signs and signatures
Vision of sin & redemption 
Darshan Singh Maini

THERE have been a number of great Christian poets who have based their poems on Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and other saints, depending heavily on Christian theology. However, no poet in the Christian world reached the sublime heights of poetry and theology which the Italian poet, Alighieri Dante (1265-1321) achieved in his Divine Comedy. It remains, till today, supreme and absolute in its vision.

Dante lived a fairly full life, and took a marked interest not only in the affairs of the Church which had begun to show signs of corruption, usury and inner rot, but also in the politics of his times. He saw from within the way Italian societywas being alienated from Christ and his teachings.

Beatrice, who inspired both the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nouva, a companion poem, was a married woman, and she had died in 1290. The Divine Comedy written 10 years later, was, thus, at once an autobiographical poem and a book of revelation. Dante fell hopelessly in love with the young woman, and after her death, he sought a reunion with her in the form of his poetic journey.

The poemís opening Canto, Inferno or Hell, understandably, takes the pilgrim soul to "the lowest circle" which abounds in horrifying scenes of all manner. Here we meet sinners, criminals and other such depraved species of mankind. The scenes are set against the backdrop of wild, untamed jungles, dark, fetid marshes, burning fires, all laced with actual and concrete incidents from those parts of Italy where the poet had lived from time to time. The dreadful words, written on the gates of Hell "Despair all ye, who enter here" are a grim warning to those whose fate takes them to these aweful regions. These sinners have to spend their lives in eternal shame, apathy and despair. All this forms the basis of the first three cantos.

The Fourth Canto begins with the First Circle where we meet some great poets and bards, and such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. In the Second Circle, again the sinners of different cuts and kind are found in varying forms of hopelessness. Itwith the Third Circle that the story of human frailties and failings begins. The gluttons, the avaricious, the envious, the proud and the haughty are seen suffering for their mortal weaknesses.

The Fourth Circle is called "the horried circle", and, once again, we come across adulterers and fornicators. In the Fifth Circle, "the city of Dis" and in the Sixth, we see in action heretics, and those fallen from grace. The Seventh Circle is reserved for those guilty of usury. The earlier Christianity had forbidden usury or the taking of interest on money lent to the needy.

In this Circle those who have "done violence on their own person" are punished. Those who have committed suicide have defied the will of God who alone has the right to give life or extinguish life. In the Eighth Circle, seducers, flatterers, and stooges of all kinds undergo the round of punishment. There are several gulfs in this region, and each gulf has its own separate punishment. And here, then, we run into popes and cardinals and other church elders and dignitaries who sold "perferment" for profit or consideration. the sin of "simony" is the sin these priests of high rank commit when they accept money for "pardons, preferences" or for selling "relics etc.

"Rapicious ye are, do prostitute

For gold and silver in adultery"

Also are punished astrologers, palmists and tricksters and so-called "oracles", soothsayers and crystal-gazers who dared predict what they knew not, and could not have known. For whatís in store for man is in Godís Will. The hypocrites also are included in the vast family of criminals. In the 9th gulf of this { Circle" we see "Mohammed and Ali" and "the sewers of scandal, schismatics and heretics,". Of course, Islam, as such abhors all these sins, and Danteís bias could only be attributed to the Christian crusades against "the infidels". In the 10th gulf are found forgers, alchemists, impostors, traitors and such other sinners. The gallery of rogues is as vast as the sea. Homosexuals too are not spared. One of the worst sinners in Danteís view is the ungrateful man. They all are in "the frozen circle."

In the concluding Canto Dante is close to the steps of Heaven where Beatrice waits for him.

Grant then that from necessity arise

All loves that glows within you

And, then, Dante is rebuked by Beatrice for losing his faith in the power of love.

In "Paradise", the mystic journey begins and we find Dante using the spousal metaphor ó Jesus Christ as husband.

In the 9th Heaven, Dante is permitted "to behold divine essence". Itís a mystic consummation. At this point, Beatrice leaves him and St Bernard becomes his guide. And, finally, he learns that grace, not merit, is Godís gift. Salvation lies in that. Itís, thus, that the wheel of redemption comes full circle.