Divine Comedy, Human Tragedy
Last month, I reread Dante’s 14th-century Italian poem, “The Divine Comedy” (Commedia). These are three works that were eventually blended into one to tell a fantasy of what occurs after someone dies. Inferno (Hell), Paradiso (Heaven), and Purgatorio (Purification) are the titles of the three books. While Hell and Heaven are well-known concepts, purification is a little trickier. The core premise is that a soul takes human birth to purify itself, and everything else one does in a lifetime except this one duty is pointless and amounts to squandering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
There are four methods to purify: purging bodily desire, purification of the will, illumination of the mind, and unity of one’s existence or will with the Divine. Different religions use different phrases and techniques to communicate the same thing, but they all ask for control over “desires of the flesh” by the “reasoning faculty,” that is the intellect. The human body is described in the Katha Upanishad (I.iii.3-4) as a chariot drawn by the five horses that are the senses; the mind is the reins; and the driver or charioteer is the intellect, carrying the soul as a passenger.
आत्मानं रथिनं विद्धि शरीरं रथमेव तु।
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च॥
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विषयांस्तेषु गोचरान्।
Know yourself to be the charioteer, and your body to be the chariot.
Know intelligence to be the driver, and the mind to be the controller.
The senses are called horses, and they go after the objects of this world.
The Self is the enjoyer using the senses, and the mind, thus says the learned.
So, one way to grasp the problem is to live by do’s and don’ts, which obviously does not work. People frequently find themselves powerless to control their senses. Emotions contaminate reason in a million ways. People flee from what their senses dislike and are drawn to what they enjoy. Thosewho are aware of the dangers of excessive consumption of oils, sugar, and salt continue to do so. They smoke, drink alcohol, and waste money on useless gratification of wishes, such as filling their closets with clothes in the name of fashion and collecting shoes, watches, and various toys in the form of electronics.
Dante’s method is another option. In Divine Comedy, Dante transports the reader to a fictional world and introduces them to great characters who explain why they are there. Their stories have the capacity to leave an impact that not only lasts longer but also leads to transformation, allowing people to stay away from dangerous habits and inclinations by choice and intent. Dante has constructed different levels in the three realms of Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory in a fairly magical fashion, and what effort is greater or inferior to the others comes out in a way that cannot be readily ignored. Hell’s souls have lost the ability to reason.
Dante begins the book by stating that he found himself in a dark wilderness midway through his life’s journey because he had strayed from the straight and true. This has an immediate resonance with the reader. Who doesn’t think so? Mid-life crises are well recognized – family, careers, businesses – there are always more people who feel stuck in their lives rather than that they are prospering.
Dante conjured three animals to obstruct his exit from the wilderness: a panther, a lion, and a she-wolf. These animals embody desire, pride, and greed. People live and die in suffering, as if eaten away by one of these three creatures. The Bhagavad Gita (XVI. 21) refers to them as the three portals to Hell.
त्रिविधं नरकस्येदं द्वारं नाशनमात्मन:।
काम: क्रोधस्तथा लोभस्तस्मादेतत्त्रयं त्यजेत्॥
This is the threefold gate of Hell, the destruction of the self.As a result, one should avoid lust, rage, and greed.
Next, Dante takes us on a great voyage guided by the soul of the first-century Latin poet Virgil. Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory, but he is unable to enter Heaven. Dante’s youth inspiration Beatrice, who has died before, takes over there.
Hell is a nine-level spiral of torture. Here, those souls languish in eternity who lived by animalistic desires shunning human reason and committing violence upon others. On the gate of Hell is an inscription that reads, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” What a strong message! We enter hell the instant we lose hope. As we progress deeper, we encounter people whose depravity grows inexorably, culminating at the centerof the Earth, where Satan is bound. He is up to his waist in ice, flailing his bat-like wings. Our misdirected passions are like a raging whirlwind that never stops.
I find the story of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a nobleman from Pisa, Italy, particularly compelling. He is kept at the lowest level, where sinners who betrayed those with whom they had close relationships are imprisoned. Ugolinowas a political traitor who harmed his country for personal gain. In retaliation, he is portrayed chewing Archbishop Ruggieri’s head, as a dog consumes a bone. Ruggieri had imprisoned Ugolino in a tower with his children and grandchildren and starved them to death. What could be more agonizing than seeing his four children die of famine before him, as he was the last to die? But, even if Ugolino must die for his crime, why are his sons put to death? This did not occur in Pisa’s renowned leaning tower, but rather, in a different building nearby. How much terror lurks behind some of these seemingly gorgeous structures?
Two ethical trips in this life are detailed in the Purgatory journey, which is depicted as climbing a mountain. One is the pursuit of happiness, which can be attained by adhering to the teachings of philosophers and dealing with fellow beings with loving-kindness. The other is a spiritual path to eternal beatitude through acts such as prayer, service, and penance. Purgatory, however, is more than just paying off the debts acquired when one sinned; it is also about reflecting on those sins and altering the psychological inclinations that lead to sin. The objective of life is to shed the baggage of previous lives and become a pristine spirit capable of merging with the One of this creation.
Journey through Heaven, Dante’s final and most beautiful section of his poem, has much to teach us about happiness, the perfection of the intellect, the nature of authentic liberty, the thriving of community, the role of love in learning, and the profound connection that the good and true have to aesthetics. It is especially pertinent for people who have dedicated their lives to education. This beautiful book struck me as Dante’s hymn of gratitude – a tribute to all his guides and to guidanceitself as a work of grace. The book is freely available on the Internet. You merely need to set aside some time to study this brilliant piece of work.
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