Briefly Noted: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, SS colonel Hans Landa or the “Jew Hunter”, reaches the home of a French dairy farmer looking for a Jewish family. The next few minutes are a typical Tarantino scene, where you know the end is not going to be good. For leaving his family alone, the farmer betrays the Jewish family hiding in his basement.
From the Dreyfus Affair (recently retold in An Officer and a Spy) to World War II and beyond,  Jews were never safe in France. Even now France is seeing a rise in antisemitism and an increase in aliyah. Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow starts with a bomb explosion in the Marais district of Paris, known for its large Jewish population. When the French find out that ISIS (“ISIS gave purpose to lost souls and promised an afterlife of eternal copulation“) is responsible for the attack, they request the help of Gabriel Allon, who is going to be Israel’s next intelligence chief. The only data point they know is that a man known as Saladin is responsible for this attack. They neither know his real name nor his nationality. To find out the real identity of Saladin, they need someone who can infiltrate ISIS.
Among all the books of Daniel Silva, this is probably the best. While rest of them are thrillers, this one grips you because of two things. One, he deals with a real problem and how the world is reacting to that. While the book was written prior to the Paris attacks, it resembles real events that happened recently.He ridicules President Obama, who called ISIS, al-Qaeda’s jayvee team and also people who call ISIS as un-Islamic.
Here is a paragraph from Greame Wood’s article in The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[What ISIS Really Wants]

Second, the book does not have much sub plots and hence the main plot grips you. Silva’s book ends with an attack on the American soil by ISIS sleeper cells and that is a real fear.

Benefits of studying religious texts

For the faithful, this question does not arise. For them, it is a sattvika yagya, that has to be performed without desire for results. Gita Ch 17.11 says this elegantly.

Here the final sattvika refers to the yagya, not a sattvik person. It is karmani prayoga.
The students of such yagya do it because it has to be done. Even if the practice increases the medha shakti, they don’t talk about it, nor do they publish papers to convince others.
Now we know that learning Vedas has an effect on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in improvements in  language, memory, and visual systems. Practicing formalized oral knowledge systems, such as the Vedas, resulted in improvements in  long-term and short-term memory.
The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World gives the following example of a student of Rabbinic Judaism. It is few paragraphs long, but worth reading.

To better understand how one masters the art of deep work, I suggest visiting the Knesses Yisroel Synagogue in Spring Valley, New York, at six a.m. on a weekday morning. If you do, you’ll likely find at least twenty cars in the parking lot. Inside, you’ll encounter a couple dozen members of the congregation working over texts—some might be reading silently, mouthing the words of an ancient language, while others are paired together debating. At one end of the room a rabbi will be leading a larger group in a discussion. This early morning gathering in Spring Valley represents just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews who will wake up early that morning, as they do every weekday morning, to practice a central tenet of their faith: to spend time every day studying the complex written traditions of Rabbinic Judaism.
I was introduced to this world by Adam Marlin, a member of the Knesses Yisroel congregation and one of the regulars at its morning study group. As Marlin explained to me, his goal with this practice is to decipher one Talmud page each day (though he sometimes fails to make it even this far), often working with a chevruta (study partner) to push his understanding closer to his cognitive limit.
What interests me about Marlin is not his knowledge of ancient texts, but instead the type of effort required to gain this knowledge. When I interviewed him, he emphasized the mental intensity of his morning ritual. “It’s an extreme and serious discipline, consisting mostly of the ‘deep work’ stuff [you write about],” he explained. “I run a growing business, but this is often the hardest brain strain I do.” This strain is not unique to Marlin but is instead ingrained in the practice—as his rabbi once explained to him: “You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.”
Unlike many orthodox Jews, Marlin came late to his faith, not starting his rigorous Talmud training until his twenties. This bit of trivia proves useful to our purposes because it allows Marlin a clear before-and-after comparison concerning the impact of these mental calisthenics—and the result surprised him. Though Marlin was exceptionally well educated when he began the practice—he holds three different Ivy League degrees—he soon met fellow adherents who had only ever attended small religious schools but could still “dance intellectual circles” around him. “A number of these people are highly successful [professionally],” he explained to me, “but it wasn’t some fancy school that pushed their intellect higher; it became clear it was instead their daily study that started as early as the fifth grade.”
After a while, Marlin began to notice positive changes in his own ability to think deeply. “I’ve recently been making more highly creative insights in my business life,” he told me. “I’m convinced it’s related to this daily mental practice. This consistent strain has built my mental muscle over years and years. This was not the goal when I started, but it is the effect.”

The Prime Minister and Cheraman Perumal

The Prime Minister of India tweets

Wish he had read the following before tweeting

  1. The myth of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion
  2. Unraveling the Cheraman Perumal Myth
  3. The Perumal and the Pickle
  4. A tale of two conversions
  5. Cheraman Perumal and the myths

In IndiaFacts: Review – Zealot by Reza Aslan

(The original version was published at IndiaFacts)

In 66 C.E., fed up with the Roman occupation of their land, the Jews declared war on the Roman Empire. Soldiers patrolled even in the temple of this supposedly inconsequential part of the empire. Imagine the anger Malayalis would have felt if Communists administered their temples and the state looted its wealth. Wait. Wrong example. Though Rome was a powerful empire, the Jews were confident that their God would take them to victory. Motivated by what looked like a possible victory, the rebels attacked Jews who colluded with the Romans. Many messiahs also appeared on the scene, prophesying the end of Jerusalem. Finally, the miracle happened; they liberated Jerusalem.
If any Carthaginians were around, they would have told the Jews that this was a bad idea. In 70 C.E., the empire struck back. They razed the city to the ground, slaughtered the Jews and exiled the survivors. They also renamed the city and erased all mention of it from the record. Unlike Hindus, the Jews did not have temples all over the country. There was one temple — The Temple at Jerusalem — the center of their worship and that was gone. It was not just the Jews who were affected; the followers of a man named Yeshua were affected dramatically. It was after these events that the first Gospels were written.
Due to these sequence of events, Aslan argues that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the historical man named Yeshua. For Aslan, the Gospels were written by believers for a specific purpose and are not historical documents. He ignores them and presents a picture of Yeshua by looking at the social, political and theological context of that period. Aslan himself is a former evangelical, who gave up that life as he became a religious scholar. Besides painting a portrait of Yeshua, he also reveals how the modern Jesus was invented.
If Jesus was not the person whom the Gospels claim to be — the good shepherd, the peacenik, the one who turned the other cheek — then who was he? According to Aslan, two things we can be sure are

  1. He was a Jew who led a popular movement like many others
  2. He was crucified by the Romans like many others.

To those who believe Yeshua was a child prodigy, who at a young age, stunned the priests of the Temple and to those Indians who are fascinated by the tale of Jesus learning in India, Aslan, who has been a Biblical scholar for two decades, sets the record straight. Yeshua was a woodworker or craftsman who never ventured far away. All Jewish peasants of the time were illiterate; Yeshua could not have been any different. (On a side note, the theory that he died in Tibet has been debunked as well)
Once baptized by his guru, John the Baptist, Yeshua took on a career of preaching. He wandered around as a professional exorcist, curing the ill of their sickness. Another common profession during that period, it paid more than being a woodworker. He was not the only miracle worker of that period, “it was quite common to see diviners, dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering around the region”. But Aslan says Jesus did something different from the rest: he never charged for his work. We know that because the pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity agree on this as well.
Yeshua was not stoned to death for blasphemy, but crucified, which was the Roman punishment for treason. Anyone who proclaimed he was a messiah was crucified for striving to overthrow the Roman empire. Disrupting the activities of the temple, Yeshua proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and this occurred during the time of when rebels were working to overthrow the Romans and bring the land under Jewish control. The main thesis of Aslan’s book is that Jesus was not someone who was talking about abstract ideas during this time, but was a zealot, actively involved in this movement like others of that period. Yeshua proclaimed that the present order would be replaced by a new political, religious and economic system and for advocating such a revolutionary idea, he was executed by crucifixion.
Another point Aslan makes is that the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of those stop the world events that happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent Jesus to the cross had utter disregard for Jewish customs and had crucified many others. He would not even have met Jesus. Terrorized by Pilate’s hobby, the people of Jerusalem complained to the Roman emperor. Even then he did not lose his job. Nothing happened to the temple priest as well. It was much later, after Pilate sent soldiers to butcher the followers of another messiah, that both he and the temple priest lost their jobs.
Following the crucifixion of Yeshua, three major strands of events occurred. The followers of Yeshua — the ones who walked with him — were shocked. The messiah who promised to rebuild David’s Kingdom had not only failed but was crucified like a state criminal. What did that mean? What could they do now? For the Jews, it was curtains down. He was yet another failed messiah. But for members of the Jesus movement, they had to invent a new explanation. They also had to prove to others that he indeed was the messiah. One of the earliest beliefs they came up was the radically new resurrection narrative — that he arose on the third day. They stayed in Jerusalem, continuing his teaching.
The second chain of events was set off by Paul who was inspired by Jesus though he had never met him. Other writers claimed Paul had a vision; Paul himself never said so. For Paul, Jesus was divine. Paul’s target market was the urbanized elite who did not care for messianic concepts or Jewish rituals. For the original illiterate followers of Jesus, Paul’s teachings were all Greek (literally). It would be like Hindus reading the writings of Prof. Wendy Doniger. In fact, Paul’s teaching looked so radical that the head of the Hebrew followers, James, (the brother of Jesus), sent congregations to convert the followers of Paul back to the fold; James was quite successful.
As the Hebrews — the farmers and fishermen followers of Jesus — and the Hellenists — the urbanized Greek speaking Romans — were duking it out , 9/11 hit Jerusalem and the Romans wiped out the place from the map. This triggered the third sequence of events. The Gospels were written down in various cities in the empire — Rome, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus — by people who had never met Yeshua. By then four decades had passed since Yeshua’s crucifixion and the eyewitnesses to his life had perished. The teachings that were passed along were conveniently modified.
Also, after 70 C.E, it was clear to everyone, who had the power to chop off your head. The authors of the Gospels could either stick their neck out and write that Jesus was a man who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire or they could spin another tale. They chose the latter. A Jesus, who operated at a divine plane and had nothing to do with earthly matters became a convenient replacement.
The author of the first gospel, attributed to Mark, wanted to absolve the Romans of all the crime. Hence, the whole story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus was invented. The Romans, who crucified Yeshua were sanitized and Jews who did not accept him as the messiah became the villains. That was the birth of anti-Semitism, the consequences of which can be seen even today. Another important point to note is that the gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. The evangelists’ goal was to convert the gentiles and so distancing themselves from Jewish “mumbo-jumbo” seemed right.
Aslan is not the first person to do this kind of analysis. He is one among many of a two centuries old line of scholarship trying to excavate the historical Jesus. Many years back, Prof. Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, taught a course called The Historical Jesus where he did similar analysis looking into the Gospels to find out what fits and what does not. Usually, historians go to primary sources to find the truth, but in this case, Sheehan says, the primary source are problematic. The Gospels which are now considered Canonical were ruled so by political forces. Whatever did not fit the template was considered heretic, a concept alien to dharmic traditions. Each blind scholar in this lineage found a different part of the elephant: using historical studies, literary analysis and sociology, they found Yeshua to be either a philosopher or an apocalyptic preacher or teacher or simply a magician.
With the destruction of Jerusalem, the original message was diluted and the urbanized, educated Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture Deepak Chopra-ed a new religion. This is like how American Buddhists are defining a new “scientific” religion by eradicating traces of Hinduism and mystical elements of Buddhism and retaining just mindfulness. The failed messiah, who did not set out to create Christianity, became the creator of heavens and earth and had nothing to do with the Roman occupation or the fight against it. This Neo-Jesus is the one to whom believers pray every weekend.

Slaves Refuting Pro-Slavery Arguments

The inspection and sale of a slave
The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

James Henry Hammond was a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator. He owned several plantations, about 300 slaves and was one of the outspoken supporters of slavery before the American Civil War. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor.

“You think it is a great ‘crime’ that we do not pay our slaves ‘wages,’ and on this account pronounce us ‘robbers.’  In my former letter I showed that the labor of our slaves was not without great cost to us and that in fact they themselves receive more in return for it than your hirelings do for theirs. . . It is altogether praiseworthy to pay the laborer a shilling a day and let him starve on it.  To supply all his wants abundantly, and at all times, yet withhold from his money, is among ‘the most reprobated crimes.”

This outrageous claim was challenged by narratives written by the slaves, published with the help of anti-slavery and abolitionist allies. A perfect rebuttal is this passage from Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup.

“The existence of slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.”

When Hammond tried to present the image of a benevolent overlord, who provides for his slaves, as opposed to people who just paid wages to laborers, he just washed away the humanity that was taken away from the slaves. The above passage mentions all that Hammond did not acknowledge.  The slaves lived in perpetual fear of punishment and hardship. The master, by law, owned the blood and flesh and had the freedom to enforce tyranny. For example, during the cotton picking time, the slaves were expected to rise early in the morning, take a break for ten to fifteen minutes at noon to eat a cold meal and then slave away till dark. Once the cotton was picked, they were weighed and if the quota was not met, the floggings started.
When an impurity was found in the picked cotton or a branch was broken, the penalty was twenty five lashes. For crimes above this, they got fifty lashes. If you stood idle, the penalty was a hundred lashes and two hundred, if you fought with other slaves. Runaway slaves got five hundred lashes  and Northrup mentions an incident where a slave named Patsy was almost flogged to death. For some incidents, they were put down like animals or hanged. Northrup writes that  for some slave owners “…. whose chief delight was in dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream“ were not paternalistic as Hammond claimed, but just sadistic.

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864
Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

While daily laborers sold their labor and not themselves, that was not the case with the slaves. Since they had no ability to read, write or swim, they had to endure the torture. Floggings were the not cruelty they had to endure. Overseers, whose sole motive was to ensure the maximum crop without any concern for the suffering went around with dogs to overhaul fleeing fugitives and even used the gun sometimes. If a slave fell down, tired from his cotton picking, he was dragged to the shade and buckets of water poured on him to wake him up. Once he woke up, he was sent back to labor.
In the quoted passage, Northrup mentions the “ tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Slaves were treated like animals. In the slave market, customers would examine their body, look at their teeth, ask about their skills, like how “a jockey examines a horse.” In some cases, they were stripped and examined more carefully. Once a purchase was finalized, the purchasers did not care if a family was separated. One of the heart wrenching incidents in the book is when a mother and her children are separated without any remorse by the slave trader. Charles Ball, in his account, Fifty Years in Chains, wrote about the painful separation of the family as the most traumatic experience, “ …I was now a slave in South Carolina, and had no hope of ever again seeing my wife and children. I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish.”
“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own”, wrote Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , upon the birth of her daughter. Besides the physical and mental torture, female slaves also faced sexual harassment. When she was 15, her 55 year old master Mr. Flint was after her. Her mistress knew what was going on, but in patriarchal system, she was helpless and  vented her anger on the female slaves. To find a way out from Mr. Flint, she entered into a relationship with a lawyer with whom she had children. Mr. Flint still did not leave her alone and threatened to separate her from her children.
All these narratives reinforce the view that the slave was the master’s property and he could do whatever he wished with them. In his book, Northrup rightly notes that all of this was happening in the country which proclaimed, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)
(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.
If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.
The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”
Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”
Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

Why Christianity spread through Europe

Since it is Christmas time, the celebration of two important pagan festivals appropriated by Christianity, it is interesting to read Bernard Cornwells’s article at Omnivoracious on how Christianity spread through Europe.

One answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’ The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.[Bernard Cornwell, Author of “The Pagan Lord,” Muses on the Path to Christianity]

Missionaries, Businessmen and the Annexation of Hawaii

Ship's landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.
Ship’s landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

In the 19th century, the private sector consisting of missionaries and businessmen helped project American power to rest of the world. This pattern, where the NGOs intervened in the affairs of a nation, proved to be quite detrimental to the existence of Hawaii. Their culture was transformed, their economy was tied to United States and due to both, in a century their freedom was lost.
In her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,Andrea Stuart writes about the motivation for Puritans and non-Puritans to migrate to North America from Europe in the 17th century. While the Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution, for others the Bible served as the recruiter for colonization. Anglican priests like Robert Gray, John Donne and Puritan teachers like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton seeded the dream of building a City on the Hill as well as spreading the word. Captain John Smith,  an adventurer, planter and the hero of the Pocahontas story wrote at that time about the need to “seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity”. But this urgency to take Christianity to the savages, which was used by the Spanish conquistadors just a century earlier, was just a smokescreen for advancing their business ventures.
In Hawaii, the same pattern followed two centuries later when Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists arrived by the boatloads to convert the heathens as well as to counter the Roman Catholics who had already set up shop there. These missionaries established good relations with King Kamehameha and opened up the islands to the Americans. Soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane.
As American capital and Christianity started flowing to the islands, the Government started taking notice. During that time, the Democrats were interested in expanding to the South, where slavery existed, while the Whigs were interested in expansion to the West. Secretary of State, William Webster, was interested in developing a special relation with the King because Hawaii would serve as a gateway to the riches of Japan and China. He was also interested in limiting the influence of France and Britain, who were interested in the islands. In 1851, the King and Webster agreed that if Hawaii was threatened by European powers, the King would transfer his power to the United States Government.

William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln, and an expansionist wanted a reciprocal treaty to be passed which would give special preference to Hawaiian goods. With this treaty, Hawaiian fruits and sugar would not be subject to American tariffs and in return Hawaii would be open for American manufactured goods. But then the Southern sugar producers did not want to compete with Hawaii and the treaty was defeated in the Senate. During the time of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, the treaty was passed. American money flowed into Hawaii resulting in a surge of sugar and pineapple farming. The Americans got Pearl Harbor which they developed as a naval base and coaling station.

 A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.
A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.(via Wikipedia)

Queen Lili’uokalani’ meanwhile was worried about the influence of American economics and politics on Hawaiian independence. As she started putting some limitations,  the US Department of State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John Stevens plotted a coup to overthrow the Queen. Following a coup, John Stevens recognized the new administration led by Sanford Dole and asked requested President Benjamin Harrison to annex the islands to the nation. But Harrison had only a month left as President and the Senate did not act. The next President, Grover Cleveland (the only President to have served  non consecutive terms), was not interested in expansion due to the cost and also because he believed that it would betray the ideals of the American revolution.
But that did not mean that Hawaii got its independence back. Hawaii  remained as a territory for almost six decades before they were given a choice to either join the Union or remain as a territory without an option for independence. Finally, a saga which started in the 18th century came to an end in 1959, when it became a state.

  1. America & World/Revolution, Lecture 21 by Professor Michael Parrish at University of California, San Diego

Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)
Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.
In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.
The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.
As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.
After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.
The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.
Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.
One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.
In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”
The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.

Religious Art, Perception and Practice in Islam

Last week a French satirical magazine was firebombed for printing a ‘Sharia’ edition. Before that, there was the YouTube video controversy and before that  there were the Swedish cartoons.  There are numerous such cases where there was violence because the image of Prophet Mohammed was depicted. So film makers like Moustapha Akkad, who made the The Message (1976) on the life of Prophet Mohammed,  worked around the issue by not showing him at all. At the beginning of the film, they displayed the statement, “”The makers of this film honour the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the Prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown.”

In his review of Aisha’s Cushion by Jamal J Elias, David Shariatmadari writes

Anyone who has a more than superficial knowledge of Muslim cultures will be aware of what can seem like a contradictory approach to the issue. There are strong theological precepts against the creation of likenesses of living things, and above all of religious figures, especially Muhammad. And yet lush vegetation in mosaic form garlands the façade of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, devotional pictures of members of the prophet’s family are common among Shias, and merchants in the Tehran bazaar sell pendants with Muhammad’s portrait on them. Animals prance across carpets, and manuscripts and miniature paintings bustle with human activity. So what’s going on – does Islam prohibit such images or not? How come the bazaaris can carry on plying their trade, while Danish newspapers get picketed?[Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception and Practice in Islam by Jamal J Elias – review]

The review page even has a Turkish miniature from the 16th century showing Muhammad and Abu Bakr. The reviewer does not have a good opinion of the book and so need to search for another one to get more clarity on this issue.