Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Asthramanthra Jātaka Story

There are things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. - FyodorDostoevsky

 Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov is unquestionably one of the greatest works of world literature. With its dramatic portrayal of a Russian family in crisis and its intense investigation into the essential questions of human existence, the novel has had a major impact on writers and thinkers across a broad range of disciplines, from psychology to religious and political philosophy (Connolly, 2013).

Fyodor Dostoevsky portrayed the complexities of human mind. Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘I am a realist in a higher sense: that is, I depict all the depths of the human soul’. Dostoevsky's psychological penetration into the human soul and his dealing with moral and philosophical questions had a profound influence on the literature of the 20th century (Baumann et al., 2005).   

According to Foy and Rojcewicz (1979) Dostoevsky's writings are testimony to the continuous and brilliant interrelations between his fictional and journalistic narratives, his understanding of individual, family and group dynamics, his intellectual search for the roots of ideology, and the authentic experience and spiritual quest of his life. Dostoevsky was a master criminal psychologist and proto-existentialist religious philosopher. Nietzsche called Fyodor Dostoevsky “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn,” (Milgrom & Milgrom, 2009).

The work of Dostoevsky, a novelist, journalist and short-story writer, is considered to be one the most impressive, not only among the Russian, but definitely also within the world literature. His powerful and finely tuned depictions of the human condition in all its variety, and his profound philosophical, psychological and religious insights of human nature are characteristic for his style. His novels anticipated and influenced several developments of the 20th-century ways of thinking, including psychoanalysis and existentialism (Rosetti & Bogousslavsky 2005). 

Dostoevsky's work inspired a number of psychologists. Freud conceded that he had not discovered the unconscious: the poets had discovered it long before him; and he singled Dostoyevsky out as the greatest writer of them all (Beveridge, 2009) Appignanesi (2008) called Dostoyevsky -the Shakespeare of the asylum.
Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is one of the finest fictional explorations of the moral psychology of making life-and-death decisions, reasoning about ethical responsibility, and dealing with guilt and accountability (Montello & Lantos, 2002). Dostoyevsky had written about the dangers lurking in the human psyche (Blum & Yasutomi, 2006).

As traditionally defined, the central conflict in The Brothers Karamazov is between faithand the rejection of God’s world (Berman, 2009). Nonetheless a vast amount of Buddhist philosophy is narrated in the novel. Jones (2005) found elements of Buddhism in Dostoyevsky's religious convictions.

Dostoyevsky was a prolific reader. To write a novel in such caliber he may have profoundly read Western and the Easten philosophies. Dostoyevsky is known for his existentialist views. In his works, Dostoyevsky addresses the concept of free will or freedom. (Uwasombav, 2009).  

There are many similarities between Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Jathaka stories especially the Asthramanthra Jātaka story.

The Jātaka stories or Jātaka tales are a voluminous body of folklore concerned with previous births of the Buddha which is based as a collection of five hundred and fifty stories. These stories are from   the Buddhist Khuddaka Nikaya, or "Collection of Little Texts" that were compiled in the period of the 3rd Century B.C. to the 5th Century A.D.

The Jātaka stories entered European ground at the end of the medieval period via Arabs and were translated and spread into all the main languages, viz; Greek, Spanish, German, Italian, French and English (Janné, 2014).  T.W. Davids – a British scholar and the Pāli language, Indologist stated that Buddhist Jātaka Stories impacted the Western fables and stories.

Brothers Karamazov and the Asthramanthra Jātaka story describe sexual craving and indulgence in the old age violating social and moral norms. Both stories profoundly analyze the inner mental conflicts reveling the darkest side of the human mind.  According to Dostoyevsky, “there is no reason, but only reasoners; behind every rational formula there is a formulator; behind every generalization there is generalizer (Uwasombav, 2009).  

The renowned Sri Lankan Literary genius Martin Wicramasinghe D.Lit. believed that Fyodor Dostoyevsky may have had some influence by Asthramanthra Jātaka story to write his psycho- philosophical novel -Brothers Karamazov. Moreover he saw similarities in French writer Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere’s Tartuffe and Somanassa Jātakaya. Literary giants such as Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy etc were influenced by the Jātaka stories. Many essences from Jātaka stories can be noticed in their writings. 

For a considerable extent Dostoyevsky’s life experiences were added to this great novel. Therefore   many thoughts that were repressed in Dostoyevsky’s mind reflect in this novel. For Dostoyevsky writing Brothers Karamazov would have been an emotional purgation. Dostoyevsky may have created the fictional character Fyodor Pavlovich (the old land owner) based upon his own father’s certain personality traits as well as the influence that he received by reading Asthramanthra Jātaka story. 

The Brothers Karamazov is a tale of bitter family rivalries that was written on two levels: on the surface it is the story of a parricide in which all of a murdered man's sons share varying degrees of complicity but, on a deeper level, it is a spiritual drama of the moral struggles between faith, doubt, reason, and free will. In the Asthramanthra Jātaka story too two levels can be found: on the surface   accumulation of sexual urges following seduction and in the second level the murders impulsions of an old mother who wants to kill her son to have sexual relationship with a young apprentice.

Asthramanthra Jātaka story indeed a spiritual drama of the moral struggles between maternal love, sexual urge, faith, doubt, reason, and social norms. 

In Asthramanthra Jātaka story a senile old woman was seduced by a young apprentice in order to measure the sexual urge in old age. The seduction was done with the consent of the old woman’s son- Bodhisattva and after a few months the old woman agrees to kill her own son then to have a sexual relationship with the young apprentice. The Bodhisattva is doing this social experiment in order to demonstrate the destructive nature of craving to his student.

The Jātaka storyteller saw craving as a much deeper problem and craving led to clinging.  In this Jathaka story the old woman’s inner mental conflicts and murderous impulses were intricately described by the Jathaka story teller. After the seduction the senile old woman’s dormant sexual urges come to the surface like an erupting volcano. She sees her own son as an obstacle to fulfill her sexual desire. Then she decides to kill her own son.

The old land owner in Brothers Karamazov and the old woman in Asthramanthra Jātaka have similar characteristics with regard to sensual pleasures. The Jātaka story teller describes the old woman’s sexually inclined mind as the way Fyodor Dostoyevsky described the old landowner’s lustful mind.

According to the novel the old land owner Fyodor Pavlovich is a selfish immoral man who indulges in alcohol and has no fear or respect to the God. Dostoyevsky panted Fyodor Pavlovich as the great evil.Fyodor had three sons Mithya, Ivan and Alyosha. As the rumor goes he had a fourth illegitimate son named Pavel Smerdyakov who worked as his servant.

Mithya (Dmitri), Ivan, Alyosha, and Smerdyakov grew up separately. When they gathered together in the town where Fyodor lived, the story began. Harvey Mindess associates the characters of the Karamazovs with Dostoevsky’s character: Fyodor stands for Dostoevsky’s sensuality, Ivan for intellectual brilliance and cynicism, Dmitri for the proud, declamatory lust and passion, Alyosha for devotion, kind-hearted altruism, and Smerdyakov for smugness, stupid treachery and maliciousness (Oikawa,   2000).

Three brothers reflect different psychic energies. Mithya acts like the Id component which is the unorganized part of the psyche that contains a human’s instinctual drives. It is the source of bodily needs,   desires, and impulses, sexual and aggressive drives, seeks immediate gratification of all needs. Ivan is cynical and acts according to the reality principle like Ego. Alosha like Super Ego reflects the internalization of cultural rules, aims for perfection, spiritual goals, and acts as conscience.

The Jātaka stories highlight impermanence, suffering and non-self. Also indicate that suffering is a normal and inevitable part of life, but the nature of suffering is determined by how one responds to it. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov was convinced it is not right that there is so much suffering in the world, and was convinced nothing could make it right. As a result he was left with no choice but to reject the ticket for this world, or to be indignant toward the world, which means he was indignant toward life in it (McCoubrey, 2004).

Being an ultimate nihilist Nietzsche believed that humans can never live outside a value construct. Nietzsche's contribution to debates on alienation is oblique, but pivotal (McManus, 2005). Dostoevsky appear to agree that human self-alienation was inevitable. Emptiness’is a human condition to which both Buddhism and Nietzsche responded. The Jathaka storyteller wrote that alienation is a part of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness.

Dostoevsky grasped Buddhist Existentialism especially the Shunyata principle (the inherent emptiness of all phenomena) which is a type of awareness-release. He discusses nihilistic interpretation of the concept of voidness. Dostoevsky presents the character of Ivan Karmazov who is a nihilist. Ivan finds no clear meaning to his life.

Ivan Karamazov is trapped in what from this viewpoint is a non-problem, and Dimitri Karamazov is changed by overwhelming shock and symbolic dream, not by meditation. However, diagnosis and advice concerning man's illusions about his painful situation represent only the starting-point of Buddhism (Futrell, 1981).

Dostoevsky's ideas were closely connected with Eastern Orthodox Christianity and also with Buddhism. In Brothers Karmazov the ideal of the Bodhisattva (which is central to the Mahayana Buddhism) is profoundly discussed by Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky presented existential themes in Brothers Karamazov. The existential philosophy re-examine the “self.” The Buddhism has focused on the “self” and its problematic relationship with the world. According to the Buddha no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found. The concept of Atman or "self" is the prime consequence of ignorance. It lads to attachments then leads to disappointment, conflict with others, and internal agitation.

Dostoevsky robustly grasped the Buddhist concept of self and attachment and suffering. In his novel Alosha and Father Zosima - two characters that have less self ego and attachments enjoy internal calm and internal consistency.

Using his Christian philosophy Dostoyevsky demonized the old man’s character. Fyodor Pavlovich was a debauchee who wanted to seduce Mithya’s girlfriend Grushenka. Following the prolonged family disputes the old man was murdered and it was recorded as a patricide. 

Following extractions from the book Brothers Karmazov describe the desolate nature of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky the old land owner.

 Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch, Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and, still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which, happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper, place……
…… This was, perhaps, a unique case of the kind in the, life of FyodorPavlovitch, who was always of a voluptuous temper, and, ready to run after any petticoat on the slightest encouragement. She, seems to have been the only woman who made no particular appeal to his, senses., Immediately after the elopement Adelaida Ivanovna discerned in a flash, that she had no feeling for her husband but contempt………..
……….. Fyodor Pavlovitch, was drunk when he heard of his wife's death, and the story is that he, ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands, to Heaven: "Lord, now let test Thou Thy servant depart in peace," but, others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so, that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired., It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at, his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a, general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and, simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.,..

(Brothers Karamazov Part 1 / Book 1 / Chapter 1 by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett) 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a psycho -philosophical novel that strongly discusses ethics, morality and dark side of the human nature.  The novel itself is a moral dilemma (like the Asamthamanthra Jathaka story) and a question paper that is presented to the readers. Brothers Karamazov is exploring the secret depths of humanity's struggles and sins. In this novel Fyodor Dostoyevsky epitomizes the psychodynamic portions of the human personality into its finest detail.

To write this exceptional novel Dostoyevsky read Christian morality, philosophy (including the India Philosophy) and atheism. For a considerable extent Dostoyevsky’s life experiences were added to this great novel. Therefore   many thoughts that were repressed in Dostoyevsky’s mind reflect in this novel. For Dostoyevsky writing Brothers Karamazov would have been an emotional purgation.

Dostoyevsky was greatly influenced by religion and philosophy. He lived in a society where justice and equality had been seriously violated. Obviously he did question the hypocrisy and double standards of the clergy and the state that continuously violated the basic human rights.

His father was a doctor as well as a land owner who mistreated his peasants. Following a land dispute Dostoyevsky’s father was murdered by a group of angry peasants.  Dostoyevsky may have created the fictional character Fyodor Pavlovich (the old land owner) based upon his own father’s certain personality traits as well as the influence that he received by reading Asthramanthra Jātaka story.  

Sigmund Freud valued the Oedipal themes that had been discussed in Brothers Karamazov. Freud's 1928 paper Dostoevsky and Parricide specified the unresolved Oedipal complex of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his psychogenic seizures. According to Freud Dostoevsky had hidden patricidal fantasies that had been described in Brothers Karamazov.

Analysing Dostoevsky’s personality from his fictional characterisation, Freud detected Oedipal and sexual conflicts behind the writer’s ‘hysterical epilepsy’ and gambling. Of ‘Dostoevsky the psychologist’, Freud complained his ‘insight was so restricted to abnormal mental life . . . all he really knew were crude instinctual desire, masochistic subjection and loving out of pity’. However, Freud bowed to his artistry: ‘before the . . . creative artist, analysis must lay down its arms’. He pronounced The Brothers Karamazov the ‘most magnificent novel ever written (Pavlovic, & Pavlovic, 2012).

Dostoyevsky was a radical youth who engaged in revolutionary activates. He was arrested and sentenced to death. In the very last moment he was given a pardon and exiled to Siberia. This near death experience changed Dostoyevsky‘s personality immensely. He underwent dramatic psychological transformation. In Siberia he witnessed torture and human degradation.  He later wrote a short story titled “The Peasant Marey” narrating the inhuman condition of his Siberian experience.  Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical novel the House of the Dead narrates his post traumatic experiences in a Siberian prison camp. Although he met with a moral injury Dostoevsky achieved posttraumatic growth with a spiritual re-awakening status.

After the exile he returned to St Petersburg and started his literary career. During this time period he was shaken by the loss of two dearly people. His first wife’s death and his brother’s death caused him an immense psychological pain. Troubled by financial problems and life stresses Dostoyevsky suffered prolonged depression. Also he became a compulsive gambler. He may have suffered from psychogenic convulsions that can be described as a Dissociative Disorder in the present day medical terms.

Dostoevsky portrayed up to six characters with epilepsy in his literature (Iniesta, 2013). In Brothers Karamazov the old man’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov suffers from epilepsy. When the old man was murdered Smerdyakov claims that he has had a seizure and was unaware what occurred in the house at that fatal night.

On the basis of Smerdyakov’s admission of feigning a seizure to provide himself with an alibi for the murder of his father Old Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov (an episode perhaps recapitulating Dostoevsky’s experience of his own father’s death), that Dostoevsky was well acquainted with the possible secondary gain of seizures, but he stopped short of bringing the historical wheel full circle back to Freud by suggesting that Dostoevsky had pseudoseizures (DeToledo, 2001). 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky believed that the human nature is complex and has two different poles. Man can act nobly and in the same time he can be a savage. There is an esteem part in the human and also a vicious element. In his own character Dostoyevsky demonstrated these two contradictory sides. At one time he was a generous warm and a kind man and on other times he was acting jealous and even committed a rape. These contradictions can be found in his great novel Brothers Karamazov. The Jathaka storyteller too concur such complex behavior in humans.  

When the selfish immoral land owner Fyodor Pavlovich came to meet Father Zosìma the spiritual advisor and Alyosha Karamazove’s teacher Fyodor Karmazove reveals his inner mind in front of the holy man thus.

"I'm a Karamazov... when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn. Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed; let me be following the devil at the same time, but still I am also your son, Lord, and I love you, and I feel a joy without which the world cannot stand and be."

With this self-revelation Dostoyevsky points out the dual complexities in the human mind.  The Jataka story teller too vibrantly wrote about the complex and dual nature of the human psyche.  AsthramanthraJātaka story is one of the examples of his exceptional talents. In this Jathaka story he deeply analyzed the murderous impulses of an old woman who was geared by onset awakening of sexual urges.

The old woman in Asthramanthra Jātaka story and immoral old land owner in Brothers Karamazovrepresent the dark side of the human nature and in later years Carl Jung came up with the concept of shadow that portrays the repressed weaknesses, shortcomings and instincts.

In his 1938 work “Psychology and Religion" Carl Jung explains the function of the shadow thus.

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”

According to Jung, the shadow is irrational often projects   personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency. Jung wrote '” a  man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps ... living below his own level”
After seduced by the young apprentice the old woman falls in to her own trap and possessed by her dark shadow like Fyodor Pavlovich the debauched land owner who was sexually fascinated by his own son’s girlfriend. Both the characters forget ethics and morality as well as social norms while making efforts to fulfill their selfish desires.  

Fyodor Pavlovich Karmazove's wasteful and sinful life was highlighted by the prosecutor and the defense attorney in the court room and they further connect Fyodor's moral degradation to the 18th century Russian society. As they view great gaping and lack of a moral and spiritual core in Russian society echoes the old man’s entire deviant life.
The old woman’s son is a wise man who has understood the nature of craving. He is not judgmental and a virtuous person as Father Zosima. Father Zosima and the old woman’s son share many things in common. Their extraordinary human qulities similar to a Bodhisattva who is motivated by great compassion.

Futrell (1981) writes: Prominent in Zosima's transformation from military officer to monk was his realisation that "we don't understand that life is paradise", repeating the declaration of his dying elder brother that "life is paradise and we are all in paradise, only we don't want to know it", or, as recalled by Zosima, "Every man is responsible for everyone, only people don't know it. If they knew - it would be paradise at once;" similar words are uttered in turn by Zosima's mysterious visitor, who adds: "Paradise is hidden in everyone of us” Dostoevsky probably knew what Bodhisattva qulites were and he may have used this knowledge to crate the characters of Father Zosima

For Father Zosima, the modern predicament is a kind of radical individualism in which people are isolated and alienated from one another.  Zossima concludes with a sermon about two ways of life: the material world, full of the pursuit of pleasure and desire, and the ecclesiastical world, focused on obedience, fasting, and prayer. The fundamental difference between these two worlds is their conception of freedom: freedom in the material world refers to the unbridled pursuit of one’s desires, whereas freedom in the ecclesiastical world means restraining and controlling these desires (Trepanier, 2009).  

The Jathaka story teller explains that sensual desire arises from thoughts. The human mind is geared to hold on to pleasurable experiences. It is a self-centered type of desire. The Jathaka stories indicate that craving as a principal cause in the arising of suffering. The Jathaka story teller indicated a number characters that acted irrationally due to Avidyā or ignorance. Dostoyevsky objected to the idea that human beings are rational creatures, who only need to be shown their true interests to follow them (Beveridge, 2009). Dostoyevsky’s work demonstrates that individuals cannot be reduced to a simple formula. (Beveridge, 2009).  The Jathaka stories concur this concept.


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  1. Read the Sinhala translation in late 1960s. Your concept on this book comparing with Jathaka Stories make me to read this book again.

  2. All I remember about this book is, that it was so huge, I never went past the first chapter no matter how many times I tried. And I borrowed and returned that book to the library about half a dozen times. And the original title was Brathyaa Karamasov or something like that. :D


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