Fri
Nov 13 2009 10:25am

East is east and west is west, except in the Wheel of Time

Leigh Butler’s posts and Brandon Sanderson writing the conclusion of the series led me to reread the Wheel of Time. I hadn’t read it in a very long time, almost twenty years since book one. I was a little concerned that my past enjoyment would not be repeated, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it’s a lot more fun this time, because I can better recognize and appreciate the copious folkloric and religious references in it. Jordan, as I understand it, wanted to create a world that was both before and after our own, or more precisely, a cyclical worldview in which before and after are equally true and equally inadequate markers. The first time I read it I really didn’t pick up on that at all.

As a Buddhist, I am particularly drawn to the Asian influences in WOT and focusing my attention in that direction has made for a rewarding and perplexing read. I don’t claim at all that Jordan wrote an intentionally Buddhist fantasy story, or that it should be deconstructed from a Buddhist, or more broadly, Asian, angle alone. All I’m saying is it’s one worthwhile avenue to explore.

WOT does not conform to any religious perspective other than its own, and while that’s part of its richness, it also makes for some interesting paradoxes. In investigating these paradoxes, I hope I don’t sound like I’m saying, “Aha! Gotcha, Jordan!” I’m not trying to out-clever the author. It’s just that there are elements that don’t quite add up to me and I’d like to discuss them with the amazingly knowledgeable tor.com crowd.

Samsara and Apocalypse

On the surface, the WOT seems an almost entirely western fantasy: Abrahamic views mixed with pre-Christian Celtic and Norse. A common starting place for fantasy world-building. The Creator, Shai’tan, messianic prophesy in near-Biblical verbiage, the polarity of light and dark, all point toward an Abrahamic view. Names such as Gawyn, Galad, Birgitte, Morgase and so on lend an obviously Arthurian and Celtic feel.

But there’s a second thread of influence in the WOT, a Taoist/Buddhist/Hindu perspective that flows through the entire story. It’s the intertwining of east and west that I find fascinating and frustrating at once. I will refer to these not-entirely compatible views as the Samsaric (eastern) and the Apocalyptic (western).

What I’m calling the Apocalyptic view is dualistic. It says there is a Creator and the world was created and can be destroyed. Good and evil are forces. Light and dark represent, or are the manifestations of, good and evil. There is creation and destruction; there is birth and death. Phenomena exist by virtue of being created and they can be destroyed.

Samsara is the word in Buddhism and Hinduism for the cycle of death and rebirth. Most schools of Buddhism hold that there is neither creation nor destruction in an absolute sense, but rather forces infinitely interacting, coming together and coming apart. Phenomena, including individual lives, “exist” by virtue of context rather than free-standing self-definition. “There are neither beginnings nor endings,” you could say. 

This is the view of most forms of Buddhism and parallels some concepts in Taoism. Hinduism recognizes a cycle of death and rebirth but differs considerably from Buddhism in believing in the existence of the Atman, or absolute soul. Jordan’s view of reincarnation is more closely aligned with the Hindu view than the Buddhist in that a person has a soul, a self-nature that reincarnates. Rand and Lews Therin have the same soul, right?

The most obvious non-western symbol in the books is, of course, the Aes Sedai symbol, a variant on yin and yang. The Wheel of Time itself, as a symbol, falls mostly into the Samsaric side, resembling in no small way another big wheel, the dharmachakra, or Wheel of the Law, which, among other things, can represent the unending cycle of death and rebirth. And then there’s the kalachakra, which literally means the wheel of time. (I’m not well versed in Tibetan Buddhism, so I’ll leave that one to wikipedia.)

Jordan’s mantra-like beginning text is pretty thoroughly Samsaric. “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose.... The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of time. But it was a beginning.”

Yet, there’s the Creator. There’s the Dark One. There’s the fact that balefire can, most assuredly, destroy something. There is creation. There is destruction. This leaves me to wonder, if there is definite creation and definite destruction, how then, does it follow that there are “neither beginnings nor endings”? Is this a contradiction, or is there something I’m not seeing? (Also see Leigh’s post here for more on the whole circular time confusion.)

Salvation and Rebirth

What is meant by the oft-repeated oath, “Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth”? What, in this sense, does salvation mean? Do salvation and rebirth go hand in hand, as if to say salvation is rebirth? If so, that hardly makes sense, as evil, destructive people are evidently reborn in the WOT. Also, as Leigh pointed out to me, “There are the ghosts that turn up in the later books! What’s up with ghosts in a rebirth context?” Good question.

If you were to look at this from an Abrahamic perspective, salvation would mean being in God’s good graces, pleasing to God and obedient to his will. And rebirth would refer to the afterlife in heaven, would it not? WOT gives no indication that I’ve seen of either paradise or peril after death. Or do I oversimplify?

“Salvation” isn’t a word you often hear in Buddhism. More often the term is moksha, translated as emancipation, generally meaning freedom from being ruled by delusion, liberation from endlessly repeating karma. There’s no discernable concept of karma in the WOT.

It doesn't seem to me that salvation in the WOT fits neatly into either the Apocalyptic or Samsaric views. So what is salvation, in this context? From what does the Light save you?

Wheel and Will

What is meant by “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills”? Is this a statement of resignation to fate? Insha’Allah, so to speak? Or does it literally mean the Wheel itself has a will? If so, Jordan’s Wheel would differ significantly from the dharmachakra or the Tao. A god has will. A god has volition. Neither the Dharma nor the Tao have “will” per se, any more than gravity does.

Is the Wheel of Time a sentient or insentient force? (I confess that I sometimes get the Wheel and the Pattern confused. Anyone clue me in on a quick way to differentiate?). In The Dragon Reborn, (Chapter 21), Verin and Egwene discuss the Wheel of Time and its relationship to the Pattern, and Verin says the Wheel weaves lives to make a Pattern of Ages. That sounds rather deliberate to me.

And to add to my perplexion (that’s a word, innit? Let’s say it is) consider what Bair tells Egwene. “The pattern does not see jih’e’toh. Only what must and will be…Only by surrendering to the Pattern will you begin to have some control over the course of your own life” (The Fires of Heaven, chapter 5). So, Bair’s view of the Pattern, here, is analogous to the Tao.

No Religion?

Jordan said of religion in his books, “This is a world where what might be called the proofs of religion are self-evident all the time. It seemed to me there was no necessity for the trappings of religion which by and large are to reinforce us in our faith… and to convince others… if your beliefs are made concrete and manifest around you at any given time there is not the need for that.” I assume by this statement that he saw no contradiction between the various philosophical facets of the WOT.

Jordan’s statement that religion isn’t much of a deal in the WOT because the truths are self-evident and beyond questioning doesn’t hold with me. First, doubt remains in the WOT and so does religion. Beliefs are not homogeneous in the books. There is plenty of moral ambiguity, mystery, uncertainty, questions of individual need versus societal need. Are these not the quandaries religion itself seeks to address? Second, even if freedom from teleological doubt existed in the WOT, the evidence manifested in daily life would not equal the absence of religion by any stretch of the imagination. Even if the metaphysical were as obvious and observable as the physical, the presence of incontrovertible information doesn’t, in and of itself, create wisdom. Doesn’t the need for religious interpretation remain?

Couldn’t ji’e’toh and the Way of the Leaf be considered religions, or at least divergent schools of the same religion? What of the Prophet of the Dragon and his followers? Or the Children of the Light? Don’t they all have “the trappings of religion”?

Lastly, in the section of The Dragon Reborn mentioned earlier, when Egwene mentions paradox, Verin says pretty emphatically that paradox and confusion are the tools of the Dark One. I find that a strange comment to make in a word where the proofs of religion are self-evident.

Tell Me What You Think

I would be happy to know what you think, even if you find me entirely off base. I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility, but I’d like an explanation.  I know that in the comments for Leigh’s posts, religion has come up a few times and some people get uncomfortable with the topic in general. But we’re a civil crowd and I see nothing wrong with religious dialogue, or sharing how your real-life religious views inform your reading. That’s what I’ve done here, after all. I think that as long as we stay well away from “my religion can beat up your religion” we can have a lively, respectful and enlightening discussion.


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

35 comments
Rajiv Mote
1. RajivMote
Responding to: "This leaves me to wonder, if there is definite creation and definite destruction, how then, does it follow that there are “neither beginnings nor endings”? Is this a contradiction, or is there something I’m not seeing?":

I believe this is the central mystery of the series, and the metaphysical puzzle Min is trying to understand with the help of Herid Fel's books. Rand's "job" as an agent of the Creator is to perpetuate the cycle of creation that follows cosmic dissolution. Ishamael's stated goal, as an agent of the Dark One, as he said in the first book, is to "kill the Great Serpent" -- kill the movement of time itself. The first major manifestation of the Dark One's touch was an unchanging season.

In pseudo-physics terms, the Wheel's motion is said to be fueled by the One Power. The Dark One's energies, the True Power, may be an opposing "friction" on the Wheel. When Time flows, the Ages are distinct and cyclical. When the flow is interrupted, you get the strange phenomena of ghosts and villages in Shiota superimposing themselves on the current-day road from Ebou Dar, and buildings rearranging themselves in alternate configurations.

In the Hinduism with which I was raised (since "Hinduism" is a nebulous concept), cycle of ages (yugas) has a phase of decline -- Kali Yuga -- followed by cosmic dissolution, which then gives rise to new creation. There is neither THE beginning nor THE end, but there are beginnings, and endings. Jordan's Wheel Of Time seems to fit very nicely into (my) Hindu conception of the cosmic cycle, which does include an Apocalypse of sorts.
Marcus W
2. toryx
My understanding of the Wheel and it's relationship to the Pattern is that the Wheel is essentially analogous to a wheel for spinning thread such as that used back in the day by workers weaving wool or silk. The thread that the wheel is spinning happens to be the lives of those who are lived and in so doing a pattern (like a tapestry) is formed.

For someone who has never spun wool or crafted anything, it's a little difficult to comprehend. But I accept it just as I accept what my mother used to do with a sewing machine. It works whether I understand how it works or not.

I also get the sense (though this could just be my poor interpretation) that there is a relationship between the lives of people and the wheel of time. The wheel just spins and the thread spools out; the choices people make in some way affect how the pattern might be whirled, but there's only so many options, so many twists and turns that a normal thread can take.

I think things like ji'e'toh and the Way of the Leaf are cultural philosphies, not religion. They are dicted by how the people believe they and others like them should live, and not intrinsically related to life and death or the Creator. You never see any of the Aiel saying that the Creator will cast someone down if they don't follow ji'e'toh.

When it comes to the subject or rebirth and salvation, I'm not sure. I get the impression that not everyone is reborn. I also get the sense that salvation isn't used in quite the same sense that it's used in religions of this world. It seems as though people believe that those who walk in the light will have good things happen to them and can hope to live long, fulfilling lives. Those who walk in the shadow, though they may be granted power and riches, are also inclined to be forced to deal with strife and unpleasant matters. People seem to believe in some sense that the life they live affects the next life they might be given, which is sort of karmic in nature.

Frankly, I accept all these things without any particular struggle. There's a lot of things that seem contradictory and irrational in their beliefs but as an agnostic, that's generally true of any faith, real world or WoT related. That makes it easier for me to simply accept it without questioning it all that much.
Cheryl
3. First Selector
On Salvation & Rebirth:
I think the belief is that the Dark One, aka Lord of the Grave, can get to souls once they die if they don’t walk in the Light. So it would then be possible for them to be tormented by the DO for eternity with no hope of rebirth. So the Light/Creator can save one from this fate. But the DO doesn’t always exercise this right so some baddies are reborn.
I also believe it’s the case that not all souls are reborn. But have no clue how its determined which souls are or are not reborn. Or whether not being reborn could be a reward. . .
I do think the afterlife is a bit more complicated. For example, we know that some souls (Hawkwing, Birgitte, etc) have earned the right to be tied to the Horn of Valere and between rebirths spend their time in the World of Dreams. I also think the readers and general Randlanders don’t know the full story about the afterlife.

On the Wheel:
I’ve always thought of the Wheel as non-sentient. In general I think it’s pretty common for people to make statements assigning a personality or sentience to things known to be non-sentient.
IMO the “Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills’ is just another way of saying ‘what will be, will be’.

On Religion:
By ‘proofs of religion’, I think RJ meant that there is a Creator, there is a DO, and everyone knows it. But you are absolutely right - there is much discrepancy in how people view the details of salvation, rebirth, the Pattern, the Wheel.
Rajiv Mote
4. RajivMote
Good question about "salvation and rebirth" in the Wheel of Time context. I definitely took it to mean that salvation IS rebirth, and while we've seen bad people reborn, we've also seen people's souls "held" by the Dark One -- Kari al'Thor comes to mind, as does a Darkfriend merchant who, in Rand's dream, encountered a nasty surprise when he got his "reward".

In contrast, the Darkfriends all seem to want immortality -- eternal life without death and rebirth. The promise may be misleading; if we see the Creator as a force for keeping the Wheel of Time turning, we can see the Dark One as a force attempting to halt it. "Immortality" may be the static superposition of all things, past and present. The "ghosts" we've seen aren't so much lost souls as the past overlaid on the present, and (so far) oblivious to it. Before the Bowl of Winds, the Dark One had held the seasons in place. Ba'alzamon wanted to "kill the Great Serpent" -- destroy time itself. Even Rand, affected deeply by the Taint, has the personality of his previous incarnation occupying his head-space: the co-location of past and present.

If the concept of salvation is adherence to the will of the Creator, death and rebirth are part of the Creator's plan. The old must be cleared away before the new can be woven. Herid Fel's note to Rand indicated something similar. The patched Bore in the Dark One's prison must be gone by the time this Age comes again. It seems likely that even the Pattern itself must go through some form of destruction and rebirth for the world's salvation.
Gavin Mitchell
5. Gavin Mitchell
I just have a small comment to add in response to your thoughts on the Abrahamic ideas of an afterlife. In the Wheel of Time, there are never any implications of people ascending to be with the creator in an afterlife (similar to the Christian view on saints). However, there is a term given to Mat, Rand, Perrin and in my opinion Egwene that is Ta'veren. It is these people and the heroes of legend (like Artur Hawkwing, Birgette, etc.) that have an afterlife of sorts in Tel'aran'rhiod (the dream world). It is to this plane of existence that these relatively important "souls" of the Wheel of Time Universe are confined to until their "souls" are "spooled" back into the living world of Randland into physical manifestations that change with each age, at least in appearance. The exception to this is Birgette who was ripped out of Tel'aran'rhiod. Her fate as such an individual who will return to Tel'aran'rhiod after her death is still ambiguous since she was essentially ripped out of the pattern's design.

This seems to be the only real cognitive afterlife that is mentioned in the WOT universe. It seems to me that this is obvious because of how it seems that every darkfriend's goal is to attain immortality (afraid of death as there is no afterlife). I visualize the fate of all other souls to be similar to the Greek theology of Hades and the underworld. The difference is that there is no actual plane of existence that IS the underworld, but it seems that people's souls are kept in a kind of inventory to be spit back into the pattern at the will of at least the dark one. Perhaps the creator as well, but that is unknown as there have been no examples of it happening. At the same time, those who live under the light seem to seek nothing more than to be "sheltered in the hand of the creator." There is never talk of being with the creator, instead just living their life in peace and safety.

Lastly, I want to say something about "absolute" endings. Balefire has always been the be-all-end-all discussion topic when it comes to paradoxes in the WOT. It is said that if someone is balefired, that their "thread" in the wheel is burned away, forever. I would take this to mean that regardless of one's status as Ta'veren, if you get balefired, you never come back. This is evident when Moiraine balefires Bel'al. The dark one comments that he cannot bring him back. His "soul/thread" has been removed from the pattern completely. This is interesting to me because it means that the dark one is bound to the pattern's "will." Does that mean that the creator is as well? Is the creator a fictitious deity created by the people of Randland? Was it the creator at the end of tEoTW who spoke to Rand at Tarwin's Gap? Religion is definitely in play in the WOT even if there is no set structure or creed (there aren't any churches, mosques, temples, etc.). Ok, that was a tangent, but back to what I was saying. Balefire, in my opinion, seems to be the only true "end" in the WOT. However, if everyone was balefired would the wheel compensate and add new threads, or would humans just cease to exist in Randland? A question I wish I knew the answer to.

I see that my "short comment" has turned into me rambling so I'll stop now. Let me know what you all think and whether or not you agree.
Adam Loops
6. Cecero
Balefire: Because the thread is burned backwards in time, the Dark One can not bring that thread back to life. There is a temporal limitation on the Dark One's ability to give re-birth to a soul.

They aren't burned out of the "pattern" forever, they can be reborn in another Age (unless, of course, this "pattern" is only for this particular "Age").
Jeff Weston
7. JWezy
A couple of thoughts:

Salvation and Rebirth - My impression is that the "stuff" the wheel weaves typically comes from a stash of relatively undifferentiated soul material. Between death and rebirth, it gets all mixed up and comes out as a different composite, essentially a unique soul.

Both the light and the dark, however, have some "special stuff"; they can retain certain souls as they are (the Heroes of the Horn and the Forsaken are the primary but perhaps not unique examples). These can then be re-introduced into the weaving as desired.

Interestingly, neither the Creator nor Shai'tan are not really Godlike - they are neither omnicient nor omnipotent. It appears that they are able to introduce these souls into the weaving of the Wheel, but have only limited ability to affect the way they are woven thereafter. In fact, they are generally introduced as babes, and their inherent capacities are influenced by their experiences in life.

Actually, the DO treats the Forsaken differently; it seems that they can be introduced as is into a pre-existing thread of the pattern, rather than starting anew. Regardless, their actions after being woven are independent.

Does the Wheel have will? My view is like Escher's waterfall.

It flows, and it is cyclic. Like a river, however, it is subject to chaotic effects, and one can only loosely predict where something in the stream will wind up. The only truly predictable effect is that things move toward the future. Balefire seems to violate this somehow, but I have no real idea how.

I don't see will there, simply chaotic flow from the past to the future. Once again, there are limits, constraints.

In fact, one could make the case that a truly omnicient, omnipotent, and interventionist God is probably not interesting, either in real life or in fiction. Constraint and conflict generate interest; simple creation and destruction at will leave no room for doubt or wonder.

Assuming this is pretty much what Jordan meant, what's with the ghosts? Well, it may be that as the Dark One's ability to influence the world grows, he can retain more souls in their woven form, and project their images into the "real" world. Why? Why not? He's the frikkin' Dark One, he can do whatever he thinks he can get away with. It doesn't seem to be same thing as the Heroes being called out by the Horn, since the ghosts seem to be only projections, and do not really interact with the world.

Extra Credit Question: Why could only Mat see the ghosts on the road to that town, while all the residents of the town Perrin went to could? For that matter, why could the whole menagerie see the ghost town that ate people, when only Mat could see the ghosts later? I have no idea, I would appreciate any insights.

BTW, I think all "short comments" will be longer here, as we struggle to articulate our beliefs without ranting or triggering a rant. Remember that Perrin is at his best when he thinks before he speaks or acts, something I know benefits me when I can remember to do it. ;-)
Sam
8. bluecansam
The common misconception is that balefire destroys things for good, but that isn’t quite the case. It unwinds your actions from the pattern for a set amount of time, depending on the strength of the balefire. So, in a sense, the only thing balefire does destroy are actions, not people or their souls. The Dark One can’t resurrect a forsaken struck with balefire because his window to do so closes before he has a chance to save them. In LoC, he says, “Not even I can step out of time.”

But I think many of the contradictions you see are in many ways perceptions of the characters, not of the author, per say. Robert Jordan had a set of very specific rules, but how the characters decided to view those specific rules is very subjective. I think you answered your own question when you said that this world is meant to be seen as a world both before and after our own. It would stand to reason that seeds of our modern day religions would be melded in the story so that, later on down the line, those seeds would grow into what we have today.
Jonah Feldman
9. relogical
The motivation and widespread existence of Darkfriends makes a lot of sense when you take into account that worshipping the Dark One is the closest thing Randland has to religion.

Minor spoiler: The Gathering Storm gives the clear indication that everyone who follows the Dark One is foolish, since the Dark One will destroy the Pattern and all of his followers, no matter what. The only person who realizes this is Moridin, and he doesn't care, because he's a nihilist.

To Darkfriends, the Dark One might as well be God, because he's the only cosmic being with any influence on the world. But like with many gods, they can't understand his motivation.
Gavin Mitchell
10. euphrosyne
I think it's a little bit silly to try and cherry pick a couple phrases from a 3 million word oeuvre. Of course you can find some contradictions in that mass of verbiage. I don't think it's a paradox, I think it's a either a slip of intent on the author's part, or a fine example of the real-world fact that religion is always interpretive, and everyone will never agree with the same single interpretation, even when the trappings are explicit and manifest all about them :)
Jason Henninger
11. jasonhenninger
Wow..thanks to all so far (and those who will respond later) for how much thought you've put into this. It's already given me a lot to think of, and the day's just begun.

@1 I certainly understand Hinduism being nebulous. Buddhism is, too. Always have to specify the form. Pardon me for being so general. When I wrote this, I'd forgotten about the Kali Yuga concept, and it does seem pretty analogous to the ages in the Wheel of Time. Must think on this more. Thanks!

@2 I admit that, for a Buddhist, its not easy to make the distinction between a religion and a philosophy. In fact, it's an ongoing debate among Buddhists in the west as to whether or not we follow a religion or philosophy. In a sense, it's neither and both. I think Ji'e'toh and the way of the leaf may be like that as well.

@ the rest...will think more on it and respond later.

Thanks!
Sam
12. bluecansam
As for ghosts, I never got the impression those were ghosts, but rather the pattern unraveling in such a way that the present is becoming melded with the past. Think about sitting in your apartment, and reality around you is bent in such a way that you started seeing the occupant who lived there before you washing the dishes, watching TV, etc. You would be tempted to call them a ghost, but then when you go to look them up in the phone book, they’re still there.

How that may or may not relate to creation or destruction, I don’t know. The characters believe that if the Dark One wins, he’ll destroy the pattern and break the wheel, but we don’t know, in Robert Jordan’s mind, whether that is the case at all. This reality bending the Dark One is visiting upon the pattern does prove that he does have influence over the pattern, but in what ways actually appears to be additive. If the Dark One breaks free, does he, too, have to conform to the will of the pattern? Can he, instead, be the sentience that directs the pattern, which would change the pattern, but not destroy it? If the Dark One would gain control of the pattern, who’s in control of it now? The creator? If he does destroy the pattern, would that destroy the creator?

Since the Creator was able to imprison the Dark One, we can presume the Creator is more powerful. In the grand scheme of things, the Creator must have seen some purpose in creating the Dark One. Perhaps the Creator needed the Dark One to create?

Since the series isn’t complete, there are more questions than real answers.
T C
13. Freelancer
I will be (relatively) brief for now, but will gather thoughts, and when I have more time to dedicate will sort through the intricacies of your well-considered curiosities. And forgive that I will write with an authoritative voice, and know that these are but my impressions/opinions.

The Wheel is non-sentient, and is the symbolic embodiment of the passage [b][u]of time[/u].

The Pattern is not so easily defined. Here you raise one of my favorite philosophical discrepancies with the series. The Creator does not take a hand, and yet the Pattern (as everyone can sense, larger truths being self-evident...) has goals and takes actions to steer events toward those goals. A common argument to fit this together is that the Pattern is an overall plan set in place by the Creator, then left in place for beings to operate within.

Salvation - Your discomfort with this is well founded. If a soul is destined to be born into a new body repeatedly, both within a cycle of ages and across the repeating cycle, then there are no eternal consequences, and no demand for salvation, which quite literally is being saved from consequences.

Rebirth - The suggestion of the phrase used in oaths and prayers, "by my hope of salvation and rebirth" certainly suggests the possibility of having rebirth withheld from a soul. But I see no evidence to support it. The most authoritative voice on the subject is Elan Morin Tedronai (Ishamael, Ba'alzamon, Moridin), who tells Lews Therin that they have fought countless times across countless turning of the Wheel. The Heroes bound to the Horn of Valere provide another evidence to this argument as well.

Building a world with universal recognition for foudational truths, as Robert Jordan states, definitely simplifies the plotting of events for the story, which are plenty complex as it is. I certainly do not begrudge the author that fiat. Also, it instantly widens his audience, because once any "religious" behaviors or trappings are incorporated, some will walk away. When rote oaths and amorphous prayers are the closest anyone is seen as coming to religious activities, it is harder to offend any particular reader's faith. And after all, it is a work of fiction intended to be sold for profit, which is a good thing. (Some people get more easily offended by the concept of an artist working for pay, than by any religious reference.)

There. That is the "brief" version. Back later...
T C
14. Freelancer
Jason@11

I just noticed that comment. I wanted to say that both ji'e'toh and the Way of the Leaf are standards of conduct. Now, whether they arise from philosophical or religious foundations is another question. It might well be that ji'e'toh is an accommodation developed by the Aiel out of their departure from the Way of the Leaf, which seems to only concern itself with obligation, and never honor.
Gavin Mitchell
15. Chriscot
Interesting discussion, Jason, thanks! And a new WOT post, yay!

Warning: long rambly Wall of Text follows.

Re: the Wheel - I *think* it's supposed to be non-living. However, it may have a self-correcting "mechanism" of some kind...ta'veren, for instance, are supposedly "spun out" when the Pattern is in trouble, to get things back on track.

Re: the Eastern/Western split...I think as others do that this is an internal debate in Randland, too. The Cosmology seems to be set up in the Eastern fashion - a Wheel endlessly turning, Ages coming, going, and coming again, as souls are endlessly reborn.

But both Rand and the DO seem to have Apocalyptic hopes, with the DO, according to Moridin, wanting to break the Wheel and end the cycle, and Rand wanting to kill the DO, which would alter the cycles so that there could never again be an Age where the DO breaks free. I doubt that's possible, based on what we currently know, but that's a RAFO.

@11: interesting thoughts on the trouble of differentiating between a philosophy and a religion. As a Christian minister and theologian, I'd have to say Robert Jordan is "wrong" (i.e., I disagree with his definition of "religion") in saying that religion doesn't really exist in Randland.

To me, it seems simply that it's A) pervasive, and B) not focused on "worship" or ceremony.

A) is simply that religious indoctrination - the teachings about creation, the Creator, the Dark One, the Pattern, salvation and rebirth, etc., are pervasive. Everybody, just about, knows about and belives that stuff.

That doesn't mean there's no religion; it means one religion has been very successful.

Even so, there are differences. Many Darkfriends (I just barely managed to avoid a TGS spoiler) become Darkfriends as a way to "get ahead" in life through unethical means. Many of them weren't actually interested in serving the DO or, likely, believed they'd help him break free and destroy the Pattern. They just wanted more money/status/power than they could get legitimately. It's mentioned a few times, for instance, that with the Forsaken getting free they've been teaching Darkfriends that they'd be held tightly to their oaths, whatever they may have thought they were getting into.

There's also the *catechism*, early on..."The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation..." etc. It's *called* a catechism, and it clearly teaches religious doctrine, and it was clearly pervasive throughout Randland.

Interestingly, it's also factually wrong, since the DO and the Forsaken were bound by the Dragon, and not at the moment of Creation...though the end of an Age is, in WOT terms, _a_ creation....

Tuon and the Seanchan know about the Dark One, the Dragon Reborn, the Wheel of Time, the Pattern, the Last Battle...but they don't know about ta'veren. They don't believe in Shadowspawn, despite believing in the Dark One. In fact, many folks in Randland proper didn't believe in Shadowspawn.

Shadowspawn are like concrete, physical demons..."proof" that there's an evil power, a Dark One. I think that's one of the things RJ was referring to when he said "the proofs of religion are self-evident." But even in Randland, many south of the Borderlands had never seen Shadowspawn and, consequently, considered them myths.

B) is interesting, because ritual and ceremony are often ways people seek to give or express meaning in the pattern of their lives. I think what Jordan meant in saying that the "proofs of religion are self-evident" is that this need for ceremony is not such a big thing when real, concrete manifestations of good and evil are ever-present. For instance, no need to worry about supposedly invisible angels and demons...there are concrete, living Shadowspawn. No need to pray for miracles, when Aes Sedai can perform "miracles." The One Power is often equated with "the Light."

But again, many don't believe in Shadowspawn, and many in small areas had never seen Aes Sedai - who in my mind clearly function as clergy. The Light is often equated with the One Power, the Tower is the sword of the Light, the Aes Sedai are probably responsible for keeping the memory of the Dark One alive, etc. As for there being no religious ritual, witness the ceremonial treatment of Aes Sedai in the Borderlands in the Great Hunt! These are rituals that, it seems, were held by all the early nations, but are now only closely observed in the Borderlands...where the "proofs of religion" *ARE* truly self-evident, with Trollocs and Myrdraal raiding out of the Blight on a regular basis. So it's interesting to me that it's the Borderlands where religious ritual is most prevalent. Along with, as you noted, the Children of the Light...and I'll add, the Aes Sedai. Their rituals, for example, are done "clad in the Light" (i.e. naked) and thus clearly show a religious basis - they are to be allied with the Light and not the Dark. The Aes Sedai, with access to the One Power, also have self-evident proofs of religion on a daily basis...and yet their lives are full of ritual.

Plus Moiraine and Siuan, in New Spring, mention praying for the souls of deceased relatives. Prayer = religion.

And everybody does pray for and swear by their hope of salvation and rebirth. What that means, though, is unknown by us...and by them. It comes down, dare I say it, to...faith!

For of course, Shadowspawn are only proof that there are monsters...they don't prove the existence of "the Dark One". And Aes Sedai are proof of magic/sorcery...not proof of the Light or of power given by the Creator. In the end, despite what RJ said about "proofs" being "self-evident", belief in a DO and Creator are still matters of faith and religion. According to the Gospels, Jesus said that people would still disbelieve even seeing his miracles. Same thing..."self-evident proof" but it still has to be interpreted, and some will not see it as proof or as self-evident.

Overall, I think it's clear that religion does exist in Randland. It's just that churches and places of worship don't.
Gavin Mitchell
16. Chriscot
Oh...in Knife of Dreams, Rand/Lews Therin express the belief that the Creator has moved on...that he went on from creating this world to creating others and still others, and that the Creator was concerned with creating new worlds, not tending an old one...like a gardener ever planting new flowers rather than focusing on the fate of a single one.

This is similar to the Deist notion that God created the universe and set it loose, like winding a watch and then letting it go. It's opposed to views that God directly intervenes and takes part and is interested, as I believe, in relationship with those who have been Created.

Randland in general seems to have some Deist tendencies...the Creator set the Wheel in motion and now the Wheel weaves as it will, etc. So who/what are they praying to?
Leigh Butler
17. leighdb
My impression of the cosmology of WOT has always been somewhat similar to what Neil Gaiman did in the Sandman series: both authors saw no reason why one particular religion/worldview/pantheon/way of thinking had to be true (in a fictional setting, leastways), and ergo just kept throwing philosophical spaghetti at the wall and having fun with what stuck. Which, as it turns out, was almost everything.

The inconsistencies thus introduced have only marginally bothered me over the years, and then only from a plot standpoint (as with my question over how exactly Rand is supposed to seal the Dark One's prison with the rules he has to work with). For one thing, even real religions are riddled with inconsistencies and/or contradictions; this is why the world has problems.

And for another, one of the most major themes of WOT has always been the malleability of truth: the inevitable distortion and decay with the passage of time of what is true and what isn't. Legend fades to myth, etc.

From that point of view, it's oddly logical that the cosmology of Randland (as perceived by the mortal characters, anyway) should make no sense. Ba dum dum.

All that being said, it's still a fascinating exercise to pick out what bits Jordan got from where, and examine how they fit together (or don't).

For instance, I would say Artur Hawkwing et al being bound to the Horn and hanging out in the Dreamworld in between lives is actually a lot closer to Norse myths about the Einherjar than anything else. Which of course has nothing to do with the more standard cycle of death and rebirth that all the non-heroic folks seem to get. Cosmic caste system, eh?

I do like the idea that several people have suggested, that the "ghosts" are not "spirits of the dead" so much as temporal anomalies. I'm not 100% sure that entirely works, but it's a lot better than trying to figure out where ghosts fit into a rebirth scenario, and meshes better with the general theme, that what the Dark One is primarily trying to do is screw around with time.

And, uh, lots more stuff. I'll let someone else talk now.
Joseph Blaidd
18. SteelBlaidd
One of the big differences from standard Buddist and Hindu philosophy is that instead of the goal being to be free of the cycle of rebirth the Dragon and the Heroes are tasked with maintaining the Wheel turning so that souls can continue to experiance all the joys and sorrows of mortal existance.

Heroes are chosen because the Wheel can depend on them responding to stimuli in predictible ways that will preseve the Pattern. Birgette remarks that she and Gidal Cain have basicly run every possible variation of the same love story in all their incarnations.

The war turns continualy on the Dragon chosing either to embrace life and the cyclical death of winter followed by spring(the color of mourning is the whiteof winters snow) which gives rise to new life or embrace the Death of everything that comes from the Dark One breaking the cycle. There is no death for the servents of the Lord of the Grave because there is no life either.
Gavin Mitchell
19. Trench
My take on weather the Wheel is sentient or insentient, has always been that it is insentient. I have often thought of the wheel as a wheel for spinning threads, but what if it is more akin to a player piano. Perhaps the wheel spins on a track much the same as a piano roll that has grooves in it which cause the player piano to play the different notes. While a player piano is definitely an insentient object it has been programmed (for lack of a better word)to play certain notes which when strung together make beautiful music. The wheel being on a track would cause certain events to happen or certain souls to be spun out into the pattern it is making. When the wheel hits the groove for Tarmon Gai’don it spins out the Dragon again and the wheel forces the pattern to take shape which in turn forces everyone in the pattern to start heading towards the Last Battle. Maybe during this age the Great Lord knows he has a chance to lets say rip the piano roll out and stop the spinning of the wheel for all time or maybe insert his own piano roll into causing it to spin out a pattern of his own design.

On the Rebirth and Salvation idea. I think that they are definitely linked. Each time a soul is reborn they have a chance to make things right and correct old mistakes from a previous life. Lets look at Ingtar. Perhaps he is always a dark friend and is destined to always be a darkfriend but in this particular turning of the wheel he has turned from the shadow in his last hour to help the side of Light and die as a good guy instead of betraying the Dragon and the light. For Ingtar during this turning he has found a measure of salvation.
Lily
20. Lily of the Valley
What I think when I see the oath "By the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth" is that those giving the oath are hoping for salvation from the Dark One. It stands to reason that if the DO can shuffle souls around in bodies and stuff misbehaving Forsaken into vacuoles that he can hold onto a soul for as long as he wants, doesn't it? Whether or not this is known, or just a form of really really strong oath that people use now with no real understanding of what they saying, I don't know. As someone pointed out earlier, the Forsaken weren't bound with the Dark One at the moment of creation, but the catechism includes them anyway. That information decay may apply to oaths as well.

This also leads into the whole free will debate. I hold that a soul must willingly give itself to the DO in order for the DO to control it, and thus, once a person revokes that permission then the DO cannot hold them. I think the revocation must be for the right reasons, however, and not just out of fear or coercion. And, once a soul has passed a certain point, then the DO DOES have them and there's no escape. Sort of like Hell.

I don't recall reading that the Forsaken have always been evil, in every incarnation. I think the only evidence of that is Ishamael's claim that he and the Dragon have fought again and again in thousands of lives, but he wouldn't really have a way to know that, I don't think, unless the DO told him. And, honestly, I wouldn't trust the DO. It seems Moridin had an epiphany at some point similar to Rand's, only he ended up on the "It's hopeless, the Dark One will win someday so I'll just help him do it now" boat. Whether the souls of the Forsaken already killed will be spun out any time soon, or if they'll be Big Bads again when they are, I don't think anyone can know. It goes back to that whole free will thing. While the Patterns of an Age are essentially the same each go-around the Wheel, it doesn't say anyone beyond those bound to the Horn are set in certain roles, and even the Heroes are given a measure of freedom every time they live.

It would weird if the next time conflict enters the Pattern Moridin ended up being a good guy. And stayed that way.
Rajiv Mote
21. RajivMote
Jason, your point that there is no discernible karma in the WoT is a good one, important to the discussion of whether Jordan's world has religion. I see social custom and religion as a continuum, both operating as vehicles for maintaining a society's morality. But while custom enforces behavior in the here-and-now through social sanction (anything from shaming the nonconformist to punishing him through legal channels), religion weaves reward and punishment into the cosmic model of the universe. God or the universe itself will reward the good and punish the wicked.

Ji'e'toh, the Way of the Leaf, and even the Children of Light's doctrine all have the flavor of social sanction. Shame has deep consequences to an Aiel. The Tuatha'an will disenfranchise one of the People who commits violence. The Children take responsibility for punishing the immoral. None of them make strong claims about cosmic consequences of individual action. As you point out, WoT samsara has nothing to do with a person's behavior; it's just the mechanics of the spiritual universe. And as far as we can tell, samsara is universally accepted in WoTWorld as fact rather than faith. This reminds me of pre-Bhakti Hinduism, which was less a code of conduct and more a philosophical description of the nature of reality. Reality, within the Pattern, doesn't reward or punish.

The one group that seems to have Western-style religion is the Darkfriends. While their counter-morality is enforced by their members, it's also enforced by the Dark One himself on their very souls. There is promise of reward (immortality) and punishment (torment and annihilation) contingent on individual action, and above all, obedience. To Jordan's point, however, even this may not be a religion so much as a secret society: there are no "priests" interpreting the Dark One's will -- the Dark One makes his will known unambiguously.

Hindu dharma (duty) is also a big part of WoT, though like samsara, it seems unrelated to morality. Dharma here is represented by the Pattern, and its importance to individuals is unequal. Ta'veren must go with the Pattern (their "duty"). Though they have wiggle-room for variations on a theme within the weave, the Wheel will force the general theme. Other individuals have more apparent freedom, but they are swept up and constrained by the Big Events being carried forth by the ta'veren. This seems to be a mechanistic function more than a volitionary one on the part of the Wheel. I don't know much about Taoism, but your quotation from Bair sounds very dharmic: acting in accordance with one's duty/destiny/fate puts one in harmony with the universe; acting against it causes strife. There doesn't seem to be a moral quality with following WoT dharma, though, because the Wheel won't physically allow much deviation.

What's interesting is that, for all that WoT is about good and evil, the cosmic principles at work appear very value-neutral. The Creator's will, through the agencies of the Wheel and its Pattern programming, is to perpetuate an eternal weave of people's lives, repeating the same motifs. The Dark One's will is to stop or remake the weave. Though we can label these beings "good" and "evil" by the actions of their servants, they themselves seem utterly beyond human morality.
Michael McCarthy
22. KilMichaelMcC
On the subject of "ghosts" and how they fit into this...it seems apparent to me that the "ghosts" who have begun appearing in the later books aren't actually ghosts at all.

They're more like...temporal anomalies.

The characters in story consider them "ghosts", which is logical given that they appear to be the spirits of dead people walking the earth.

But they don't behave like ghosts at all. They don't haunt the living. They don't interact with the living at all, or indeed even demonstrate any awareness whatsoever of their surroundings.

I think that the "ghosts" really aren't the souls of dead people actually returning from beyond or whatever, but simply portions of the past slightly bleeding into the present as the Last Battle approaches and the Pattern starts to fray.

Or not so slightly, as in the case of the entire Shiotan village that appeared and disappeared in KoD, talking that poor peddler with it.
Cheryl
23. First Selector
I'm curious to hear some thoughts on who's voice Rand heard at Tarwin's Gap.
Linda Taglieri
24. Linda
Some years ago I wrote an essay on Wheel of Time theology (posted here). I came to write it to explore the paradox of eschatology (end times) in a world without beginnings or endings and where this might lead as far as the ending of the series goes. It’s not yet updated for The Gathering Storm but it soon will be. I also wrote another on Fate and Free Will that helped define my ideas.

I’ll just touch on bits of my understanding of the aspects you raised. I don’t want to make this too long (like the theology essay is :D)

In Jordan’s world there is the paradox that history is broadly determined but each individual has the choice to work towards the fulfillment of the Pattern. The lives in Pattern are not completely fated; people choose to follow their role in the Pattern. They can usually only make small changes to their roles. But there is a way to reject your assigned role altogether: become a Darkfriend. That’s what Ishamael was getting at when he told each of the three ta’veren that there were ways to avoid their (unpleasant) fates or duties and how about they discuss these:

“There are ways to change things, boy. Ways to avoid even fate. Sit and we will talk of them.”

-The Dragon Reborn, Saidin

Had they changed sides – and it was their choice not to – that would have been a big change to the Pattern.

Salvation

From Egwene’s thoughts about the fate of Sheriam’s soul in The Gathering Storm, The Tower Stands, people don’t believe that souls are fated to turn to the Dark One. They choose to do so. I think the Pattern expects that some people will become Darkfriends in their lives and that’s woven in, as it were, but which ones is up to the individuals concerned.

Characters can choose to do evil or they can refuse to do good. There will always be those who turn aside, but which ones is up to individual choice, not the Pattern. Individual lives don’t matter to the Pattern - who does what – it is the what that counts to the Pattern and the choices that a soul makes that counts to the Creator. If the choices were fated or didn't matter, why then are there all the variations of worlds where the souls made different choices? Perhaps the choices each person is prompted to make are as important as the events of the Age.

When the characters swear:

”By the Light and my hope of salvation and rebirth, I swear to… or may the Creator’s face turn from me forever and darkness consume my soul.”

- The Fires of Heaven, Fanning the Sparks

There may be two types of salvation referred to here: personal and the world’s salvation. Personal salvation would mean protection from harm, including protection from the Shadow, plus the hope of continued reincarnation as the Wheel turns. Protection from the Shadow is linked with the world’s salvation – the success of the saviour-figure, the Dragon Reborn, and the forces of the Light in delivering the world from the Shadow. So people pray to be kept safe from harm and from the Shadow and also to be born again. Egwene thought it might be quite a while before Sheriam’s soul would be allowed back into the Pattern by the Creator.

The reference to darkness consuming a person’s soul means that if the person is undeserving they may be denied salvation and would not be born again. Their soul will be extinguished. (Presumably the Dark One makes a special arrangement for his surrogate/s’ natural rebirth.) This is different to Hinduism or Buddhism, where such a soul would be reborn as an animal to relearn the ethics it had abandoned.

The only person who actively desires to be free of the Wheel, who has been working toward Moksha from the beginning, is Ishamael. He’s looking forward to the End of time and is the only one who not only fully understands the Dark One’s goal but embraces it.

"The only path is to follow the Great Lord and rule for a time before all things end. The others are fools. They look for grand rewards in the eternities, but there will be no eternities. Only the now, the last days."
He laughed again, and this time there was joy in it. True pleasure.

- The Gathering Storm, A Place to Begin

It seems that being freed of the Wheel is totally undesirable in WOT because the only way that can be is if the Wheel is destroyed (or if darkness consumes a particular soul). After all, stopping the whole thing so one person can get off is bad. No one else has a chance to develop then. That's why only Ishamael wants moksha. In WOT there's no provision for moksha apart from destroying the Pattern. That's where the East unconformably abuts against the West I guess.


Religion

I agree that there is deep philosophical or religious feeling among many of the people. There’s the Jainism of the Way of the Leaf, and the millenarian extremism of the Shadow (with a catechism, no less!) and the Amayar and Masema’s Dragonsworn.

Zoroastrianism has also contributed a great deal to WOT theology. As has Taoism as you so rightly mention. Though in this world Taoism is way out of whack, which is why RJ deliberately left out the dots from the yingyang symbol to show that the balance between saidin and saidar has to be restored. The One Power is an elixir of life and the True Power an elixir of death.

WOT is unusual in having millenarianism (not the conventional Christian definition I hasten to add, but belief in a periodisation of history into multiples of a thousand years and in the idea of a return to conditions of peace and happiness), messianism and apocalypticism all woven together. Strange in a world that is based on cyclic time and shifting balance, but that’s the paradox the Dark One embodies.

The Last Battle should be final, so a world with a cyclic time frame shouldn’t have a Last Battle. (Herid Fel pointed this out to Rand in a conversation in Lord of Chaos, A Taste of Solitude.) If the losing deity is extinguished, there will be an imbalance in Creation and changes to the Pattern of Ages; therefore this should not happen. Moreover, Tarmon Gai’don is occurring at the end of the Third Age – in the middle of the great cycle of Ages - and not at the end of the Seventh. This is most unusual and is a strong hint that the Light will win – probably the strongest possible hint.

Ishamael’s philosophy stands at the crossroads of the cyclic time derived from Eastern philosophies, the Jainism of the Da’shain, and the dualistic Zoroastrian theology of the Wheel of Time world. How apt then, that the Dark One and Shadowspawn are linked with crossroads and that the interplay between these three philosophies has been corrupted by the Shadow and may end with the death of time, the defeat of the Creator, and the re-creation of the world in the Dark One’s image.
Linda Taglieri
25. Linda
@23: I think it was the Creator who spoke.

Whoever it was told Rand that he would not interfere and that Rand was his Chosen One and that only he can do what must be done to defeat the Shadow. I see this as similar to when God in the New Testament announcing at Jesus’ baptism that Jesus was his son and he was well pleased with him (Matthew 3:17, Luke 3:22). Furthermore at Jesus’ transfiguration:

A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him."

- Luke 9:35

which is even closer to what was said. So I think it was the Creator because there are theological parallels to the words spoken to Rand.

I know that some think it was the Dark One because he (I follow RJ’s convention) speaks again later in the series. Yet the Creator actually speaks to say he’s not going to take part and so logically it isn’t surprising that he (RJ’s convention again) keeps to his word and doesn’t speak again. The Creator's the good guy; of course he'll keep to his word. And the fact that the chapter is called 'Against the Shadow' might be a tiny little hint. :P

Rather than being a Shadow conspiracy, I think the Creator bent the rules just that once as a blessing for Rand. What the Creator did was Announce that Rand is his Chosen One and that Rand had to do his duty and save the world because the Creator wasn't going to (or couldn't). All consistent with RJ's theology.
Gavin Mitchell
26. some cool wot nickname
what i dont understand about wot theology is th "light"- what is it excatly? is it a force of the creator ? just a word for good ? or is it a force by itself?
Eigor Maldonado
27. e-mann
Now I don’t claim to have the deep understanding or education of some of the different religions and/or philosophizes that are being discussed here. So please bear with me as I try to put forth my opinion of the series.

The one thing that I have always found prevalent in the world of WOT is that there must be a balance or equality to the way of the world. To have one thing you must also have an equal but opposite counterpoint. To have Light (Creator) you must have Dark (Dark One). To have salvation you must have destruction. Rand had to destroy his psyche (sanity) before he could save his mind just as the world has to go thru a destruction phase before being saved. Something to line of prophesies that says that Rand will destroy the world thus saving it (or something like that, don’t quote me on it).

As I have been reading this story I found it to be very evident that for the Aes Sedai both halves of the power must be used and sometimes only the opposite end of the power can be used to correct, fix, or heal its opposite. I give this example: When Nynaeve healed Logain he regained his full power but failed to give Siuan her full power back. When I read this I thought that only a male who could channel would be able to give Siuan her full power back.

So I realized that Rand has a very difficult problem ahead of him. He can not kill or destroy the Dark One; for that would be just as effective and killing the Wheel of Time or the Creator for that matter. All of time, the rebirths, and the patter would cease to function or exist. Rand has to find a way of containing the DO without destroying him.

After reading this post and the comments afterwards it came to my mind that Jordan may have been using this same theme with the different religions and philosophies of the world. It may well be that he was trying to balance the religions and philosophies with each other. So, maybe we need to incorporate all of the different views of religion and philosophy with each other to create a balance with all. It could also be that we are all wrong. What if the current pattern/world is the result of the power struggle between Light and Dark. Could it not be that once one force is dominant over the other the winning force is the right one. It could be that Light was once Dark and the other way around.

That will be the end of my current thought process, as my brain is now numb with the possibilities. I would like to hear everyone opinions on this though.
Gavin Mitchell
28. Miythrandir
I enjoyed reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King back in the day (Arthurian tale) and when I read Eye of the World also back in the day, I wondered if Galad would kill Rand, and even more so when Galad's leet sword skills presented themselves in the series. Doubtful due to the lack of buildup between the two characters and the series' plot doesn't exactly allow it, but it's interesting enough to "tickle my fancy." Then again, if my memory serves correct, there wasn't a whole lot of buildup between Lancelot and Galad in White's novel, so that would mesh with WOT if in fact the impossible happened.

As far as religions and what not goes, I agree with Jason's interpretations and am amazed by his/your knowledge of such. Wow - do you have a doctorate degree in theology? If nothing else, reading this article inspires me to learn more about the religions around me.
Gavin Mitchell
29. Mrdangam
Being raised in a highly Abrahamic household - Christian missionary with a hint of Jewish ancestry on both sides - I was inclined to wander after a certain age to taste of previously forbidden waters. And so I have a great deal of respect for Buddhist psychology - it is perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of the East other than the Indian discovery of the mathematical value of zero - and done completely by deduction! AI and neuropsychology are only just beginning to get a handle on personality and intelligence as coordinating functions rather than a specious "entity" aka "soul". So, I may have a somewhat unique perspective to offer.

I always thought that Jordan's cosmology and cosmogony were due more to his taking a bachelor of science in physics at college. Tolkien's science was historical linguistics, so we had linguistics taking a major role in the constructed world of his mythology. In Jordan's world we have alternative histories, beginnings and endings but no specific "creation" as such, and no "end" as such. I see this more as an outgrowth of Jordan's philosophical mutterings on the consequences of certain physics constants than any specific "religious" mutterings.

Frexample, there was a cosmological theory in the sixties and seventies by the cosmologist Fred Hoyle called "Steady State", which postulated that the Copernican perspective - that we have no privileged position in space, that there are no privileged positions in space - also applied to time, and that therefore we have no privileged position in time. Since there are no privileged positions in time, there can be no beginning and no ending, and creation is continuous. That is how I read the introductions to WOT books.

And the alternative worlds discovered through the Portal Stones lend weight to that theory - they access other slightly less-privileged forks in probability. (The current world in WOT would appear to have a probability status of 1.0; the others have lesser stati of 0.999etc to 0.1111etc to 0.000001etc depending on just how far they are from the current story line! :)

Other than that, there's a lot more religion in WOT - considering religion as social glue rather than deeply meaningful stuff about "revealed truths", etc.
Jason Denzel
30. JasonDenzel
Thanks, Jason, for this great article. I'm very interested in these topics, and the fact that we're framing it around WOT is just wonderful to me.

Regarding Karma and Samsara. It is my understanding that karma is, in part, to put it in simple terms, the accumulation of spiritual "baggage" that one carries from life to life. By resolving those relationships and conflicts, and by participating in various authentic spiritual practices (such as the different forms of yoga for example) one can dissolve or "shed" their karma and open the path to Enlightenment.

If this is the case, then I think we have an excellent example of it in the Wheel of Time. The main example is, of course, Rand being the Dragon Reborn. Here's a man who in his previous life (as Lews Therin), killed his wife. It is any surprise that in his next life, as Rand, he has a strong aversion to harming women?

I don't know if you've read The Gathering Storm yet..
(BEGIN SPOILERS!!!!)
...but there's an important scene at the climax of the book that touches on this exact topic. Rand is going through the darkest point of his life, and he finds himself at the top of Dragonmount. At the very point where he (as Lews Therin) had died last time. He asks himself (paraphrased) "Why do we do this? Why are we born again and again only to suffer?"

Isn't that, right there, the central question that countless other people in our world who've come from an Eastern spiritual mindset asked themselves? Or that many people, even in the Western world, want to ask but don't quite know how to?

The answer that Rand come up with when he's on the mountain is (again, paraphrased) that "We get to live again so that we might love again." While I appreciate the extremely well-written chapter, and love the power and drama of the moment (it still gives me chills), I'm not entirely sure that I agree with Rand's answer; at least insofar as it applies to the world you and I are experiencing right now. I think the "...To love again..." reason for being reborn may sound nice, but ultimately does not resonate with me as being "true". Know-what-I-mean? We may never know if Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson wrote that particular chapter of the book. But I give them both credit for having the vision to put Rand into a position where he's thinking about these things and asking the hard questions.

With this in mind, I wonder (in an amused fashion) if the Dragon could ever dissolve his karma to such an extent that he does realize his Enlightenment? ie, What would happen if the Dragon went "Rainbow Body" one day, leaving the world behind? I have heard it taught that following your own spiritual path and seeking Enlightenment is the single greatest thing one can do to "benefit all beings in all times and places." If that were true in WoT, wouldn't that be more effective than trying to force the nobles in Tear to bow to your every whim?

And if time truly is non-linear in the world of WoT, and the Dark One still imprisoned, then doesn't that mean the there's no way he ever WILL be free? Because if he breaks free, then "everything that was" (ie, the current Age and before) would be undone and unmade. One big giant, massive balefire that un-makes everything that's been lived.

Anyway, I'm getting off track. I would love to hear your take on this.

Other examples of karma in WoT that I see, based on my (little) understanding of it:

1. Birgitte and Gaidal Cain.
2. The Horn of Valere calling forth heroes who are "bound" to it.
3. Being ta'veren; in that sense of having an inescapable set of choices to make.

One last comment: Check out the photos of Robert Jordan's house sometime. (Google it, or find it on Dragonmount) His office was loaded with statues and imagery from the Eastern spiritual practices. His nickname in the military was Ganesha. He clearly loved making us think and question along these lines.

Jason Denzel
Jason@dragonmount.com
Jason Henninger
32. jasonhenninger
Such amazing and varied responses. I could not hope to address it all, but all are appreciated.

@30
I skipped part of your reply as I have not yet read the new one (but surely will, as I think Sanderson is one of the finest fantasy writers around).

As for karma, it's such a huge topic in Buddhism and Hinduism it's difficult to give it any universal definition, or find a broadly agreed upon means of expiating it. That said, thinking of Rand as addressing his karma, facing causes he made as Lews Therin, is a very interesting take on the story, and one I'll be thinking of for some time.

And I can only agree that Jordan would get a kick out of this conversation!
Gavin Mitchell
33. JennB
Ooooh I love this stuff.

I wasn't online much when this post came out because I was frantically rereading WOT so I could start TGS. I just discovered this post and wanted to comment even though I am way late.

I have the perspective of someone who had no religious upbringing and has not studied theology so I am weak on religious parallels, but I have thought alot about the WOT mythology. I also have a strong background in evolutionary biology.

Regarding Karma...I believe that in WOT, while there is a constant recycling of souls, there is no Karma. A newly reborn soul has a completely clean slate. While there is no memory of or baggage from past lives, each soul has characteristics that are part of that soul. These traits could lead to each incarnation of a particular soul being in a similar role. For example, the traits could lead to each incarnation being a strong leader or hermit.

Balefire (as was noted above) does not destroy souls, it only kills an incarnation and unravels their thread (their effect on the pattern) into the past. The result is that the incarnation died in the past and all their actions after the time of death no longer exist. After death all souls are eventually reborn with only two exceptions that I know of.
1st: The DO can harvest a soul at the moment of death. These souls can be used to make swords which permanently destroys the soul or they can be placed in a new body, giving that particular incarnation an extended existance. If they die again the DO would have to repeat the process
2nd: A wolf or (I assume) a human soul that is residing in Tel'Aran'Rhiod in between incarnations can be killed permanently. Luckily Brigitte was not killed and we know she will have future incarnations from Min's viewings.

There is no beginning or end to the turnings of the wheel, but there are beginnings and ends to Ages. In EOTW Ishamael says that sometimes Rand's soul bows down to the DO and the DO wins and sometimes Rand's soul defeats the DO. I think this is true. If the DO loses, a new age begins and humanity picks up the pieces and goes on. If the DO wins, a new age begins where evil is dominate. Eventually all life is destroyed. We see a world going through this process in The Great Hunt. Perhaps once all life is gone, the destroyed world becomes the DO's new prison while the pattern continues to be spun on other worlds or perhaps the Creator finally stirs to put the DO back in his prison or perhaps the pattern simply weaves him back into his prison. Either way we have a fresh new world for the pattern to weave a new age on. An age that would be called the 1st age, not because it is the 1st, but because the humans that eventually come the inhabit this age have no memory or evidence of past ages (with the exception of geological evidence of the lifeless age preceding the 1st age). This is why our age is the 1st age as evidenced (is that a word?) by Thom's 1st age stories about America and Moscow and Queen Elizabeth and Ann Landers.

The question is: Why does the DO think he can destroy time? My answer is that the DO thinks he can destroy time for the same reason Rand thinks he can destroy the DO. Ignorance. The DO was created to be part of a duality in the world and cannot be destroyed without destroying the world itself (this could be another pre- 1st age scenario). Since the DO was created with a purpose, it makes sense that his motivations, abilities, and limitations all fit this purpose. We know he can't step outside time. I think that he also cannot remember time before he is reimprisoned. This means that he can't remember anything before the 1st age and doesn't know that every time he breaks free the pattern or the Creator just slap him right back into his prison.

Sorry if I ramble. I would love to see RJ's notes on how the wheel works. I have always wondered if each of the 7 ages has distinct characteristics that define them or if the numbering is arbitrary. I have also always wondered how the alternate realities and other worlds tie in.

I hope more people comment on this post.
Gavin Mitchell
34. Kitan
As a Taoist (or the best Taoist I can be in the circumstances, as I'm studying from books and have no master to lead me), this is the way I see it:

The Wheel turns, yes, and Ages come and go. That's the way the world has been and the way it will be.

Except if someone breaks it.

Men and women have become incredibly powerful in the world of WoT, not just by having access to the One Power, but by having access to massive sa'angreal (the Choden Kal), and by the (so far limited) accessibility of the True Power.

While it is necessary for people to have access to these powers in order to counter the power of the Dark One and his minions, ultimately all this is far too much power for either side to have.

When the Bore was created, the balance of the world was thrown off. The power of the Dark appeared and appeared strongly - so the people of the Light had to increase their power to counter it. Sa'angreal as powerful as the Choden Kal had never been created before the appearance of the Dark and, as we learn from Lews Therin's frightened thoughts, these sa'angreal were never even tested.

The people of the Dark want to break the Wheel - and they have the power to do so. The people of the Light must prevent this, which is why their power has also grown. The fact that ta'veren are spun out when things get off balance supports this theory, in my mind.

Ultimately, though, when the power of the Dark is defeated and sealed away, things will still be out of balance. The power that the people of the Light will still have (the One Power) is still too much power for men and women to wield. Slowly, people's accessibility to the One Power will wane - or maybe it will be cut off altogether when the Dark One is sealed. Robert Jordan did say that there are some Ages where people cannot access the One Power.

The Wheel of Time turns, and there is no beginning or ending. Unless someone breaks the Wheel. Once the people with the power to break the Wheel, to break Time itself, are sealed away, the great powers that men and women can wield will disappear.
Gavin Mitchell
35. JK816
Well, here's my crack at interpretation of WoT philosophy. As a native american, I see a lot of parallels to the spiritualistic view. As you said, I saw no major religious influences throughout the kingdoms of WoT, excepting the one's you mentioned (Children of the Light, and Prophet's followers), however these had more of a cult feel than anything. People in the WoT world all believe in a creator and the dark one, but choose their own paths in following those beliefs.

As to the sentience of the Wheel itself and its ability to will, I believe this is, to paraphrase an earlier comment, a cliche to interpret events beyond one's control.

To comment on the pattern and rebirth, I think that this is RJ's shout-out (if you will) to academia. In literature there are several archetypes that represent good and evil and the spaces in between, as I'm sure most here know. The wheel weaves and reweaves these threads to create outcomes, some of which are the same and some of which vary, thus creating the pattern. That is to say, there may be a fount of souls that the wheel draws on to create the pattern, but just like in any pattern, not every thread is used on every line.

Now the Creator and the Dark One are, to me at least, religious representations. After all, how better to sell books in a Western-dominated society (North America) than to create opposing forces to battle each other throughout 13 glorious chapters. Philosophically, though, each represent the human struggle of the characters of WoT, the immediate gratification of power and control vs. sacrifice to accomplish the greater good. As RJ put it best, the Creator is the small, quiet voice that tickles the back of the mind. Maybe not exactly as he put it, but not far off either. And the DO, he's the hawker in the dark alleys, selling dreams for souls.

That's my interpretation, though I could be wrong. Didn't get much into the spiritualistic view, but I could talk for days on that and still only cover the surface. I figured I'd spare y'all the time and grief.

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