Dostoevsky and the Russian Fable of The Onion and Ash Wednesday

Since I mentioned in passing this Russian fable as a parable pointing to the reality of Advaita in a previous posting, I figure I better explain myself!  Actually this little story is incredibly rich and worth considering on its own merits, so let us begin.  The version I have appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and it pretty much reads the same in all translations:

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”


So first of all let us consider this story simply in the context of Christian spirituality and especially of Russian spirituality.  The underlying atmosphere of this fable can be found in that lovely Russian word, “sobornost,” (this person is an icon you might say of “anti-sobornost”) which has only a weak rendering in English as “communion.”  In fact various philosophical approaches to sobornost mischaracterize it even more.  It is a theological/spiritual term for a profound communion  which values at once and at the same time both the infinite uniqueness of the person (because it is rooted in the infinite reality of God) and the unspeakable communion and interrelatedness of all reality.  Sobornost points to a kind of oneness that is in fact a key characteristic of “being saved.”  One might even say that it is a kind of prelude to the advaita, the nonduality, of which Abhishiktananda speaks.  Here he pushes beyond the orthodox Hindu model into a distinctly Christian vision when he points out that non-duality is not only the condition of our life with God but also with our brothers and sisters.   We are not “two” but “one.”


So then the reality of hell is nothing more than the paralysis in the thought of “I” and “me,” the thought of “myself” and “mine.”  An isolated, fragmented self is the ambience of hell and endless suffering.  “Salvation,” then, is the realization that one must abandon all of that superficial selfhood and find our real self in Christ: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This is not all that far from basic Buddhist teaching: so long as we fixate on the thought of self in our heart, we find ourselves in hell.  But also here we are on the way to advaita, non-duality, where “I” and “you” are no longer absolute designations of absolute separateness where we live in our own separate worlds  (Sarte’s “Hell is other people” comes from that where our own self is in constant friction with other selves and seemingly limited by these other selves; thus the other is a problem in this modern western view).   But “I” and “you” are merely “placemarkers” as it were within one reality that encompasses our oneness.  It is only then that we begin to realize the meaning of “sacrifice” and “love.”  These are no longer the isolated acts of an individual inevitably acting for his own self-good, but they are now simply an opening into Reality where there are no calculations of what is “to my benefit.”

By the way, it is apparent from this story that even the smallest “good deed” can catapult us into this realization.   Even an onion skin.

Here is what Elder Zosima says to the young Alyosha Karamazov about hell…

“What is hell? I maintain it is the suffering of no longer being able to love.”


Very shortly it will be Ash Wednesday for many of us Christians.  Many of us Catholics will be seen with a smudge of ash on our foreheads.  Actually it should be sannyasi-like and put all over our bodies because what is really symbolized is that we are all afflicted with this problem of a transient, superficial, isolated identity that we absolutize into something that becomes incredibly substantial—our sense of this limited “I-ness.”  But it is only “dust”—and this is what the minister proclaims upon each one of us.  Unfortunately we mostly take it in a way that reinforces that illusory self in its illusory isolation—it becomes “my onion”—it becomes a matter of “saving myself.”  Perhaps we can borrow something from Mahayana Buddhism…the Bodhisattva notion and adapt it to our own “salvation story.”  The Bodhisattva seeks salvation/liberation not for him/herself alone but for the sake of all sentient beings because he realizes that his identity, if one may use that word, is not “I” or “me” or “mine,” but always “we”.  Compassion is then not some special “good deed” or “extraordinary isolated act” which we perform now and then, but simply the way things are.  Compassion is then like our breathing. But this takes us far afield!


Long time ago I recall the renowned Berkeley sociologist, Robert Bellah, speaking of the individualistic ethos of America.  In the course of his talk he said that the whole point of a rich man owning a Mercedes instead of a simple Ford is that the rest of us cannot own the Mercedes.  In other words that ownership reinforces his sense of “separateness”—he is different from you and me.  That’s what wealth allows him to do—it facilitates this feeling of “apartness” and thus of “specialness.”  Owning a Ford would make him just like everybody else.  So wealth plays this insidious role of paralyzing us in this illusory separate self that defines itself in the differences that wealth brings.  But it is not just the actual material wealth that is the problem; rather it is the desire for wealth, the desire deep in our hearts—and this “wealth” can take on many forms indeed.  So with Ash Wednesday, with Lent, we are called to a profound repentance, to recognize what is “dust,” to awaken to our true identity in Christ as Christian Bodhisattvas, and to be prepared for that moment when we will be tempted to say “It’s my onion.”



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