Antipodes Ethical & Epistemic: Dualities in East & West

As modern westerners we swim through moral dualism like gold-fishes in water: basically unbeknownst. Despite the ascent of a secular, rational, scientific worldview over the last centuries, the remnant of a religious cosmology continues to inform our world-view. Naturally, Christianity is the preëminent font of dualistic moral scaffolding for western civilization today. The Christian religion stands out even amongst her sisters in the Abrahamic triad for her emphasis on such spiritual dualism. Neither Judaism nor Islam places such emphasis on Good & Evil, nor unravels such a polar cosmology as, for example, Dante described with his Divina commedia, with meager middle Earth suspended between the counterpositional realms of inferno & paradiso:

O gente umana, per volar sù nata,
perché a poco vento così cadi?

“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?”

—(Canto XII, lines 95-96)

It is interesting to note that although Christianity shares more than half of its cannon with its elder sister—the Torah is substantially identical with Ye Old Testament—orthodox Judaism nevertheless scarcely pays any heed to the cosmological dichotomy of Heaven & Hell, nor pits God against Satan as irrecovable opponents. An historical inquiry indeed reveals an extra-Semitic source of this peculiar duality in the Christian faith: the cultural influence of an ancient Persian religion, called Zoroastrianism. The teachings of Zoroastrianism’s singular prophet, Zoroaster or Zarathustra, conceived of a moral duality, which it presented in the personification of two cosmological powers:
Ahura Mazda or Ormuzd as the principle of Good,
& Ahriman or Aingra Maynu as the figurehead of Evil.

Zoroaster’s mythopoetic externalisation of these inimical bedfellows of the human soul was a conception that the institution of Roman Catholicism later assimilated, and which subsequent sects & denominations passively received by phylogenetic inheritance.

It is illuminating to consider the Oriental counterpart to Zoroaster’s spiritual bifurcation. In Hinduism & Buddhism, no such flagrant opposition between good & evil is to be found. Instead of a moral opposition, one discovers rather the fundamental division to be an epistemological one. The Oriental tradition recognizes a fundamental cleft between vidya & avidyainsight & ignorance,
or alternatively, truth & error
whence Gautama Buddha later derived the resulting conditions of sāmsāra & nirvāna:
liberation & suffering.
Buddha’s teachings, follow as the inevitable consequences of basic clarity or basic confusion. In other words, the result of error is suffering and the moral reflection of it is evil.

It is essentially ERROR, therefore, and not EVIL that confronts virtue as its unhappy counterpart in the Eastern model. On the surface, such a conception seems to contrast sharply with the Christian notion. To sin, is after all, to do evil; to “commit an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it. Nevertheless, the mythic externalization of good & evil simply conceals a more essential opposition inside the human spirit; behind the veneer of the former lies the same perennial duality that the Eastern tradition recognizes. In short, the duality of good & evil is that of truth & error only mythically represented, & externalized—a moral projection of an epistemological divide.

That spiritual traditions of the Orient should provide us with an introspective framework, while those of the West with an extroverted one, is entirely characteristic of their native orientations, respectively. We must, after all, credit the latter with the greater part of the scientific advancement of the last centuries. The East, conversely, deserves commensurate recognition for a concomitant bloom of spiritual technologies—yoga, tai chi, & meditation, for example. NASA’s expeditions into far reaches of the solar system reflect in outer space the investigations yogis made into inner space already in primeval epochs. Nevertheless, the divergent inquiries of these two great traditions conceal an esoteric confluence. Just as Columbus intended to reach the East by sailing westward, or if you stare straight into the sun you become blind (i.e. the greatest light makes everything appear dark), so the pinnacle & the fundament of the spiritual traditions of both East & West share a secret identity. In the next piece, we will examine the possibility that language may offer to trace this exoteric difference backwards through time to a common origin, like a trail of linguistic bread-crumbs through the forests of history, perchance to happen upon a Rivendell of rapprochement between these apparent rivals.

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