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New religions: Journey to Virginland and the power of enlightened engagement. Is Melikian founding a new religion?

Cemeteries across the world speak loudly of the devastating toll of religion. Yet new religions continue to mushroom, and people seem as ever eager to kill and die for their religious beliefs. Today new religions proliferate to supplant old ones, to establish alternate ways of life, to claim their own monopolies on existential or metaphysical truth.

In Journey to Virginland, his unconventional, pioneering 2012 novel, which earned him the “attention” of the KGB even while he was working on his manuscript, Armen Melikian lays out a wonderfully self-actualizing, embracive vision of being and becoming that eschews the vestiges of conventional religion yet inspires what might be termed as religious sentiment, insofar as the author proposes harmonious emotional, intellectual, and spiritual engagement in life’s joys and sorrows alike.

“Will you establish the temple of HAY on Ararat—for the countless millions of descendants of Hayk’s twelve sons and daughters, for the whole of humanity, for she who hears HAY’s voice in her soul? A house of the spirit cannot be a house of race,” is one of the cogitations of the novel’s hero, Dog Son of Dog, which interrogators of Melikian’s wife at the KGB headquarters in Yerevan confronted her with, several years before the manuscript was even completed. She has been threatened to be charged with treason unless she cooperated with them. “This is not our book; he is not one of us,” one of the interrogators shouted at her. The interrogators were equally peeved by the sexual content of the novel.

Melikian was made a persona non grata and subjected to an appalling persecution in the country of his ancestors, where he had moved from the United States in order to continue his research on the prehistoric layers of the Armenian epic, The Madmen of Sasun, and reveal its roots as a cosmogonic poem of priestly origins holding the key to the mysteries of the Zodiac as a cosmic calendar. Without a search warrant, the KGB operatives invaded the home of Melikian’s confidante to confiscate his manuscripts and legal documents. A physical altercation ensued. She was later forced to listen to wiretapped conversations between the author and “other women” (apparently his conversations with the woman whom he later married).

Apropos of these and a long list of other facts, including intrusion into the premises of a leading Armenian newspaper following an interview with the author, and the premises of the national public radio minutes before a program on Journey to Virginland was to air, as well as the ensuing financial ruination the author suffered as a result of persecution by various government agencies, E.U. Politics states, “Melikian has lived in Armenia for three years and was exiled for his devilishly iconoclastic writings.”

A scholar and fierce critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition and other monotheistic systems, Melikian systematically exposes in a satirical novel the grand corporate sham of organized religion and raises red flags against the prowling orthodoxy of new religions. Nevertheless, unlike many who reject conventional religion outright, Melikian often qualifies his critique with specific nods to religions extinct and extant, chief among them Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Armenian religion.

The novel has won seven national and international awards so far and garnered praise from top publishing industry sources. Publishers Weekly states: “Dog vs. God. In an iconoclastic story, Dog demolishes the foundations of Western civilization.” And ForeWord Reviews writes: “An engrossing, brilliantly crafted read. A searing commentary on the earth and its inhabitants through the canine eyes of Dog. Melikian is an astonishing writer who teaches his reader through tragedy and humor.”

In his review of the novel, Paul McCarthy, professor of English at the University of Ulster, Ireland, and a former high-level publishing-industry insider at three of the largest publishing houses of the world, wrote: “I am struck by the extraordinary writing, vision, and, perhaps rarest of all, originality, which abounds in every way, and at so many levels and depths of meaning, theme, narrative, etc., that I had to keep slowing my pace, until I could read and ‘inhale’ each word.”

Melikian seems to be interested in neither bringing yet another addition to the labyrinth of new religions nor, more broadly, perpetuating the insidious practices of control and exploitation spawned by organized religion. Instead what he seems to expound, far from the impulse of new religions, is a dynamic approach of enlightened engagement, energized by an ethos of experiential curiosity, creativity, compassion, and a quest for the serene.

Even so, Journey to Virginland inspires a new religious vision for humanity. Clues abound in the novel, including several references to Makoko (reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Bokonon) and HAY, whose transcendental import is left for the reader to decipher. Only time can tell whether the religious imagining of Melikian’s anti-hero will be embraced by the 21st century. Journey to Virginland may have a life of its own and a new religion may indeed emerge from this atypical book, irrespective of the author’s intentions. “Ultimately there is no need to compare this novel or anti-novel to other books,” a reviewer noted. “Journey to Virginland is different enough, energetic enough, challenging enough, informative enough to carry its own weight. Armen Melikian has not only written this book; I think it has written and will go on writing him.”

Interested in reading more about new religions or Journey’s HAY?
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