Search & Read
The Wages of Sin Is Death
When I was a kid I used to try to puzzle out the meaning of the words on a big sign on one of the local Christian churches: “The wages of sin is death!” I had no idea what sin was even though the numerous Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who regularly rang our doorbell informed me that I was a sinner and exhorted me and my family to take Jesus into our hard agnostic hearts. As far as I knew my heart was full of blood and there was no room for Jesus. In any case, as I got more mature I came to have an appreciation of what this statement means, if not for the crude way it was formulated.
I was recently invited to South Africa to give some Vedanta talks. One of the organizers had a friend who had seen my videos and who invited us to visit her farm. She had her pilot pick us up at a small airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg in a four-seater Piper Cherokee and off we went bouncing on the air currents to her vacation home in the lower veld. As we circled the small dirt runway I saw a giraffe nibbling the foliage of a tree and several zebra grazing nearby.
Her home was absolutely stunning. I cannot imagine a more beautiful place in the world, far from nuclear crises and Arab dictators. A warren of dirt tracks which we traversed in a Toyota Land Cruiser provided easy access to the bush. After some time we came across a giraffe. She stared at us and we stared at her and a good time was had by all. About twenty minutes later we encountered a two-ton rhino peacefully munching its way across the veld. I still find it hard to believe that any creature could convert gossamer strands of grass into two tons of flesh but God works in mysterious ways. At one bend in the road we came across a bull elephant stripping the leaves from a small tree and a bit later a herd of Cape buffalo with two albino calves. Gradually it fell dark and we got out the big lights to continue our search. Just as we were nearly home we got lucky and spotted a large lioness skulking through the grass in the direction of a herd of impala whose eyes glowed like stars as they reflected our lights. We took it easy and sat quietly not twenty feet away waiting for her to spring into action. But after ten minutes we realized that she was not terribly serious. The ranger drove right up and we shone the lights on her for a good look. She was not bothered in the least and looked at us with complete indifference. Eventually we had our fill and left. When I got back a group of young mongooses were enjoying themselves on the deck chasing each other here and there.
In the veld the topic of conversation always includes a reference to the Big Five animals – lions, leopards, rhinos, wildebeests and elephants – and then evolves to birds, snakes, monkeys, insects, etc. and how humans interact with them on their own turf. One of my desires when I came was to take long walks into the veld but I quickly realized that we were in effect prisoners in our elegant lodge. I had always thought of myself as situated at the top of the food chain but it immediately became apparent that I was further down the list than I realized. Fortunately, the excellent company made it easy to accept my reduced status and I never wandered more than fifty meters from the lodge.
It so happens that people down here raise lions for hunting purposes. Evidently foreigners will pay exorbitant sums to bag a lion. It makes my blood boil but I have already had my “what is this world coming to?” rant so I will get on with my story. Whether it is due to my nature or to the fact that I was raised by the town judge, I have always had a refined sense of injustice. I really do feel that the human race is making a big mess of it. No animal except perhaps the hedgehog shits in its own nest and then happily lives in it. My heart weeps when I see roadkill. While the myriad injustices inflicted on our benign creation by the featherless biped has not unsettled my sunny disposition, it has given me what I can only call an understandable, if perverse, sense of humor. One of my favorite news items is what I call a “nature strikes back” story.
I tend to root for the underdog, so in the eternal and not always pleasant contest between man and beast I’m for the wild things, hands down. I find it difficult not to find considerable comfort, if not downright glee, when nature wins a few rounds. I positively love it when a tiger munches a few Indian villagers, a mountain lion takes out a yuppie rancher riding his fancy palomino into the back country or a bull sticks a nice big horn in the gut of an arrogant matador. I read in the paper in South India last December about a temple elephant who evidently got fed up taking one-rupee coins from devotees and passing them on to his mahout. To express its displeasure it grabbed a devotee with its trunk and stomped the living daylights out of him. Last night I heard a good one and thought it suitable for this blog, although I suppose it comes under the heading of dvaita (duality) rather than advaita (non-duality).
According to Vedanta, a “sin” is any addiction or compulsion that brings suffering and disrepute on an individual. I suppose the Japanese have all the seven deadly sins like the rest of us but one stands out in bas relief and falls under the category commonly called greed. The particular form their greed takes is universally known; they have an inveterate and irrational need to consume landscapes, people – literally, anything – with their digital cameras. Nothing wrong with any vice in moderation – my guru’s wise teaching was to “sin intelligently” – but the Japanese craving for digital images is, not to put too fine a point on it, obscene in the extreme and sometimes leads to disaster, as well it should.
This is from the local paper some time ago, according to my host. It so happens that a car with a couple of Japanese tourists traveling in South Africa came across a game park. A sign informed the public that the lions were dangerous. The visitors came across some lions resting near the road. It seems one tourist was overcome with picture-greed and strode into the field toward the lions with his shutter clicking while one remained in the vehicle. Discretion, it seems, was not the better part of valor and the lions, always opportunists, promptly dispatched and ate said tourist as the companion filmed them from the car. Lions one, tourists nil. Go team go!