Kevin Rushby

Author, Journalist & Traveller

Paradise: A History Of The Idea That Rules The World

The following is the introduction to the book...

   A friend once told me how his ancestors came from the very centre of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area untouched by the outside world until the 1930s. So remote and inaccessible was their homeland that even slave-traders had passed them by. Intrigued by this, I asked if the tribe had had any notion of paradise, the perfect life in a perfect place for perfect people – a working definition that was advantageously vague, unlike, for example, ‘…eating paté de fois gras to the sound of trumpets.’ (The view of the Reverend Sydney Smith in the 19th century). The Congolese friend thought about the question for a long time before answering. There was, he said, no parallel concept for them. They had possessed no notion of an afterlife and consequently no heaven. Then what about paradise on earth? Admittedly Dante had called his heaven, Paradaiso, but for me paradise has an earthly aspect too. The friend shook his head. ‘We had no idea of wonderful gardens or of perfect places, not at least until the missionaries arrived. There was only the belief that the forest would always provide.’
   The beauty of his answer was that it clearly shows what most of us suspect: that all talk of paradise only starts when something has been lost. Perhaps that is how the whole myth began: way back in pre-historic times when a growing population finally managed to do what mankind has been doing ever since – namely destroy its own environment - then talk of paradise could begin. Perhaps now,  as we finally mess up on a far grander scale than previously, that is why the myth seems peculiarly relevant.
   Long before Genesis was written down in around 900BC, there were myths about lost paradises. The Sumerians who flourished in Mesopotamia from about 4000BC believed in Dilmun, a fabulous land in the east where no sickness was found and animals lived in harmony. Around 2000BC the Babylonians first wrote down their Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Enkidu, a wild man who lives happily with the gazelles, is enticed by a harlot to make love on her cloak by a waterhole – in the wonderfully direct words of the epic, ‘His lust groaned over her for six days and seven nights...’ On the seventh day Enkidu discovers she has taken his energy but given back knowledge. His loss is that he can no longer be at one with the wild animals, his gain is  human society and civilisation.
   The Roman poet Virgil saw the lost paradise as a Greek pastoral idyll, Arcadia, but the Greeks themselves had long before felt the same nostalgia. The Cynic philosophers identified civilization as the problem: what was required was a return to a natural state. Diogenes famously did this by living in a barrel, going about naked, preaching self-reliance and requesting Alexander the Great to move out of his light. The status and position of kings, even emperors, meant nothing to the philosopher. In India some followers of Shiva, the Aghoris, live in a similar way to this day, even eating human flesh and faeces in order to destroy psychological constraints and so restore the mental perfection that mankind once possessed.
   These traditions open up new avenues of exploration in a history of paradise: the idyllic place clearly requires worthy inhabitants who are perfect, but in trying to develop themselves, the seekers may create paradise inside their own skulls. The road to bliss is littered with stories of such self-perfected beings, and the way forwards begins to look more complex. Some might say an eighteenth-century English country house with Capability Brown park is paradise, and mean it quite literally; for others it is only a metaphor, and for yet more a damp cave on a hilltop in Gujarat (where I once found some aghoris) is just as good because the perfection is all internal anyway. Lesser mortals want the mental transformation to come with good plumbing and a comfortable bed.
   Whatever ones own paradise might be, however, there is always a border to that place, a separation from normality, enforced by physical walls, culture, language, psychology or any other kind of barrier. The early puritans who went to America clearly thought 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean was a good start. This need for separation is one reason why the Genesis story of Eden is such an effective myth: Adam and Eve are expelled because of their own failings and the gates are firmly closed behind them, never to be re-opened until those failings are recognised and conquered. The gates can be seen as literal or symbolic, or perhaps both.
    The idea of a Fall is common to the three main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Interestingly, Islam identifies the forbidden fruit as wheat, thus linking the Fall with civilization, whereas Christianity does not identify the fruit, focussing instead on the importance of sexual knowledge as the catalyst.
   Once fallen from perfection, our lives become a struggle to regain that blessed state and all three faiths offer two routes. We can follow the religious precepts sufficiently well to please God and be granted admission to heaven, or we can follow the same precepts until a Messiah comes and establishes heaven on Earth. Often the two are interlinked: good behaviour by the righteous will encourage the Messiah to return; alternatively, certain prophecies about his arrival might be helped along – perhaps by teasing out dates from holy books or even by instigating Armageddon. This return to paradise by the righteous group – the chosen people – is very different to the individual path of the Cynics or the Aghoris.
   In his last book Apocalypse, D.H.Lawrence said that seekers after paradise fall into two categories: the individuals taking a personal route to salvation via love, and the groups heading that way by hate and destruction – for them the elevation of the good people always came with the eradication of  the bad. The message of Jesus, Lawrence thought, had been of the former type, but had been hijacked by the latter with their end-of-time apocalypse and Day of Judgement. Writing in 1929 Lawrence could see how the modern world was still holding on to religious myths when he believed a return to pre-Fall pagan thinking was needed: ‘I wish you would always look at the great heavens and damn the candlesticks,’ he wrote to a friend.
   A decade later the political scientist Eric Voegelin, chased out of his Austrian professorship by the Nazis, began a deeper, if less poetic, analysis. In his view post-Enlightenment secularism and its beloved notion of progress were rotten right through: the human need for religious salvation myth, now unconnected to faith in a deity, had produced the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It was as if Karl Marx, having vociferously denounced religion as opium, had been caught red-handed dealing in heroin.
   The belief that paradise was up ahead, always just out of reach, had never wavered during the relentless rise of European secularism since the sixteenth century. From then until now, the tenacious grip of the symbolism of the paradise myth on human minds has remained tight, outlasting even that of God for many. Paradise has become the unacknowledged faith of our times, the driving myth of progress and consumer capitalism. We see aspects of the old perfection myth born again everywhere: in arcadian dreams of country living, in environmentalist hopes for a return to a Golden Age of global harmony, and even in the supermarkets’ ambition to make a Perpetual Spring in the fruit and vegetable department.
   And yet this myth comes to us after many centuries in the temples of the Abrahamic religions, it carries baggage – Armageddon, apocalypse, distorted sexuality, original sin and terrorist martyrdom. Our notions of paradise, often hidden beneath the surface of modern life, bear the triumphs and the scars of old faiths. Sometimes, despite a common ancestry, the various visions of perfection and paradise have appeared to be in conflict, denouncing each other as evil and perverted. But it is my belief that the same underlying myth still drives us, believers and unbelievers alike.
   In Iraq in 2003 I saw the spot that locals call the Garden of Eden, a flat area of dried mud haunted by a single dead tree. A month before that I had been to Kabul where the Mughal Emperor Babur built an idyllic garden in the early 16th century. I found the wreck of it on the outskirts of town, its groves still mined, its symmetries destroyed by modern additions, including a Soviet-era swimming pool. (As for Babur, he was in his grave at the top of the hill, no doubt spinning.) In a sense, both of those assignments had been caused by modern paradise-seekers, the men who hijacked planes and flew them into buildings. Post-September 11th I wanted to know more about this curious blissful place that could encompass vastly different dreams. I wanted to know where my own ideals came from, and those of supposedly-martyred killers, and where, if at all, they connected.
   This book is a chronological account of how, over the centuries, paradise was shaped first by religion, then by secularism. It includes all types of seekers and much about the search for human perfection, but it certainly does not claim to be exhaustive – that would need several volumes – and despite being a history, it includes a few personal experiences. But then paradise-seeking is an intensely personal affair and this is an attempt to explain why so many people, myself included, are still looking for that elusive place, even without a god to guide us.  Read more

Children of Kali

It is said they murdered more than one million travellers, never spilling a drop of blood. They were inspired by religious fanaticism, yet came from many faiths. Their weapon was treachery, their sacrament sugar, and their goddess Kali. They were the thugs and in the 1830s they suddenly became 'the enemy within' for a burgeoning British Empire. The colonial reaction still haunts India today and in his new book Rushby investigates the dark and mysterious world of Indian crime past and present. The journey takes him to the prisons and gangster hideouts of this country, probing the nature of crime and punishment in a land where the distinctions between good and evil can be as murky as the Ganges. Rulers with underworld connections, politicians without scruples, bandits as social workers and heroes – this is an India turned upside down and one that can have a devastating effect on the traveller. In the jungles of Carnatica, Rushby searches for Veerappan Muruswamy, a bandit responsible for many murders, supposedly assisted by magical powers. Further north, he meets the ex-rajahs whose memories reach back to colonial days and a thug cult created by imperialistic and orientalist needs (Queen Victoria took a keen interest). Read more

Hunting Pirate Heaven

A chance meeting on the muddy foreshore of the River Thames starts Kevin Rushby on a voyage in search of the lost pirate settlements that once existed on the islands and atolls of the Indian Ocean. Hitching rides on a motley assortment of freighters, dhows, yachts and fishing smacks, he sails up the African coast, then east to the islands of the Comoros and Madagascar. The final objective was to locate the descendants of the sixteenth-century pirates who had carved kingdoms for themselves in the remote jungles of north-east Madagascar. Along his way, Rushby meets the crackpot dreamers, the tough settlers, the fighters and the failures who live on the coasts and islands now. It is a story full of adventure and incident: voyages to islands where forgotten Portuguese forts lie covered in jungle, places where some have tried to shoot their way to paradise, and where the ever-present ocean can destroy lives and dreams as quickly as men and women create them. Read more

Chasing the Mountain of Light

In the beginning diamonds came from India. And the greatest of those ancient stones, the Koh-i-Noor, the Mountain of Light, cut a deep and bloody path across its history and legends. Fought over, cursed and occasionally lost, taken from the mines of Golconda in the south to the Mughal palaces of Agra and Delhi in the north, it finally reached the Sikhs in the Punjab, only to be seized by British agents eager to please the young Queen Victoria. It now lies in the Tower of London, its ownership still disputed. Kevin Rushby follows the trail of this great jewel through fascinating corners of India, crossing along the way the paths of dealers, smugglers and petty crooks. The historical characters he also encounters are no less colourful, from the bloodthirsty tyrants who built mountains of human heads to the man–god Krishna. Rushby unravels the religious symbolism and mysticism behind our passion for diamonds, on a journey that is humorous, informative and, as it progresses, more than a little dangerous. Read more

Eating the Flowers of Paradise

Drawn back to the Yemen by idyllic memories of ancient cities, spectacular mountains and most of all, the dreamy afternoons spent chewing the stimulant leaf of the qat tree, Kevin Rushby set out to travel the old trade route from the highlands of Ethiopia to Yemen. The journey is at times dangerous, often comic; and by accepting the invitation to take qat at every opportunity, the author encounters a wonderful array of characters - criminals, Islamic scholars, an exorcist and the mysterious Cedric, the travelling companion from hell who offers to help Rushby find a dhow across the Red Sea. This is the story of a journey, but it also unveils the rich and varied culture surrounding the drug, qat. Legal in the UK but banned in the US, experts variously claim it to be as mild as tea or as addictive as cocaine; in the Yemen it is central to the life of the country, and Rushby explores as he goes our attitudes towards substance abuse and addiction. Read more