Religion and Mysticism
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)
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