"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for March 2012

Like Apples

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The Three Judges (detail)
Georges Rouault

“The field was the length
of this whole building, as far
across as the street is wide.
We’d fill it with potatoes.
I came from a big family
and we ate most of ’em –
they keep for a long time
in a cellar.”

He mostly turns toward me,
half-looking over his shoulder.

“We had a big triangle made of wood,
that had three points. We’d pull it
behind us with a rope. That was the rows.
And I’d go with a broom handle or a hoe
and poke holes into the ground just like this.”

He gestures two or three times.

“And my dad would come along with the potato,
or the eye of the potato,
and he’d stick it in the ground
and we’d cover it up.
They grow out in vines and
the potatoes grow underground, maybe
six of ’em on a plant. They had flowers
like anything else – white ones.”

He walks around to the other side of the big table.

“That was Pennsylvania. My father’s brother
owned a farm and let us use part of the land.”

He doesn’t look me in the eye, maybe shy.

“I remember in August the new potatoes – oh, God.
We would eat ’em like apples, they were so good.”

Written by Mesocosm

March 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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Quote of the Day

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“Sacrifice to this god. Sacrifice to that god.” – people do say these things, but in reality each of these gods is his own creation, for he himself is all these gods. – Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad

Written by Mesocosm

March 28, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Posted in Ephemera

“They Found the Bones”

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Joseph Campbell was fond of this anecdote and relayed it in many speeches and lectures. This version is drawn from his book Myths to Live By:

I was sitting the other day at a lunch counter that I particularly enjoy, when a youngster about twelve years old, arriving with his school satchel, took the place at my left. Beside him came a younger little man, holding the hand of his mother, and those two took the next seats. All gave their orders, and, while waiting, the boy at my side said, turning his head slightly to the mother, “Jimmy wrote a paper today on the evolution of man, and Teacher said he was wrong, that Adam and Eve were our first parents.”

My Lord! I thought. What a teacher!

The lady three seats away then said, “Well Teacher was right. Our first parents were Adam and Eve.”

What a mother for a twentieth-century child!

The youngster responded, “Yes, I know, but this was a scientific paper.” And for that, I was ready to recommend him for a distinguished-service medal from the Smithsonian Institution.

The mother, however, came back with another. “Oh, those scientists!” she said angrily. “Those are only theories.”

And he was up to that one too. “Yes, I know,” was his cool and calm reply; “but they have been factualized: they found the bones.”

The milk and sandwiches came, and that was that.

Written by Mesocosm

March 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm

The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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Mary (detail), circa 14th Century, Greece
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

On Christian Doctrine, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series on Christian theology, we took a brief look at some of the competing ideas alive in the early Christian church concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and the nature of his relationship to God. We briefly compared the interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

While John taught that Christ’s life and relationship to God was a unique historical event, Thomas believed that Jesus was a paradigmatic example of the relationship that all persons have to the divine. These imply radically different concepts of salvation: for John, salvation consists in affirming Christ’s death and resurrection, while for Thomas it consisted of coming into accord with your personal relationship to God.

For those who have studied Indian philosophy, the resonances between Thomas’ soteriology and Indian models of liberation, such as those taught by the Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedanta schools, is immediately apparent. It is interesting to note that Thomas is believed by some traditions to have traveled to India, and an extant community of South Indian Christians traces their own lineage back to Thomas.

The extra-canonical Acts of Thomas describes his ministry and martyrdom in India. It begins with an episode in which Christ, after his resurrection, instructs Thomas to go to India to teach, and Thomas replies “How can I, who am a Hebrew, go forth and preach among the Indians?” (1) When he refuses to go, Christ sells Thomas into slavery to an Indian trader, who brings him home, and there his adventures begin.

I am not certain to account for the apparent significance of this Indian tradition claiming a lineage back to Thomas and the affinities the Gospel of Thomas shows with Indian philosophy. Thomas’ gospel is quite early – earlier than the Gospel of John – and if extraneous religious ideas were interpolated onto the gospel, one would expect that to occur at a relatively late date. The Acts of Thomas dates to the third century, for example. It’s a mystery to me, what is going on there.

In Part 1 of this series, we also looked at the doctrine of the Trinity and the unsuccessful attempt by the church to exclude female representations of divinity, which has everywhere been challenged by the Cult of Mary. It is worth noting that the early churches in the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt may have glorified or even deified the Virgin. The religious historian Jonathan P. Berkey notes that in the centuries before Muhammad, many Arabs appear to have interpreted the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary. In support of this reading, Berkey cites a Koranic verse in which Jesus denies being the Son of God (2):

And when God said, ‘O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
“Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God”?
[Jesus] said, “To Thee be
glory! It is not mine to
say what I have no right
to.” (3)

Berkey notes the proximity of Arabia to the Ionian colony of Ephesus, which, as we noted in Part One of this series, was a prominent center of goddess worship, and the site of a great temple dedicated to Artemis Ephesia. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE that Mary was affirmed to be “God-Bearer” (Theotokos).

It is also worth noting that the Christian church assimilated the iconography of Mary with the infant Christ from an ancient tradition in Egypt, depicting the goddess Isis and the baby Horus.

The religious imagination will not tolerate suppression of the divine feminine for long, and institutional attempts to eliminate it are constantly challenged by forceful, spontaneous attempts of the psyche to formulate symbols of this kind. Mary the God-Bearer lies within easy reach of Mary the Goddess-Mother, as the Koran and other evidence from the Middle Ages will corroborate. As a caveat, however, it should be borne in mind that the Western Church values Mary’s status as God-Bearer primarily in the light of what it says about Christ’s divinity, not for what it says about Mary.

The Problem of Christ’s Dual Nature, Both Human and Divine

Christ Enters Jerusalem (detail)
c. 14th century
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Continuing our evaluation of Christian doctrine, I would like to look at the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, as it was formulated in 451 CE at the Council of Chalcedon. It is my belief that this Council painted the church into an unenviable corner, insisting upon the literal truth of a doctrine that cannot be accepted as such.

By the time of this council, it had already been established at Nicea that Jesus Christ was the third persona of the Trinity. In addition to being the Logos, co-eterntal with the God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, he was also believed to be the human son of Mary.

According to church doctrine, Christ was incarnated, lived as a man, suffered death, and rose again, and this human death was vital for the atonement of human sins. The conceptual vocabulary of atonement in early theology was closely modeled on contemporaneous legal doctrines of atonement for transgression. Based on a tradition dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, which famously called for “an eye for an eye,” atonement for transgression required a penalty of the same type as the transgression. Only by dying a human death could Christ’s atonement redeem human life.

We are therefore left with a logical problem. The Nicene Creed proclaimed Christ to be of one essence with the Father; he is eternal, unchanging, and beyond suffering. But as Jesus, he was incarnate in the field of time, suffered, and died.

How does this work? Is the immortal Christ different from the human Jesus? Did Christ have two distinct natures that somehow coexisted in the person of Jesus?

These doctrinal questions may seem trivial, but in their own clumsy way they get at very deep questions about what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, and what they mean by their cardinal doctrines. I am not myself a Christian, but as a person who takes spiritual problems seriously, I think it is important to understand what is going on here. It is not only historically important, but it is necessary if one wishes to come to terms with the rich and ancient tradition of Christianity, and to see what it may have to offer to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Back to our two natures problem, then. Different people tried to respond to it in different ways. Nestorius, for example, argued that in Jesus there were two persons and two natures. And a school called the Monophysites believed that there was only one nature within Jesus – a single, unique nature.

Both of these positions were rejected by the orthodox church as heretical, and, as you might expect, these kinds of disagreements led quickly to political violence, arrests, depositions, and threats of war. So goes the history of the church.

The Council of Chalcedon was called to settle this dispute, and they arrived at the following definition of faith:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.

This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. (4)

They are of one substance but two natures? Joined in one person, without any division or separation? This is no answer to the question; it merely restates the problem.

Regular readers may recall that we recently looked at the nature of mysticism on Mesocosm, and we found that mystical symbols refer to a domain that lies beyond language and thought. Mystical symbols frequently invoke contradictory or paradoxical language to evoke a domain that lies beyond the reach of logic. Can we not simply accept the Council’s solution as a statement along these lines?

We cannot, for the mystical symbol is a symbol, that refers to a reality outside of itself. The Council’s formulation, on the other hand, insists on a literal reading of the symbol. It does not only assert a paradoxical formulation of Christ’s nature, but also insists that we take it as a factual description.

In my opinion, this represents the worst tendency in western theology: it takes itself too seriously, too literally. A study of Buddhist logic, by contrast, offers a deeply refreshing alternative – problems of this type are built in from the ground up. I may return to this topic in a later post.

For now, suffice to say that the language of spiritual symbols is the language of poetry, not science or history. You cannot pin down what religious symbols “really mean,” certainly not by applying metaphysical distinctions such as substance versus nature. One is reminded of Molière’s doctor, who, when asked how it was the medicine puts people to sleep, replied “by virtue of its dormative faculty.” As Nietzsche remarked, such answers belong in comedy.

I will suggest a alternative reading that distinguishes between Jesus the person, and Christ the symbol.

With respect to the literal, historical truth, the evidence strongly indicates that a man named Jesus taught in Galilee during the time of Pontius Pilate, and he was executed for sedition. His ministry was probably something along the lines of the teaching we get in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – an eschatological teaching of the Essene variety.

That is, his primary message was probably something along the lines of “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2). Like many Jewish teachers in Judea in his day, he appears to have believed that a literal end of history was coming soon, and that the dead would experience bodily resurrection right here on earth, similar to the teaching of the Zoroaster.

In the meantime, before the end of days, Jesus appears to have affirmed the Old Testament injunctions to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” (Deut 6:5) and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Lev 19:18).

White Crucifixion (detail)
Marc Chagall
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Now, sometime after the death of Jesus, certain of his followers began to hold the story of his death and resurrection as primary. John and Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection signified atonement for all who would choose to believe in him. This is a completely different teaching that is virtually undetectable in the earlier gospels.

The message of redemption through belief in the resurrection of a God was by no means new. Countless regional variations of this mystery had existed throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, including the cults of Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus. Important elements of this aspect of Christianity are demonstrably drawn from the Demeter rites at Eleusis as well, along with the cults of Isis, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

When we evoke the possibility of redemption through the spiritual affirmation of the resurrection of a dying God, we are talking about a religious symbol of great antiquity and wide distribution. As rational people, we simply must look at the abundance of cognate symbols in the region, and make some kind of sense of what that implies for the nature of the story of the Gospels.

This is not to say that the religious symbol of Christ is not important or powerful – on the contrary, its wide distribution is testimony to the degree to which it is valued by those to whom it speaks. But the fact of the matter is that Christ, taken as the third persona of a triune Deity, is a symbol. The person Jesus is not the same as thing as the Son of Man, attendant upon the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14), and he is not the same kind of thing. To try to interpret the symbol as a fact is to miss its meaning.

What, then, is its meaning?

I would personally submit that the ultimate meaning of the Christ symbol, as with any religious symbol, consists in the living response that it evokes in the human heart, whatever that might be.

In the next post in this series, we will look at Christ as a religious symbol in the context of another place where orthodox doctrine in the Western Christian Church really missed the boat – the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin.

1) “The Acts of Thomas.” fr Barnstone W. The Other Bible. HarperCollins. 1984. p. 465
2) Berkey JP. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge University Press. 2033. pp. 45-6
3) Arberry AJ. (trans.) The Koran Interpreted; A Translation. Touchstone Books. 1955. 5.115. pg. 147
4) Gonzalez JL. The Story of Christianity; Volume I. HarperCollins. 2010. pg. 301

Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

Ah, Robin

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A madrigal by William Cornysh, performed by the Tallis Scholars.

Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,
Tell me how thy leman* doth
and thou shalt know of mine.

    My lady is unkind I wis,
    Alack why is she so?
    She lov’th another better than me,
    and yet she will say no.

Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,
Tell me how thy leman doth
and thou shalt know of mine.

    I cannot think such doubleness
    for I find women true,
    In faith my lady lov’th me well
    she will change for no new.

Ah, Robin, gentle, Robin,
Tell me how thy leman doth
and thou shalt know of mine.

*leman = sweetheart

Written by Mesocosm

March 24, 2012 at 9:40 am

Posted in Ephemera, Music

Tagged with , ,

Early Indian Religious History: Severe Problems of Chronology

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I’ve been reading Geoffrey Samuel’s outstanding book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, and I’ve been astonished by his criticisms of scholarly chronologies of the Indian subcontinent prior to 300 CE. Samuel observes that “a series of conjectural datings adopted as working hypotheses by the great nineteenth-century Indologists and Buddhologists had become a kind of received doctrine. It is now clear that many of the details are wrong and that the scheme as a whole is quite shaky and problematic….” (pg 12).

This amplifies the uneasiness I feel when I encounter historical dates for early India without rationale, with the authors frequently referring to “scholarly consensus” in a vague sort of way.

I knew the chronology was conjectural, but I am startled by how bad the situation actually is. “For the whole of the first millennium BCE there is only one reliable fix point,” he writes, “the invasion of Alexander in 329 to 325 BCE, which coincided with the rise to power of Candragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire. Everything else – the datings for Aśoka (including the dates of the Aśokan inscriptions), the Buddha, Mahāvīra, the Upaniṣads and the guesstimates for the Vedic texts – is inference and guesswork on the basis of this one figure.” (pg. 22)

Samuel G. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Cambridge University Press. 2008.

Written by Mesocosm

March 19, 2012 at 8:46 am

Posted in Ephemera, History

Gmail’s Redesign is Stupid: A Rant with Pictures

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Gmail recently overhauled its interface, replacing all those pesky words like “delete” and “archive” that used to clutter up the interface with a collection of tasteful, inscrutable icons.

I know that inscrutable icons are all the rage these days, but really – this is where Product Managers need to step in and rein in their design team. No one likes inscrutable icons except Design People. You may know one – they’re the people who keep a copy of Taschen’s Big Book of Fonts on their coffee tables.

Compare these actual Gmail icons, and please tell me, which means “expand this thread” and which means “archive this thread”?

One of the following icons means “go back,” and one of them means “reply”:

Now, I haven’t been to design school, but….

I’d like to give you a quiz. In the picture below, each inscrutable icon has been numbered – what do they do? Click the image for actual size.

The answers are in the first comment on this post. If anyone scores 100% correct, let me know and I’ll send you a pizza roll.

Written by Mesocosm

March 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

Posted in Rant

Tagged with ,

Religion and Mysticism

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Shiva Dakshinamurti
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

There exist, generally speaking, two basic postures with respect to spiritual phenomena. The religious attitude is oriented toward collective ritual participation in a shared set of symbols, with the primary aim of assimilating individuals into a system of sentiments, values, and prohibitions. The mystical attitude is concerned with the direct experience of a domain that lies beyond the ordinary realm of thoughts, values, and judgments. It does not pertain to particular things, but to being itself.

It is an empirical fact that religious symbols vary widely from culture to culture. Their transmission can be tracked historically, and in each society in which they appear, they are interpreted in the light of that society’s priorities and values.

To take one example, compare the goddess Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, Venus in Rome, and the Blessed Virgin in the Christian church. These figures are variations on the same motif, sharing associations with the morning star, the lion, the dove, love, and war. Each is the mother or consort of a lunar god who dies and lives again; Inanna is paired with Damuzi, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris, Venus with Adonis, the Virgin with Christ. (In what sense is Christ a moon god? one might ask. But note how long he rested under the earth before returning to life.)

The historical transmission of this goddess is well-known – she spread with the technologies of the city, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, and large-scale irrigation agriculture, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and then throughout the Mediterranean. The basic structure of the symbol remained intact, but the personality of the goddesses changed substantially, reflecting the values of each societies into which she passed. For the earthy and prelapsarian Sumerians, Inanna is sexually voracious, associated with ritual prostitution and the seduction of heroes, while the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite tendency.

This example illustrates a general principle found in the comparative study of religions, that religious symbols have a particular valence and belong to the sphere of moral valuation represented by the local group. They represent specific attributes, which are determinate – they are either this, or that. An affirmation of the religious symbol therefore become an affirmation of the group and its collective values, and participation in religious rituals brings one into alignment with the group. This social function of religious symbols may shed light on why this goddess spread with the newly-developed city and its new requirements for social adjustment.

Now, it is also an empirical fact that mystical experiences are universal in character, resembling one another throughout the world and lacking local inflection. The mystical attitude is not oriented to any particular things, but to the fact of Being in itself.

Mystical symbols differ fundamentally from religious symbols in that they refer to a domain that lies beyond the values of the social group in which they are expressed. They refer to an experience beyond language, beyond thought, beyond speech, and beyond belief. In opposition to the particularity of religious symbols, we can evoke the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, which says that the sacred ground of Being is “not this, not that”.

The Kena Upanishad evokes the transcendent mystery in its contemplation of the holy Brahman:

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods – that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not.”

He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge, he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond language. (1)

The symbols of mysticism either transcend dualities, or bring them together. Compare our Virgins and libidinous goddesses above with the goddess who speaks in the Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind, recently discovered in a manuscript dating to the fourth century CE in Nag Hammadi:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am (the mother) and the daughter.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a barren woman
who has many children…. (2)

Song of the Lark (detail)
Jules-Adolphe Breton

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.

In the mystical experience, the sense of an individual self or ego drops away, leaving an experience of union with an Absolute that is uncreated, eternal, peaceful, indescribable, and ultimately meaningful. The features of these experiences have been cataloged by many authors, such as William James in the “Mysticism” chapter of his marvelous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

People who report experiences of this sort are often transformed by them, and they may begin to act and think in reference to a mode of reality that is difficult for us ordinary monkeys to understand. There are many delightful iconoclasts in the mystical traditions of the world, who scoff at merely-religious symbols. Take this prayer by the Tibetan Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, which I have long prized:

I bow to the fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to gluttonous gomchens;
I bow to philanthropists with self-seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom with wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

An interesting example that may be closer to home for some readers is Job of the Old Testament. Through his trials, he comes to know a God who is beyond the sphere of human understanding and judgment in every sense. And note that the majority of the book contrasts Job’s experience of God’s unveiling with the religious perspective represented by his friends, who have come to comfort him. They remain convinced that Job must have done something to deserve the terrible things that befell him. That is, they can only interpret Job’s problems with respect to their own provincial ideas of justice and fairness. They represent the conventional religious wisdom as it is embodied by the group, and as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, they are totally wrong.

The great poet Rumi speaks in the Sufi symbolic language of being “drunk on the divine,” and in this poem he ultimately refers to his beloved companion and mentor, Shams:

I know nothing of that wine – I’m annihilated.
  I’ve gone too far into No-place to know where I am.
Sometimes I fall to the depths of an ocean,
  then I rise up again like the sun.
Sometimes I make a world pregnant,
  sometimes I give birth to a world of creation.
Like a parrot, my soul nibbles on sugar,
  then I become drunk and nibble the parrot.
I can’t be held by any place in the world,
  I know nothing but that placeless Friend.
I’m a drunken rascal, totally mad –
  among all the rascals, I make the most noise.
You say to me, “why don’t you come to yourself?”
  You show me myself, I’ll come to it.
The shadow of the Phoenix has caressed me so much
  that you’d say I’m the Phoenix, he’s the shadow.
I saw beauty drunk, and it kept saying,
  “I’m affliction, I’m affliction, I’m affliction.”
A hundred souls answered it from every direction –
  “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours!
You are the light that kept on saying to Moses,
  “I’m God, I’m God, I’m God.”
I said: “Shams of Tabriz, who are you?”
  He said: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.” (3)

The words of many masters are echoed in this poem. “You show me myself, I’ll come to it,” reminds me of Bodhidharma’s admonition to his student Hui-k’o “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

Or you might think of the great Sufi master Mansur al-Hallaj, who executed before Rumi’s time for saying “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”

Or you might hear echoes of the goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind, speaking in Rumi’s voice, telling him, and you, and everyone: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.”

Not the you that you cherish and protect, but the you that you truly are.

(1) Swami Prabhavananda, and Manchester F, trans. and ed. The Upanishads; Breath of the Eternal. New American Library. 1957. p. 31.
(2) Meyer M, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p. 372
(3) Chittick WC. Sufism; A Beginner’s Guide. Oneword Publications. 2000. p. 117

Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

Links Roundup: Beautiful Skies, Reburied Artifacts, and the End of the World

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The Guardian UK presents its ten favorite depictions of skies in paintings.

Early Christianity Elaine Pagels has a new book out on the Book of Revelation, which she reads in the context of extra-canonical accounts of the end-times. I’m ambivalent about her writing, which usually present an apologetic and sanitized form of Gnosticism, stripping the movement of the grotesqueries which are often its most interesting features. Her book The Gnostic Gospels, for example, completely lacks discussion of the Demiurge, Archon, or Ialdabaoth.

The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her new book:

Biblical archaeologists working in Jerusalem have uncovered what they believe to be an extremely early first century Christian tomb, on the basis of what I find to be tenuous evidence. Their work is linked to the interesting Jesus tomb controversy. Their field report (PDF) is worth scanning in part because of its fascinating descriptions of the problems of conducting field work in Jerusalem. Their work was disrupted by “ultra-orthodox” protesters several times, who on one occasion drove the archaeologists from the site and replaced artifacts back in the tombs.

Speaking of re-burying artifacts….

A host of artifacts were uncovered recently in the Greek city of Thessaloniki during subway construction, including an early Christian basilica. In a sign of the times, archaeologists are forced to discontinue excavation due to a lack of funds, and are reburying material to entrust them to future generations.

This LED puts out more power than it consumes. Balderdash! you say? Nay! This little fellow is Second-Law-of-Thermodynamics-compliant – it absorbs heat from its environment.

Finally, the Village Voice has written a damning article on the NYPD’s malignant attempts to destroy a whistleblower from their ranks, who presented evidence that officers in his precinct were routinely ordered to ignore serious crimes in an attempt to “massage the statistics.” When he came forward, the NYPD went after him, going so far as to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital for six days.

Written by Mesocosm

March 14, 2012 at 7:47 am

Posted in Ephemera, Links

Rādhā and Krishna: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda

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Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa

As saffron-bright bodies
Of women rushing to meet lovers
Streak the night
With clusters of light,
Night spreads darkness as dense
As tamāla leaves,
Making a touchstone
To test the gold of love.
– Jayadeva

Once upon a time, the great god Vishnu took human form to walk the earth, and he was called Krishna. There has never been a more beautiful child beneath the stars, with skin the blue of the midnight sky, and eyes that flash like lightening. His voice could be as melodious as a flute, or as terrible as thunder rolling over the hills.

The Purānas tells us that in his youth, Krishna was a simple cowherd. Because of his vitality and great beauty, he drew all the lovely cowherd women to him, as bees are drawn to mango flowers in spring.

One day as Krishna sat beside the waters in a rain that drenched both heaven and earth, a vision appeared before him, more beautiful than the rising sun. It was Rādhā, whose face, the stories say, robbed the harvest moon of splendor.

Krishna loved her with the fierce passion of his immortal heart, and when they joined together, flowers rained from the sky, and all the celestial Apsara nymphs danced like stars turning in great wheels.

Krishna said to his beloved “You are dearer to me than my love, comely Rādhā. As I am, so are you, there is no difference between us. Just as there is whiteness in milk, and heat in fire, and fragrance in the earth, so am I in you always. A potter cannot make a pot without clay, nor a goldsmith an earring without gold. Likewise, I cannot create without you, for you are the soil of creation, and I, invincible, the seed. Come and lie with me, good woman, take me to your breast; you are my beauty, as an ornament is to my body.” (1)

So Rādhā and Krishna are one, and in the act of creation, Vishnu creates through her, and as a complementary pair they complete the totality of the sacred whole.

This is the stuff of the spectacular Hindu Purānas, written in the early first millennium CE during the golden age of Sanskrit poetics, the time of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the great poet Kālidāsa, whose play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” is a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare or Goethe.

From this rich legacy of story, the twelfth century poet Jayadeva composed his Gītagovinda, or Song of the Cowherd, which presents scenes from the courtship of Rādhā and Krishna in a series of songs. Given as we are in the Judeo-Christian tradition to associate divine love with the spiritual agape, and never with eros, it can be startling to contemplate consummating love’s ardor with God. Jayadeva’s verse gives flight to the imagination:

When he quickens all things
To create bliss in the world,
His soft black sinuous lotus limbs
Begin the festival of love
And beautiful cowherd girls wildly
Wind him in their bodies.
Friend, in spring young Hari plays
Like erotic mood incarnate. (2)

A major theme of Jayadeva’s work is Rādhā’s intense jealousy as Krishna’s eye strays to the other girls. She is irresistibly drawn to him, even as his philandering ways drive her to fury and despair:

Her house becomes a wild jungle,
Her band of loving friends a snare.
Sighs fan her burning pain
To flames that rage like forest fire.
Suffering your desertion,
She takes form as a whining doe
And turns Love into Death
Disguised as a tiger hunting prey. (3)

It is interesting to note that just as Jayadeva was composing his testimony to a sacred if unfaithful love, the Minnesingers and Troubadours were praising adultery throughout Europe, and Gottfried von Strassbourg (died c. 1210) was conceiving his great romance Tristan, which would exalt transgressive love as the heart’s highest sacrament. And, at this time, a the praise of love was resounding through the Islamic world, in the verse and philosophy of the Sufi masters Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273) and Ibn ʿArabī (1165-1240).

The prevailing moods of the Gītagovinda are union, love, passion, and delight, and its popularity is attested by the ubiquitous statuettes found of the holy couple across India to this day.

Jayadeva’s masterpiece has inspired countless performances of song and dance. It was only after I was well-acquainted with the Gita as a literary document that it occurred to me that they are intended to be sung. If you have a minute, I very much recommend listening to Gayathri Girish’s sumptuous recording of Song 21 of Gītagovinda in the YouTube video to the right.

Here is a translation of the first few stanzas of the song Girish brings to life, as rendered by Barbara Stoller Miller:

Revel in wild luxury on the sweet thicket floor!
Your laughing face begs ardently for his love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in a thick bed of red petals plucked as offerings!
Strings of pearls are quivering on your rounded breasts.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in bright retreat heaped with flowers!
Your tender body is flowering.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in the fragrant chill of gusting sandal-forest winds!
Your sensual singing captures the mood.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel where swarming bees drunk on honey buzz soft tones!
Your emotion is rich in the mood of love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world! (4)

(1) Dimmit C & van Buitenen J. A. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purānas. Temple University Press. 1978. p. 120
(2) Miller BS. Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. Columbia University Press. 1977. p. 77
(3) Miller, p. 88
(4) Miller, p. 118

Written by Mesocosm

March 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm