Skip to main content

Body and Soul



The basic theme of Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, is the conflict between the body and the soul or, in the words of the novelist himself, “the struggle between God and man.”

“A weak soul does not have the endurance to resist the flesh for very long,” says Kazantzakis in the Preface.  “It grows heavy, becomes flesh itself, and the contest ends.  But among responsible men… the conflict between flesh and spirit breaks out mercilessly and may last until death.” (emphasis added)

Kazantzakis explored this theme with slight variations in many novels.  In The Last Temptation, Jesus overcomes the temptations of the flesh by courting death.  In Saint Francis, the eponymous protagonist overcomes his fleshly desires through rigorous mortification.  Zorba, in Zorba the Greek, subscribes to a unique version of the Buddhist middle path by blending the body and the soul in his own pragmatic way.

“God and devil are one and the same thing!” Zorba declares repeatedly.  That knowledge helps Zorba to strike a balance between the good and the evil.  He does not make the mistake of polarising the good and the evil and then pursuing the good alone as Jesus did.  He lives each moment as it comes, accepting the good and fighting the evil in his own way without spiritualising or intellectualising anything.  “You understand, and that’s why you’ll never have any peace.  If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy!” Zorba tells his master who is on a spiritual quest.  Acquiring the kind of wisdom that Zorba possesses requires “a touch of folly”.

Jesus also wonders whether God and the devil aren’t one and the same thing.  Someone appears to Jesus in a dream in The Last Temptation.  Jesus is not sure whether it was God or the devil who appeared.  “Who can tell them apart?”  he asks himself.  “They exchange faces; God sometimes becomes all darkness,  the devil all light, and the mind of man is left in a muddle.”

An old lady advises Jesus in the novel, “... don’t you know that God is found not in monasteries but in the homes of men!  Wherever you find husband and wife, that’s where you find God; wherever children and petty cares and cooking and arguments and reconciliations, that’s where God is too....  The God I’m telling you about, the domestic one, not the monastic: that’s the true God.  He’s the one you should adore.  Leave the other to those lazy, sterile idiots in the desert (the monks)!”

Spirituality cannot be isolated from the actual life which is ineluctably a mixture of good and evil.  Seeking it in the solitude of deserts and mountains, or the isolation of monasteries and communes, would be quite a sterile exercise in the sense that the God found in such pursuits would be a God of straitjackets and not the God of the ordinary life in the ordinary world.

I’d go with Zorba and say that it’s better to strike the right balance between the body and the soul than nail one’s body to a cross.  But I wouldn’t also accept the deification of the body that’s found in the contemporary civilisation.  I don’t have to conceal my grey hairs beneath toxic dyes any more than gorge my intestines with junk food.  Yet I can stand and admire the beauty of the artificial shade on any pretty head just as I relish a drink of whisky at appropriate times.   I’m a follower of Zorba who advocated the passion “to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.”  What is life without that passion?  Without also the renunciation?  What is life without the body?  Without also the soul?

Comments

  1. I liked your summation, Matheikal.

    This book astounded me, and what amazed me most was how Kazantzakis brought Jesus to life in a story that felt like a nightmare...very interesting review!!
    "Spirituality cannot be isolated from the actual life which is ineluctably a mixture of good and evil. "--This says it all!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Panchali, Kazantzakis is quite a genius when it comes to exploring this particular theme. I'm sure the conflict between the body and the soul was quite acute in his own experience of life.

      Delete
  2. You have tempted me to visit Kazantzakis's novels. I have seen the films years back, but not read the books. I recently revisited Herman Hesse and it was interesting to see how age and life circumstances can add totally new perspectives to a reading. And anyway, films cannot capture all that a writer meant. Thanks for the trigger!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The age does make the difference. I read the three novels of Kazantzakis mentioned in this blog when I was a college student. But I reread two of them recently. They inspired me in totally new ways during the rereading.

      Delete
    2. Subho, I forgot to add that I was thinking of rereading Hesse's 'Narcissus and Goldmund'. An interesting coincidence that you've mentioned him. I wouldn't reread his 'Siddhartha' now since the story is quite fresh in my mind and also because I feel it wouldn't inspire me much more than it did some twenty years ago.

      Delete
  3. Your readers, and I speak unauthorized on their behalf and on my own too, are a blessed lot as you re-explore the author. Thanks.

    RE

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But I really wonder how much of this you'd agree with, Raghuram.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Aberration of Kali Yuga

Are we Indians now living in an aberrant period of history? A period that is far worse than the puranic Kali Yuga? A period in which gods decide to run away in fear of men? That’s a very provocative question, isn’t it, especially in a time when people are being arrested for raising much more innocuous questions than that? But I raise my hands in surrender because I’m not raising this question; the Malayalam movie that Maggie and I watched is. Before I go to the provocations of the movie, I am compelled to clarify a spelling problem with the title of the movie. The title is Bhramayugam [ ഭ്രമയുഗം] in Malayalam. But the movie’s records and ads write it as Bramayugam [ ബ്രമയുഗം ] which would mean the yuga of Brama. Since Brama doesn’t mean anything in Malayalam, people like me will be tempted to understand it as the yuga of Brahma . In fact, that is how I understood it until Maggie corrected me before we set off to watch the movie by drawing my attention to the Malayalam spelling

Karma in Gita

I bought a copy of annotated Bhagavad Gita a few months back with the intention of understanding the scripture better since I’m living in a country that has become a Hindu theocracy in all but the Constitution. After reading the first part [chapters 1 to 6] which is about Karma, I gave up. Shelving a book [literally and metaphorically] is not entirely strange to me. If a book fails to appeal to me after a reasonable number of pages, I abandon it. The Gita failed to make sense to me just like any other scripture. That’s not surprising since I’m not a religious kind of a person. I go by reason. I accept poetry which is not quite rational. Art is meaningful for me though I can’t detect any logic in it. Even mysticism is acceptable. But the kind of stuff that Krishna was telling Arjuna didn’t make any sense at all. To me. Just a sample. When Arjuna says he doesn’t want to fight the war because he can’t kill his own kith and kin, Krishna’s answer is: Fight. If you are killed, you win he

Kabir the Guru - 1

Kabirvad Kabirvad is a banyan tree in Gujarat. It is named after Kabir, the mystic poet and saint of the 15 th century. There is a legend behind the tree. Two brothers are in search of a guru. They have an intuitive feeling that the guru will appear when they are ready for it. They plant a dry banyan root at a central spot in their courtyard. Whenever a sadhu passes by, they wash his feet at this particular spot. Their conviction is that the root will sprout into a sapling when their guru appears. Years pass and there’s no sign of any sapling. No less than four decades later, the sapling rises. The man who had come the previous day was a beggarly figure whom the brothers didn’t treat particularly well though they gave him some water to drink out of courtesy. But the sapling rose, after 40 years! So the brothers went in search of that beggarly figure. Kabir, the great 15 th century mystic poet, had been their guest. The legend says that the brothers became Kabir’s disciples. The b

Raising Stars

Bringing up children is both an art and a science. The parents must have certain skills as well as qualities and value systems if the children are to grow up into good human beings. How do the Bollywood stars bring up their children? That is an interesting subject which probably no one studied seriously until Rashmi Uchil did. The result of her study is the book titled Raising Stars: The challenges and joys of being a Bollywood parent . The book brings us the examples of no less than 26 Bollywood personalities on how they brought up their children in spite of their hectic schedules and other demands of the profession. In each chapter, the author highlights one particular virtue or skill or quality from each of these stars to teach us about the importance of that aspect in bringing up children. Managing anger, for example, is the topic of the first chapter where Mahima Chowdhary is our example. We move on to gender equality, confidence, discipline, etc, and end with spirituality whi

Kabir the Guru – 2

Read Part 1 of thi s here . K abir lived in the 15 th century. But his poems and songs are still valued. Being illiterate, he didn’t write them. They were passed on orally until they were collected by certain enthusiasts into books. Vipul Rikhi’s book, Drunk on Love: The Life, Vision and Songs of Kabir , not only brings the songs and poems together in one volume but also seeks to impart the very spirit of Kabir to the reader. Kabir is not just a name, the book informs us somewhere in the beginning. Kabir is a tradition. He is a legend, a philosophy, poetry and music. I would add that Kabir was a mystic. Most of his songs have something to do with spirituality. They strive to convey the deep meaning of reality. They also question the ordinary person’s practice of religion. They criticise the religious leaders such as pandits and mullahs. Though a Muslim, Kabir was immensely taken up by Ram, the Hindu god, for reasons known only to him perhaps. Most of the songs are about the gr