends across the sea who could help her.
Tyrion: She won’t leave. I’ve told her this is a dangerous place so many times, she no longer believes it.
Varys: Your father has promised to hang the next whore he finds you with. Have you ever known your father to make an idle threat?

The next time Tyrion sees Shae, he sends her away. Bronn later confirms to Tyrion that he escorted Shae to a faraway location: “No one knows she’s there but you, me and Varys.”

Varys attends King Joffrey's wedding to Margaery Tyrell. When Margarery announces that the leftover food will be given to the poor, Varys can be seen in the audience, straight-faced, looking skeptical or angry. He also looks miserable during the farcical Battle of the Five Kings. Yet again, when Joffrey challenges Tyrion before all the wedding guests and loses the war of words, Varys’ face is hard to read.

Season Four, Episode Three: "Breaker of Chains"

Tyrion, though innocent, awaits trial for murdering King Joffrey. Tyrion’s squire Podrick visits Tyrion in the dungeon. Tyrion brainstorms the witnesses he might call to defend his character at the trial. “Varys could vouch for me, if he dared,” Tyrion suggests. Podrick replies: “He’s already been called as a witness for the Queen.” “Of course,” Tyrion says sarcastically.

Varys himself does not appear in this episode.

Season Four, Episode Six: "The Laws of Gods and Men"

Varys has two significant appearances in this episode.

First, at a council meeting, he begins with his usual military report, and then adds news of the "powerful army" in "the east". Cersei demands to know how Daenerys Targaryen conquered Meereen and became its queen. Varys answers: “She commands an army of Unsullied, my queen, some 8,000 strong. She has a company of sellswords, the Second Sons. She has two knights advising her, Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy. And she has three dragons.” Prince Oberyn adds: "Lord Varys is right. I have been to Essos and seen the Unsullied firsthand. They are very impressive on the battlefield. Less so in the bedroom." Varys tells Tywin that he can send more spies.

In the next scene, Varys is in the throne room alone, staring at the Iron Throne. Prince Oberyn approaches.

Varys: Prince Oberyn.
Oberyn: Lord Varys.
Varys: Only Varys. I’m not actually a nobleman. No one is under obligation to call me lord.
Oberyn: And yet everyone does.
Varys: You seem quite knowledgeable about the Unsullied. Did you spend much time in Essos?
Oberyn: Five years.
* * * *
Oberyn: You are from Essos. Where? Lys? I have an ear for accents.
Varys: I’ve lost my accent entirely.
Oberyn: I have an ear for that as well. How did you get here?
Varys: It’s a long story.
Oberyn: One you don’t like telling people.
Varys: People I trust.
* * *
[Oberyn invites Varys to the brothel.]
Oberyn: We have some lovely boys on retainer, did like boys before? Really? Girls, hmm. I hope you won’t be offended when I say I never would have guessed.
Varys: Not at all. But I was never interested in girls, either.
Oberyn: What then?
Varys: Nothing.
Oberyn: Everybody is interested in something.
Varys: Not me. When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it. Besides, the absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things.
Oberyn: Such as?
[Varys looks at the iron throne]

Later, Varys testifies against Tyrion at his regicide trial. Varys reports that Tyrion said at a small council meeting: “Perhaps you should speak more softly to me then. Monsters are dangerous and just now kings are dying like flies.” He also says that his marriage to Sansa Stark may have made him sympathize with the north and the recent death of Robb Stark. Tyrion asks for permission to speak, and reminds Varys that he'd once said that he would never forget what Tyrion did to save the city.

Tyrion: “Have you forgotten, Lord Varys?”
Varys: “Sadly, my lord, I never forget a thing.”

Season Four, Episode Eight: "The Mountain and the Viper"

Varys is mentioned indirectly in this episode.

Ser Barristan is served with a pardon from the late King Robert Baratheon. This is a problem for him, since he serves the rival Daenerys Targaryen, who wants to take back her family's throne from the House Baratheon. Daenerys demands an explanation for why the pardon was issued years previously. Ser Barristan explains that the he had told Varys, “the spymaster of King’s Landing,” about Daenerys' arrival with her brother Viserys in Pentos, her marriage and pregnancy, and Viserys' death. Daenerys realizes that this information explains why someone knew where she was and tried to poison her, and she finds Ser Barristan's effort to save her from the poisoning to be inadequate restitution for his betrayal in the first place.

Season Four, Episode Ten: "The Children"

Tyrion has been sentenced to death at the end of Episode Eight and he awaits his fate in the dungeon. His brother Jaime releases him. He tells him to give a secret knock at the top of the stairs, where Varys will open the door. “You have more friends than you thought,” Jaime answers Tyrion's surprise that Varys is helping. From there, he says, Tyrion must board the ship in the bay that will take him to the free cities.

Tyrion does not go directly to Varys's door. First, he takes a detour of moral significance. When he finally arrives at the door, Varys asks: “What have you done?” Tyrion does not answer. Varys ushers him inside and bolts the door. “Trust me, my friend. I brought you this far," Varys says. Varys is shown boarding the ship. The season ends.

Friday, November 28, 2014

An Ethiopian princess seeks help in 'The Eunuch and the King's Daughter' (spoiler alert)

Waltenegus Dargie's novel "The Eunuch and the King's Daughter" is set in 19th-century Ethiopia. A princess wants to run away. She seeks the collusion of her eunuch guard. Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 13, 2012.

Spoilers below!

In Waltenegus Dargie's story The Eunuch and the King's Daughter, set in the fictional kingdom of Méthi in 19th-century southwestern Ethiopia, the only child of King Badar's second wife, Mersabel, is unhappy. She is tutored by Temari, a Christian, who is fixated on destroying the sacred oak where the local people sacrifice to their gods. He attempts to teach the princess to recite the story of St. George and the Dragon (a story of one of Ethiopia's most popular saints who was said to have saved a maiden from a dragon). Mersabel's mother privately suggests that she would do well to marry Temari, but Mersabel finds the idea repulsive, and anyway has her eye on another man.

This novel does not depend too much on the suspense of what will happen next, but more so on the meaning of the characters' social roles and their choices. The king is embroiled in battles, his second wife is an angry person, the princess is bored, the prince is beheaded, and all their slaves are subject to their whims. The beautiful princess is always required to be accompanied by a guard and is never permitted to venture beyond the sacred oak. The eunuch Head Guard is Marebath, son of Maliwa, and he is ultimately responsible for the princess's welfare and is subject to punishment if any ill befalls her. The story is about the characters' awakening to what they need to do to save themselves.

The story turns on the odd arrival of Ferenj, a big, red-bearded, middle-aged Englishman who speaks the Ethiopians' Amharic language. A man tries to give Ferenj to the king of Méthi in exchange for 100 eunuch slaves, but the king ends up giving him only 30 eunuchs. He cannot manage more, having previously tried to motivate his slave soldiers to fight well in the battles against the king of Gimira by promising them that he would not castrate them, and he intends to keep his word to them; therefore, he cannot make more eunuchs, and may only barter with the eunuch slaves already in his household. The slave-dealer insists on eunuchs because he intends to sell them to Muslim nations that do not permit the act of castration to occur within their borders.

After the departure of the slave-dealer, the king learns that the high-priced Ferenj is not a riflemaker, as he was told, but merely a poet and historian. Ferenj is now put into a position where he competes with Temari, the other literature tutor in the king's household. They have a lot to talk about, as they are both interested in literature and religion, but Temari perceives Ferenj as a rival.

While deciding what to do with Ferenj, the king orders the eunuch Marebath to add the protection of Ferenj to his duties. One night, the king's second wife orders Marebath to kill Ferenj, but Marebath refuses, saying that he will obey the king before he obeys the king's wife. She calls him a "wicked, stiff-necked eunuch" and orders the bystanders to disarm him, but no one does.

The climax of the book builds as the princess Mersabel forms the idea of escaping from the king's household. She wants to escape with Ferenj, although there is no romantic connection between them; Ferenj wishes to return to his wife and children in England, and Mersabel simply wants to be free of her family and her repressive lifestyle.

She suggests to Marebath that he could help them escape, but he refuses in horror, afraid that they will be overheard. She calls him a coward, reminding him that the king has castrated him and alleging that he has nothing further to gain from his employment, so why, she suggests, should he remain loyal to the king? At that moment, a bolt of lightning strikes nearby.

After this outburst, the two retire to their rooms separately. Mersabel is repentant, realizing that Marebath has suffered a great deal in a way that she, as a spoiled princess, cannot imagine, and that she is asking too much of him: "Will there be no end to what he is asked to give up?"

However, by the time Mersabel apologizes to him, Marebath has decided that he is finally ready to die for a cause. He only becomes a significant character in the final quarter of the book, so one might ask why is the book is called "The Eunuch and the King's Daughter." Why not "The Red-Bearded English Poet and the King's Daughter"? After all, it is her tutor Ferenj with whom Mersabel wants to escape. The eunuch Marebath is merely someone from whom she requests assistance, and he becomes part of the escape party only because he needs to take a stand for his own freedom and safety as a result of assisting her.

Mersabel's relationship with Ferenj is quite different from her relationship with Marebath. She likes the foreigner Ferenj who has opened her mind to the joy of literature. But it is with her countryman Marebath that she has a spontaneous moral awakening, coming to see him as a loyal sufferer and to appreciate his service, while simultaneously reaching a better self-appraisal of her own assumptions and the limitations of her own experience. This explains why the book is named for their friendship.

The story's final paroxysm of violence is reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo, a story set in ancient North Africa. That story followed the daughter of a military leader and her devoted eunuch Schahabarim. In The Eunuch and the King's Daughter, as in Salammbo, the eunuch is always on the periphery of the narrative, yet is a significant character who carries the final scene.

Written mostly in direct language with a lot of dialogue at an easygoing pace, this is a deceptively challenging novel. The reader has to be able to imagine the unusual perspective of the various characters to truly understand their needs and their actions, as this novel's message is character-driven. It will be appreciated by people who would like an image, albeit somewhat of a fantasied one, of this time period in Ethiopia.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Attis: A castrated god honored with pine trees

In his book Hermaphrodeities, Raven Kaldera tells the story of Agdistis and Attis.

The mythical Agdistis was born, he writes, "in the land of Asia Minor that was long ago ruled by the Great Mother Goddess Cybele". Agdistis was both male and female and had many sexual partners. The gods feared that Agdistis would become too powerful. They asked Agdistis to choose between being male or female. As Kaldera put the dialogue: "If you choose to be female, we will cut off your male parts. If you choose to be male, we will sew up your female parts." The gods were afraid to kill Agdistis lest they be cursed, so they asked Zeus's son Dionysus to do it.

Dionysus cut off Agdistis's male organ. (In some versions of the myth, Agdistis dies here; in others, not.) An almond or pomegranate tree grew where it fell. The river nymph Nana (of the river Sangarius) ate of it and became pregnant. She exposed her infant son, Attis, to die, but he was raised by a male goat.

When Attis grew up, he attracted the attention of the goddess Cybele, who wanted to sleep with him. Instead, Attis slept with Agdistis, who seduced his/her own son because he was the connection to Agdistis's lost genitals. Later, when Attis understood that the apparently female Agdistis was his biological father, he fled, and then sought to marry a woman. Cybele and Agdistis disrupted Attis's wedding. The bride cut off her breasts and died, while Attis attempted suicide by self-castration. Agdistis repented, and Cybele preserved Attis in a permanent sleep in which he would not decompose.

Attis is worshipped each year, two days before the Sanguinaria (March 25), when a young pine tree is cut, wrapped in linen, and carried. On the Sanguinaria, priests called the gallae would self-castrate during ecstatic dance in front of the temple.

The gallae were documented in Phrygia 2300 years ago. Gallae is the feminine form of the word; contemporary writings often use the masculine form, galli. The Romans imported Cybele's eastern religion to pretend that they had descended from the Trojans, yet the Romans were embarrassed by the gallae and decreed that they could not be citizens and that any Roman who underwent ritual castration would lose citizenship. The gallae were wandering fortunetellers and blessers and had temples called metro'ons. They would adorn statues of Cybele and parade them around on donkeys. They bleached their hair and wore jewelry and bright clothes. Their leaders wore tall hats. They carried musical instruments or antique weapons and engaged in ecstatic dance. The worship spread, and they were found from Spain to Anatolia.


Raven Kaldera. Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook. USA: XLibris, 2001. pp. 18-19, 148-150.

Further reading

Lucian of Samosata wrote De Dea Syria (About the Syrian Goddess) in the 2nd century C.E.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

That's OK, because hot cocoa: 'Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas'

Kirk Cameron has a new film about "Saving Christmas". It is a dramatized dialogue between himself and a depressed family member who doesn't see the meaning and joy of Christmas. According to the film's official website, it is showing in 400 theaters for only two weeks during November 2014.
In a collection of reviews compiled by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been described by reviewers as “one of the least artful holiday films ever made” (Chicago Sun-Times) that was “thrown together” (Los Angeles Times) with “absurd logic” (Arizona Republic) and “seems to flat-out endorse materialism, greed and outright gluttony” ( It is “determined to win any perceived war on Christmas through brute force” (New York Times) and “will hold little interest for anyone not already a believer” (Austin Chronicle). Rotten Tomatoes fans do not seem to care for the film, either. As the film approached the end of its two-week run, nearly 16,000 users had rated it, and only one-third liked it.

Kirk Cameron starred in the sitcom "Growing Pains" in the 1980s, and last year he released the film Unstoppable about questions about faith.

If living rooms could scream

At the beginning of the movie, Kirk is sitting in front of a classic living room screaming CHRISTMAS!, complete with a tinsel-bombed tree and a roaring fire with stockings and wrapped gifts. At this time of year, he explains, people "want to be more generous. Donations go up all around the world!" (It seems he had to specify that it is a global phenomenon so that American viewers would not suspect that year-end donations are influenced by IRS tax deadlines.) Also, he says, the Christmas story is very special. Theologically, it means that "something big happened, and because of it, everything is going to be OK. And I love hot chocolate."

It is bothersome to him that some grinches – "wet blankets," to use his term – try to dampen Christmas. He is vague about who these grinches are. They are people who say that Christmas celebration is "all bad" and should be "thrown out," or, more mildly, who simply consider it "private stuff" and "don't want us to love Christmas so much and celebrate it the way we do." What will they try to pull next, he wonders; will they claim that "Druids invented hot chocolate?" Fear not. He coins a whatever-this-means motto: "Maybe someone like Santa Claus is actually on the team."

The film that follows – presented in partnership with Liberty University, a Christian institution – is not a direct indictment of secular, atheist, Jewish or multicultural opinions on public Christian religious displays. That is to say, it's not a battle cry in response to the alleged War on Christmas (although the term "War on Christmas" is uttered once in the movie). It is a little more subtle. In this film, Kirk's fictional brother-in-law, conveniently named Christian, is a serious Christian in distress after being exposed to some "War on Christmas" ideas on Wikipedia and possibly other unnamed sources. He has heard that Christmas trees are imitations of trees that pagans once used to worship "the gods." When challenged by Kirk, he cannot name these gods (suggesting a mashup of the Norse "Thor" and the Egyptian "Osiris" – what, no Attis?), but his ignorance is irrelevant because what he does understand, limited though it may be, is already ruining his day. He has a flat, depressive affect and is nearly non-responsive to the people around him. He looks at the large, deliriously happy Christmas party that his wife has put together in their beautiful home and he sees nothing but "phony smiles and spoiled, bratty kids," "perverted symbols with hidden meanings," "needless spending," and "materialism, paganism, elf worship," all of which is "a big slap in the face to the true meaning of Christmas" and "cannot be what God wants." To bolster his own self-righteousness and get away from the terrible tinsel, he hides in the car in his own driveway. This is where Kirk Cameron spends the rest of the movie, ministering to him. Kirk begins with, "You're all wrong...You drank the Kool-Aid."

Christian challenges Kirk: "Explain to me how that Christmas party honors and glorifies Jesus." Kirk begins by describing a time when Herod's soldiers were killing babies. At the nativity scene, where Joseph is "surely amazed at what just happened" (no kidding – that's one way of putting it), the swaddling cloth and spices brought to the infant Jesus presage his eventual burial. Christian declares, "That stuff blows my mind!" and is now in favor of nativity scenes.

Similarly, Kirk endorses the winter solstice as a good time to mark Jesus' birth, since it's a time when the world turns from darkness to light. He endorses Christmas trees because, according to his Biblical interpretation, they recall how the first man Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit and couldn't return it to the tree because it was already inside his body, and much later, Jesus consented to have his body hung from the "tree" of the cross. "When you walk onto a Christmas tree lot," he counsels, "I want you to see hundreds of crosses that will never be used because of Jesus's finished work." Eh... This symbolism is a hard sell, since non-Christians martyred many early Christians on crosses and, subsequently, Christians launched inquisitions and burned non-Christians at the stake. Whatever Kirk may have meant us to understand, the crucifixion of Jesus was not the last human execution.

What about Santa Claus? This is the clincher. He's based on a real-life Nicholas who defended the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea by whacking a fellow Christian in the face to make his point heard. The act is dramatized in all its violence in the "Saving Christmas" film. Was it good for Nicholas to do this? It was bad-ass awesome. "These were difficult and desperate times. Truth was on the line, and it was not the time for this pastor to stay quiet," Kirk apologizes, nor was it the time for him to be "politically correct." In case his brother-in-law has missed the point, Kirk explains that Santa Claus "is actually the defender of the faith you want to be!" Santa represents someone who isn't afraid to whack someone in the face with a stick for disagreeing with him about Jesus. That is super cool. Christian agrees, and is able to rejoin the party with true joy. Quite fine that the party is full of food, gifts and decorations, since, Kirk editorializes, the holiday celebrates God taking on a material body. It is great to celebrate. We only need "to rearrange our lives and our homes so that every single thing points to Jesus."

That's OK

No characters in the film are presented as anything other than believing Christians and Americans; nowhere in the film is the existence of non-Christians anywhere in the world even acknowledged; no one discusses conversion experience, apologetics, or theological differences; and nothing addresses how people of different backgrounds and belief systems relate to each other about Christmas. On the surface, the film is only about how holier-than-thou Christians who don't like hot cocoa ought to stop being pills and enjoy their own holiday, especially if they don't even have good theological arguments beyond "this smells like idolatry" for why they should be boring jerks while their long-suffering spouses are frantically providing hospitality and relationship-management to many guests in the living room. The arguments and historical claims from the "pagan" or secular side are not presented coherently, to say the least, nor are they directly refuted; they are merely replaced with Kirk Cameron's preferred symbolic interpretations. That's OK, because hot cocoa.

In short, the film is mostly innocuous, at least on the surface. It seems to be about cheering up joyless people and encouraging them to take interest in the holidays that belong to the faith they already believe in. Perhaps a deficient ability to enjoy festivities is a problem among the more zealous students on Liberty University's campus. ( ranks Liberty University's party scene a C-minus, with one junior commenting: "It's against school rules to go to parties.") In that case, this movie may strengthen the voices of the choir and perk up its allegria.

What is bothersome, however, is the film's failure to locate the potential cause of such misery inside the miserable people themselves. The sad brother-in-law may be suffering from his own misdirected zeal, a personal problem, or a chemical imbalance. The film assumes that he has been made to be sad because some anonymous person out there is spreading "pagan" and "politically correct" messages that render worthy Christians confused about the merits of their own holiday parties. A yet more bothersome implication of the film is that Saint Nick needs to hunt down and bitch-slap that PC pagan with a birchwood cane (need we show you that violent scene again, in case you missed it the first time? Remember, truth was on the line) and then all the kids can get their photos taken with Santa, their hero.

The film is not a toxic cultural irritant on the level of Bill O'Reilly's relentless "War on Christmas" rants. It is mildly concerning that Kirk Cameron and Liberty University perceive this film to meet some social need, but in their goofy, rambling, light-handed approach, their cocoa is not hot enough to scald. Mainly, all this film will cause the infidel viewer to worry about is Kirk Cameron.

Image of elf ornament from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Jelene Morris. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Holding meaningful discussions with people who have different beliefs about God

"Each of us has a basic view of reality and God that we act out every day," says Geneen Roth in Women Food and God (2010).  Who can deny that simple, foundational statement?  "Anyone who breathes and thinks and experiences," she wrote, "has beliefs about God."

Are religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, important? They surely are. Beliefs combine to craft the worldview that drives a person's most cherished values: their sense of self and society, their sensitivity to the world, their joy and sympathy.

James Calvin Davis provides this definition in his book In Defense of Civility (2010):  "A worldview is a moral reading of the universe. It is an interpretation of the events that surround us, the choices that confront us, and the responsibilities that obligate us – all in relation to a particular understanding of the 'meaning of life.'"

In Davis's opinion, it is a misguided secularism that attempts to shove all "religious ideas" out of public discourse.  Everyone has a worldview that informs their values. Some worldviews are religious, and therefore not everyone can easily separate their moral concepts from their religious concepts, nor should they be expected to do so as a prerequisite for dialogue. It is not necessary to shut down all dissimilar religious beliefs before commencing discussion.  In fact, a discussion can be held directly about the dissimilar religious beliefs as well as about what other beliefs might result from them.

Chris Stedman's book Faitheist (2012) makes a similar point:  "Religious and nonreligious identities are perhaps our most important social capital, for they signify our most central values, which inform how we act in the world."  He is careful to distinguish atheism as an "identification marker" rather than a "belief system."  Nevertheless, an atheist identity can suggest the inclusion of some belief systems and values and the exclusion of others, so it is a meaningful, important identity, just as religious identities, belief systems, and values are meaningful and important.

Written from an atheist perspective, Stedman's book strongly advocates for dialogue between people with "different metaphysical beliefs." Openness to exchanging stories about personal beliefs is part of "taking religious identities seriously." The point is not necessarily to attempt to convert the other to a different opinion, but to perceive and understand the other as one does in a relationship.

Atheists who primarily practice the art of monologue, as Stedman admits he once did, risk operating with "caricature and critique instead of humility, honesty, and open-mindedness" and "treating religion as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives."

When two people investigate the possibility that they have some shared values despite some differing beliefs about God, it amounts to "the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism."  The result of this pluralistic work can be "a diverse community defined by shared values rather than shared identity." 

It is perhaps a side benefit that, whenever someone expresses willingness to discuss values, their very willingness is a public example that members of their identity group care about values, reminding everyone else of their humanity.  All this, even before a single specific word is spoken!

In her book Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority (2010), Nikki Stern says:  "Ethics and morality don't eliminate the possibility of faith; they simply don't require it. It's hard to imagine being more tolerant than that."

To put it another way: expressing one's values in word or deed neither precludes nor requires a religious identity. Feeling secure of this fact will lead to tolerance of those with different identities. The next step can be a proactive, pluralistic approach.

A note on the image above: If an ostrich has the patience to read a newspaper, each of us can try to understand another person. Photo by Anefo / Noske, J.D., 17 Feb 1951. © No known copyright restrictions. Nationaal Archief of The Netherlands, No. 904-4385. Flickr.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on Nov. 10, 2012.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Prejudices against eunuchs during the Renaissance

In the early twenty-first century, Americans like to debate whether one should be able to marry a person of the same sex, but in the early eighteenth century, Europeans liked to debate whether a castrated man should be able to marry a woman.  This was a practical question given the Italian tradition of castrating boy singers so they could be trained as lifelong sopranos.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 12, 2011.

The marriage debate is exemplified in "Traite des Eunuques," originally published in 1707 by jurist and diplomat Charles Ancillon under the pseudonym C. D'Ollincan.  Following his death, it was translated into English by Robert Samber and printed in 1718 for the London bookseller Edmund Curll under the title "Eunuchism Display'd" with the anonymous byline "a Person of Honour." Unlike many books of its time, "Eunuchism Display'd" puts many scandalous sexual terms in plain English rather than disguising them in Latin for the protection of the "fair sex".   This is an extremely rare book, with only a handful of copies listed in WorldCat.  Fortunately, in 2010 Eunuchism Display'd was digitally scanned and became available to read online free of charge, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Library System and the Internet Archive.

This review is based on the English version of the manuscript.  No claim is made that Samber's translated text, which is rather sensationalized, is faithful to Ancillon's original intent.

Eunuchism Display'd insists that eunuchs – men who are demonstrably and irrevocably infertile due to castration – should be forbidden to enter a union that ought to be dedicated to procreation.  This argument presumes the question at hand is whether eunuchs could marry women; the possibility that they might marry men is not even suggested.  The author claims that his goal is to help women "avoid such unwary Engagements with those, who are absolutely uncapable to answer the End of Marriage, and whose Intentions can only terminate in sordid Interest, downright Money."

Background about castration

The author opens with the attempt "to shew that there really are such Things in Being as Eunuchs," which he defines as "a Person which has not the Faculty or Power of Generation" either by nature or else due to accident or injury.  Eunuchs "have a squealing languishing Voice, a Womanish Complection, and a soft Down for a Courage or Bravery of Soul, but [are] ever timerous and fearful...entirely effeminate."  A muddled list of four types of castration attempts to distinguish between removing the testicles with a knife, destroying them by cutting off the blood flow, and being born with male sex organs that malfunction or are entirely missing.  Elsewhere the author acknowledges that castration can also be caused by illness; he frequently uses the word "distemper," a generic term for an infection or other disorder.  He frequently returns to the biologically incorrect belief that a man is infertile and incapable of satisfying himself or a partner unless he retains both testes.

The original intent behind deliberate castration, he claims, was to employ male guardians to protect the chastity of noblemen's wives and daughters.  His biblical literalist worldview points to the legendary Queen Semiramis's Assyria in 1778 BCE as the first society to castrate royal servants, eventually followed by King Cyrus's Persia in 633 BCE.  This "lawful use" was later turned into the "abuse" and "Criminal Ends" of having the eunuchs themselves serve as sexual objects for men; he refers specifically to the first-century Roman emperor Nero's decision to forcibly change the sex of the boy Sporus.

Many Roman emperors disapproved of eunuchs.  In the first and second centuries, Domitian and Adrian altogether forbade castration.  In the third century, Alexander Severus reduced the number of palace eunuchs and gave away some of the retirees to his friends, permitting his friends to kill these extras if they were displeased with them.  At the end of the fourth century, he says the military general Gainas revolted and demanded that Emperor Arcadius send him the head of the eunuch consul Eutropius.   By the fifth century, in the Byzantine empire, Leo considered one who castrated another man "as one that made a false or counterfeit Deed."  The law considered the act to be "abominable, and the Eunuch himself as a Monster, and therefore never granted and allowed Eunuchs the Rights and Privileges as other Men had.  For Example, they were not permitted to make a Will."  In the sixth century, Justinian made castration a crime equivalent to murder.  (According to the author, this was because the risk of death was so high.)

In the chapter "What Notion the People had of Eunuchs," the author tries to focus on how the majority of people perceived castration.  Even apart from associations with tyrannical palace eunuchs, he writes that people "not only utterly despised and hated [castrated men], but that they could not abide so much as to see them."  He says anyone would "give the first Stroke to cut them down, or pluck them up by the Roots, to abolish for ever this abominable Practice out of the World; these are imperfect Creatures, in a Word, Monsters, to whom Nature indeed has been sparing of nothing but the Avarice, Luxury, or Malice of Men, have disfigured and deformed."  Therefore, "if the Name [Eunuch] at first past for a Title of Honour, it grew at last to be very injurious; and one could not more sensibly affront a Man than by calling him Eunuch."

Referring to the Roman poet Juvenal's slur of "half Man" and the complaint of "dry Tree" reported by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, the author gleefully says, "I shall add two Strokes more...A Eunuch is a Person always sickly and languishing Morbosus [Latin for "diseased"]...who sees himself in the Occasion of Action and cannot."

He acknowledges some fanatical early Christians who elected self-castration:  Origen (initially praised by the Bishop of Alexandria but later excommunicated), the followers of Valesius, and Constantius's high chamberlain Eusebius who was a leader of the so-called Arian heresy.  He also, of course, is aware of the contemporary Italian singers.  Despite all this, he concludes that "the Christian Church abhors and detests that abominable Practice."  He quotes a hagiographer who called eunuchs spiritually as well as physically barren, as well as St. Gregory Nazianzen who said the words "impious" and "eunuch" were synonymous.

Positive counterexamples of eunuchs, such as Daniel in the Bible, are dismissed with a wave of the hand:  "their Number has been always very small, and not sufficient to counterballance the general Opinion of Mankind." 

Where influential men such as Numa Pompilius and Socrates may have spoken well of eunuchs, they were, according to Ammianus Mercellinus, disregarded.  The author insists that "the World" ridicules manifestos such as the defense of eunuchs written by Constantine's precept.  He portrays court eunuchs as dressed-up monkeys who were seen as "no better than Slaves" and compares Arcadius's selection of a eunuch as Roman consul to Caligula's choice of a horse for the same position several centuries earlier. 

Considering the "extremely beautiful" Bagoas who belonged to Darius of Persia and then to Alexander the Great, he reminds us that Bagoas condemned an innocent man. He acknowledges the eunuch general Narses who conquered the Barbarians and Goths and drove out the Lombards, and also calls out the generals Sulla and Cotta, yet still argues that eunuchs should be forbidden to carry weapons.  With respect to the last two, he asks:  "because there happened to be two great Men that were eunuchs, by a very particular Exception to that Rule, must it be therefore made a Law, that all others are capable of bearing Arms?"

Sometimes he does not seem to notice that his specific examples challenge or invalidate his general claims.  He mentions the biblical story of St. Philip's baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch.  He says that Ulpian's law considered the loss of a finger or toe to be a handicap, but not the loss of the testicles. Eunuchs were esteemed under the third- and fourth-century emperors Constantius, Constantine, and Theodosius the Younger.  Closer to the author's time, in Turkey, eunuchs held "the highest Posts of Honour in the State," and the two pashas most well-reputed in war were eunuchs.  One of them, the mid-sixteenth-century Hali, "was a Person of much Wit and Humour, and had nothing of the Sourness and Moroseness of Temper, so common to the generality of Eunuchs."

He has a certain respect for the Italian castrati, than whom "there can be no finer Voices in the World" and who are "above Description."  Before the age of twenty, Pauluccio "was indeed the Wonder of the World."   Nevertheless, he says, well-paid Italian castrati have "a Vanity which is ever peculiar to Eunuchs" and mistakenly believed that their feminine "Conquests" were really "in Love" with them, but in the author's opinion "our Ladies have not so little natural be satisfied with meer Shadow and Out-Side." Furthermore, eunuchs are only conditionally loved, since "nothing in Italy is so contemptible as a Eunuch that cannot sing."  He notes the Church's self-contradiction in encouraging sacred music sung by eunuchs while excommunicating those who castrate boys.

He eventually reduces the scope of his claim to say that it was mainly the Romans who disdained eunuchs, then proceeds to undo the argument of the first half of his book.  Eunuchism, he says, "is not equally opprobrious in all Places...They have been employed in the highest Offices, and have received Honours not inferiour to Sovereign Princes; and even to this Day are held in the same Respect in the Levant, Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia; and it is notorious, that in the Port of the Grand Seignior...Eunuchs possess an Authority little less than Sovereign."

Should eunuchs marry?

It is not clear whether the author's concerns about marriage are primarily based in the religious or civil sphere.  Ancillon schooled in French law, and the text acknowledges a difference between religious and civil law, but the author treats these as two separate bodies of law governing a single thing called marriage, and he struggles to define what that is.  Consenting to marry, having a public ceremony, living together, having sex – none of this, he muses, constitutes marriage itself. 

He is, however, certain in his opposition to marriage and adoption rights for eunuchs.  He bases his opinion on existing prohibitions such as those in ancient Roman and contemporary French law, a papal bull from Sixtus Quintus that voided eunuchs' marriages and an equivalent Protestant prohibition.  Emperor Leo's 98th Constitution set penalties for priests who officiated at eunuchs' weddings and said their wedding guests would suffer the same penalty as rapists or adulterers.  He notes an anomaly where the Italian government made a one-time exception when it declined to invalidate a eunuch's marriage to a woman who had her father's consent.

His second reason for opposing eunuch marriage is a deliciously circular argument:  While Potiphar is the first eunuch mentioned in the Bible, the fact that Potiphar had a wife and daughter entails that Potiphar wasn't really castrated and was called "eunuch" only because he held a position traditionally filled by castrated men.  Similarly, Dydimus "had a Wife; however we see he was not considered a married Man, because he was an Eunuch."  Furthermore, he claims that "Eunuchs according to the Prophet Isaiah are only dry Trees," when this is manifestly the opposite of what Isaiah said in that passage.  Isaiah says God promises eunuchs "a name better than sons and everlasting name that will not be cut off."

He acknowledges that Emperor Leo restored eunuchs' right to adopt children.  Leo had argued that adoption by infertile people is merely a compensatory strategy for a handicap, analogous to deaf people signing with their hands.  The author rebuts this by insisting that since an adoptive father must be older than his son to resemble the natural order, the father must also be a fertile male.  Furthermore, he complains, how can a "timorous and fearful" eunuch be a role model to a boy?

Marriage was invented, he says, by God for Adam and Eve with the sole purpose of procreation, and it was lustful marriages that prompted God to destroy the world in a flood.  Thus "Eunuchism and Marriage are two Things incompatible and essentially opposite."  If a eunuch is able to satisfy a woman, it is no doubt by sexual practices forbidden even to married men and women. In his opinion: "The lawful Desires of a Woman are to have Children."

He admits that his argument about procreation could be used to prevent elderly people from marrying.  Initially he denies this "absurd" implication, but his actual position is more nuanced.  He thinks that a man who has become infertile with advanced age should not be permitted to marry a woman in her childbearing years; however, he should be permitted to marry an elderly woman so that they may care for each other.  (He doesn't say whether a eunuch may be permitted to marry an infertile woman to care for her. However, he denies that any woman truly wants to be in a celibate marriage, since without sex, "this is no Marriage, but a Union, (if I may so call it) of support, which can only be Burthensome to the Woman".)  He provides the strange, unscientific explanation that elderly people who have grown infertile over the years still retain a stifled "Faculty of Generation," so as potentially fertile beings they must be given the benefit of the doubt, but men who have been castrated by illness or injury have had their generative faculty irrevocably annihilated.  He also makes the unverifiable theological claim that God sometimes bestows fertility miracles on elderly people but never on eunuchs:   "Persons advanc'd in Years may be made use of as Instruments to shew God's Power, but Eunuchs never can."

The author describes marriage as "a Kind of Bargain and Sale" wherein husband and wife acquire rights to each other's bodies. He assumes that a proposing eunuch "conceals his Impotency."   These grooms "are Cheats, and as such ought to be punish'd...they are guilty of a notorious Act of Falshood, for they put on the Appearance of Men, when they are not so in Reality." Even when a eunuch is honest in private to his fiancee, his marriage is a public fiction that "make[s] a Semblance to the World as if they could really perform what is required in that State."  The bride is cheated regardless of whether the eunuch is literally trying to steal her inheritance or merely writhing in his inability to satisfy the sexual urges of himself and his wife.  Upon marrying him, she will "so make the Marriage, of which she can have no Use, a Veil and Cover for her own vicious Practices."  The marriage therefore is a "mock and abuse" of religion.

He concludes his argument by saying that eunuch marriage is strictly forbidden, but he adds the undermining qualification that "it is impossible to make a certain and universal System of Law or Divinity upon the Marriage of Eunuchs."

Sexual desire

The book makes recurring contradictory references to the presumed sexual desires of women.  The author believes that a woman desires something that a eunuch cannot give her, so if she shares his bed, she will "languish and pine away" and "die a lingring Death." Although she may want to declare lifelong faithfulness to a castrated man, she cannot be expected to know herself well enough to stick to her vows. No priest should allow her to "put her self in evident Danger of committing Sin" in an extramarital liaison when she finally tires of the marriage.  The second, contradictory theme is that a woman can indeed enjoy sex with a eunuch but it is illicit because it is non-procreative: "an Eunuch can only satisfy the Desires of the Flesh." The marriage should be forbidden if it affords her sexual pleasure without the risk of pregnancy.

If a husband is discovered to be impotent or infertile, his wife should gladly separate from him to prove she isn't lewd.  (That is, she oughtn't be eager to endure the sexual attentions of a man, even her own husband, for reasons other than procreation.)  If she does not voluntarily separate, "it is my Opinion she shall be forc'd to separate".  Late in the book he clarifies that he's not talking about lifelong marriages where the husband gradually becomes infertile, but only to new marriages where the would-be husband is obviously – "notoriously" – a eunuch.

The message about eunuchs' sexual preferences and activities is unclear.  The author says a eunuch destroys a woman to satisfy his "wicked Passion" although sex makes him feel "the utmost Chagrin and Affliction, because of his wretched Incapacity."   Early in the book, the author quotes St. Basil at the time of the Arian heresy referring to eunuchs as "jealous," "suspicious," and tormented by lust.  Later in the book, he offers the contradictory stereotype that eunuchs "are never Jealous" and would easily give their wives permission to have affairs (after all, the eunuch Dydimus actively prostituted his wife).

Why read this book?

The book's moral message is poorly argued.  The intended structure was to devote the first half of the book to providing general background on eunuchs and their social position, another quarter to delivering the argument on why eunuchs have no right to marry, and the remainder to addressing counterobjections.  In its actual execution, the text meanders, spills beyond its scope, contains many redundancies, and hastily dismisses counterobjections.  The author also makes the unpersuasive moral assumption that "what is" is of course "what ought to be," i.e. that anti-eunuch stereotypes and discrimination have a reasonable basis and should be perpetuated.  He favors Catholic perspectives and takes it to be obvious that ancient Roman laws and social mores should apply to eighteenth-century France.

While the book contains an impressive, cited catalogue of actual European eunuchs interspersed with diverting European folktales about unfortunate men, it is ultimately limited in its cultural scope.  The review of Persia is wanting.  There are virtually no specific examples from the Ottoman empire and no description of the government, social structure, culture, or religion of Constantinople.  Anticipated words like "Mohammedan" or "seraglio" appear nowhere in the manuscript.  An even more glaring omission is the nation of China with its hundreds of thousands of castrated palace servants.  Perhaps this information was unavailable to the author in French or Latin; had he been aware, he would certainly have mentioned the word "China" somewhere in his book.  With the possible exception of one sentence about a mysterious "Kingdom of Boulan," the slave trade in Africa is also omitted, and with it, the observation that many eunuchs were forbidden from marrying not primarily because of their castration but because they were slaves.

This book gives a vivid impression of what one Renaissance legal scholar thought about the character and sexual morality of contemporary European eunuchs.  Many of his prejudices are expressed with irrational and circular claims.  Once that scope is understood, the book can be enjoyed for its useful references and for its color.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The complexities of altruism

An article on cited recent research that suggests that "extreme altruism" and "extreme psychopathy" are two polar ends of the same spectrum. Among people who risk their own lives to help others, an area of their brain called the right amygdala is usually above average in size and has increased activity. The amygdala is associated with the ability to feel emotion. This may explain why people who take extreme actions to help others will say that they act quickly without spending time calculating what to do. Psychopaths, on the other hand – that is, those who are immoral or amoral, and who manipulate or injure others for self-serving purposes – have less active amygdalas. They have a more limited emotional repertoire and are known as being more calculating.

Most altruism is not extreme. Where on the spectrum, by the way, would the "ice bucket challenge" fall? Last summer, the popular phenomenon involved people publicly daring their friends over social media to dump a pail of ice water over their head and post the video online. A charitable donation of $100 was usually part of the dare. Most of the money went to research for the degenerative disease ALS; a staggering $115 million was raised for that cause. Everyone, it seemed, was dumping ice on themselves.

This highlights the fact that altruism is a very strange thing. People give money for reasons that fundraisers cannot always anticipate, though they would love to be able to. A recent New York Times Magazine article collected some observations. First of all, people often derive some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from giving to charity. Their giving is often self-interested to some degree. Other times, they give more purely out of compassion, and many people are aware that their feelings of empathy and guilt are at risk of being exploited, so they may "self-bind" by avoiding solicitations in the first place. They may also simply not want to expose themselves to solicitations that may force them to think about others' suffering simply because such thoughts are unpleasant or come at an inconvenient time. The "ice bucket challenge" did not evoke any image of the degenerative disease for which it was fundraising. Instead, it appealed to the forces of peer pressure and the narcissistic urge to post videos online. Additionally, it tapped into a quirk of human psychology: a law according to which feeling a measure of pain prompts us to confer more meaning or value upon an action. One can say that people gave for the wrong reasons – but they gave.

Sometimes charity that is given after prolonged, careful thought about "the right thing to do" – to help others who are less fortunate – does not achieve the desired effect. An article in The New Republic about international development aid pointed out that any action taken will have side effects, and we are bad at predicting these side effects. These side effects may be good or bad, and in some cases, they undermine the original purpose of the project. Giving charity to a community may result in that community's taking less interest in solving the problem themselves (since it is being solved for them) and failing to maintain physical and institutional structures (since people tend to value less what they do not pay for) or even to have the knowledge about how to maintain them. Addressing one issue, even a large one, may reveal it to be a symptom of another intractable issue. Charitable work remains "the right thing to do" – or, at least, the right reason to take some action. What action is best on practical grounds is often difficult to know.


"The science of extreme altruism: why people risk their lives to save strangers." Joseph Stromberg. Oct. 15, 2014.

"The Ice-Bucket Racket." Ian McGugan. The New York Times Magazine. Nov. 14, 2014.

"Stop trying to save the world." Michael Hobbes. The New Republic. Nov. 17, 2014.

Photo taken in New York City by Ed Yourdon. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Martel's Tiger eats Ockham's Razor

The movie Life of Pi is faithful to Yann Martel's award-winning novel of the same name.  Fans have had to wait since the book's 2001 publication for a film adaptation, finally released in 2012, about a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger after their menagerie-bearing cargo ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean.  The human-tiger interaction was made possible by CGI technology and is available with and without 3-D.  The animal looks quite real, and actor Suraj Sharma is inspiring in his role as the persistently God-directed boy who must tame the tiger.  The story is told as a flashback as the adult narrator relives his experiences.  (Would-be filmgoers prone to seasickness might want to stay home on dry land.)

Before the shipwreck, the boy's father warns him not to anthropomorphize the zoo tiger.  "When you look into his eyes, you're seeing your own emotions reflected back at you – nothing else," the rationalist father maintains.  The viewers are thus reminded of the need to struggle with their own assumptions about the tiger's behavior throughout the movie.  This adds depth to the viewers' likely experience of being unable to look away from the tiger's gaze during the riveting journey.

Some of the book's more memorable elements were left out, probably because they would have been too disturbing for a popular audience.  The book's raw depiction of starvation is merely suggested by a brief view of a skin-and-bones animated tiger.  The period of hallucination also feels abbreviated compared to what was in the book, but that is probably a good thing.  Likely for the sake of the PG rating, gone are the excruciating details about bowel movements as a consequence of surviving on raw fish and being confined to a small boat.  Also likely for purposes of keeping the film appropriate and comprehensible to children, a failed rescue attempt with gruesome results was entirely omitted, as was the narrator's temporary blindness due to the ravages of exposure.  (Were it a different kind of film, it might have been interesting to attempt to depict the narrator's blindness as he floated alone on a sparkling ocean he couldn't see.)

So, although purists may quibble over how the movie differs from the book, the adaptation was done well, and every moment of the movie is entertaining.  Its entertainment value, in fact, is an essential part of its purpose and message.

At the conclusion of the movie, investigators are skeptical of the rescued boy's story and demand from him "a story we can all believe."  "A story without things you've never seen before," the boy clarifies.  "That's right," the investigators agree.  The intimation is that many people will only believe what they already know how to believe.  The movie challenges this practical approach, highlighting instead the value of what entertains and inspires people, if they will only suspend their disbelief.

The proposition that the story will "make you believe in God," which is more subtle in the novel, is heavy-handed in the movie.  This lofty promise could make the film popular with a religious audience.

The story does indeed embody an argument for God, but it's not an overriding, knock-down argument.  The events involving the tiger in the lifeboat are shown at length.  A briefly offered competing narrative – provided verbally, not visually – is that the boy was in a lifeboat with some human survivors until they killed each other, and then he was alone, with no tiger.  The provided conclusion is that, because the hero was stranded on a lifeboat with no other human being, he is the only person who can provide a narrative about what happened during that time, and since it makes no difference in the end what really happened, the best criterion for judgment is what makes the best story.

"So it is with God," viewers are told.  Why not believe the better story?  The one with a tiger?  The one with a God?

This raises the question of what makes one story "better" than another.  Is it simply the story that is more entertaining?  It cannot be so; the entertainment value of a theistic narrative would be a poor basis for deciding the factual matter of whether God exists.

According to Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times, "so magical and mystical is this parable, it's as if the filmmaker has the philosopher's stone." Philosophically, this is only a version of the ontological argument, in which God is deemed to exist because he is defined as existing:  QED.

The philosophical principle of Ockham's Razor says that, if two explanations are equally good, one should gravitate toward the simpler narrative that makes fewer assumptions.  The principle one might call Martel's Tiger is in direct competition:  the grander the assumption, the better the story, which is the option that should be embraced.  In this way, the film opens up – but does not directly address – meaningful questions about the role of story in religious narratives.

After being treated to two hours of stunning animation, the viewer must acknowledge that the drama that illustrates courage, hope, and amazement and features charismatic animals is indeed a "better story" than a short, depressing sketch of a shipwreck bringing out the worst in human nature.  This does not, however, mean that the viewer must agree that God exists.  Thus Nick Schager's review in the Dallas Observer rightly referred to film's ending as its "nadir".

There is a third story option:  many would say that the tiger story is improved after it is interpreted it as an allegory in which the animals represent humans.  So might it be with God.  If one finds that stories with supernatural elements are more entertaining, educational, and ultimately redemptive when they are understood as allegories, then, according to the law of Martel's Tiger, God could be best understood as a useful fiction.

As this third option is not made explicit in the movie, it will probably not be a major part of most discussions about the movie.  Some viewers will no doubt manage the pabulous, incorrect take-away message that God must exist because the boy could not have survived his ordeal without God's help, as this is more consistent with the way God is discussed in American culture.

"God, I give myself to you," the hero says, floating in calm sea water that is at last ethereal and luminous, barely separated from the sky ringed by endless clouds, a Renaissance heaven.  "I am your vessel.  Whatever comes, I want to know.  Show me."

If some viewers find that moment more annoying than transformative, more arresting will be the Hinduism-inspired vision of the entire universe inside the god Vishnu's mouth, when all the boy's visible world consists of a bioluminescent ocean and a tiger's jaws.  The movie has something for everyone brave enough to watch it.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Nov. 23, 2012.

Image: Tiger at the Dublin Zoo, 1936. From the collection of the National Library of Ireland. © No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.