“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, …”
Homer, The Iliad, Book 1 (800 BCE)
One of the very first word in the history of Western literature is “anger”. That is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed sometime in the eighth century BC, it starts with a call to the Muse to help tell the story of the “anger” of Achilles — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers.
The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had had run off with a Trojan prince. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him.
No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. By setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. Dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric even today. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of so-called “enemy country” do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do. In short, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “human like us.” Therefore, the idea behind this is that when we feel angry with anyone, we should try to find out some good in them, either in their way of thinking, speaking or acting. If we find some redeeming quality in them, we should ponder its value and ignore their bad qualities as natural weaknesses that are to be found in everyone. Whilst we think thus, our mind will soften and we may even feel kindly towards that person. If we develop this way of thinking we will be able to curb or eliminate our anger towards them.
Another way to reflect on anger is given to us by this ancient Buddhist story from the Samyutta-Nikâya:
Once there lived a demon who fed on the anger of others. As his feeding ground was the human world, there was no lack of food for him. So the anger-eating demon found it quite easy to provoke a family quarrel, or national and racial hatred, or even to stir up wars. And whenever he succeeded in causing a war, he could properly gorge himself without further effort; because once a war starts, hate multiplies by its own momentum and affects even the normally kind-hearted people. So the demon’s food supply became so rich that he sometimes had to restrain himself from over-eating, being content with nibbling just a small piece of resentment found close-by.
But as it often happens with successful people, he became rather overbearing and one day when he was feeling bored he thought: “Shouldn’t I try it with the gods?” Then he chose the Heaven of the Thirty-three Deities, ruled by Sakka, Lord of Gods. He knew that, although these gods were far above petty and selfish quarrels (they are gods after all), only a few of them had entirely eliminated the fetters of ill-will and aversion. So he transferred himself to that heavenly realm and was lucky enough to come at a time when Sakka the Divine King was absent. There was none in the large audience hall and without much ado the demon seated himself on Sakka’s empty throne, waiting quietly.
Soon some of the gods came to the hall and first they could hardly believe their own divine eyes when they saw that ugly demon sitting on the throne. Having recovered from their shock, they started to shout and lament: “Oh you ugly demon, how can you dare to sit on the throne of our Lord? What utter cheekiness! What a crime! you should be thrown headlong into the hell and straight into a boiling cauldron! You should be quartered alive! Begone! Begone!”
But while the gods were growing more and more angry, the demon was quite pleased because from moment to moment he grew in size, in strength and in power. The anger he absorbed into his system started to ooze from his body as a very smelly red-glowing mist. This evil aura kept the gods at a distance and their radiance was dimmed.
Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. But he was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods’ anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. “Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?”
While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of smoke which likewise soon dissolved.
The Tipitaka is a massive collection of texts that were first compiled by the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE. It was divided into 5 volumes (nikayas). The Samyutta Nikaya (“Connected Discourses” or “Kindred Sayings”) is the third of the five volumes.