Going to Hell and Back, Turning Chaos to Opportunity

Joseph Campbell wrote, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Within this concept, the underworld is notable as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. For the ancient Greeks, the underworld represents a point of no return. However, there are some who managed to descend to the realm of the dead and returned to the land of the living. This journey to the underworld usually provide the hero or upper-world deity with a special object, a loved one, or a heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return from it, is considered proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.

This is not an exclusively Greek story. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies. An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.

We Nyilitimo, the daughter of the god of the underworld, agreed to serve as a wife to Batara Guru on earth. Therefore, as Batara Guru descended to earth from the heaven on a rainbow, We Nyilitimo rose from the underworld on a big wave, earning herself the title Tompo ri busa mpong (“She who rose from the foam of the waves”). The two deities met and began a civilization together. After a period of time, Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo left to return to their respective realms, leaving their children to live on earth. Without their divine parents, mankind began to turn on one another. Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo took pity on them and appointed one of their children to rule over the warring communities. In the Bugis-Makassar kingdoms this being was called the Tu manurung (“the one who descended”), a child of heaven and the underworld whose duty was to lead the people on earth. This legend became the ideal depiction of the origins of rulers that forms the basis of later court writing in Makassar which emphasize the divine ancestry of the royal families. In Bugis-Makassar society, a king was regarded as an essential mediator or link between mankind on earth and the gods in heaven and the underworld, as he was believed to possess the power to move freely between the realms until such time of his death where he would descend to the underworld to join his mother.

The 12th century Epic of King Gesar of Mongolia relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. His birth was said to be miraculous. One version of his birth is that, like the first king of Bugis-Makassar, he was born from the union between a father, who was simultaneously a sky god and holy mountain, and a mother who was a goddess of the watery underworld. Like the semi-mythical role of the Bugis-Makassar king, King Gesar defended his people against various human and superhuman aggressors. A version of his myth says that he descended to the underworld near the end of his life to rescue his mother from usurpers of the underworld and later, instead of dying a normal death he joined his mother in the underworld from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.

The god Izanagi and his wife, the goddess Izanami, gave birth to the many islands of Japan as well as numerous deities of Shintoism. After Izanami died giving birth to the fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanagi executed the fire god and went to see his wife in Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) in the hopes of retrieving her. However, like Persephone in Greek mythology, Izanami had eaten the food cooked in the furnace of the underworld, rendering her unable to return. Although he had promised, prior to his descent, to never look upon his wife, Izanagi betrayed this promise only to behold her in her monstrous state. The couple’s relationship turned sour as, angry and ashamed, Izanami took her revenge on Izanagi by dispatching the lightning god Raijin and the hag Yomotsu-shikome to chase after him. In her fury at the escape of Izanagi, the goddess swore to kill a thousand of his people every day. Hearing this, Izanagi retorted that a thousand and five hundred people will be born every day.

The name Guanyin is the short version for Guanshiyin, which means “the one who hears the sound of the world”. In one version of her legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to the realm of the dead. However, instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin completely surprised the hell guardian by playing music, making flowers bloom around her. Guanyin turned hell into heaven. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom are the same. Therefore, when Inanna “turned her ear to the Great Below”, the implication of this little sentence is that she was seeking wisdom and understanding – this further implies that one descends to the underworld to seek knowledge. When she approached the outer gates of the underworld, she was entering the ordeal of initiation. Inanna shows through her own descent her self-sacrifice for a deep wisdom and atonement. Inanna descended, submitted and died. By descending to the underworld, she opened herself to losing control of her life, facing the very real possibility of never getting out of the underworld, and still kept going. Being acted upon is considered one of the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. Allowing another to exert their influence upon her is not considered passivity, but an active willingness to receive. `

A main goal of such descents, then, is the letting go of illusions and the old patterns of mundane life. Ereshkigal’s realm is similar to the undiscriminating fires of Kali in the Indian mythology. It combines time and sufferings and killing human distinctions and ego before yielding a new life as well as an acknowledgment that life is cyclical.

The I Ching notes that the symbols for chaos and opportunity are the same. This also relates to the interpretation of a divine descent to the underworld. If the world, society and cherished collective beliefs are being threatened with chaos, I Ching interpret this as the world making its own descent into the underworld prior to its being reborn. If so, then humanity is facing a time of opportunity instead of merely chaos. The world would then shed its illusions before it is empowered.

Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum

The Lost Legend of the Human Races: The People who Haven’t Found Their Way Back to Each Other


At the beginning of this cycle of time, the Great Spirit divided the people of the world into five groups, giving each of them a different color. To each he gave specific teachings, and to each he gave a specific task. He then sent four of the groups out in four different directions in the world. Cautioning them that one group can never exist alone, the Great Spirit instructed that, when they came back together again, the five groups were to share their teachings and what they had learned in carrying out their tasks.

RACES-Women.jpgThe task of the black people was to learn about the Earth – how things grow, foods that are good to eat, plants that heal. They would be able to teach others about survival and endurance.

The task of the yellow people was to learn about water – the most humble, yet most powerful of the elements and strongly linked to our human emotions. Through their own difficulties, they would be able to teach others how to adapt to life’s unpredictable circumstances.

RACES-boygirlThe task of the red people was to learn about wind – breath and animal life, air, the sky and everything within and above it. From this, they would learn about change, stability and motivation, then share their knowledge with others.

The task of the white people was to learn about fire – action and movement, consuming and changing all it touches, typified by strong mind and will. From this, they would learn, and later teach others, about moderation as well as humility to give and accept help.

The task of the brown people was to learn about their own nature as human beings – brown being the union of the four other colors. From this, they would understand and share the nature and power of love.

So the people went out and studied all the matters as they had been instructed, but they were very slow learners and it took a very long time. By the time they began to meet again, they had forgotten the instruction to teach and share what they had learned. They had forgotten that they each had only a part of the human experience and that they still had to learn the other parts from each other.

This story is based on some Native American teachings and a few inputs from Asian traditions.


TimeMaps001This is a retelling of an excerpt from Time Maps: History, Prehistory and Biological Evolution, by Dr. R.K Fisher and Martini Fisher. The book is available in Amazon and in bookstores. To get your copy, click here.

Titillatio: A Brief Mythology, Ancient History and Philosophy of Tickling


Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes, “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces an independent movement in the intelligence which is recognizable.” He continues to argue that touch is the most primary sense and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch because of the delicate nature of their skin. He says that, although other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, a man’s sense of touch is the most fine-tuned. This leads to some of us to think that tickling is a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Thanks to our sophisticated and discriminating access to the world around us, we are particularly vulnerable to tickling.

However, this “privilege” did not last long as many scientific researches have refuted Aristotle’s claim about how tickling could only effect human beings. It has been found that monkeys are ticklish too, and a recorded laughter-like ultrasonic chirping in tickled rats also exists. But, the most famous ticklish animal is the trout as it would fall into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”

Neuroscientist Robert Provine posed a rather elaborate speculation which links tickling with both humorous laughter and the prehistoric birth of comedy. He writes, “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature). The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.” His argument is that proper ticklish laughter is not actually funny because it is too much of an automatic or neurological reaction. To make tickling funny, it needs to be distanced from reflex. It is the suspended gesture that gets a laugh – the real gesture might get one slapped. Therefore, a child will wriggle and squirmed when tickled, but they will actually laugh only if they perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive and irritating disguise.

The ambivalence of tickling, a delight that can quickly become excruciating, would seem particularly well suited to describe the concept of pleasure-in-pain that so fascinated thinkers from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud etc. They agree that tickling serves as an alternate way of thinking about pleasure,  as titillation and excitation. Nietzsche put it, “What is the best life? To be tickled to death.” – I hope someone would do a research on whether this man was ever tickled in his life. However, he is not wrong about this. Foot tickling for sexual arousal was used in the Muscovite palaces and courts for centuries. Many of the Czarinas (Catherine the Great, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth and others) were participants of this activity. The practice was so popular that eunuchs and women were employed as full time foot ticklers. They developed this skill so well that their occupations brought prestige and good pay. Anna Leopoldovna had at least six ticklers at her feet. While the ticklers performed their task, they also told bawdy stories and sang obscene ballads. This was done to work the ladies up to an erotic pitch so that they could meet their husbands or lovers in a sex impassioned mood.

But can one actually die from tickling? Yes. When children enthusiastically tickle one another, it serves the double purpose of inspiring peer bonding and honing reflexes and self-defense skills. In 1984, psychiatrist Donald Black noted that many ticklish parts of the body, such as the neck and the ribs, are also the most vulnerable in combat. He inferred that children learn to protect those parts during tickle fights, a relatively safe activity. However, the tickling itself can be torture enough. Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim’s bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the feet are very ticklish.

Mythology is littered with spirits who uses tickling as a torture device. In Inuit mythology, Mahaha is a maniacal demon that terrorized parts of the arctic. This creature is described as a thin sinewy being, ice blue in colour and cold to the touch. His eyes are white and they peer through the long stringy hair that hangs in his face. This demon is always smiling and giggling – taking pleasure in tickling its victims to death with sharp vicious nails attached to its long bony fingers. All of its victim have a similar expression on their dead faces – a twisted frozen smile.

Leshy – Imagine being tickled by him!

A Leshy is a spirit of the Slavic forests. They serve as the protectors of the various forests and its animals, having a close bond with gray wolves and often being accompanied by bears. They naturally are the form of a large human-looking being, but can shape-shift into any plant or animal. They have long hair and beards made of living grass and vines. In the center of a forest, they are a tree-like giant, who camouflage nicely with their long limbs, grassy eyebrows, and no detectable shadows.  A leshy has the ability to imitate voices of people familiar to wanderers.They will cry out and get their victims to wander deeper into forests or caves. Being tickled to death by a Leshy has been known to happen. This is most likely because they don’t know when “fun” is enough and wind up accidentally killing their victims.

Of course, if something exists in mythology, it would also exist, up to a point, in history. Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.” Dutch physiologist Joost Meerloo recounts an especially cruel tickle torture employed by the ancient Romans. On the scaffold, the soles of a victim’s feet were covered with a salt solution so that a goat, attracted by the salt, would lick it off with his rough tongue and continually tickle the skin. By so doing, the salty skin was gradually rasped away. Then, the wounded skin would again be covered with the biting salt solution—ad infinitum, till the victim died from the torture.

In Laurent Joubert’s Renaissance treatise on laughter, he reports hearing “of a young man whom two girls were tickling importunately to the point that he no longer uttered a word. They thought he had fainted until, thunderstruck, they realized he was dead, asphyxiated.” A news item in Illustrated Police News, 11 December 1869, recounts the story of a young wife whose husband, his name was Michael Puckridge, claimed that he had a cure for her varicose veins. After he persuaded her to allow herself to be tied to a plank, she found that her husband had instead devised a plan to tickle her into insanity. The plan worked as she was institutionalized as a result of her husband’s diabolical featherwork.

Now on Kindle: “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses”

Following the successful launch of the online course by the same name, “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses” is now available in eBook form.

We seldom look at mythology as something that has practical lessons to make our life easier. Yet, it is closer to real life than we imagine. The Five Pandava Brothers of the ancient Hindu Epic Mahabharata represents many facets of ancient and modern lives from imperfections to ideal business leaders.

Martini Fisher introduces a different way to look at the Ancient Epic Indian Literature that is Mahabharata and presents its practical lessons for the modern audience.