Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Ozymandias Syndrome

Back in the 1970s, I remember a certain Erich Von Daniken, who made the best seller range with his "Chariots of the Gods". There were a cluster of like minded books, many of which were also devoted to the idea that the ancient gods were, in fact, ancient astronauts. Others did not go quite so far, but also propagated ideas of advanced super-civilisations, which had been lost in a catastrophe - and, of course, the name Atlantis invariable figured somewhere in these narratives.

Like the creationists with the biblical texts of Genesis, they tried to take mythical stories literally, but theirs was an age of science, Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", and the literalism was not to prop up faith, but almost as a backlash against the dangers of science.

If we look at the Romantic movement before, we see the god Pan coming to the foreground in the literature of the time. As Ronald Hutton has explained, Pan was a rural god, a village yokel, and contrasted with Zeus and the Olympian pantheon of urban and civilised deities. Pan had long languished in obscurity, while English scholars extolled the virtues of Ancient Greece, and retold the Greek legends, but as the Industrial revolution moved into high gear, enclosure of fields shifted people who were drawn to the industrialised cities rather than remaining working on the land, and now the Romantic movement found in Pan the god of the woods. Pan was thereby a reaction to the alienation of modern society from its rural roots, and is, of course, still popular in Neopaganism today as a result.

That alienation is with us today. Many people live in flats with no gardens, and some find increasing solace in cyberspace, in Second Life, where they can live out vicariously the world they cannot find in the everyday. We live in a society of clocks, not rhythms of day and night, of calendars, not seasons, and the acceleration of this pattern of change can be seen most clearly in the harvest festival, where once a farming community brought grown food, but now, if fruit and vegetables remain a part of the festival, most of the congregation source it from supermarkets and farm shops. Even the seasonality of food, still present when I was young, has diminished, as a result of forced growing to create longer seasons of crops, and importations from far abroad. Counter-cultural movements, such as allotments and farm shops are increasingly popular because people are aware of what has been lost.

The other alienation from technology is later, and comes in the fifties and sixties, and is the threat from the atom bomb, from radioactive disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and from nuclear war tearing the planet apart. It is from these roots that the ancient high-technology stems, both as a warning of catastrophes like our own (which are read into the ancient texts) and also of the possibility of escape from our situation (the astronauts or UFOs may return and rescue us from our predicament).

An example of the kind of story and how it is "literalised" is one that is popular in circulation:

Mahabharata clearly describes a catastrophic blast that rocked the continent. "A single projectile charged with all the power in the Universe...An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as 10,000 suns, rose in all its splendor...it was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death which reduced to ashes an entire race. "The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Their hair and nails fell out, pottery broke without any apparent cause, and the birds turned white." "After a few hours, all foodstuffs were infected. To escape from this fire, the soldiers threw themselves into the river." Historian Kisari Mohan Ganguli says that Indian sacred writings are full of such descriptions, which sound like an atomic blast as experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He says references mention fighting sky chariots and final weapons. An ancient battle is described in the Drona Parva, a section of the Mahabharata. "The passage tells of combat where explosions of final weapons decimate entire armies, causing crowds of warriors with steeds and elephants and weapons to be carried away as if they were dry leaves of trees," says Ganguli. "Instead of mushroom clouds, the writer describes a perpendicular explosion with its billowing smoke clouds as consecutive openings of giant parasols. There are comments about the contamination of food and people's hair falling out."

Archeologist Francis Taylor says that etchings in some nearby temples he has managed to translate suggest that they prayed to be spared from the great light that was coming to lay ruin to the city. "It's so mid-boggling to imagine that some civilization had nuclear technology before we did."

...a single projectile Charged with all the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame As bright as the thousand suns Rose in all its splendor... a perpendicular explosion with its billowing smoke clouds... ....the cloud of smoke rising after its first explosion formed into expanding round circles like the opening of giant parasols... ..it was an unknown weapon, An iron thunderbolt, A gigantic messenger of death, Which reduced to ashes The entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. ...The corpses were so burned As to be unrecognizable. The hair and nails fell out; Pottery broke without apparent cause, And the birds turned white.

When asked in an interview at Rochester University seven years after the Alamogordo nuclear test whether that was the first atomic bomb ever to be detonated, Robert Oppenheimer replied, "Well, yes, in modern history."

Most of the excerpts are found in the Mahabharata, in parts, but not with reference to a single context. Descriptions of various happenings, unrelated to each other, from various segments of the epic have been selected and weaved together to create a text which does not exist in this form.

The excerpt "An incandescent column of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns, rose with all its splendor" actually appears in the section 34 of the Karna Parva of the Mahabharata( http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m08/m08034.htm ), as follows.

"The universe is similarly said to consist of Vishnu. Vishnu is, again, the Soul of the holy Bhava of immeasurable energy. For this the touch of that bow-string became unbearable to the Asuras. And the lord Sankara cast on that arrow his own irresistible and fierce wrath, the unbearable fire of anger, viz., that which was born of wrath of Bhrigu and Angirasa. Then He called Nila Rohita (Blue and Red or smoke)--that terrible deity robed in skins, looking like 10,000 Suns, and shrouded by the fire of superabundant Energy, blazed up with splendour. That discomfiter of even him that is difficult of being discomfited, that victor, that slayer of all haters of Brahma, called also Hara, that rescuer of the righteous and destroyer of the unrighteous, viz., the illustrious Sthanu, accompanied by many beings of terrible might and terrible forms that were endued with the speed of the mind and capable of agitating and crushing all foes, as if with all the fourteen faculties of the soul awake
about him, looked exceedingly resplendent".

"It was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas." is actually found in Section 1 of Mausala Parva.( http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m16/m16001.htm).

and the whole text is not exactly reminiscent of nuclear war but looks like something more to do with intoxication

"Endeavoured to be deceived by those wicked ones, those ascetics, with eyes red in wrath, looked at each other and uttered those words. Having said so they then proceeded to see Keshava. The slayer of Madhu, informed of what had taken place, summoned all the Vrishnis and told them of it. Possessed of great intelligence and fully acquainted with what the end of his race would be, he simply said that that which was destined would surely happen. Hrishikesa having said so, entered his mansion. The Lord of the universe did not wish to ordain otherwise. When the next day came, Samva actually brought forth an iron bolt through which all the individuals in the race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas became consumed into ashes. Indeed, for the destruction of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas, Samva brought forth, through that curse, a fierce iron bolt that looked like a gigantic messenger of death. The fact was duly reported to the king. In great distress of mind, the king (Ugrasena) caused that iron bolt to be reduced into fine powder. Men were employed, O king, to cast that powder into the sea. At the command of Ahuka, of Janarddana, of Rama, and of the high-souled Vabhru, it was, again, proclaimed throughout the city that from that day, among all the Vrishnis and the Andhakas no one should manufacture wines and intoxicating spirits of any kind, and that whoever would secretly manufacture wines and spirits should be impaled alive with all his kinsmen. Through fear of the king, and knowing that it was the command of Rama also of unimpeachable deeds, all the citizens bound themselves by a rule and abstained from manufacturing wines and spirits"

And archaeologist Francis Taylor simply does not exist, and the quotation from Robert Oppenheimer also appears to be made up, probably by the author Charles Berlitz.

Regarding Kisari Mohan Gangul, he did indeed translate the Mahabharata into English. But there is a catch. The interpretation was done between 1883 and 1895, a good 50 odd years before the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and a good 90 odd years before the interview quoted! He lived from 1842 to 1895.

In conclusion, a lot of these stories circulate in a fairly precise short form on the internet, and do not vary much, but what seems common to all is that they fail to give precise sources. In this respect, they function like Urban Legends, circulating rapidly and widely by means of cut and paste. Because of this, unlike oral tradition, they are often repeated in a very similar form. Given time, the originals can be tracked down, but it takes time to do this because most of the texts picked up by search engines are the same duplicated forms. When, however, one does this, these are invariably often spurious or misleading (using quotations out of context etc). The wide dissemination has a lot to do with the inability of people to check sources, and consequently to copy the pericopes as if they were accurate. Quotations are given from real people to give verisimilitude to what is at first sight a plausible story.

But why should people believe it in the first place? As I stated in my introduction, I think it has a good deal to do with alienation from modern technology. The cataclysms of the myths are "literalised" into forms which speak directly to the emotional fears of today. The need to believe in these warnings also has much to do with the impotence of people in today's society to do anything about these fears, for some of the threats are very real. If countries like Iran have nuclear weapon capability, who knows how unstable the world may become again? Nuclear power is still feared because of appalling failures in safety, and radioactivity is an invisible, unseen, but potent killer. Is it any wonder that people look to the past and create a dark scientific mirror of the present?

If I was going to coin a term for this kind of fear, I'd call it "Ozymandias Syndrome", after the poem by Shelley, which gave warnings about the transitory nature of all societies, except that unlike Shelley, his modern counterpart sees everywhere warnings from the catastrophes which they think engulfed civilisations just like out own, or even more advanced.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

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