Culture

Maya, Dharma, and Moksha in Tom and Jerry

Image: Artwork of the cat Tom sitting in the lotus position against a tree, surrounded by a pink petal pattern. By Sophia Hambleton-Grey

I’m bitterly disappointed that Tom and Jerry won’t be one of my examined pieces for finals, as I appear to have invested more time into thinking and writing about it than anything vaguely related to my degree . Yet just two articles on the cartoon felt like unfinished business; the prospect of a trilogy was irresistible. Without further ado, here’s the third and (probably) final instalment.

During extended study of the cartoon, it becomes apparent that understanding the motivations of the characters is what lends it interest and complexity. In the first and second article we explored the ideas of a Sisyphean and Masochistic cycle respectively. In the third, let us once again seek partially to remove Tom’s agency, and to promote Jerry to the mouse-like deity mentioned in the first article. The Sanskrit terms in the title help provide an explanation for Jerry’s actions, and therefore those of Tom, too. Let us first define them.

Maya is often translated as ‘illusion’. In truth, it is a vestige of divine power that manifests itself through illusion, something over which God has control. Certain schools of thought advocate that even before Moksha (salvation), Maya permeates our lives and experiences – everything we see and experience before enlightenment is a form of illusion, laid out before us as a part of divine power. 

Dharma is arguably yet more important – and even more difficult to translate. It loosely represents the maintenance of righteousness in order with the course of the universe. Indeed, the word ‘Dharma’ stems from the extremely ancient Indo-European stem *dʰe (‘hold’ or ‘support’). It represents being bound by righteousness, and, by extension, duty.

Moksha, the third, is perhaps the best known of these three terms. It means liberation, signifying one’s release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth known as Samsara.

We must imagine Jerry as a god-incarnate of sorts, and Tom as the figure perennially to be tested by his Maya.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll almost certainly be wondering where the Tom and Jerry part of the article comes in. If we are to treat the power duo as merely cat and mouse, then everything I’ve explained functions as nothing more than interesting trivia. However, in keeping with these analyses, we must imagine Jerry as a god-incarnate of sorts, and Tom as the figure perennially to be tested by his Maya.

It is easy enough to imagine Jerry in such a fashion. His power is one that never ceases to impress, pulling off incredible sleights of hand to avoid capture (with a near immaculate success rate). An example of such tricks is the trick with the invisible ink, wherein Jerry uses a special solution to completely disguise himself, giving him the upper hand once more [1]. It is important to recognise that Jerry shows Tom his divine power on multiple occasions, and yet Tom shows himself unable to learn. Time and again, we see Jerry use his Maya to foil Tom and dissuade him from the futility of his task in pursuing the mouse. Indeed, Jerry seeks to teach Tom that although he is a cat, there remains more for him to seek from life apart from the chase.

Even on the rare occasions when Tom catches Jerry, we, the audience, are firmly aware that Jerry is the one pulling the strings. As outlined by the previous article, Tom lets him go, formerly punished by the chase like Sisyphus, now obsessed with it like Kafka’s Gregor. And yet, when we see Jerry’s smug face, we are inclined to believe that this too is part of his plan, part of Tom’s learning experience. Thus, the chase continues. More chasing, more Maya, more failure – the cycle continues – until the last episode, ‘Blue Cat Blues’.

It is important to recognise that Jerry shows Tom his divine power on multiple occasions, and yet Tom shows himself unable to learn.

In ‘Blue Cat Blues’, we see a different side to both characters, one that reveals a backstory of friendship and unrequited love on the part of both characters. Indeed, with Tom this seems somewhat believable, for he is firmly entrenched in reality. With Jerry however this explanation remains unconvincing, given his seeming omnipotence throughout the show’s duration. There is also the sense that Jerry tries to match his situation to Tom’s to help him realise his dharma: not to pursue the chase through either punishment, masochism, or futility, but to understand that to escape the chase is to escape the Maya that Jerry has used to test him for so long. Once Jerry understands Tom’s progression, he revives Tom so that he can reach enlightenment rather than die and once more be born into a cycle of woe, and proceeds with the final test. When the two of them sit on the train tracks, in the very last chronological scene, Tom makes no effort to catch Jerry, thus breaking his cycle of woe and achieving his Moksha. He is tired, but ultimately content.

Imagining Tom’s chase as a metaphor for life itself, we too can learn a great deal from the lessons that Jerry delivers.

Jerry joins Tom in liberation, having completed his task: to teach Tom, and propel him towards Enlightenment. In truth, we ought not to view the ending of ‘Blue Cat Blues’, the last episode, as a sad one. It ought to be celebrated as the end of a journey, as Jerry’s accomplishment of his duty as a God-incarnate and as Tom’s apotheosis into spiritual enlightenment; he has served his dues as Sisyphus and overcome the masochistic tendencies that have so plagued him. Indeed, with weary contentment, the two settle down on the train tracks, ready to embrace fulfilment of their respective duties together. Camus writes, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ After Tom’s transcendental realisation in the last episode, escaping his cycle of Maya and Samsara, one must imagine Tom happy, too.

Imagining Tom’s chase as a metaphor for life itself, we too can learn a great deal from the lessons that Jerry delivers. At some point, the chase must end, and only then will the truth of our path become apparent. 


[1] Tom and Jerry, The Invisible Mouse, MGM Cartoons


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