Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ontological argument, symbolism, etc., Part III

What I have been trying to get at in the previous two posts (Part I and Part II) is that the way we look at the relation of the symbol to God can be compared to the way that any phenomenon is looked at in relation to God.

In other words, where cause and effect relationships are debated, they are usually reduced to a kind of chicken-egg argument that can ultimately only be decided in favor of God.

Though this analysis of cause and effect will always be challenged (and often with good cause) by doubters, what we are trying to get at is the essence of the symbol, which will reveal something about the Godhead itself. This understanding of the essence of the symbol, intuited by believers, must nevertheless be purified by the Upanishadic process of śravaṇam, mananam and nididhyāsanam. That is the path to darśanam, direct seeing and understanding, sākṣātkāra.

If one asks, does the symbol not show, as the psychologists argue, something about material phenomena, especially the individual or collective psyche? The answer is that the multifarious meanings of a symbol simultaneously shed light on both, like the lamp on a door-ledge illuminates both inside and out (known as dehalī-dīpa-nyāya in Sanskrit).

Why should what it reveals about life not reveal something about Absolute Reality also? Does our conception of life not influence our ideas about reality and vice versa? And why should God Itself not contain the essence of all that is best about humanity? Isn’t that really what the God symbol is about? Isn’t this what the personalism of the Vaishnavas is supposed to lead us to?

To accept that the God symbol actually has something real to say about God, or that God communicates through symbols, or finally that God is not really distinct from these symbols, i.e., he is present in his symbols the way that Vaishnavas say God is present in his name or in his deity form, would be a significant admission from the agnostic.

On the other hand, for a Vaishnava to admit that the transcendent symbols of God also have something to say about us and the world is also significant, for it ties worldly phenomena to the divine in a way that appears to weaken any arguments about transcendence.

If, as it is sometimes held, Radha and Krishna’s loves are merely pointing to repressed sexual desires, or are a protest against the dominant sexual mores or in some other way reflect things about the Hindu sexuality of a particular historical period, or indeed about a particular sexual complex in the individual psyche, in other words, if it can be reduced to (i.e., it is nothing but) to that, then what is left for the believer? This is the objection.

Religious people naturally guard against such reductionism, but the inability to accept the validity of a symbolic interpretation of the gods, most especially the gods to which we are tied by faith and religious commitment, is a handicap to spiritual understanding rather than a sign of great niṣṭhā.

Even Vaishnava literalists always give a symbolic meaning to their Deities. What else is it when we say Krishna is Rasarāja or the transcendental Madana personified, or that “Radha is the personification of love” or Mahābhāva-svarūpinī?

Even saying that Krishna is God, or Mahaprabhu is God, are symbolic statements, since God Himself is a symbol of what is often a vague constellation of values, which may be quite culturally conditioned despite obligatory attempts to universalize them. Such efforts at universalization often end up banalizing the God-symbol, with cliches like “God is love,” etc. Nevertheless, without such an attempt to identify universal values, there could be no claim for any such God-ness of a God symbol; projecting culturally conditioned values would be a result of unconscious assumptions about their universality.

Take for example the multiple meanings ascribed to Radha. I posted comments a while back on the paper one of my students at McGill gave about Radha, in which she spoke of the evolution in ways of looking at Radha, from ordinary human to Supreme Goddess. Sharan Behari Goswami in his book on the sakhī-bhāva in Braj literature, also gives a resume of the different symbolic interpretations or vyākhyās of Radha, including both those given by secular and religious commentators. I will give the list here without much comment.
(1) Radha as ordinary woman, i.e., as a literary object of love.
(2) Radha as exemplary devotee of God. (See BhP 10.21.31)
(3) Radha as a metaphor for a particular celestial body (where Krishna is the moon, etc.)
(4) Radha as a metaphor for the kuṇḍalinī śakti (which is on abhisāra through the spinal chakras to reach Krishna in the thousand-petalled lotus in the cranium).
(5) Radha as an avatar of Shiva. (This is from a late upapurāṇa called the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa).
(6) Radha as a symbol of the Prakriti of Sankhya philosophy.
(7) Radha as a manifestation of the goddess of the Shaktas, i.e., Shakti or Durga. (The reference is to Sammohana-tantra, quoted in Jiva’s commentary to Brahma-saṁhitā.)
(8) Radha as supreme goddess, creator of this universe, i.e. Maya Shakti.
(9) Radha as Krishna (God)’s pleasure potency (hlādinī śakti).
(10) Radha as personification of the love principle (prema-tattva)
Some of these interpretations are trivial, some interesting; some come directly to the point. In my response to this student’s paper, I expressed the opinion that the more aiśvarya is ascribed to the deity, the further we really are away from its true meaning. It is, in fact, a means to cover its symbolic reality. It is as though the numinosity of the symbol is so brilliant that we cover our eyes to avoid it. This is what Jung meant when he said that the function of religion is often to help people avoid spiritual experience. When we put something on a pedestal and outside the purview of any rational critique, then we are effectively putting its symbolic and spiritual value into limbo.

When we remove the necessity of interpreting a symbol for fear of reducing its divinity, we are in fact removing the very source of its power. We are trying to insulate the symbol from analysis, when it is precisely the complete rational investigation of the symbol that uncovers the profound powers that lie within it.

This is what Jung meant when he said that “religion” insulates us from religious experience. In the first place, it depersonalizes it and communalizes it, making the group the arbiter of meaning and not the individual, leading to a kind of common denominator of meaning that exalts institutional values over the personal.

And this is why kaniṣṭha religion is tamasic; it neither allows for other, natural symbolic interpretations to enter the rigid ones that are institutionally permitted, nor does it allow one to discover global perspectives by which we can find a place for all human phenomena in the process of self and God-realization.

Symbolic interpretations are sometimes condemned in Vaishnava circles by the label "ādhyātmika interpretation," but what is really being objected to is reductionist interpretation. Even the Vaishnava commentators and present-day literalists do not hesitate to call Radha hlādinī śakti, prema-svarūpā, mahā-bhāva-svarūpiṇī as intimated above, even though these words all carry within them the force of interpretive meaning rather than pure mythological literalism. Radha’s meaning is that she incarnates love, and that bhakti is pleasing to God, etc.

But again, if we only look in one direction, we miss part of the point. The candle is lighting both inside and out. A metaphor is only as good as one of its parts. If there were no value in the human experience of love, there would be no point in apotheosizing a personification of the ideal manifestation of that experience. So the symbol of God most definitely has something to say about the human experience as well. Anyone who denies this is governed by the statement paśyann api na paśyati, “sees but does not see.”

Trying to exclude the sexual meaning of Radha-Krishna symbolism is like trying to stop water from flowing downhill.

If we only approach that symbolism from one limited point, or if we exclude other interpretations because they take us to places we are uncomfortable going, then we are better off with another God-symbol. But it is precisely the most sexual aspects of Radha Krishna lila that provide us with the thickest layers of force.

So, just to summarize: There is a complementarity between creation and divine reality, not an absolute distinction. God communicates to us through symbols that are intelligible because they are grounded in our experience. These symbols are multidimensional and inherently dialectic in nature, thus making them potentially infinitely rich sources of meaning. The process of understanding God is thus both cumulative and unending, and comes through direct experience of these symbols. This is both an intuitive and a rational process.

Part I
Part II


wayfarer said...

Ever heard of Feuerbach?

"The consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of man; the knowledge of God is the self-knowledge of man. Man’s notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself – the two are identical. What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love."


Anonymous said...

Okay now I get some of what you were trying to say.

Something happens called Direct Experience. Say it is sort of like an acid trip or an inner reality.

Then some people who have had an inner experience may wish to inform others. That's where it gets tricky.

I was just reading that in the past, anyone [seers/ sages/ rsis/ yogis] who had a mystical experience, when they described it, the stylistic convention of the times and the genre was to either leave out certain aspects of it and/or overly obscure it, or both.

The analogy given was like how a master chef will not give away all of his secret recipes.

Well in doing so, this is fertile ground for the people who are just bluffing that they had the experience. So based on the fact that they read about the experience and they need to make some money, and/or a new line of work, they say they had the experience also. And then add some stipulations like "you must do this and that" to have same experience also.

They add "exclusivity" contracts to the experience, like well bring me x and x amount of money and service then you also shall see it.

Still others had the experience and did not say anything.

Yet others had the experience but due to cultural filters when they try to explain the experience then it comes out "warped" due to their cultural and/or gender filters.

Yet others may have had the experience and wonder why people need to be so secretive about it? If it's a good thing why not just be direct and honest and straightforward about it?

The only guess is that if it was revealed to be an easy thing simply if you have the right brain wiring for it or not*, then some people will be out of a job.

*Dr Howard Gardner of Hardvard University has a Theory of Multiple Intelligences i.e. people who are highly gifted and talented in Intrapersonal Intelligence excel at praying, spacing out, meditating, etc. and all of the "goodies" of the fifth and sixth chakra that go along with it
such as hearing divine voices, seeing divine visions, etc.

Also: then once you have the experience, what do you do afterwards? That depends on your personality, the culture you are living in, and your material circumstances also [i.e. do you need to make money off it or not].

But now I get the part you are saying that the words are standing between people and the experience.
I agree with you about that.

However, unless you have had the experience yourself, it seems to me that you can't say with 100% certainty whose words/ scripture it is that is kanistha, can you?

Because you are only taking it on faith that whoever YOU are placing all of your bets on is describing the experience accurately and not warping it through his/her own lens filter of ethnicity, culture, and gender bias.

But as faith gets you to a certain point, perhaps that is why some seers say do not argue with others whose faith differs from yours.

Because perhaps is like the placebo effect in medicine: necessary to fix your faith SOMEWHERE to reach a certain point in consciousness and meditation.

Anonymous said...

maya is not shakti . maya means illusion which is asuriya shakthi and shakti is iswariya shakti which is from supreme soul which kills asuriya shakti