Appeasement works? from Ferment, October 05

Sharks and bandits
Munich and Yalta
Religious fanatics
Appeasing Goddess Kali

Let’s begin with a conversation from the short story “Libera - Impressions of Descent” (Ferment, April 2005).

Libera: What if a shark finds us?
Patience: True. Spearfishing can attract them.
Libera: So what do we do if one turns up?
Patience: Offer him a nice fish dinner, and hope that’s all he wants.
Libera: That’s appeasement.
Patience: Appeasement works.


Appeasement, in a general sense, means making concessions to someone you experience as threatening, be that someone a shark, a bandit, a dictator, an underground network of fanatics, or a destructive devata.

When it comes to sharks, Patience is right. That is, what she told Libera is the same (in substance) as the advice offered by people with specialist knowledge of this area, for instance A.P.Balder, author of the book Sport Diving. If you are spearfishing underwater, and a shark wants the fish you’ve just taken, it is prudent to give the fish up... 1

Does appeasement work with bandits? In many circumstances, the answer is yes. If you are the victim of an armed hold-up, it is common sense to give the gunman the cash he demands. He is then less likely to shoot someone (such as you).

Munich and Yalta

Can a similar strategy work if you are dealing with a ruthless dictator?

Here, of course, we need to consider the most famous attempt at appeasement, the Munich Agreement of September 1938. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was one of several western leaders who granted an important concession to the German leader Adolf Hitler -- they permitted him to take control of the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region which had for several decades been part of Czechoslovakia. By making this concession, Chamberlain hoped to avoid war. As we know, the policy failed, because Hitler didn’t just want the Sudetenland...

Chamberlain’s failure has become central to the way we talk and think about issues of war and peace. In a time of crisis (eg the lead-up to the war in Iraq), when an advocate of war (rather than negotiation) cites “the lessons of history”, they hardly need to mention Chamberlain or Munich by name. It is as if human history began in 1938, and ended in 1939, and the one lesson of history is that compromise with a bad guy doesn’t work.

Yet, does that one instance (momentous as it is) prove that appeasement in general never works? Does it even prove that appeasement of ruthless dictators never works? Or does it simply show us that appeasement of a dictator sometimes doesn’t work?

Are there other historical instances where a ruthless dictator has been granted concessions for the sake of peace?

Stalin was undoubtedly a dictator, and a ruthless one at that. Let us look at how Britain and the USA handled their relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union in the last phase of the Second World War.

In this period, the Red Army was moving westward into central Europe, pushing back the German Nazis, while American and British forces moved eastward from the Atlantic and northward from the Mediterranean. Resistance movements -- underground militias -- were also taking part in the war against Hitler. There were communist militias, closely associated with the Soviet Union, as well as more rightwing militias with links to the west. The communists were strong in France, Italy and Greece, as well as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

What then was to happen when these armies and militias no longer had the Nazis to fight against? Obviously, there was a risk they would begin fighting each other. The Second World War might have been immediately followed by a Third.

It didn’t happen, because there was a process of negotiation, formal and informal, between the three paramount commanders -- Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

This process, expressed for instance in the Yalta Agreement of February 1945,2 certainly gave Stalin something he wanted: hegemony over eastern Europe. No doubt this was a tragedy for many people. But, is it not possible that a Third World War might have been a worse tragedy?

If the purpose of appeasing a dictator is to avoid a horrible war, then the western compromise with Stalin was an instance of appeasement that worked.

Religious fanatics

What about a violent underground movement of religious fanatics? Is it possible that appeasement will work with people like that?

Here are two descriptions of people who appear too wanton, too irrational, to be placated by any imaginable concession:

“... the strange underground movement, which has produced a secret bomb and revolver cult... The tragedy of this semi-religious murder... insensate and half-mystical... ” 3

“Their care for freedom, for self-government, for all the shibboleths... was as naught to their care for the glory of their cult.” 4

The words just cited are descriptions of militant Bengali Hindus, worshippers of Kali and Durga, campaigning against the British in India. Descriptions, obviously, by writers with little sympathy for the militants -- writers who identify with the British Empire, not with its enemies.

The Indian struggle against the British is often thought of as a triumph of non-violent civil disobedience, as represented by Mahatma Gandhi. Yet it’s true that India’s nationalist movement also had its violent wing, and some of them used the names of the Goddess in their manifestos:
“Invoke the mother Kali... She wants many white Asuras. The Mother is thirsting after the blood of the Feringhees who have bled her profusely.” 5

It is also true that the Indians stopped fighting the British, whether by violent or non-violent means, when the British stopped trying to rule them.

Appeasing Goddess Kali

The most sensational popular conception, or misconception, about Kali, is that her worshippers are violent fanatics. It is a half truth, since some of her worshippers have been precisely that.

A more interesting conception is that worship of Kali is a form of appeasement -- the idea that people worship a goddess of monstrous aspect in order to avoid being harmed by her. Perhaps this too is a half truth.

Let’s look at the Devi-Mahatmya the best known text of India’s Goddess tradition. It praises a Goddess with multiple aspects and sacred names, including the name Mahakali (Great Kali).6

This text opens and closes 7 with the story of two troubled individuals, the exiled king Suratha, and the merchant Samadhi, who has been rejected by his wife and his sons. Both the king and the merchant have suffered loss, and both are tormented by unhelpful thoughts and emotions.

They meet the sage Medhas, who tells them about the Great Goddess. The first thing they learn about the Goddess is that she, as Mahamaya, is the one tormenting them. They are also told that when she is pleased, she becomes the varada, the giver of favours, leading to liberation of the soul.8 So the king and the merchant begin to worship the Goddess. Eventually she appears before them, and grants them the fruits they want.

This Goddess is both threatening and helpful. Appeasement -- placating a threatening power to avoid harm -- is one of the reasons for worshipping her, though it isn’t the only reason.

The same principle is graphically expressed in the Adbhuta Ramayana, 9 where Kali is identified with Rama’s wife Sita. Sita takes the form of Kali after Rama is struck down by a powerful demon. She kills the demon and his followers, and then she begins a terrible dance of victory, making the earth shake like a boat in a storm.10

The gods placate Kali/Sita in three ways. First, they appeal to Lord Siva for help, and he places his own body beneath Kali’s feet. Secondly, they praise her as the sovereign power of the universe. Thirdly, they restore King Rama to life.

Colin Robinson

from Ferment, Oct 2005
abridged for the Web

1 Balder, A.P.; Sport Diving; Cassell Australia Ltd, Stanmore NSW, 1978; p 123.
2 The text of the Yalta Agreement can be found on the internet at
3 MacMunn, G.F.; The Underworld of India; Jarrolds, London, 1933; p 96; cited by Urban, H.B.; “ ‘India’s Darkest Heart’ ”; in McDermott, R. and Kripal, J. (ed); Encountering Kali; Uni. of California Press, Berkeley, 2003; p 180.
4 Steel, F.A.; The Law of the Threshold; Macmillan, NY, 1924; p 146; cited by Urban, H.B.; “ ‘India’s Darkest Heart’ ”; p 181.
5 from the Bengali periodical Yugantar, 1905; cited by Urban, H.B.; “ ‘India’s Darkest Heart’ ”; p 182.
6 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1953; chapter 12 verse 38.
7 chapter 1 verses 1 - 58, and all of chapter 13.
8 chapter 1 verse 56.
9 Nagar, Shantilal (trans); Adbhut Ramayana [Sanskrit, Hindi, English]; BR Publishing Corp., Delhi, 2001; chapters 23 to 24.
10 chapter 23 verse 64.

© Colin Robinson 2005

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