I know what is right but I cannot do it; I know what is wrong but cannot desist from doing it.
– Duryodhana, The Mahabharata
*The definition of Cantus is ‘principle melody or voice’ which could tie back to the Mantra itself or the connection between the Mantra and PK power. The etymology of Cantus can also be traced back to cantus firmus, which is also associated with dharma.
illegenes: For the past 5 episodes, Shinsekai has followed and has focused on Buddhist teachings as a way to explain the way of order (and lack of it) in the natural world. However, upon watching this week’s episode, I was surprised to see that the show did not only follow Buddhist ideals, but Hindu ones as well. In fact, what I’ve noticed is that Shinsekai Yori specifically explores the relationship between adharma and dharma, two concepts that are integral to the understanding of Hinduism itself.
Dharma, according to the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, can be summed up as moral righteousness, or the law of conduct. Dharma is immovable, definitive, and absolute: it is the core of the universe, and regulates all laws of the universe, and is unbreakable. Thus, it is our duty to uphold the laws of Dharma – to contribute to the stability and order of the world. By following the code of Dharma, one is expected to gain protection and protect Dharma in return. If we choose not to follow dharma, adharma, or chaos, is created. Shinsekai toys with both aspects. In Episode 1 of Shinsekai, Saki’s ritual was none other than a ritual of Dharma. Saki exchanges her desire for worldly pleasures – represented by her Cantus* – and is given protection as she becomes a protector of Dharma. She then spends her life performing her duty to society: studying hard, listening to her teachers, not questioning the rules and performing well at school. She does not disrupt the stability of the society around her. Saki does what is expected of her, and thus she is protected, safe from the harm of the outside world.
However, despite absolving their sins, Saki and the other children eventually stray from their Dharma. Saki saves a queerat; someone from the lower caste, considered an Untouchable. This first mistake is kept secret, and so Saki is never punished for it. Unfortunately, this peace is short lived: the group breaks an essential law by straying further into the forest and witnessing a remarkable and dark truth; this grave sin is apparently resolved when the Priest once again seals the group’s canti with his ritual, preventing the children from committing sin again. But the deed has been done, the knowledge revealed. Corruption is permanent. It all brings up the question: can such a seal really prevent chaos, or adharma? Or is it innate nature? In order to understand the answer, we first have to turn to the reasoning of Satoru’s actions in Episode 6.
One of the well known fables of the Indian epic, Mahabharata, is the story of Yaksha Prashna (Yaksha’s Questions) which details the essence and structure of Dharma. One day, the Pandavas, upon trying to help a local Brahmin in trying to retrieve his stag with little success, sit down to take a break and relax. Hot, tired, but mostly thirsty, they send one of the brothers, Nakula, to look for some water. Nakula finds a lake nearby and proceeds to take some water for his family. However, before being able to enter the lake, he is stopped by a strange voice, who demands that he answers several questions before touching the water. Nakula decides to ignore the voice, and upon touching the water, collapses and died. After several hours, the four brothers grow concerned, wondering what might have happened: and so they send in the twin brother, Sahadeva, to figure out what happened. Sahadeva also finds the lake, his dead brother’s body, and the mysterious voice who tells him the same thing. He decides to ignore the warning and too, falls dead. Arjuna follows, but instead of answering the questions, only challenges them and then refuses to answer them; thus he dies as well. Bhima meet the same fate. Finally, the last brother, Yudhisthira, upon seeing the corpses of his beloved brothers, cries out to the voice and asks it what happened. The voice replies that its name is Yaksha, and that his four brothers died because they failed to answer his questions; Yudhisthira agrees to listen and answers to the best of his ability. Thus, the 120-question dialogue between Yaksha and Yudhisthira begins, and succinctly sums up the essence of Dharma and its importance to Hindu (and Buddhist) nature.
Some of that conversation can be used to explain the why and how of Saki giving Satoru back his Cantus, and Satoru undergoing a dramatic transformation. One of the questions Yaksha asks Yudhisthira in Yaksha Prashna is:
Yaksha: What is that thing which is like a Mantra in the performance of obligations (Yajnya)? Who is the performer of rites and ceremonies during Yajnya?
Yudhisthira: ‘Breath’ is like a Mantra in the performance of rites. ‘Mind’ is the performer of all rites in the course of Yajnya.
In this week’s Shinsekai, Saki releases Satoru’s Cantus with the same verse and ritual that was used to seal it in the first place. The mantra that is used to confine Satoru’s Cantus – his power of corruption and sin – is used again to unlock it. We must ask ourselves why the same chanting is used to release Satoru’s Cantus, along with his mantra, but as Yudhisthira says, the performance of rites does not depend on the actual content of what is said. It is the breath and mind. The intent. Saki intends on releasing Satoru from his mental and physical prison with the key of his Mantra – a phrase or word that is associated with the very identity and makeup of a human being. In doing so, she opens a Pandora’s Box, one with graver consequences than she imagined. From the minute Satoru unleashes his Cantus, he becomes a new person.
Yaksha: What, O king, is ignorance? And what is pride? What also is to be understood by idleness? And what has been spoken of as grief?
Yudhishthira: True ignorance consists in not knowing one’s duties. Pride is a consciousness of one’s own being as an enjoyer or sufferer in life. Idleness consists in discharging one’s duties, and ignorance is grief.
Idleness, Pride, and Ignorance – these are three elements associated with adharma, and Satoru, having regained his Cantus, becomes the living embodiment of them. He forgets about his duty of upholding the moral code of a PK user. He takes pleasure in wreaking havoc and causing pain to the enemy queerats. He is ignorant of the outcome of his ability and the stress it takes out on his body, which eventually leads to a sense of grief. Satoru becomes and spreads chaos, having succumbed to his internal desires and breaking the four cardinal virtues of Dharma: Non Violence, Truth, Purity, and Self Control.The consequence of this is unprecedented. Satoru becomes a dharma demon (similar to the karma demon explained in Episode 2) but more importantly, disrupts the balance internally and externally, burning forests and killing everything in sight. A major concept of Dharma is that if Dharma is protected, it will protect. However, if Dharma is harmed/destroyed, it will harm/destroy; and that is exactly what happens in Episode 6. This balance is compromised with the breaking of the pact. Satoru’s destructive actions only fan the flames of decay and unrighteousness. But more importantly is the fact that Satoru is aware of what he has become. He sees what he has accomplished and feels bad about it, and yet doesn’t do much to stop his behavior.
What has happened here? Our character has swayed from the righteous morals of Dharma to the corruptive and chaotic mess of Adharma, while still retaining Dharma-ist ideals. He is stuck between the two, and that is the real conflict. Interestingly enough, the Mahabharata also talks about how Dharma and Adharma, unlike Yin and Yang, can be mixed. Karna’s last words on the battlefield, after fighting so hard for his righteous ideals, are “Knowers of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect.” Similarly, when the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas begins, Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, is confronted with the dilemma that he must kill his own relatives to win the battle. Krishna, a Hindu god, comes to Arjuna and convinces him to act upon Dharma; he should perform his duty (to fight) and follow Dharma instead of disregarding it and causing Adharma. It is only until a long conversation that Arjuna finally picks up his weapons and kills them. The boundary between Dharma and Adharma can also be seen after the battle, when Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers, bitterly states that the Pandavas only won by cheating and scamming their way through power. Krishna does not deny this to him: justice is not always accomplished through idealistic ways, Krishna says. “There are limits to the extent an individual can be moral in an immoral society.” In other words, what is preached in Dharma opposes that which is practiced; the entire idea instills a sense of “us” versus “them.” In reality, there is no such line. The queerats’ behavior that Saki and society look down upon can be traced back to human violence which made society fall in the first place, as told by the Librarian. And yet, Satoru’s actions in this episode prove that he is no better. Dharma in all of its pure, uncorrupted form, does not truly exist. Dharma will give rise to Adharma; the corruption of a human being is a persistent threat that cannot be denied through the means of following the proper ideals and duty of the world. As Bhishma, the uncle to both the Pandavas and Kauravas, dies slowly after being shot by Arjuna, he tells Krishna: “Dharma becomes Adharma, Adharma becomes Dharma. This is the truth of the world.” There is no single line that separates Dharma and Adharma; the two are always mixed, in opposition and conflict, and that is the heart of Shinsekai Yori: the journey to Dharma is fraught with the continuous struggle to reach that balance. Pure duty does not exist, because every action has consequences, both moral and immoral.
Do Dharma and Adharma still exist despite intermingling so frequently then? I believe the answer to this is yes. Shinsekai may be dark in how it, like the Mahabharata, questions the actual line drawn between Dharma and Adharma, but I don’t think Shinsekai has abandoned the idea of moral principles altogether. The fact that Saki prevents herself from succumbing to her ‘innate’ sexual desire proves this. “We’re not monkeys,” she says, and while Shinsekai does narrate a deep conflict between the two concepts, it still, like the children, struggles to hold on to that last remainder of humanity – that power that makes us human: our choices. Will that struggle result in victory? Only time can tell.
(Next Time: Shinsekai and Violence/Sociology and Biology, covered by Wendeego and Steven.)