Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

October 9, 2017

In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:

And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.

This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.

Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.

According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.

What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.

The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”

The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.

Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.

The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”

Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.

Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:

… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”

This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.

I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.

And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:

  • The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
  • As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.

suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.

Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:

Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.

Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.

And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.

I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.

The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.

But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.

Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?

More Soviet Russian Advertising

August 7, 2011


In soviet Kanchi, job hunts you!

Massage Parlour Madness

July 1, 2010

In Hyderabad, Commissioner of Police AK Khan has discovered that brothels often advertise themselves as massage parlours because, well, advertising themselves as brothels is illegal. He has swung into action and it is now illegal in Hyderabad for masseurs to massage women, and masseuses to massage men.

I really want to know what happens when Commissioner Khan finds out about gay prostitutes. Will the ban then be extended to all massage parlours? That will be kind of awesome. Hyderabad has already had alcohol prohibition – then it will have massage prohibition as well. Every weekend, really rich Hyderabadis will fly to Singapore or Kochi for their massages. For the merely moderately rich ones, massage parlours will spring up as soon as the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation limit ends. In fact, Y Rajeev Reddy will set up a Country Club with a massage parlour just outside municipal limits for this very purpose, and unleash ads showing him thumbs-upping next to a bevy of massage professionals.

Alternately, things could get all 1930s US-Prohibition style. News of massage parlours would circulate surreptitiously through word of mouth (or in these days, private facebook groups and twitter direct messages). People would go there in ones or twos, knock on an unmarked door, give a password and be let in for a massage. In case of a police raid, they will flee out the back door, leaving oil and towels in disarray.

Moreover, now that there is a beef ban in Karnataka, a massage ban in Hyderabad, and a virtual ban on decent booze in Tamland, the potential for a three-way smuggling operation is immense. Saileshbhai and Kalpeshbhai must be salivating.

Smoking Some Strong Shit

June 30, 2010

Continuing with Commonwealth Games ranting, for all the noise the Delhi Government is making about how it will be a massive tourist event and how there will be a hotel shortage, I’m yet to actually see any news story with evidence for this. In the past six months, Google News has shown me lots of stories about the Delhi Government encouraging people to turn their houses into homestays, but none about hotel room rates actually rising. No stories about special charter flights to Delhi either. The ticket sales have been okay, but hardly runaway hits; and a lot of the tickets being sold are being bought locally. The ticket sales aren’t a runaway sellout success either.

This week there was finally an indication that one particular industry seems to think that there will be a tourist influx with the Commonwealth Games. Mid-Day Delhi reports:

The growers of Malana cream, arguably the best hash in the world, are working overnight to ensure that they are ready to harvest their crop this year in time for the Commonwealth Games, which is being touted by the drug mafia in the hill state as the big ticket event for selling the hash.

A hash grower in Manali told MiD DAY over phone that there have been frequent visits from agents of the local drug mafia, enquiring about the growth of the crop and telling him that he should be ready for an early harvest this year.

“Usually last weeks of September or first week of October is our harvesting season. But they have been asking us to get ready to harvest early this year, as Commonwealth Games are scheduled for the first week of October,” he said, requesting anonymity.


This is the first story of anybody who is not part of the Delhi government actually ramping up production or capacity or whatever for the Games. It’s also so far the only story, which makes me wonder if the growers have been smoking their own fine produce. Or possibly the Mid-Day reporter has. Which, given what we know of the Mid-Day’s choice of stories, is quite possible.

Candy Shop Jokes Will Not Be Tolerated

March 21, 2010

In its latest attempt to ensure that the Marathi Manoos is provided a fuckall low-skill low-wage job, the MNS is now demanding that Bollywood producers stop using foreigners as backup dancers (or, you know, just sitting around in a nightclub) in song shoots and instead only employ local junior artists. If the producers cave, we will probably see a return to the days of the 80s or early 90s. It will be glorious, as the video below shoes:

Of far more interest was Rakhi Sawant’s reaction. She said that white girls are like lollipops that last only two days.

The mind boggles. I’ve never had a lollipop last more than ten minutes. Even in the glamorous west, lollipops have never gone beyond all-day suckers (which, as William pointed out, did not actually last all day). Where on earth does Rakhi Sawant buy her confectionery?

The whole affair forms one of the bizarre circular connects that eventually lead up to APJ Abdul Kalam that Pune Quizzing is so fond of. That is;

  • Rakhi Sawant was once assaulted by bhangrapop singer Mika…
  • who shares his name with Freddy Mercury soundalike Mika…
  • who has performed a song called Lollipop
  • which is something that Rakhi Sawant has compared foreign girls to…
  • Foreign Girls are also cheerleaders in IPL Twenty20…
  • 2020 is the date for APJ Abdul Kalam’s vision

The whole affair is bewildering, but on the plus side, it’s left me with Mika’s Lollipop stuck in my head. I might as well pass it on. Enjoy:

Chaand Sitaare

June 24, 2009

Mayank Austen Soofi performs a service to humanity, and informs us about Prince Kamakhya Singh, who in addition to having a psychic connection with Nicole Kidman, owns the sky and everything in it:

“I’m the single owner of the sun rays, the moon rays, the stars that shine in the night, and the entire sky,” the Prince noted as I was helping myself with buttered toast. “They all are individually owned by me and I’ve legal papers by the Rajasthan High Court as proof.”

(The Delhi Walla)

The implications of this are staggering.

Will solar plant operators have to pay him royalties for the use of the sunrays? If tidal activity causes damage at ports, is Kamakhya Singh liable as owner of the moonrays? Is it limited or unlimited liability?

And what about astrology? If he owns all the stars that shine in the night, can people who are going through Shani dasha appeal to him to help them out?

And all the lyricists who write songs about getting the beloved the stars or the moon – are they aware that they have been describing criminal activities?

But seriously, why did the man go to the courts to establish his claim? Is there an existing property dispute over the sunrays and moonrays? The idea that there are multiple people trying to claim ownership over the sunrays makes the mind boggle. And if there is no dispute, why the hell does he need the court to give its stamp of authority? It reminds me of the furore over getting the Central government to declare Kanadda a classical language – I mean, if it’s a classical language why does it need a Central government certificate?

The Chiranjeevi Metric for Success

June 19, 2009

I was reading the April 2008 issue of the Asian Institute of Transport Development’s Journal of Transport and Infrastructure yesterday. Yes, I am that far behind on my reading, and yes I do read journals on transport for fun. It was a special issue on Public-Private Partnerships, and had a paper on Hyderabad’s suburban rail system and its planned Metro.

Describing the efforts taken to design the MMTS network and the MMTS stations to make them as convenient and appealing as possible for commuters – bus bays for the feeder buses, seats on the station platforms, station beautification – it concluded with this line: Net effects of these stations and trains is validated by the fact that most of the Telugu movies have at least one scene shot in an MMTS station or train or both.

It was the first time in five years that inflight reading made me laugh out loud.

Microsoft CIBAI

June 3, 2009

Apparently twitterers in Singapore and Malaysia discovered an old project called CIBAI yesterday and started sniggering because cibai is a Hokkien slang term for vagina.

Someone from Microsoft then helpfully clarified that CIBAI was an acronym for Class Invariants By Abstract Interpretation, was something one a Microsoft researcher had worked on independently, and that the concidence was unintentional and they will look into removing the acronym from the website shortly.

Soon, Eve Ensler will demand to know why Microsoft is embarassed by this and why Cibai should not be an appropriate name for a technology.

Voting for WTFness

April 30, 2009

Although India’s mainstream political parties are WTF enough – banning computerisation, resisting improved diplomatic relations with the US, asking if loyalty to the Gandhi family counts for nothing, and thinking that a Ram temple is India’s greatest preoccupation come to mind – for true, diamond-hard, industrial strength WTF-ness you have to look at the fringe parties and candidates.

Starting with the Pyramid Party of India.

The name itself is weird enough and brings to mind Amway distributors or Ponzi schemes. But their Wikipedia entry (which seems to be self-written) helpfully informs us that their political agenda surpasses all expectations raised by the name:

The “ Pyramid Party of India ” is formed to transform all the People of India into meditators, enlightened persons, vegetarians and peace loving people during our current life-time itself through the methodology of the Electoral Process !

The Pyramid Party of India, formed in the year 1999, participated in the General Elections for the first time in the State of Andhra Pradesh in more than 50 constituencies and polled several hundreds of votes per constituency. Again, in the year 2004 it was General Elections time and again it was time to participate in the elections and to spread the twin concepts of vegetarianism and meditation. This time it was nearly a hundred constituencies ! And, thousands of votes were polled for the Pyramid Party per constituency !

The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, firmly believed that the best form of government was one ruled by an individual possessing the greatest ability, knowledge, and virtue. And, the highest knowledge is possessed by that individual who truly knows himself. This knowledge constitutes ultimate wisdom. It enables man to act in a virtuous manner at all times, because he knows what will bring him true happiness. And the highest good for any human being is happiness.

This essential Socratic Teaching is the Founding Theme for the “Pyramid Party of India” conceptualized for the first time in the year 1998 by Brahmarshi Patriji and actualized in the year 1999 by the PSSM.

Wow. But let’s not forget about the Humanist Party of India. They plan to put the mass media at the service of the cultural debate, ban authoritarianism, compulsion and separation of sexes, leave the discriminatory WTO, nationalise foreign banking and commerce, and eliminate hospital fees. On the other hand, they also plan to give land and agricultural rights to tribals and farmers, which is a start.

My favourite, though, is the independent candidate from South Delhi BP Pandey. According to the short Hindustan Times writeup on Mr Pandey (can’t find it online anywhere), he believes that all that is wrong with India today is happening because the gods have abandoned it. Therefore, if elected he will win back the favour of the gods and free Indian from demonic influence by building 108 temples.

This is magnificent. I wonder if BP Pandey is a relative of Acharya Somuchidononanda Pandey. I appeal to Mayank Austen Soofi to provide a great service to humanity and interview BP Pandey as soon as possible. Inquiring minds want to know more about this great man.

Vot a Big… Castle!

April 30, 2009

This Dealbreaker story is awesome. Citi has very few profitable divisions right now, and the people who run them are demanding massive bonuses to stay on and ensure that they stay profitable. But after all the outrage over the AIG bonuses, Vikram Pandit is pre-emptively going to Obama to ask for permission.

The political palatability of giving out the bonuses is, alas, very low because one of the people doing the demanding owns a castle. Seriously. An actual 1000 year old castle outside Hanover.

You might be asking yourself what an investment banker does with a castle. In these times it’s excellent risk management. After all battlements are more reliable than presidents when a mob shows up with pitchforks.