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Coincidentia Oppositorum: Origins in a Proto-Indo-European Trope?

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The coincidentia oppositorum, or simultaneous occurrence of opposites, is a common trope in many religious traditions, particularly those with a mystical or initiatory aspect:

“For I am the first and the last,
I am the honored one and the scorned one,
I am the whore and the holy one….”
Thunder, Perfect Mind

“Being and non-being produce one another.
Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low.”
Tao Te Ching

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.”
– Heraclitus

A modified version of the coincidentia occurs in a negative form, in which conjoined pairs of opposites are asserted and then rejected as the locus of ultimate truth, which is held to be transcendent of the objects of discriminating consciousness:

“The Self is to be described as not this, not that. It is incomprehensible, for it cannot be comprehended; undecaying, for it never decays; unattached, for it never attaches itself, unfettered, for it is never bound. He who knows the Self is unaffected, whether by good or by evil.” – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“I prostrate to the perfect Buddha, the best of all teachers, who taught that that which is dependently-arisen is without cessation, without arising; without annihilation, without permanence; without coming, without going; without distinction, without identity and peaceful — free from fabrication.” — Nagarjuna

The problem of the apparent irrationality of the coincidentia in Buddhist philosophy was an area of intense exegetical concern for Tibetan interpreters of Indian Madhyamaka, and the attempt to interpret apparently incoherent statements by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti was a central preoccupation of many of Tibet’s great scholars. Alternately, in Ch’an and Zen, the problem of awareness operating beyond logical categories was fervently embraced and the paradoxical quality of the language was emphasized.

The paradoxical nature of the coincidentia oppositorum receives primary attention in much contemporary exegetical literature in the West. It is often glossed by interpreters as an intentional confound to conventional logic, which is based on the law of the excluded middle, an axiom of reasoning that holds any given thing must either by X or not-X, where X is any possible predicate. The emphatic assertion of coincident opposites appears on the surface to be a direct challenge to Boolean or Aristotelian logic.

This interpretation has been popularized in glosses to so-called “Eastern philosophy” such as Capra’s dubious The Tao of Physics. The putative rejection of either/or logic has variously led to praise or criticism depending on the sympathies of the commentator. Many Western philosophers have rejected Indian religious philosophy on this ground (Cf. “Is Buddhist Logic Non-Classical or Deviant?” by Tom Tillemans for a history of this problem).

Carl Jung was interested in the coincidentia and closely-related problems like the mysterium coniunctionis. Jung interpreted pairs of opposites as indicating a domain of the psyche that operates prior to rational, conscious discrimination, i.e. the personal or collective unconscious. He tended to interpret symbols of the coincidentia or the coniunctio as signs of the totality of conscious and unconscious contents of the psyche, which he called the Self.

With respect to the evocation of pairs of opposites in religious literature, underlying the paradoxical aspect it evokes may lay a simple linguistic convention that eventually took on a life of its own and indeed became a ubiquitous component of religious literature. In his study of Proto-Indo-European religious ideas, M. L. West notes the frequent appearance of merisms, or references to polar opposites:

“Especially characteristic [of Indo-European languages] is the use of polar expressions, that is, pairings of contrasted terms, as an emphatic expression of the totality that they make up. One may say that bipolarity (not trifunctionality) is the fundamental structuring principle of Indo-European thought.

“For example, the concept of ‘all intelligent beings’ is expressed by ‘gods and men’ or ‘immortals and morals’: Rig Veda I.35.2….”

West provides numerous additional examples from sources ranging from the Zoroastrian Avestas to Hittite legal literature to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The estate-owner’s livestock is summed as “herds and men” in the Vedas, the biosphere is described as “what moves or stands still”. In a religious context the Vedas refer to “things done and yet to be done” — a locution that also appears in Hesiod with respect to the Muses.

West notes:

“The Indo-European ability to create negative compounds with the prefix *n- made it easy to form polar expressions of the type ‘X and non-X’… (Indo-European Poetry and Myth, M. L. West)

Three points are worth noting from West’s discussion: 1) the frequent presentation of pairs of opposites follows readily from Indo-European grammar, 2) the philosophico-religious complex of the Indo-Europeans can be linked to most or all major world religions through various avenues of diffusion, and 3) early instances of the coincidentia are clearly intended to indicate a wide scope, not to challenge conventional logic.

More on point three — while Indian religion and philosophy is widely regarded as embodying non-rational or mystical elements from its earliest days, the Vedas (written ca. 2nd millennium BCE) altogether lack the mystery character of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist teachings, or Vedanta philosophy, and present a more or less conventional Indo-European cosmology.

My hypothesis then is that the coincidentia oppositorum in religious literature was originally a mere linguistic convention used to designate a wide scope or field of activity associated with mythological or religious characters, deities, or themes. There are numerous parallel examples of minor or incidental religious terms or concepts gradually gaining a metaphorical complexity and scope that could never be predicted from their humble origins. One example within easy reach is the doctrine of selflessness, minor in importance to the early Buddhist schools but central to the Mahayana. Another is the doctrine of the resurrection of Osiris in Egyptian religion, which began as a story of a god, quickly became a paradigm for the relationship of the pharaoh to divinity, and then gradually became “democratized” as a general symbol of the relationship between the individual and the divine.

Closer to our argument is the case of the triadic model of sacrifice of the Vedas, by which the officiant (microcosm) is linked to the divine (macrocosm) through the vehicle of the sacrifice (mesocosm). This triad is recapitulated in the first millennium BCE yoga schools of India as an individual psycho-spiritual process in which the yogi (microcosm) realizes their identity with ultimate truth or Atman (macrocosm) through the inner sacrifice of yoga (mesocosm). The original triadic structure and much of the ritual language of the Vedas is preserved in the Yoga schools, but internalized.


Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2010 at 2:56 am

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  1. […] The mystical goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind transcends the local variations of the goddess we discussed above – she encompasses the reality to which these local variants refer, through their particular frame of reference. She is the universal, not the particular, and like all deities in mystical traditions, she is evoked by uniting signs, such as the coincidentia oppositorum, or union of opposites. I took a look at the union of opposites motif in early Indo-European religious poetry in an earlier post. […]

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