The Heraclian Syndrome

Man’s Freedom of Will, and the nature of Divine intervention in the working of the life of the Universe and of Man, have been recurring and much-debated topics among the theologians of the past and present. The following story-essay is one individual’s attempt at deciphering the essential, and the inherently disturbing truth underlying these centuries-old articles of faith. For the Heraclian Syndrome, as it reveals itself within the thought-processes of Max, the central character in the story, through his interaction with the inner guiding voice called the Wayfarer, is, indeed, terrifying in its implications as far as a true believer in God is concerned.


The Instrument mere and the Obedient true.

‘Yes.’ Max was sure. Those were the words that the Wayfarer had used. And how many years ago was that?

Was it in 2000?

No. Much earlier than that, surely.

1999, then? No. That still seemed too late.

1998, possibly? The year Max graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Karnatak University at Dharwad.

No, Max was certain now that the Wayfarer had granted him the concept of the Instrument and the Obedient in the last of those remarkable four years that he had worked for his engineering degree at a college campus that hugged the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Atop that picturesque, greenish hill.

Greenish and full of life when the monsoons swept in.

Dark and barren when the unsparing heat of an Indian summer beat down upon it.

Always awaiting the miracle of resurrection.

Of rain.

A few hours drive away from the largest, most spectacular waterfalls in South Asia: the Jog Falls.

* * * *

1997 it was then, when, during those tension-filled days of the critical seventh semester university exams, the Wayfarer had interrupted his thought processes on one particular occasion of a cold, rainy evening as he sat, in front of those books on internal combustion engines, pondering over the fundamental questions of predestination and the tragedy of man’s inescapable fate. Questions on man’s choice of actions and the end results of those very actions; for man himself and for the particular pattern that was being set in the life of the universe by the dictates of the writ Divine.

Questions that were not exactly related to the subjects he had for the exams at hand.

“Well, maybe except for the Carnot cycle, that is.”

Max had corrected himself as he had glanced over the illustration of the ideal Carnot power cycle for internal combustion engines in the textbook before him. For, the ideal Carnot cycle was just that: an ideal. Nevertheless, it was an ideal that could be looked up to; an ideal that could be sought to be attained, no matter however unsuccessfully. But each effort at attaining to it would certainly bring about vast improvements in the existing model.

Back in 1824, when the French military engineer, Sadi Carnot, first proposed the fuel cycle that was, thenceforth, to bear his name, he had clearly mentioned that his particular proposition was based on the assumption that heat was totally convertible into work energy and work, in turn, was wholly convertible into heat. This, of course, was just an assumption and an ideal basis for Carnot’s theory: in real life, such wholesale conversion of heat into energy was an impossibility. But then, there he had it: the Carnot cycle – the ideal cycle that formed the basis for all future experimentations into fuel cycle efficiencies. And each effort at attaining to the Carnot cycle produced a better, more efficient fuel cycle every time: there was the Otto cycle, the Otto-Rankine cycle, the Diesel cycle and so forth. Not that any of these experiments produced the perfect Carnot cycle, but they did improve upon every previous model to lead to the most fuel-efficient power-stroke of modern times.

Max was sure that this perfect-model theory suited very well with many aspects of man’s spiritual, behavioural life as well. There had to be an ideal model – an ideal world – that had to be sought after not at some vague point in time and history, but right here and now: in times such as these, when man needed it so sorely like he needed it at no other time in the past.

There had to be a perfect model for human life, the very effort to attain to which would greatly civilize and ennoble its existence.

Its multifarious manifestations.

Modern science wasn’t everything, since it couldn’t account for many, many, factors in man’s world. And more so, since the material sciences had to go by mere assumptions to get down to any empirical rule that was, in the end analysis, a spiritual, non-material truth anyway. Materially tangible efforts producing materially intangible results. For, ideally, the applied sciences, like engineering, always have their bases in pure science. And pure science was based in original spiritual laws that prevailed eternally in the life of the universe.

Even before man made his first appearance.

Even before he ever found mention for what he was: a tiny, insignificant, speck in the incredible, incomparable vastness of the universe that was his home in this life material.

“Wasn’t this insignificant man then made the subject to which all else in existence was predicated?” Max had wondered. “Has there ever been a greater honour than that?” The honour of his intellect: the pride of God’s creation. His freedom of will and his, materially intangible, gift of conscience based on an absolute, Divinely ingrained code of morality.

“Freedom of will, Max?” That was the point where the Wayfarer had come in.

“Yes, Wayfarer.” Max picked up his ears. “Man does have freedom of will, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, Max. But like you were thinking about man being the subject to which all else in the universe is predicated, his freedom of will, is, in turn, predicated to a higher subject.”

“Which is..?”

“The highest Subject of all. The Will of his Maker, Max. The Plan Divine.”

“But then there is no freedom of will for man, Wayfarer. He must have the independence to act as he chooses. Else, the moral justification for reward and punishment is washed away, is it not?” Max was being cautious since he was sure that he had now tread upon a delicate, albeit, vital issue.

“No, Max. That is the general rule – the general pattern of God’s working – that pervades man’s life. The cause-and-effect pattern. And so the Divine law, as mentioned in the Qur’an: ‘God does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves first.’ But there is also the particular rule that is the sole prerogative of God in His capacity as the Omnipotent Controller of the universe: the rule that He can, and does, interfere in the life of His creations, sometimes to aid them specifically, and at other times to ensure that His words find fulfillment so that His dynamic existence is asserted again and again in history beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt.”

“Yes, Wayfarer. For those who have hearts to see.”

“Thus, Max, man can end up being a mere instrument or a truly obedient servant in this very real drama of God’s particular pattern in human history.” The Wayfarer’s voice now had a special ring to it, like the times when he mentioned something of great relevance. And that note in his voice was not lost upon Max.

“How does one become a mere instrument as against an obedient servant of God?” Max asked with the half-innocence of the half-innocent.

“That’s when one is in the grip of the Heraclian Syndrome, Max.”

“The what, Wayfarer?”

“The Heraclian Syndrome, Max.” The repeating voice was grim.

Max had then closed his textbook. “I haven’t heard that before, Wayfarer. Tell me more.”

“You know it yourself, Max. The only problem, however, is that you don’t know that you know. And sometimes a name, or a title, can bring to mind an image more quickly than a hundred words put together.”

“Yea. And so God taught Adam the name of all things,” Max reflected suddenly.

The rain outside had been relentless once it had begun to come down in full earnest. The pattering of the heavy and innumerable drops upon the windowpane of Max’s hostel room had produced a symphony that complemented the gloom that was gathering within him. Max had hardly noticed the streak of light which, at that moment, flashed across the darkening evening skies above the hill. But in the next instant, the electric power supply to the entire campus was cut off and Max was suddenly left alone in the cozy darkness of his room.

“Damn!” said Max to himself as he groped for a candle and the matchbox in the darkness. “And just when you had a crucial university exam tomorrow. The generators better start running real quick here.”

A cool draught of air had then found its way into the room through the tiny crack in the upper left corner of the windowpane and it brought with it something of the dampness of the rainy night outside. The breeze, however, helped little as Max tried with some difficulty to light the candle on the table before his pile of books. In the end, when he did manage to light the candle, the light that it offered was little better than a flickering, wavering one. One that cast long shadows onto the walls around him.

“Wayfarer?” Max almost called out.

Silence, save for the sound of the rain falling outside.

“There you have it! You have left me in the middle of the riddle again!”

Max was frustrated now, his hands unconsciously turning open the pages of his textbook as the shadows danced to the movement.

“Just as well! At least I can catch up with my subject now.”

But that, for Max, was easier said than done. “Heraclian Syndrome? Does the word Heraclian ring a bell?” Max was asking himself then. The power-energy equations that he was staring at didn’t make any sense.

“Heraclian… That sounds like it’s taken from Roman history.” The flickering light of the candle glinted off his suddenly sparkling eyes.

“Oh, Yes! Heraclius! The Roman emperor, Heraclius! The one who incredibly overran the might of the Persian war machine in the seventh century after the disappearance of Christ.” Max was beginning to pick up the thread.

“Wasn’t he the one who played the role in fulfilling the astonishing prophesy in the Last Testament revealed to Muhammad?”

Max fumbled with the pen in his hand. He had read that history before while still in his teens. It was the story that every Muslim child would know. The revelation in the chapter entitled ‘Rome’ (Surah Rum). The thirtieth of the Qur’an.

Rome was not built in a day. Max had heard that.

“But it almost came un-built in just about that time. Thanks to Heraclius’ early misrule.”

Max had by then risen from his seat and was slowly walking up and down the room restlessly as he tried to recollect what he had read of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Max knew that at the time of the last divine revelation made to man, Arabia was a remote corner of the then known world, known to the outsiders for its hungry, ferocious, untamed desert-dwellers. The civilized world was divided into two major powers. Both vast, powerful, and several centuries old: the Roman and the Persian.

The Romans ruled over some parts of Europe, the whole of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa. The Persian Empire had its roots in Persia. The two super-powers of the time had long been warring with each other in an effort to expand territories. Lately, the Persians were particularly successful under the greatest of their emperors, Chosroes II, who had begun his campaigns against the Romans early in the seventh century of the Christian era. Muhammad was then about thirty years old and was not yet a prophet.

Chosroes tore through the Roman defenses and within thirty years reduced the illustrious empire to shambles having wrested away the best part of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and all the areas below the Capital of the empire, Constantinople.

Twelve of the thirty years of the victory-filled campaigns of Chosroes were conducted during the reign of the Roman emperor Heraclius, who, being more a man of the pleasantries of the palace than the battlefields, watched with complete helplessness the destruction of his empire.

The greatest blow came when the Persians wrested from his hands Jerusalem and carried away the relics of the holy city to Persia. These relics included the ‘Holy Cross’ on which Christ was supposed to have been crucified. It was at this juncture that Muhammad, then in his fourth or fifth year of apostleship, received the astonishing prediction:

“Alif. Laam. Meem. The Romans have been defeated in the land lowest on earth. But after (this) defeat of theirs they will soon be victorious. Within a few years. With God is the decision, in the past and in the future. On that day shall the faithful rejoice.”

Max now remembered, almost word-to-word, what Gibbon had written about this important incident. In Gibbon’s own words:

‘…at the time when the prediction is said to have been delivered, no prophecy could be more distant from its accomplishment, since the first twelve years of Heraclius announced the approaching dissolution of the empire.’ 

But then something happened. Heraclius changed. Assuming the role of a hero, and borrowing all the gold that the churches could lend him, he set sail quietly into the Mediterranean Sea with a small band of soldiers. He landed at the shores of Syria and defeated the Persian army sent to intercept him. He marched on carrying in the process his victorious armies as far as the royal cities of Casbin and Ispahan, which had never been approached by a Roman emperor before. There he faced the largest-ever Persian army. An army so fearful that his bravest veterans were left speechless with awe.

Although he knew nothing of the prophecy of the Qur’an, Heraclius addressed his commanders in prophetic words: ‘Be not terrified by the multitude of your foes. With the aid of Heaven, one Roman may triumph over a thousand barbarians.’ The victory was his. The decisive battle was at Nineveh, once home to the prophet Jonah. And a little later he recovered the ‘Holy Cross.’ In seven years, Heraclius had liberated all the provinces that had been lost in thirty.

In all, Heraclius had undertaken six, incredible, campaigns against the might of the Persian Empire. All within the span of that remarkable decade. Campaigns which possessed, in the manner of their execution and for the terrible odds that they were put up against, the authoritative stamp of true genius. Not since the days of Hannibal had the world witnessed such feats of daring and bravery. Feats that have become all the more incredible and logic defying for the personage through which they were accomplished.

It is quite another matter that this whole incident of history gave a further boost to the Qur’an’s claim of being the Last Revelation from God, since only fools would argue that the illiterate Muhammad had ventured to make the prediction himself. A prediction that gave him and his poor band of followers little comfort from the mockery and ridicule of their countrymen until the fulfillment of the prophecy several years later.

This much Max was sure of.

“But what is the Heraclian Syndrome? And what had it to do with the Particular Pattern of God’s Working in human history? And how is one made a mere instrument by the operation of the Heraclian Syndrome?”

* * * *

The rain had lessened in intensity, for it was only the faint murmur of the drizzle outside that reached Max’s ears then. But the power supply was still out.

Max unlocked the doors of the window and opened them outwards, allowing the refreshing gust of the cool night air to wash against his pensive face.

The campus lay in darkness save for what seemed a hundred candles shining through the windows of the hostel rooms where students poured over their books.

Beyond the campus wall, and down the hill, stood the sleepy little town by the Arabian Sea.

All in the cloak of a wet, damp, darkness.

And beyond that stood the sea itself.

Silent in its majesty.

In its stillness.

                                                                                 * * * *

“Okay. So Heraclius was used as an instrument in fulfilling a Divine prophecy.” Max rested his elbows on the window sill. His figure hunched in contemplation.

“And how, Max?” The Wayfarer was back.

“How, Wayfarer?”

“Yes. How was he used, Max? What happened to him after he played his part in fulfilling the prophecy?”

Max’s eyebrows went up ever so slightly. Gibbon’s remarks about Heraclius came flashing back along with the faint, dying, lightning that streaked across the sky:

Of the characters conspicuous in history, that of Heraclius is one of the most extraordinary and inconsistent. In the ‘first and last years’ of a long reign, the emperor appears to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, and of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of public calamities.

‘O my God, Wayfarer!’

It was indeed a bolt from the blue as the idea came home to Max.

He raised himself up from his elbows quickly, staring hard into the drizzling night. It was, indeed, true that the same Heraclius who, in those ten significant years that altered the course of history, reclaimed the glory of Rome, fell back immediately to his old ways of pleasure-seeking, irresponsible administration and a life of ease and comfort, once the task of uprooting the Persian empire was accomplished.

Towards the fag end of his life, few people knew him as the Roman ruler who had challenged and defeated the great Persian Empire. His subjects knew him more as the man who ended his life in misery in the shame of an incestuous relationship that he had contracted with his niece, Martina: daughter of his own sister. To add further insult to injury, by the time he died in 641 C.E. most of his empire was again in ruins and had, more or less, been laid to waste.

Heraclius had been picked up by God for a brief period for the accomplishment of His plans. Heraclius himself never profited in any lasting manner from the transformation that came upon him, since when he was finally left to himself, he could only claim ignominy on his own.

‘Heraclius was a mere instrument, Max! An instrument of God’s will. An instrument that failed to even understand the very purpose for which it was being used. His fate in this world was a miserable end and in the Hereafter he is, like all else, at the Mercy of the Maker.’

To his great horror, the implications of the Heraclian Syndrome then dawned upon Max. It simply meant that no matter what one did for the cause of God, one could still end up as a mere instrument that was used for the accomplishment of God’s purpose. Of victory and salvation in the Hereafter, where it counted the most, one might have none.

One could so end up if one were to be affected by the Heraclian Syndrome.

The curse.

The curse because of which all such Mere Instruments of the Divine deceive themselves into thinking that they are in the process of doing something really worthwhile.

“Verily, those who remain unconvinced (and work not on the truth) of the Hereafter will have all their deeds rendered by God into the mere decorative ornaments (of their lives). That they may, thus, befool themselves thereby.”

How the words of the Qur’an rang in Max’s ears just then.

With a shrillness that has remained to this day.

In retrospect, Max, could now place any individual action or effort, any historical event, any body of organizational endeavour, any thing that had served to further the cause of God, but later fell out after having accomplished its purpose as having been in the grip of this curse.

The curse of the Heraclian Syndrome.

Frighteningly for Max, his own efforts in the cause of God now seemed glaringly suspect to the affectations of the curse. Had he done all that he had done just for accomplishing God’s Plan and then to be thrown into the confines of ignominy in this life and Hell in the Hereafter?

It was a question that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life.

It would make him gloomy and burdened.

It would leave him humbled and wet of the eye.

It would ever make him sober of the heart.

Everytime he remembered.

Each and every, single time.

“The Obedient, Wayfarer! Tell me about the Obedient!” Max’s voice was shaking now with urgency for all the implications that had come upon him of a sudden. The Wayfarer had cast the Obedient servant against the mere Instrument of God. Therein could be hope.

“The Obedient are those, Max, who follow the commands of God to its fulfillment in their own lives. They are those who are firm in their certainty about the Hereafter and the possibilities for their own fate therein. They are those who work upon the commands of God in this life for the explicit purpose of seeking the pleasure of God, and their safety, in the Hereafter. They are the ones who are alive to the General and Particular pattern of God’s working in the Universe and in the life of Man. They are those who are ever conscious of the very real danger of their becoming a mere Instrument of God. They are ever alive to the Curse, Max. Alive in life, as in death. They have learned to die before their deaths.”

The Wayfarer’s voice was cold. Grave.

“But Wayfarer,” Max was almost besides himself with inner anguish by then. “How does one know that he isn’t being used as a mere Instrument when all he ever thought as his greatest ambition in life was the holding aloft of God’s word in this universe; when he realizes, at the same time, that he is, indeed, weak of the flesh, if not in spirit?”

“Yes, Max. Man is, indeed, created in weakness and as one given to his passions.” The Wayfarer’s voice was a soothing caress. “But you will know your status as the Obedient of God through your love for Him. Nobody can feign true love, Max. Nobody.”

“Least of all, to God, the Knower of hearts.”

* * * * *

The rain had abated now in its entirety, leaving the whole campus smelling, and full, of the new life that had been breathed into it.

Through the miracle of a new resurrection.

Through the revelation of a heavenly torrent.

Even the moon was up in all its breathtaking fullness and beauty.

A moon that reflected its own reflected light upon the waters of the Arabian Sea. The shores of which hugged the coastline that housed the campus atop the hill.

The campus in which was the hostel room by whose darkened window one stood weeping for the torrent from heaven that had just descended.

To destroy, forever, the innocence of his deeds.

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