On Religious Militarism, and the Phenomenon of the Triumphal Procession
An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, and fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is bullshit. The bilious bastards who write that stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don't know any more about real battle than they do about fucking. And we have the best team—we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity these poor bastards we're going up against. —General George S. Patton, inspiring his troops to fight before the D-Day invasion
We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. —George Orwell
Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it. —Mark Twain
Not long ago an Eastern European fellow who is subscribed to my channel on Minds.com (a kind of “alt-Facebook”) asked me to say a few things about public military spectacles, and how they affect the mind of a patriotic citizen, and whether or not the feelings evoked have any spiritual or religious value. At the time it was Victory Day in Russia, a celebration of the then USSR’s herculean victory over National Socialist Germany, and to this day the Russians take very great pride in that victory, and attend military parades and sing patriotic songs, and thereby bask in their nation’s glory and at the same time warn the whole world not to fuck with Mother Russia. So his question had that as a backdrop. Is that sort of thing of any spiritual value? That, at least, was one aspect of his question.
His request for my perspective on the issue, being that of a non-Russian who is somewhat of a contemplative person and a student of human nature, also included my take on Russia specifically, especially during the Second World War; although I really don’t know enough about the Russian psyche to wade into that. I really wouldn’t know what goes through the heart and mind of a patriotic Russian on Victory Day, never having attended a military parade in this lifetime, that I can remember. (Maybe seeing the Blue Angels at a celebration would come closest? Maybe a big 4th of July fireworks display? I dunno.) Most of what I know about the Russian spirit is probably derived from reading 19th century Russian novels, especially those written by Dostoevsky. I have, however, occasionally discussed Operation Barbarossa and the Third Reich’s failure to conquer the USSR a few times with Herr Brian Ruhe, including once lately, although that is more from a perspective of military strategy and not religion, or even psychology, except perhaps for the psychology of Adolf Hitler and his generals.
So this little essay will address the issue of religious militarism in general, and in particular the kind of exaltation felt by people who attend spectacles celebrating the victories and military might of their own nation. From a Buddhist point of view it’s pernicious heresy, I suppose, and I as a monk am forbidden by Vinaya even to attend such events; but the orthodox Buddhism of ancient India is very uncompromising with regard to ethics, and is directed primarily toward homeless celibate renunciant ascetics; so I will consider the issue more from a relative, worldly, secular (yet still more or less spiritual) perspective.
Before moving away from Russia, though, I will observe that the Russians appear to have a centuries-long tradition of dying en masse during brutal invasions and occupations yet finally being victorious, due to a grim (or maybe exultant, I don’t know) refusal to surrender and the effectiveness of their two great invasion-destroying commanders, the months January and February. It may be that the Russians have more of an emotional investment in their victories considering how costly they tend to be with regard to human lives lost and general mayhem, destruction, and misery. Also, the Russians appear to be a people of deep feeling anyway. Plus in some ways they may be less “up to date” (read “decadent”) than people living farther west, and so they may still harbor some archaic sentiments of nationalistic honor that liberalism and feminism have almost totally wiped out of more western cultures.
(To give just one example of the dying like flies motif in Russian history, in the Battle of Stalingrad alone some two million people died, most of them Russians. I’m too lazy to look it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many more Russians died in that one prolonged battle than all American military personnel who died in combat in all the history of the USA. Though not all of the people who died in Stalingrad were soldiers; some were simply unfortunate beings who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
I will also observe that before the Second World War the Russians may very well have taken some pride, maybe even to the point of public celebrations, in stopping Napoleon I; after all, Hitler was essentially Napoleon 2.0. And before Napoleon the Russians could have taken pride in ultimately defeating any number of evil invaders, not the least of which being the Mongol/Turkic Golden Horde.
So anyway, I will address the issue of feelings of religious exaltation regarding militarism and war; which really is not as abominable as it may sound to a civilized postmodern liberal.
Just for starters, war itself can be a profound, even religious experience for those with a mind robust enough to accept its stark brutality. Some soldiers in past ages, even into modern times, have considered being on a raging battlefield to be preferable to anything else in life, including sex. A feeling of danger and immanent deadly forces can heighten one’s alertness and sense of aliveness, and thereby expand one’s consciousness—which is why the great meditation master venerable Ajahn Mun of Siam/Thailand advised his monk disciples always to live in dangerous places, like tiger-infested jungles. Some people have found dangerous sports like mountain climbing, motorcycle racing, or bar brawling to be addictive because such activities absolutely require intense mindfulness, alertness, and an expansion of awareness, because even a momentary slip of attention can mean sudden disaster. They very much appreciate the experience of higher consciousness, and rely on the dangerous activities to inspire it. Sexuality also can inspire heightened consciousness and even mild religious or mystical experiences if done “skillfully,” and with the right person. Even so, such activities tend to be frowned upon in advanced Buddhist teachings; if one can cultivate the alertness and sublimation of ego without the gimmick of warfare or hanging from cliffs or getting naked with another lustful person, then that is best, according to Buddhist ethics.
Also, of course, martial spirit and the celebration of manliness and courage has been pretty much universal to the human race up until feminized liberal civilization began sternly disapproving of it, especially for white people. It was accepted as an integral part of any noble mentality, including a noble religious (though still worldly and social) mentality, especially among males of the species. Even some of the most ancient Buddhist texts indulge in martial language and imagery, with the ascetic monk viewed as a kind of nonviolent spiritual warrior. The Buddha himself is believed to have been a member of the warrior class; and all his ordained followers, that is Buddhist monastics, are considered to be honorary Kshatriyas as well, being Sons of the Sakyan. And then of course in Christianity there was the concept of the Church Militant, Holy War, and eventually military monastic orders like the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. And we needn’t go into the obviously warlike nature of early (and much later) Islam.
I am reminded of Julius Evola’s statements to the effect that our ancient Aryan ancestors were Olympian heroes, virtual demigods with exalted magnanimity or nobility of spirit, who rendered everything they did spiritual and exalted, even the waging of war and the shedding of blood. This attitude largely ended in the west with the advent of Christianity as a practical religious monopoly, and the consequent fragmentation of natural human phenomena into categories of good and evil, virtue and sin.
The culture heroes of the pre-Christian west were men of action and often of violence, like Heracles, Hector, and Alexander; war and killing were accepted as basic elements of human existence, so they were exercised by the wise in a philosophical or even religious manner. Some of these ancient heroes, like Heracles, were even deified and made the focus of religious cults.
Every ancient tribe or nation had its gods of war (such as Ares, Mars, Athena, Nike/Victoria, Bellona, Tíw of the Germans, from whom we get Tuesday, Odin, Valkyries, and on and on), and its code of honor. The pagan Roman legions considered their eagle standards to be literally sacred and divine, and priests of Mars officiated on the field of battle. The great epics that became the foundation of national literature were largely tales of war, like the Iliad in Europe and the highly spiritualized battle epics of Hindu India; the legendary Kurukshetra War of ancient north India was morphed into a spiritual parable of light vs. darkness, even though the war itself was, in all probability, just a war like many others.
|an anachronistic modern depiction of Bellona, Roman goddess of war|
The triumph of ancient Rome was a religious rite as well as a civil ceremony: the procession itself ended at the temple of Capitoline Jove, where two white bulls were sacrificed and a share of the spoils was offered up to the god Jupiter, in thanksgiving and the typical pagan goal of maintaining the Pax Deorum, or the nation’s peaceful harmony with the gods. Also, during a triumph all temples in the sacred city were to be open, making the rite a religious holy day dedicated to all the gods as well as a celebration of a great victory and its executor. At a lower level the triumphant general or consul or Emperor was traditionally treated as a semidivine being for one day, wearing a gold-emboidered purple toga like images of Jupiter wore, and sometimes, at least in the early days of the Republic, the celebrated leader would have his face painted red, again like images of the King of Gods.
In addition to all this, of course, the triumph was a nationalistic celebration of the greatness and glory of the nation and its people. Ironically this aspect of the spectacle may have inspired more transcendent religious feeling than the sacrifices and ceremonies at the temples. In addition to feelings of reverence and gratitude towards one’s own tribal gods, the procession and associated celebrations no doubt also inspired a loss of individuality as one merged with the collective might, glory, spirit, and blood of one’s own people. Also the excitement engendered by the spectacle itself may have heightened the participant’s level of awareness and vitality to some extent, rather like the addictive danger sports mentioned above.
That feeling of exaltation as one’s selfhood expands and merges into something greater may be the most really spiritual aspect of a military spectacle, or of romantic love and sex also; it is viewed as a vulgar and inferior approach to transcendence by orthodox Buddhism, but still it is there, and to some extent quite valid. It does not result in total selflessness, however, but an immersion into a greater self—and thereby, I suppose, into a greater if more exalted delusion for all but the very few who can rise above even that. So as an aspect of secular religion the cultivation of an exultant group mind may be valid, but it certainly has limitations, and is less likely to get someone fully enlightened than, say, meditating and practicing austerities alone in a wilderness.
With regard to modern times, militarism in particular is quickly becoming obsolete in the western world, in part simply because our weapons are becoming so devastating that a war could easily destroy most of the life on this planet. For that reason alone the glorification of one’s nation’s military might, or militarism in general, may now be effectively suicidal. But still nationalistic pride is feasible, and even seems to be beginning a comeback as globalism continues to disgrace itself.
Nationalism is a kind of advanced tribalism, and is bitterly hated by the neo-Marxist Social Justice “progressive” left (as though decline and fall were progress), but it arguably has real advantages over the universal alienation of individualism and the attempted cultural homogenization of globalist cosmopolitanism. It arguably makes a society and a nation stronger, at least potentially; and furthermore it is more natural to the average human being, being a member of a species evolved to be a tribal animal. Also, the limited selflessness of identifying with one’s people does have some spiritual value, and is easier to accomplish, coming naturally, than some enlightened globalist alternative of everyone simply merging into the human race—or just a neo-Marxist system of alienated, indoctrinated, degenerate sheeple in a Brave New World Order.
Some no doubt would argue that this sentiment is nothing more than mob mentality, a kind of mass hysteria—which is largely true. Similar arguments are made against the seeming insanity of a person deeply, “madly” in love, who sees another person, someone seemingly ordinary or maybe even unattractive to most observers, as a breathtaking manifestation of divinity and perfection and loveliness.
But with the crowd at a public spectacle, and with the fellow in love, the insanity is not necessarily worse than the usual (in many cases even more insane) state; feelings of exaltation and expansion are uplifting and good feelings; they are states of expanded consciousness and open acceptance, and involve some degree of actual love and/or wisdom. (In the case of the person in love, it is generally only saints who see others as manifestations of divinity and perfection—that is, of God.)
The problem is, though, that such states make a person more suggestible, and thus vulnerable to changes for the worse as well as for the better. So the value of the mental states evoked at, say, a large nationalistic celebration will depend on the surrounding conditions. An exultant crowd overflowing with feelings of joy and tribal brotherhood can easily devolve into a howling mob, under easily orchestrated circumstances.
So personally I think an increase in national pride, if not tanks and missile launchers rolling down city streets with goose-stepping soldiers, brass bands, and cheering crowds, is a healthy thing for a society, even if it isn’t good for a spiritual renunciant (as a monk I am forbidden by the rules of monastic discipline from even going to see such a military spectacle). The American national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” is a small example of vestiges of this sentiment persisting in the 21st century American psyche, as is respect for veterans, as well as even team spirit in competitive sports among the spectators as well as the players. Probably an increase in such sentiments would be beneficial to the increasingly emasculated, faint-hearted, and self-loathing west. I personally would be glad to see it, even if I attend no military parades.
As it has been turning out lately, however, the United States, like many other western nations, is polarizing into two separate tribes, or maybe one tribe vs. one cult. This may be advantageous in the long run however, as the stronger tribe will very probably wind up gloriously triumphant, and it’s hardly likely to be the culturally castrated cult of globalized, socialized Social Justice.
Appendix: The Questions That Generated This Post
By the way (I'm very sorry for spamming, Dharma delete the comment if you want) today is the 75th anniversary of the official end of the Second World War (at least for the Russians) so I would just to say:
С Днём Победы! [S Dnom Pobedy! Happy Victory Day!]
and to ask you would you consider writing something about the significance of the Second world war for the world we live in and could you spare a word or two to tell me what do you think of the berated communist (and unfortunately still Russian) habit of parading on the streets every year they juked the Nazis to show that anyone else can be welcomed to join them (including the Yankees) in the junk of history if they dare attack Russia?
I know that's not directly related to the theme of the article but after all could you imagine any other regime (else than communistic or fascist one) turning a military victory into their practically National holiday and making huge parades and strong words each and every year to both show its people they are indefeatable and its enemies they "should" have to fear them? I think that as a man of culture you can understand the huge significance this date plays on the Russian mind and as someone informed into the inner workings of the human spirit you could find a word or two to describe the enormous psychological shock and sense of pride through which the Russian mind goes through each year and connect it to the communist history of the celebration, perhaps by digesting it through the lens of a Westerner? Could you?
I mean I don't want to advise you on what to write about but I should say I would be extremely curious how could a well educated Westerner (especially one that is a Buddhist monk, too) would describe the huge tensions that this date, and the parade which follows it every year, generate on the human psyche?
What do you think of the Russian habit of throwing that huge parade each year to both bring up the spirit on the home front and to threaten all their potential enemies? Do you find it barbaric and cruel as military showdown always is associated with or do you think it has a deeper sensual philosophical meaning, perhaps something the Westerners could learn to appreciate to by starting to parade their own military might in public? I would be extremely curious what would be your take on that Russian/Eastern "tradition"?
Would you spare a few words on the matter?
Politically Incorrect Dharma
Well, I don't like to write about what I don't understand well and can't relate to, so the feelings in the Russian mind at seeing a military parade are something a Russian would understand much better than me. I think it is natural for people to take pride in the might and glory of their nation, even if it is mostly mythological, like the glory of the Israelites in the OT. The Burmese still celebrate their general Maha Bandoola, who was defeated by the British but put up one hell of a fight, mainly because none of their generals actually won a battle against the western colonialists. I will consider writing something about, say, the value of martial pride and desire for national military glory in humans in general, though of course the hearts of Russians are beyond me, as are the hearts of Germans attending a Nuremberg rally in the 1930s.
Yet, I would like to thank you for your reply Dharma. I really feel this date is something very special and to an extent-sacred in the Russian mind of today but its sacredness is not of the kind people usually associate with churches or religious traditions of any kind. It is difficult to explain in words and yet something very fundamental for every member of their nation and I just wondered what could a well educated Westerner, especially one with spiritual background, could say about it. But, perhaps, you would learn more in the future and be able to grasp the complex mixture of feelings that day and the march of the descendants as soldiers causes in the Russian hearts and their spiritual world.
I just wondered what would you think of such traditions from your own perspective and do you think military parades could be akin to religious acts? Can a show of force be interpreted as a sacred tradition cementing the past, the present and the future like a religious ceremony or do you think it would always be only a political maneuver to agitate the nation under one leader and show its potential enemies it is still strong? I mean that is really one "peculiar" Russian tradition which both has a religious connotations to it and is essentially a political act started by the communists to remind the people of their power and I just wondered what your perspectives would be on such an unique tradition? But if you don't want to tackle it I get it, it's fine.
Politically Incorrect Dharma
Part of the seeming dissonance between religion and displays of military might is the fact that Christianity took over the west. Before that, most Pagans had a god of war, and warfare could be considered a religious act. Evola was under the impression that our Aryan ancestors were godlike beings who rendered every act they partook of sacred, including shedding blood on the field of battle. The epic poems of India, especially the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are religious and also tales of glorious warfare. I suppose football games in America may be somewhat similar, in which aggression is converted into a kind of patriotic ritual.
Thank you for your answer. Could I show you something?
This is a version of probably one of the most important historical Russian songs of the period of the German invasion. The Russians love to sing it to this day. There are English subtitles provided to this one. Could you tell me what do you think of this song and the impression it makes? Do you think some of that warrior conquering Aryan spirit might have been left in the Eastern Whites? Could we have something that you, the Westerners have lost but our common ancestors did have? I mean I know some people will call this song communist propaganda but it was written in a time of utter desperation where the slogans of the party stopped sounding as appealing and when the Russian people turned on to themselves for inspiration to continue fighting, to continue resisting, to continue existing despite all and every difficulties. Can you tell me how such a melody sounds to the Western mind and do you think the Westerners can pull something like that up, if needs arises, or do you think they have lost all appreciation for the military sacred?
Thank you very much for your replies.
Politically Incorrect Dharma
Well, the music itself isn't much to my taste. Although I do think that sort of sentiment is common to the human race, partly a manifestation of instinctive tribalism. The west is more decadent I suppose, more feminized and inclined to see war as nothing but evil and wrong, although the American national anthem (The Star Spangled Banner) is a similar war song about the British attacking American soil. I suspect if the shit hits the fan in the west this sort of thing will come back into fashion. It will a little anyway because nationalism is returning to the west.
I hope it does for the better of your people.
Politically Incorrect Dharma
OK I suggested to Brian Ruhe that we do a show on your topic, and he's on board with it. So how about, if you please, formulating your question into a single sentence? There appear to be different ways of interpreting the question, like the validity of militarism and nationalism in a spiritual life, for example. Or more specifically the spiritual or religious value of the feelings evoked by a military parade or, say, the Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany (or even a hyped up sporting event).
I would suggest you ask Herr Ruhe, if you could, please, does he want to do a show on the purely spiritual aspects of warfare and the military tradition in the ancient Aryan culture or does he want to do a show on a more modern take of the question, like for example, citing the reasons why the Russians throw out this parade every year? If he goes for the ancient topic I suppose the conversation would go into a far different direction than if he goes for the modern one. If he goes for the ancient role of militarism in the Aryan culture the conversation would be centered on spirituality and the warrior archetype as part of our European ancient culture. However if he goes for the modern one I fear the conversation would go heavily into politics and that's a swamp here as well as it is in the West. What would he prefer?