SF in All Its Glory – A Review of “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction”

My first introduction to SF was Flash Gordon – an old black and white movie my parents took me to, in our tacky local theatre. I think I was five at the time.

It was not a grand success. As soon as those aliens started attacking Flash, I started bawling. I continued this throughout the movie until they were forced to take me home.

But when I met Flash again, in Indrajal Comics, I started liking him despite ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘The Phantom’ being more popular titles in the franchise. Apart from the superhero Flash, I loved the spaceships, the outlandish landscapes, the weird aliens, the obsessive Zarkov, the beautiful Dale Arden – even Ming the Merciless. This was a totally new experience: imagination need not have a boundary.

I was in love with Science Fiction.

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Now I understand that Flash Gordon was nothing but ‘Space Opera’: somewhat looked down on as not sufficiently intellectual by serious purveyors of the form. But it pulled me into the magic of this genre, as it must have thousands of other youngsters.

I learnt that SF can be serious too, however, when I came across Isaac Asimov in my late teens. For a bookish, socially awkward youngster (I don’t know whether the term ‘nerd’ had been coined then) this was the perfect escape – stories written with the precision of science, very less of character conflicts, romance, sentiment and other time-wasting side avenues: there was a problem, there was a solution. Period.

Well, gradually my reading universe expanded, and I found out that the genre contained writers of much greater skill than Dr. Asimov (but I’d still give him top marks for sheer imagination) and it was much more than robots and space exploration. Instead of a genre, SF was a whole new way of forging literature, of tackling philosophical and existential questions, of analysing the impact of science on the human condition… above all, it was exhilarating. It was escapist, yes, but the escape was to a more sharply defined reality.

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The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction examines science fiction under three aspects. The first section examines the history, from its genesis as stories of wonder, through the ‘pulp era’ of American magazine SF, through the intellectual ‘New Wave’ when the boundaries between SF and Fantasy were blurred, on to the current ‘postmodern era’. The second section examines the genre through various critical approaches: Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodernism and queer theory. The last section examines the various tropes of SF: its icons such as space ships, robots etc; various sub-genres such as space opera, alternate history, utopias, dystopias etc; and how politics, gender, race, religion etc, are handled in SF. Each section contains various chapters, written by well-known authors and critics, and presents a fairly comprehensive view.

The History

The origins of SF can be traced back to the fantastic voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels and dream journeys, where the authors tried to break the shackles of the requirements of realism. However, it was arguably Mary Shelley who wrote the first novel which could be really termed science fiction: Frankenstein is the tale of the quintessential mad scientist, tempting fate by trying to create life and playing God, and quite predictably coming to a sticky end. Edgar Allan Poe also used the tropes of science to expand the horizon of his fantastic stories. And most readers know Jules Verne, the purveyor of extraordinary voyages and H. G. Wells, whose stories are also social statements.

But it was the availability of cheap paper made from wood pulp, which made the publishing of magazines very cheap in the USA, that really contributed to the rapid growth of this genre. The so-called ‘pulp magazines’ gave birth to and nurtured many of the latter day greats like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Hugo Gernsback, whose magazine Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, was the pioneer in the sense that it restricted itself to publishing only SF; the flame was carried forward by the iconic editor John W. Campbell in Astounding Stories, who mentored most of the American greats.

Later on, SF moved away from the blood-and-thunder stories and adventure yarns of yore into more thoughtful fiction, with literary quality and speculative exploration given more importance than action, the so-called ‘new wave’. Currently it has reached the level of meta-fiction and ‘cyberpunk’ (where the action is mostly within virtual realities).

The section also examines film and television, with such iconic shows as ‘Star Trek’, and the still-continuing saga of ‘Star Wars’.

Critical Approaches

This section was a first for me. I never knew one could analyse so much within this genre which – well – most of us consider primarily entertainment. But consider this: from a Marxist viewpoint, isn’t each society imagined in SF conducive to a political analysis? For example, Wells’s The Time Machine is clearly a criticism of bourgeoisie society taken to its logical extreme: same way, his The War of the Worlds is an indirect criticism of British imperialism. However, on the whole, SF believes in a technology-driven society which provides a just society where everybody can thrive – in that it mostly follows the American ideal of free market capitalism. But of late, social criticism has become one of its significant aspects.

SF initially had women only for the aliens to kidnap and be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. But slowly, writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ (to mention two of the prominent authors) brought a distinctive feminine outlook to the field; and now, more and more novels and stories which can be interpreted from a feminist viewpoint are emerging.

This section also analyses postmodernism, where SF moves away from scientific exploration into societal exploration in the current turbulent world – moving beyond the boundaries of the genre itself: and queer theory, where SF’s obsession with the ‘other’ (as different from the normal) is analysed to examine the changing attitudes of society towards ‘deviant’ sexual practices. (I must confess that this section went a bit over my head!)

Sub-genres and Themes

This was the section I enjoyed most, as various critics and writers examine the beloved icons and themes of SF. There are rockets, robots and aliens as brave and pioneering adventurers venture outward; there equally exciting challenges within human biology, mutation and evolution, and the mind-boggling possibilities of genetic engineering as the hardy scientists labour here on earth. There is the ever-present threat of environmental destruction and the tantalising promise of terraforming a hostile planet. There is ‘hard’ science fiction where the problems of science are explored in a future setting and ‘soft’ science fiction where the science is minimal and the human aspect is all-important.

There is the “Space Opera” with intrepid heroes chasing diabolical villains across vast swathes of space: there are alternate histories where authors toy with the idea of what might have been – say – had Hitler won the war, and other such interesting speculations. Here we have the utopias where everything is hunky-dory for humanity, and the dystopias (infinitely more popular!) like 1984 where daily life is a nightmare.

This section also examines how politics, gender, race and religion are treated in SF, with iconic examples like Ursula K. LeGuin’s totally anarchic society of Anarres (The Dispossessed), her planet containing sexless beings who become male or female during breeding season (The Left Hand of Darkness), Orson Scott Card’s strange race of the ‘piggies’ in Speaker for the Dead etc. There are many more, and for an aficionado like me, it was pure pleasure to read the erudite analyses of so many old favourites.

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In short: for an SF fan, this is a book which cannot be missed.

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A Review of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land where the seasons are inverted from what is usually experienced by the world at large, the flora and fauna belong to an evolutionary niche not seen elsewhere and the original settlers are the descendants of deported convicts. Yet over this, an English-ness has been imposed: the carefully cultivated gardens, the finely turned out ladies and gentlemen, the afternoon teas and the elevenses. This contrast often gives rise to a tension between man and nature which has been explored by countless writers and filmmakers. This novel by Joan Lindsay is an outstanding example of one such exploration.

Hanging Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation in Australia near Melbourne. As the story starts, a group of young girls, boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, is excitedly starting for their annual picnic near it, on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. There is Miranda, beautiful like a Botticelli painting; Irma Leopold, the pretty heiress; Marion Quade, top academic performer; Edith Horton, the college dunce and many others. They are chaperoned by the young and impressionable Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw who lives virtually in a world of equations. They are driven to the spot by Ben Hussey, the owner of the town’s livery stables, in his trap. The only student left behind is Sara Waybourne, the youngest boarder as a punishment for not learning The Wreck of the Hesperus by heart.

The picnic goes well until teatime, when Miranda, Irma and Marion decide to go closer to the Hanging Rock to properly examine it. Edith tags along. They are seen by the young Hon. Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England with his uncle and his coachman Albert Crundall. Fitzhubert, captivated by Miranda’s beauty, follows them for a bit then turns back. That is the last anyone sees of them, however – because all except Edith, who rushes back in an attack of hysteria, disappear without a trace; as does the mathematics mistress. The mystery is never solved.

The novel is the chronicle of the fallout from this event – how the lives of all the people connected with it, even the minor characters, are inextricably changed.

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At the outset, the author writes:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

This is the tone set right at the beginning – that of the “true story” – with quotes from letters and reports peppered throughout the narrative, and even footnotes in some places. In many places the writing becomes reportage; in others, it reads like an inexpert author trying to fictionalise historical characters and events. It is only when we realise that none of this happened that we come to appreciate what Joan Lindsay is trying to do – and we acknowledge her mastery of the medium.

If whether something really happened “seems hardly important”, what does it say about the nature of the “story”? Is truth important here, or is there a truth beyond the phenomenal world which we consider rock solid?

As the story progresses, people’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The college, a solid bastion of English respectability in the middle of wild Australia, slowly unravels – as does the redoubtable headmistress Appleyard. The tension between her and the orphan Sara (whom she subjects to mental torture mercilessly) is like a taut elastic band which is stretched and stretched until it breaks – with disastrous results. It is also to be noted that Sara idolises Miranda, who is almost a myth, an ethereal vision which fittingly disappears.

But the real protagonist of the story is Hanging Rock, the volcanic formation which is millions and millions of years old, standing ominously tall above all the puny humans crawling around like ants at its base – ephemeral beings whose unimaginably tiny lifetimes it must have surely smiled at, mockingly.

…The plain below was just visible; infinitely vague and distant. Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?’

Marion looked out over her shoulder. ‘A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it’s probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.’

The elemental power of the Australian landscape here is what is drawing the girls out of their so very English cocoons. Throughout the narrative, this rough land calls out to us in a thousand tongues: through the hissing of snakes, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of lizards, the wind through the trees – and through the silent and impressive presence of Hanging Rock. It finally succeeds in drawing even the stolid Mrs. Appleyard out.

And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gustsof spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the north wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires…

Nature, in all her raw and pristine glory – nature, come to extract her price from civilisation.

The Divine Charioteer

hitopadesha

One of the forms the Hindu God Krishna is worshipped in is as Partha Sarathi, “Arjuna’s Charioteer”.  This is very curious because we generally consider the job of the charioteer as the medieval equivalent of a driver, definitely not suited to such a charismatic and powerful god.  But this form of Krishna is a key element of his mythos; and we have to dig into the Mahabharata to understand why it is so.

Arjuna and Krishna are inseparable.  According to the Bhagavata Purana, they are the reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, two great sages who themselves are the twin incarnations of Vishnu. Nara (which means “man”) was reborn as Arjuna and Narayana (“god”) as Krishna.  In the Mahabharata, when they join together, they are considered invincible. The concluding sloka of the Bhagavad Gita says

yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama

(Wherever Krishna is there as the spiritual master, and Arjuna with his bow, there will be prosperity, victory, power and justice – this is my opinion.)

In the Mahabharata, it is difficult to see Arjuna and Krishna other than as a dyad.  Arjuna is the action while Krishna is the intention: one is the body and the other, the soul.  On the battlefield of the Kurukshetra, it is significant that Krishna is unarmed: in fact, that is one of his conditions for joining battle.  His role is solely that of guiding Arjuna and the shaping of war strategies.

The Battlefield of Kurukshetra

The epic of Mahabharata climaxes in the eighteen day battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family), offspring of brothers, for the right to rule Hastinapura.  Krishna, a cousin of the Pandavas, is officially neutral – even though he is morally on the Pandavas’ side.  In the war, Krishna reiterates his neutrality by supplying the whole of his army to Kauravas while himself joining the Pandavas in the capacity of an unarmed strategist.  Significantly, Arjuna chooses him over the army.

Many writers and mythologists have expounded upon the symbolic nature of the Kurukshetra – the battlefield transcends its physical nature and becomes a metaphor for life at the metaphysical level.  Arjuna is man, forever spiritually weak even when physically strong – the guiding hand of Krishna is required at each and every stage to egg him on.

krishna_arjuna_gita

This is epitomised in what is most probably the most significant part of the Mahabharata, when Arjuna breaks down while surveying the enemy army, and seeing all his relatives arrayed against him – whom he will have to kill.  It is then that Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita to him – the “Song of the Lord”, a sort of spiritual “pick-me-up” to enable him to go ahead into battle with detachment.

It is not my aim here to analyse the spiritual qualities of the Gita: I am not erudite or qualified enough.  It is the general agreement among historians that it is a later insertion into the epic.  This slim book of eighteen chapters has been elevated to the level of the spiritual text of all time and at the same time, vilified as the mouthpiece of Vedic Brahmanism used to spread their hated caste-riddled religion over the egalitarian Buddhism.  Looking at it impartially, both views have merit.  So we’ll leave the controversy there and concentrate on the roles: the role of Krishna, the spiritual guide and that of Arjuna, his disciple.

Because when the Kurukshetra battlefield moves on to the level of metaphor, we are looking at much beyond a battle of succession of a small kingdom in North India – we are looking at life, and the roles of the self and that of the godhead buried within the collective unconscious.

The Self and the Shadow

I have always felt that Arjuna can never be comprehended without looking at his nemesis and elder brother, Karna.  Arjuna’s equal in archery, Karna is his exact opposite in almost everything.  Born of the sun god Surya out of wedlock to Kunti (interestingly, Arjuna’s father is the rain god Indra) – the mother of the Pandavas – Karna had been cast adrift in the river on a casket (a common mythical motif across the world) and found and raised by sutas, a low caste.  Facing rejection at all points due to his lower social status, Karna is elevated to the position of the king of the kingdom of Anga by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and from then on he becomes his fast friend and the sworn enemy of Arjuna, whom he has taken oath to kill.

Karna suffers from a sense of rejection and (it seems) an inferiority complex throughout his life.  He has a fierce pride which has brought him nothing but trouble: a couple of curses earned due to his proud behaviour ultimately prove his undoing on the battlefield.  Contrast this with Arjuna, who is constantly plagued by self-doubt and has to be given a psychological boost by Krishna at intervals!  They make a strange pair – one the dark mirror image of the other.

In this context, I always like to invoke the concept of the Jungian shadow.

From Wikipedia:

In Jungian psychology, “shadow” or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs). Contrary to a Freudian definition of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow can include everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Here, I like to think of Karna as Arjuna’s shadow. (This is my very own personal reading, of course.  There have been many erudite studies of the epic in which the social aspect of the caste system has been analysed.  I am not trying to negate any of them – this is just my own personal take. Also, I’m no Jung scholar!)  For every plus in Arjuna, there is a minus in Karna and vice versa.  One is a dark mirror image of the other – brothers, unbeknownst to themselves, each oath-bound to kill the other.

Now let us look at another important character – Karna’s charioteer Shalya.

The Reluctant Charioteer

Shalya, an uncle of the Pandavas, has been tricked into acting as Karna’s charioteer by Duryodhana – because only he has the skills to rival Krishna in the job.  Shalya is distraught that he has to do it, when Krishna offers him the solution: do it, but use the position to continuously denigrate Karna and his capabilities, because that is the only way to take this proud warrior down!

See the contrast – the self-doubting hero who is continuously guided by his charioteer (who reveals himself as god incarnate during the expounding of the Gita); and his proud antithesis (who nevertheless hides a sense of inferiority regarding his social status in his heart of hearts) who is continuously berated by his charioteer, who is supposed to be guiding him.

On the battlefield, at many points when Karna could have won, he loses out due to bad decisions.  One such instance is very illustrative.  Karna has Arjuna in the sights of his bow, and he is aiming for the neck, when Shalya advises him to aim for the chest.  Thinking that his charioteer is trying to sabotage him, Karna ignores him – and Krishna on the other side pushes the chariot down, so that the arrow misses Arjuna’s neck and takes away his crown.  Had Karna aimed for the neck, he would have got him.

Here, Shalya has followed a clever strategy.  As charioteer, he has played fair and advised the warrior he is driving on the correct strategy.  However, by ensuring Karna’s antagonism to him through his taunts, he has made sure that Karna will never listen to him – thus ensuring his defeat.

The Metaphor of the Chariot

It is also instructive to note that Karna is killed by Arjuna when his chariot wheel gets stuck in the soil.  (This apparently treacherous act by a great warrior, even though justified by Krishna, has taken away a lot of his glow and has been the subject of any number of debates.  But that is not our focus here.)  If we are looking at it realistically, the question arises – why should this make a warrior helpless?  He still has his weapons.

Here, I would like to provide my own metaphorical interpretation of the chariot as a symbol for the warrior’s psyche.  Then, the rider is the self – and the charioteer, the godhead which resides within the psyche.  When Arjuna faces a real spiritual crisis, Krishna reveals himself as God incarnate, and by showing his Viswa Roopa (himself as the whole of space and time) illustrates the core of Indian philosophy – namely that the whole of the universe is contained within oneself as one is contained within the universe.  As long as this godhead is guiding the self, the spiritual chariot runs fine – but when it turns hostile, it derails.  And when the self is in constant antagonism with the guide, the chariot inevitably breaks down disastrously.

vishnuvishvarupa

When we look at this way, worshipping the divine charioteer does not seem silly; rather, it does make a lot of sense.  Because if you listen to him, at times of spiritual crisis, you may receive your own Gitopadesha – and your chariot will keep on running.

The Search for Meaning in Life

In the film Ikiru (“To Live”), master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat with stomach cancer. Finding that he has only one year left to live, he initially slides into depression and then into riotous night-life. All that is changed, however, when he meets Toyo, a young girl who takes pleasure in making toys for young children – it gives her a purpose in life. This wakes Watanabe up to what he is missing in his life: and he makes it his purpose to build a playground in the city, cutting across all the bureaucratic tangles. The most haunting image in the movie is of him sitting on a swing in the playground, singing, immediately prior to his death.

I was thinking of this movie all the time I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

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I had heard a lot about this book before I actually got around to reading it – and to tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed, especially by the second part. Yet I consider it a significant work, because I think Viktor Frankl has astutely identified the main reason for existential angst – the lack of meaning in one’s life in modern times.

It seems that Dr. Frankl has been engaged in what he calls “logotherapy”, where the patient is asked to concentrate outward rather than inward. As opposed to Freud who wanted people to dig deep into their psyches to locate childhood neuroses, Frankl asks them look into the world they live in to find the root of their existential crisis. The root of his philosophy is that most of man’s existential crisis rises from a search for meaning in life. In this, it is opposed to two other famous theories from the Viennese school of psychotherapy – Freud’s, based on the quest for pleasure and Adler’s based on the quest for power.

Frankl has his gruelling experiences in Nazi concentration camps to prove his theory. This comprises more than half of the book, and is really a torture to get through – not because of bad writing, but because he convinces us to accompany him on that nightmare journey. There is no hope, no mercy and no shred of human dignity in these hells on earth. The inmates are stripped of all their possessions including clothes, underfed to the level of starvation and overworked to the extent that many fall down dead from sheer exhaustion. Apart from this, they live in constant fear of being selected for the gas chambers.

The gateway to the dreaded Auschwitz Concentration Camp

What happens to people in this situation? They lose hope, and many of them give up on life. Others become cruel exploiters themselves (the Capos, the guards who are chosen from the ranks of prisoners themselves). Some try to survive by being smarter than others: and yet others find that extra something to pull them through – a meaning for their suffering, something to look forward to in life even in the midst endless misery. They become the rare beacons of light in the pitch darkness. Most of them don’t survive, because of their altruism – as Dr. Frankl says, “the best of us didn’t come back”.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For Frankl, it was the image of his young wife and his love for her which suddenly gave him a purpose in life.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

He kept on having conversations with her in his mind; even though he knew that she may be dead (she was, in fact). This gave him conviction to go ahead even when death stared him in the face. Dr. Frankl genuinely believes that it is this which helped carry him through, and on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Such a purpose does not necessarily mean salvation – but it does give one the power to endure it until it all ends. Viktor Frankl tells us the story of a young woman, whose vision of a tree branch through the window of the hut in which she lay dying, gave her sustenance.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

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One curious fact I noticed was that Frankl’s concept of ‘self-transcendence’, which seemed remarkably close to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. Also, the three paths which he mentions – through achievement, through selfless love and through cathartic suffering (when unavoidable, not masochistically chosen) – are applicable to the godhead from three different religions. The path of achievement of the Greek hero: selfless love to the level of dissolution of one’s self in god, that of Radha and Mira Bai for Krishna: and the suffering which cleanses, the way of the cross, the passion of Jesus Christ.