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The Achievement of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Faith came into being with Man thinking deeply of matters relating to Birth and the inevitable end, Death. The immediate insight was that everyone born should die one day.

Death has always been defying understanding and it shall remain an enigma forever. This led to the belief that there must be something, which is beyond surmise, which would perhaps be understood intuitively with some kind of deep and committed envisioning. When Good and Bad are posited, primarily the sense of right and wrong through a specific sense we call religious sense, the Divine Supreme is posited. With that Good and Bad came to be understood in depth leading to the insight that in after-life, that is life after death, the being which has had a span of life would be assessed by his/her deeds in the broad and never ‘scientifically’ defined’ categories, Good and Bad. We the ordinary people think these are just relative terms but the seers knew intuitively they were not and left judgement to the Supreme Being.

Great sages and seers, ‘drashtas’, as they are called in our devabhasha, wrote out long and inspired visionary experiences to reveal to us what they envisioned in an inspired effort to illumine what is dark in the likes of us. They invariably believed in a Supreme Being and showed time and again in their envisioned narratives what should be viewed as Good and what its dangerous opposite is.

Belief and Faith are aspects of Theism. Theism is the dynamics of thinking which believes in these intriguing concepts, intriguing because of lack of basic understanding. This cannot be served on a platter and this is where the concept of intimate one to one relationship with God through a mental state and contributory way of living called Bhakti emerged. While Dante’s conceptualization of hell is towards the end of the middle ages and the beginning of Renaissance in the Occident, similar conceptualization existed much before in the Orient. But that is a different matter. When bad is done, wrong is committed, it would be brought to book. It would be punished. This belief acts as a deterrent to bad deeds. While asking people to cultivate belief and have faith in God, the sages and seers both of the East and the West went on to explain the consequences of bad deeds, also called evil-doings. This is what we now call a two-pronged approach to instill Faith. While detailing the fruits of right action and good deeds they also told us with deep concern how evil would be ‘punished’. In our languages we have ‘punya’ and ‘paapa’. The western world has near equivalents like “merit’ and ‘sin’.

Dante, (1265-1321), the Italian poet was born in Florence. Between 1308 and 1321 he wrote what is now known as the Divina Commedia, translated into English as Divine Comedy. This is considered the greatest epic in Italian produced at the junction of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Dante, very surprisingly wrote this is in the people’s language, not the language of the learned in those days, Latin. It is in this great work that he visits as a pilgrim the underworld, Inferno (hell) and passes through Purgatorio (place where sins are purged) to Paradiso, Heaven or the Empyrean regions. This great otherworldly work gives a graphic description of Hell with its various circles and ditches. This is a first person narrative. Dante travels through the regions of the Worlds of the Dead. He has Virgil, an ancient poet whose Aeneid is the most famous of classical European texts, as his guide. The guide Virgil’s gesture of love to Dante was the result of the persuasion of Beatrice, a childhood friend of Dante, whom he adored according to the then prevalent practice of paying court. Beatrice died in 1290 but she remained Dante’s object of adoration as a model of womanhood and his guardian angel. The epic is divided into three Cantiches, each having 34, 33 and 33 cantos respectively. The mystic quality of three is too well known to need an explanation and to round the total to a hundred the first Cantiche had 34. The description of hell is the most striking and bears comparison with the Hindu envisioning of the underworlds populated by sinners undergoing horrible punishments in retribution.

Dante’s epic is primarily a Christian epic. Christian Theology is central to it and a must-study in classical scholarship. Dante sets out to visit the after-life worlds or the worlds of the dead with the ancient poet Virgil (at the instance of Beatrice) accompanying him. In the first circle, before entering hell, the visitors see the opportunists who do neither good nor evil. Along with them are those who intended to go up against God. But these are in a peculiar region, which is neither hell nor are they out of it. They are kept on the shores of the river Acheron. The only punishment for them is to go on pursuing a white flag while wasps go on stinging them urging them forward. These insects go on drinking the blood and the tears of the inhabitants there. The white flag is symbolic of their neutrality and non-affiliation to either black or white.

To ferry them across Acheron into the nine circles of hell, there is a boat and a boatman, Charon. He refuses to ferry the duo across since Dante is a living one whose weight would send the boat down to sink. Virgil wins his plea when Dante swoons and wakes up only at the Gate of Hell, on which was inscribed “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.

There are nine concentric circles in an inverted pyramid shape in hell. The first is Limbo where the virtuous Pagans (non-believers) who did not accept Christ. Theirs is not exactly a punishment since the place would be pleasant with fields and a castle. Minos judges them as per the vices of incontinence (inability to control desires), violence and fraud. These are allegorically referred to as a she-wolf, a lion and a leopard respectively. The second circle is for those lustful. They are trapped in a torpedo, staying together forever. The third circles is for gluttons where Cerberus, forces them to lie under mud under lashing wind and rain. In the fourth circle sinners are divided into two mobs, hoarders who keep things for themselves and rarely use them and wasters who squander all. Both the mobs are forced to roll boulders up which would be rolling down only to be rolled up again. The fifth circle is for the wrathful. There they fight with one another in swamp like water near the river Styx. The wrathful are also trapped underneath the water. These five circles are within the city walls of Dis, which is surrounded by the river Styx.

The sixth circle is for heretics. Here they are trapped in flaming tombs. The seventh circle is for the violent, which is further divided into six rings: the outer ring, where those violent against people and property are thrown into a river of boiling blood.    The middle ring is for violence against the self, for those who committed suicide.   These sinners are turned to black thorny trees.   These would never be resurrected even after the Judgement Day. The inner ring is for those who are guilty of violence against God, being blasphemers, usurers and sodomites. These are in a flaming desert where it rains fire.

The last two circles are devised to punish sins of malice, sins of fraud, and treachery. These can be reached only by descending into a steep pit in hell. Satan is trapped in the frozen circle here, which is divided into ten ditches. The ditches are places where panderers and seducers suffer running forever in opposite directions in the first ditch. In the second flatterers are steeped in human excrement. In the third, buyers and sellers of positions among the clergy are placed in holes with heads inside and bodies backward. They cannot see forward. Ditch five is where corrupt politicians are trapped in a lake of burning pitch. The sixth is for hypocrites made to wear heavy lead cloaks. Ditch seven is for thieves who would be chased by venomous creatures. After being bitten by reptiles etc., they turn into snakes themselves to chase others. The eighth ditch is where fraudulent advisors are trapped in flames. The ninth, is the part of hell where those who sow discord are cloven and joined only to be attacked again. The last is where falsifiers like alchemists, counterfeits and cheats are punished with different kinds of afflictions and diseases.

In the ninth, heinous traitors are frozen in the ice-lake Cocytus. Each mob of traitors is put at a different height in four concentric zones, Caina, Antenora, Ptolemia, Judecca. Caina is for traitors to their kindred, named for Caine, who killed his brother Abel. Antenora is for traitors to political entities at the city, party or country level. Ptolemia is for traitors to their guests. Finally, Judecca is for the traitors to their lords, or benefactors. This is the most terrible and harsh section containing Satan, waist deep in ice his wings flapping and beating in vain. The two visitors escape into the next region Purgatorio by climbing the ragged fur of the once brightest angel Lucifer.

After having viewed at close quarters, the Pilgrim Dante, and Virgil rise above the gloom and go the mountain beyond the world. They go through the seven circles each a standing symbol of the seven deadly sins. In each of these circles the duo see various persons undergoing retribution to get purged of their sins. These sins are those of the sinners who are Proud, the Envious, the Irascible, the Slothful, the Avaricious and Prodigal and the Gluttonous and the Wanton. The pilgrim and the guide come across the Wall of Fire and the Angel of God. Dante falls asleep on the stairway. They arrive at the shores of the river Lethe and the Triumph of Church is established. Virgil departs, as he being a Pagan, was not to enter Paradise.

Then comes Paradise, which is the most picturesque of descriptions of Heaven all its physical qualities and the personalities of several central to Christian theology. Heaven is a place where in every cornice Beatrice shows Dante blessed souls who clear his doubts and reveal themselves as saints. The river Lethe parts as two and on Beatrice’s advice Dante drinks of the waters of the latter river Eunoe. Later Dante follows a beautiful woman who walks on the far side of the river from the other side while sweet music was played. Beatrice chides him and Dante confesses to her and was taken further.

They traverse all the heavens one after another from one sphere to another. First they are in the Moon, then in Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, Primum Mobile. Beatrice goes on clarifying Dante’s doubts. In some heavens great souls who reveal themselves as saints lead the duo forward providing answers to Dante’s queries. Finally, the duo gaze on the highest heaven. St. Bernard points out the Saints in the Whit Rose. Beatrice leaves Dante. On St. Bernard ‘s supplicates, Dante was allowed to see Jesus and Virgin Mary. Dante later ascends to the substance beyond physical existence called Empyrean, the highest Heaven, where he sees God Himself. He is granted understanding of Divine and human nature. Dante prays to Virgin Mary for a talent to portray his vision in his poetic work

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a brilliant example of a structured and elaborate allegory. This is the first ever work of this magnitude where moral help and spiritual edification is served with utmost religious fervour. It can also be viewed as a precious document of the thinking of the noblest mind portraying the political religious state of things at the pre-dawn Renaissance at the end of the medieval times.


More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.

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