Neal Stephenson is Amibah the Formless One

Close to ten years ago, some of us had imagined ourselves to be Gods, and thus created a Pantheon. I was War, for whatever reason. Madness was Madness. Kodhi was Disease. Spunky was Death, because, you know, Death looks like Spunky.

And then there was a whole host of “minor Gods”, most of who I don’t remember right now, but most of who were also modelled after real people that we (Madness, Disease and I – the creators of the Pantheon) were very well acquainted with. If I’m not wrong, there was a point in time when we tried fitting every significant person around us into the Pantheon. Anyway.

So as far as Pantheons are concerned a flat organisation is not desirable. There can be minor quibbles among the Gods, which can only be resolved by a higher power. Then, there can be conflicts in judgments of Gods, for which a hierarchy is necessary to determine whose Will will prevail.

One way of doing this is to establish a hierarchical structure, where there is some kind of well-formed ordering among the Gods of the Pantheon. The downside of this, of course, is that there can be quibbles among the Gods regarding their positions in the Pantheon itself, and if they can’t agree on the hierarchy itself, there is very little they can achieve by being Gods.

So a standard solution for this is to have a mostly flat organisational structure, but have a head at the head of it – a King of Gods, or perhaps a God of Gods. So in Indian mythology you have Indra. The Greeks have Zeus, whom the Romans call Jupiter and whom the Norse call Thor (it is interesting, though, that when it comes to days of the week, it is Brhaspati and not Indra who is mapped to Jupiter and Thor. But that is another matter). Given that most of the Pantheonic religions have a King of Gods, it seems like a rather sustainable organisational structure!

And so we decided to have a King of Gods for our Pantheon also. Now, within our peer group we wanted to avoid unsavoury competition, and didn’t want to impose a hierarchy. So we had to get someone from outside the peer group to head the Pantheon (like the Kodhis have Manoj Kumar at the head of their Pantheon). So we created a King of Gods, and called him/her (it wasn’t clear then) Amibah the Formless One. Amibah wasn’t mapped to anyone we knew.

So as I’d mentioned in these pages last month, I recently finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Earlier in October, two days before I was due a day-long flight, I started reading the prequel to that, The Baroque Cycle (this book is so long that at the end of the flight, most of which I spent reading, I was at 6% in the book). I’m now through about a quarter of the book, and it has been absolutely awesome. I’ve learnt much more about late Medieval European history by reading this book than by reading all the other history books I’ve read in the last several years.

That, however, is besides the point. As I have been going through the two books of Stephenson, I’m amazed at how much of Madness’s talking and writing and style is derived from Stephenson. In almost every page, there is something that I read that reminds me of Madness. The similarity in styles is unmistakable. Considering that Madness had finished reading the two books before he wrote all the stuff in which the same style was seen, the causation can only run one way – everything Madness says and does is heavily influenced by Stephenson’s writings.

Madness channels Stephenson in everything that he writes, says and does. If you were to remove the elements of Stephenson from Madness, he gets reduced to virtually nothing. By thus channeling Stephenson, Madness can be considered an ambassador of Stephenson. Nay, he should be considered to be a Prophet of Stephenson.

So if Madness is a Prophet of Stephenson, that implies that Stephenson is a God. But Madness is no ordinary prophet – he is also a member of the Pantheon. That a member of the Pantheon is Stephenson’s prophet can mean only one thing – that Stephenson is a higher member of the Pantheon. Which means he is none other than the King of Gods.

Which means that Neal Stephenson is actually Amibah the Formless ONe.

Internal Conflict

When a bunch of friends and I described ourselves as a pantheon a few years back, I was War. Part of the reason was that in Hindu Mythology Karthik is the God of War, but more importantly, I was War because I was always at war with myself. With three others being conveniently called Disease, Hunger and Madness, and another being Death, we formed a formidable force indeed.

True to the name that these guys gave me all those years ago, for the last six months or so, I’ve been absolutely consumed by internal conflict. It mostly has to do with my professional career, which hasn’t particularly taken off the way I imagined it would when I graduated from IIMB some 5 years ago. For the first time ever, I’ve completed two years in a job, and things don’t particularly look rosy, especially if I evaluate myself based on where I could have been had I not made those big blunders.

A part of me wants to go easy upon myself, and not be too harsh. Everyone goes through tough phases, that part tells me, and that mine has been a wee bit longer than most people’s. This part tells me to not worry about peer pressure, and to concentrate on keeping myself peaceful and enjoying the good things in life. This part further asks me to not worry too much about the future and that things will get into a flow. And that despite my corporate career not exactly taking off, life isn’t all that bad.

The other part, on the other hand, holds me responsible for all my troubles. It tells me that it’s because of my mistakes in the past that I’m where I am, and that I need to work really hard to rectify them. This part takes me to LinkedIn, and shows me the wonderfully sculpted oh-so-successful careers some of my old associates seem to be having, just to prove the point that I’ve messed up. This part wants me to conform, and be a good employee, and climb the stairs in the same way others have, and follow the well-trodden path into successful corporate whoredom. And this path is also supported by those pesky relatives who ask you uncomfortable questions about your career every time you are unfortunate enough to bump into them.

The first part is quite worried about my health, both mental and physical, and believes that messing up one’s health is too high a price to pay for corporate success and the associate perks that it brings. The second says I need to learn to adapt, and somehow reduce the impact of my health, while still being a good corporate whore.

And like in that old Coffy Bite ad, the argument continues. Except that these two parts of myself have completely ravaged my head over the last few months. I’m reminded of the story of the Bherunda bird (the “state bird” of Karnataka) which has two heads and one body. The two heads get into a quarrel. One of them gets so upset that he drinks some poison, thus killing “both of them”. These two parts of me, by means of their continued conflict have ended up completely consuming me, and my head.

And here I am, trying to figure out once again what it means to chill.


This is regarding the Avatars of Vishnu.  It is quite fascinating how Buddha managed to enter the list (he is number 9 on the list). Apparently a number of communities give that spot to Balarama (Krishna’s brother), notably Iyengars and other Vaishnavite communities. I have also seen this in a few temples (don’t know which “denomination” (if such a thing exists in Hinduism) these temples belong to) which have Balarama as #9.

The most popular explanation (which I have no reason to disagree with) about the Buddha’s entry into the list is that it was a clever ploy to prevent the spread of Buddhism, which threatened to become the largest religion in the subcontinent in the few centuries before and after christ. By including Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon, and by declaring him to be an avatar of Vishnu, an attempt was made to describe Buddhism as just a branch of Hinduism. Looking at the way Buddhism has developed after that in the subcontinent, I have reason to believe that the ploy was successful.

Regarding the construction of the list, there are again two possibilities. One view says that it was constructed not more than two millenia ago, and it was constructed only as a response to Buddhism. That it was something like “Ok here is the Buddha. He threatens us. So let’s make him one of ours. Let us declare him to be an Avatar of Vishnu. But then, we need more avatars to make this look credible. Let us include evolution into this and put in a few animals, etc. and have a nice list. But we have only 9, and there is no logical person who can finish this list. So let’s assume that he will happen sometime in the future, when the world ends. So here is The List”.

The other possibility is that one such list already existed, and the Buddha was included in the list. Though 8 is not an inauspicious number, it is unlikley that there were originally 8 avatars. Which means that there were originally 10, including possibly Kalki, and the Buddha replaced one of these 10. Looking at the other popular version of the Dashavatara, it is likely that the Buddha replaced Balarama in the list.

This raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • What avatarish thing did Balarama achieve in order to be an avatar? Which demon did he kill? I only recall him being mentioned fleetingly in the early stages of the Mahabharata, and he walked away from the war later on. So what message did he carry?
  • Balarama being an avatar, and his being a brother of another avatar Krishna, means that two avatars coexisted. In fact, someone on the list pointed out that Parashurama is a Chiranjeevi, so he has coexisted with all avatars following him. So we need to dissociate the avatar concept from the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In any case, fascinating stuff
  • It is remarkable that Hinduism was flexible and nimble enough to turn the Buddha into an avatar when they saw him threaten them. The presence of mind of the people who thought of this workaround is commendable. I wonder where Hinduism lost its flexibility after that.
  • I also wonder how this was implemented. Hinduism has no supreme leader. And in the days when the Buddha was included into the list, there wasn’t even a Postal system, leave alone conference call facilities. How did this idea spread and gain enough credence to become the norm, then? Where did this idea of making the Buddha an avatar originate? How did t hey disseminate it? Who was the powerful set of people who were instrumental in the design, development and distribution of this idea?

It’s all fascinating stuff. And if any of you have any theories regarding the points I’ve raised here, please leave a comment.