Law and chaos in Shin Megami Tensei: Truth at last

Ever since I first got into the Shin Megami Tensei game series I have been captivated by the world-building the game series had, the way that the mythos of the world was integrated in the game’s story-world was incredible, like nothing I would see in other games. One particularly fascinating thing was the Law and Chaos dynamic, and in this regard, the fact that the Chaos forces were represented not just by Lucifer and his coterie of fallen angels, but also a religious sect that appears to resemble esoteric Buddhist monks and from there an assortment of Buddhist (as well as Hindu and Shinto) gods. The first game alone gives us the Four Heavenly Kings, Yama, Mahakala, Kali, Shiva, Agni, Oumononushi, and several other oriental gods in the Chaos faction, the leader appears to be a figure named Asura (or Asura King), based on the Asuras of Hindu and Buddhist myth, the Gaians resemble Buddhist monks and their healing spots have rows of fearsome Buddhist gods lining the backrows and esoteric Buddhist symbolism hanging around (the Siddham version of the Aum being a symbol of Japanese esoteric Buddhism, borrowed from Hinduism of course).

If you’re at all out of the loop as to the Law and Chaos dynamic, I’ll fill you in. Law and Chaos in Shin Megami Tensei refer to two axes of alignment that represent key ideological differences between factions – this is often reduced to one side being big fans of YHVH and the other being big fans of Lucifer, due to the fact that they are key figures on each side, but it’s often broader than that. Law in this sense typically represents the side that values order over freedom, and in this case the order is divine in nature, ordained by YHVH in context, and the manifestation of this order can be seen in the Thousand Year Kingdom, wherein those who adhere themselves to the will of God are allowed to live in peace and harmony and the rest are left to the wastes. Chaos, by contrast, is defined by the valuing of personal freedom to the point that the only limit to that freedom is contingent on the ability of one individual to overpower another, and to that end the outcome is a might makes right society which also happens to involve co-existence with demons and “the gods of old”, seemingly in a state of true harmony with nature. Quite naturally you’re probably wondering, just as I did, what this has to do with the lore of things like Buddhism and Shintoism. Surely Buddhism in particular has nothing to do with things like Social Darwinism, so what’s the deal? I’ve fascinated myself with that question for a long time, and I believe I may have finally found the answer.

Through the Tumblr blog Stealing Knowledge, which, despite my not being a member of Tumblr, I have followed loyally for years and still do today, I found an interview of Kazuma Kaneko that was originally recorded in the book Shin Megami Tensei: Demon’s Bible. Here he appears to be talking about the third game in the series, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, and somewhere in this interview he seems to explain the reason why the Chaos faction in the games is so aesthetically tied up with Eastern religion despite representing the demonic enemies of Christianity (such as Lucifer, Belial, Beelzebub, Astaroth etc). Below is the relevant extract:

I got the feeling that Shin Megami Tensei III is really appreciating Japanese culture.

KK: Yeah. First of all, Shin Megami Tensei was sort of a hodgepodge, but Shin Megami Tensei II had Law as the theme. However, I didn’t want to show a simple gothic Christian setting, but a monastic image, full of things both too dazzling and grotesque.

The Messiah Church, you mean?

KK: We gave that world an extravagant setting, Book of Revelation style. And yet, they say that no matter how much time passes, the Messiah still won’t show up, so the angels decided to make their own. The Messiah as an artificial human was the theme.

On the other hand, Chaos is Oriental, right?

KK: Well, yeah, in a way. In the end, there is the Messiah Church, strictly maintaining European culture. That is why having Law as the theme gives off that constrictive feeling that makes the story flow smoothly. Since II was like this, we had already decided the next title would obviously be based on Chaos, and in contrast with the European atmosphere appeared the Oriental one, or better said, Buddhist or Vajrayana, which probably strengthened the Japanese atmosphere. Nevertheless, the idol of Chaos is Lucifer. To me it feels like establishing the importance of free will. I wanted to create a world setting where one would respect will and would have a good look at themselves.

Now even though this interview is talking about the third game, we can see here that the reason for Chaos being so connected with Eastern lore and mythos in the series more generally seems to be an aesthetic choice, rather than a reflection of any kind of philosophy. This indeed makes sense when you consider, just as the interview points out, the contrast between the Chaos factions and the Law factions in their overall aesthetic. If you look at the first game for instance, the Messians and the Gaians are represented respectively by Christians who gather in Western-style cathedrals and red-robed Buddhist monks who venerate images of fearsome protector deities and Buddhas. Many of the bosses representing the Law faction are usually various angels from Christian angelology (except for the Hindu god Vishnu for some reason), while many of the bosses representing the Chaos faction, when they aren’t demons from Christian demonology (such as Beelzebub, Astaroth, or Lilith), they tend to be gods and demons from Eastern mythologies, such as the Hindu god Yama, the demon Ravana and his son Indrajit, Niou (a type of Buddhist protector also known as Kongorikishi), the Four Heavenly Kings, and indeed the commanding general of the Chaos forces is an unspecified king of the Asuras, the enemies of the Devas from Hindu mythology. In the second game this is different, with Christian demonology being more emphasized in the Chaos faction this time, but you do still see the Gaians with much the same aesthetic they have in the last game, and for some reason you find the Buddhist entities Virochana (or Dainichi Nyorai, who happens to be the central Buddha of Shingon Buddhism), Atavaka, and the Twelve Heavenly Generals in different parts of the Abyss. In the third game, they look after something called the Miroku Scripture (named for Miroku Bosatsu, the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Maitreya), the contents of which echo several Buddhist concepts. The fourth game (and its direct sequel) features a Cult of Gaia that still resembles Buddhist monks, their headquarters is located within the Tsukiji Honganji, which is a famous Buddhist temple in Tokyo noteable for its unique architecture, and in the game’s version of that temple you find a statue of a goddess-like figure, resembling Mem Aleph from Strange Journey, but whose visage itself also resembles statues of the Reclining Buddha, which is the Buddha posing in the Parinirvana poisition (the symbolic representation of someone who has died after having attained nirvana in life), such as the famous Reclining Buddha found in the Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok, Thailand (not to mention rays of light that resemble the aureoles of the Buddhas at Sanjusangendo in Japan). The same game also features two optional DLC bosses, each aligned to Law or Chaos, and the Chaos-aligned boss is a strange-looking Sanat Kumara – although a Theosophical being, his name may have been associated with the Hindu god Kartikeya, and his characteristics sort of echo the god’s. And of course, throughout the games you can even have whole clans (or “races”) or demons in the Chaos alignment that seem to be dominated by characters from the Eastern mythos, such as the Kishin race, the Dragon race, the Tenma race and its successor the Fury race, the Brute race and the Kunitsukami race.

Mem Aleph, the Gaian goddess of Tsukiji Honganji, in Shin Megami Tensei IV

There very clearly is a strong Buddhist aesthetic to the Chaos factions, and I’ve always loved the powerful cocktail that it presents when we consider the Chaos factions as a whole. But, despite this, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a link between this aesthetic and the philosophy. As Eirikr noted in his post on Stealing Knowledge, the main connection seems to be that the Gaians represent a perversion of Buddhist teaching, or at least many different sinister and esoteric aspects of it, which is why throughout the games the Gaians seem to look quite a bit like traditional Japanese Buddhist monks. And if you think about it, it ultimately makes sense, as many of the beliefs attributed to them are ultimately out of step with the basics of Buddhist doctrine. There’s a belief in free will uber alles that wouldn’t make sense in a doctrine that is based in Paticcasamuppada (dependent-origination) and Sunyata (emptiness), and the might makes right ethos (the attitude that the strong should get to rule over the weak with no restrictions other than the ability of someone else to fight them) that permeates their doctrine would be at odds with the most basic aspects of Buddhist compassion and Metta (or loving-kindess).

In my experience, however, despite the fact in a baseline sense the Gaians do represent the perversion of Buddhist teaching, it is not as though some of the basic points of Buddhism, including enlightenment and even compassion, cannot be bent towards malevolent ends. Years ago, while in college, I would go up to the neighbouring university campus, specifically to the library, in order to read books about religion. One of the books I encountered was the Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence. In the section concerning Buddhism I encountered a reference to the idea of “compassionate killing”, which is apparently a concept found within some Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. Indeed, in Tantric Buddhism in particular, there are many justifications for ritual violence, though typically this is within the context of exorcizing “demons” and not so much killing human beings. But we cannot forget either the history of Buddhism in Japan, Zen Buddhism in particular, from which the Japanese imperial state often found ways of justifying militarism and imperialistic violence – the doctrine of Issatsu Tashō (“killing one to save the many”) is one example of the ways that Japanese Zen Buddhists in the 20th century sought to justify military aggression as the necessary precursor to the implementation of the work of the dharma throughout Asia. From what I understand, it is even possible for some Buddhists to, through the logic of sunyata and compassion, justify the elimination of the universe as the best way to eliminate suffering. Not that this is the angle that the Chaos factions typically take, of course (in the fourth game, for instance, destroying the universe is framed as an alternative to embracing either Law or Chaos), but you can see that it is definitely possible for Buddhism to become a means by which arrive at such a conclusion. Not to mention, when Eirikr mentions that the Gaians take the Buddhist goal of enlightenment to be a selfish pursuit, there are people who talk about how Mahayana Buddhists criticize Theravada Buddhists (the orthodox school of Buddhism as far as I understand it) for having a selfish conception of enlightenment, limited to the individual attaining enlightenment and leaving samsara without the commitment to emancipate all beings – indeed, the distinction between Samyaksambuddha (the Buddha who strives to cultivate buddhahood in all beings) and the Pratyekabuddha (the “lone buddha”) seems to be a product of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and does not originate in Theravada Buddhism. So although the Gaians are a perversion of Buddhist doctrine in that many of their often individualistic beliefs don’t make sense when meshed with core Buddhist doctrine, it is definitely possible to draw conclusions from aspects of Buddhism similar to what the Gaians would do, and at that, derive interpretations of the doctrine that could be characterized as extremist.

But of course, the theme of extremist perversion also brings us nicely to Christianity, because the Order of Messiah, the typical representatives of the Law faction, represent their own perversion of existing religious teaching, in this case Christianity. The god of the Messians is YHVH, who is most decidedly a representation of the God of the Old Testament, to the point that the Satan of this game series is based on the Old Testament version of Satan, which was basically just an angel who prosecuted and tormented humans on God’s behalf. Such a conception of God sometimes conflicts with the nature of the New Testament, whose conception of God inherited many doctrines from not only Platonism but also Stoicism, the latter of which is based on a pantheistic view of God (namely that God is the material universe itself). What we get out of Law is ultimately a form of Christianity that leans more towards the Old Testament and Jewish doctrine, with the heavenly hierarchy of YHVH, despite the presence of Christian angelology, ultimately Judaic in character. If we account for the fact that, throughout the SMT games, the theme of the Messiah is universal in its expression via its protagonists, this would mean that in the Neutral playthroughs your opposition to both the forces of Law, represented by the Old Testament God YHVH and his hierarchy, and the forces of Chaos, represented by Lucifer and his demons, echoes Jesus insofar as he sought out not only to do battle with the enemies of God via the demons but also, although not overturning the law, spread a new doctrine by which the old form of Judaism would be cast aside, and through his resurrection making the divinity of God fully accessible to mankind in a way that it simply wasn’t in the original Jewish doctrine. Incidentally, in my view this easily explains the absence of Jesus in all of the SMT games. And in the second game, we see the Messians, with the help of the Four Archangels (well, three of them really), creating a fake version of YHVH and trying to create an artificial messiah in order to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth, which is definitely outside the scope of what the Bible or any Christian would have taught. In the same game, the real YHVH is protected in his lair not only by Satan but also by three entities representing names of God, all of them Judaic – Sabaoath, Shaddai (or El Shaddai), and Elohim – incidentally, you don’t fight any of these entities on the Law path. There’s also the fact that, throughout the games, one of the most prominent angels is Metatron, an angel who doesn’t feature too prominently in Christian canon but is very important in Jewish mythology, where he is listed as the highest of angels, as well the fact that, since Strange Journey, another Jewish angel, Mastema, becomes more prominent, arguably taking over from the role Satan had in the second game and in some ways even supplanting the Four Archangels (except in the fourth game). So you have an ostenisbly Christian faction that is otherwise based on Old Testament doctrine, with an arguably fundamentalist character.

All in all, I now know that the aesthetic attachment between Eastern religion and the forces of Chaos is predominantly an aesthetic choice, designed to differentiate the Law and Chaos alongside West vs East lines – this is is not always consistently the case as shown in the fourth game. In many ways I guess had overthrought it all that time ago, but at the same time, my fascination clearly hasn’t died, and as I get more and more into Taoism, which in Japan got thoroughly mixed with both Shinto and esoteric Buddhism, I remember the way it contradicts Confucianism with the emphasis on Hundun and Wu, in contradiction to the Confucian emphasis on Heaven. And then we remember that Heaven puts Christianity and Confucianism in common, and in some ways an exception to doctrines like Buddhism and Taoism, which lack this emphasis.