Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick and The Naga and the Problem of Evil

Naga at the steps of a building in the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok
St. Patrick Day festivities are in full swing here.

There's a Very Big parade on Beach Road and lots of restaurants and bars are offering green beer and there's "Irish Stew" on lots of menus. 

Beach Road was MOBBED with people! I couldn't get close enough to take very good pictures, but I'll salvage what I can and take some more later on tonight at the Irish Show at the Bondi Pub at Jomtein Beach. It should be memorable.

At first, I found the merging of the two cultures a bit jarring. I simply couldn't get my head wrapped around how the Thai culture could accommodate St. Patrick, so I spoke with my doorman earlier this morning when I went out to do me laundry.

I have found, no matter the culture or country, if you want to know something about any topic, look for a man in a uniform who is wearing a big wad of keys on his belt. I don't know what it is, but be it a security guard, a postman, an electrician or a plumber, the uniform coupled with a big wad of keys will almost promise a veritable font of seemingly unimportant trivia which can sometimes proves very helpful. It's no different in Thailand.

I wanted to know what the Thai people think about snakes in general and the story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland in particular.

Cam - my security guard, the one with a HUGE wad of keys on his belt - told me that snakes in Thailand are called "naga" - or, the feminine "nagini".

In Buddhist tradition, the nagas are the servants of one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the western direction. Buddha had his own naga to protect him. They have the ability to take on human form because they are rumored to have both snake and human qualities and characteristics.

Reminds me of Slytherins in the Harry Potter series.  They were the most cunning and ambitious of the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Sorting Hat almost sent him there, but he ended up at Gryffindor, with the "brave of heart".

Cam told me the story of the Naga prince "Sesha" and how he came to hold the world on his head. It begins when Sesha appeared before Brahma as a dedicated human ascetic who was apparently practicing a hard penance as atonement for sins. Cam didn't know what sin, exactly, but he thought it was "Very Big".

Sesha's hair is knotted and he is dressed in rags. His flesh, skin, and sinews are dried up from fasting and praying in the hot sun "many, many long year".

Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head.

"Be very careful snake," says Cam. "No trust. Delicious in curry, but can bite. Dead."

Garuda, the eagle King, is the natural nemesis of naga. They were, I think cousins but something happened and the Naga enslaved the Garuda and would only free him if he stole a magic potion that would make them immortal. Garuda apparently accomplished the task but something else happened - I had trouble following the story because Cam became very animated and spoke more rapidly so it was hard to follow - so Garuda tricked the snake and didn't give the Naga the potion. From that point on, Garuda no longer thought of them friends but as food.

I asked Cam what he thought about St. Patrick and why he thought St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

"No trust snake," he said again. "Sometime very bad. Sometime good, but can be very bad. Snake for farang (I'm assuming he meant St. Patrick and/or the Irish people) be very bad. Send out-out. Good for him. Good for country."

So, it would appear that the myth and legend of St. Patrick does make the cultural translation quite well. I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised.

As I listened to Cam, I thought that Jung's idea of the "collective unconscious" makes more and more sense to me.

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of Moses encounter with snakes, alluding to the serpent in the Garden.
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-21)
Just in case you missed the point, Jesus adds what Martin Luther called "the gospel in miniature, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

As famous as John 3:16 is, I wish we would not forget v 17: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Not to condemn the world but to save it. The same way Garuda did not give the naga the magic potion for eternal life but dedicated his life to removing the naga from the world. The same way St. Patrick rid Ireland of the snakes by driving them out.

Interesting that scripture tells us that "Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (Numbers 21:4-9) Interesting as well that The Buddha got the Naga to guard the palace as the Four Heavenly Kings got them to guard the western direction.

I suppose those are two ways to deal with the idea of evil in the world: Run it out or make it work for you.

No matter your country or culture, your creed or religious practices, the Problem of Evil exists. How you deal with it - and not succumb or be overpowered by it - is the question that cuts across all of our cultural and religious differences.

I don't think I'm ever going to be able to celebrate St. Patrick's Day again without thinking of Garunda and the Naga and The Problem of Evil. Or, the image of smiling Thai people wearin' the green.


Brother David said...

That claw in the first photo is ornate, but dangerous! I wonder if anyone has ever fallen or been pushed on that thing. Just saying.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Pretty scary, right?