First City, Mythos, October 2007.
As one reads the Upanishads, ancient Hindu scriptures dated to 500 BC, one realizes they are constantly referring to two truths: a truth which changes and a truth which does not change. The existence of the one points to the existence of the other. In change we seek permanence. In restlessness we seek restfulness. In movement we seek stillness. In sound we seek silence.
That which changes is shakti (spelt with a lower case as this is a common noun referring to an idea), energy, taking various forms, which we perceive through the five senses and that we identify and evaluate using our intellect. These forms, names and evaluations enchant us, entrap us, delude us, stir our passions, make us happy and sad, hence the world of changing truths is often referred to as maya, the embodiment of delusion. Shakti and maya create prakriti or nature that is all around us. From nature comes life and the world that we experience. This world keeps changing. We struggle to control it, hold it still, make it permanent but we fail. For its essential nature is to transform.
That we experience shakti, makes us appreciate shiva (spelt with a lower case as this is a common noun), that which does not change — the still, the serene, the silent. That we experience the restlessness of maya, makes us realize there is atma, the soul, watching the dance of the enchantress. That we experience nature, prakriti, swallowing and spitting out life, makes us seek purusha, the silent witness to the games of life.
All these fantastic and esoteric concepts could have remained exclusively with the sages. But somehow this wisdom has managed to reach the common man through the ages. In India, one can discuss concepts such as atma and maya and shakti and shiva with the humblest and simplest of people. How did they get to know the truths that, we are told, revealed themselves to the most wisest of sages and most elevated of seers? How did this knowledge transmit itself through the history and geography of India so that even without formal training almost all Indians (not just Hindus, and not just those who are religious or spiritual) are familiar with, in some measure, with ideas such as impermanence of life and the permanence of the soul? To answer this question one just has to observe and analyze the symbols and rituals which permeate the length and breadth of this land. And one will discover that these images and ceremonies are actually vehicles of ideas that were captured over 2500 years ago in the court of King Janaka.
The idea of the unchanging truth and the changing truth has manifested itself using plant, animal, mineral, geometrical and human symbols.
All plants grow and change over time but some more than others. At one extreme is the Banyan tree. It has a long life and while it provides shade it does not feed human beings. At the other extreme is grass and grain — these have a very short life, they provide no shade but they provide food. The former represents the unchanging truth — it gives us spiritual shade when life becomes unbearable but it is unable to create or sustain life. For that one needs the changing truth, with transformation comes life and with life comes food. Food sustains life and life sustains food. But while food can feed the flesh and nourish it, it fails to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the head and the heart which craves stability and permanence. In Hindu rituals related to childbirth and marriage, one finds the a lot of importance being given to grain and grass. But there is no sign of the Banyan tree or even a Banyan leaf. The Banyan tree is auspicious and associated with hermits but neither the Banyan tree nor the celibate hermit has anything to do with household rituals which are based on food and fertility.
In the animal kingdom, the idea of the still spiritual soul and the moving material world is best represented through the Cobra. All animals move but only a Cobra can be differentiated when it is moving and when it is still. When still, a Cobra coils itself and raises its hood. But in order to copulate, both the male and the female have to constantly move. Thus a hooded cobra — associated with the meditating Shiva (spelt with an upper case as this is a proper noun referring to a form of God) or the seated Vishnu — represents the unchanging otherworldly truth while a pair of copulating serpents is a fertility symbol associated with the changing worldly truth. Shiva is often shown holding a deer on the tips of his fingers. Deer is a naturally restless creature. On the tips of Shiva’s (God’s) fingers, it calms down. Likewise, the curious and oversexed monkey when still and celibate becomes the powerful monkey-god, Hanuman, with the power to raise mountains.
In the mineral world, the best way to represent stillness is using ash and snow. Ash is created when all things are destroyed but in itself cannot be further destroyed. Thus it represents permanence — the unchanging truth, the soul. Snow is still water. Both ash and snow are associated with the hermit Shiva who sits still on the Himalayas. If snow is still water then the river is flowing water. Flowing water best represents the changing truth, the impermanent world. One can never step into the same river twice, as the wise say, for she is always changing. Shiva stills the flowing river-nymph Ganga in the locks of his hair because she has the power to overwhelm the world (the mind?) with her flow.
In geometry, triangles are used to represent stillness and movement. An upward pointing triangle is more stable than the downward pointing triangle. Thus the former is used to represent stillness and the latter is used to represent movement.
Amongst colors, white is the color of stillness because it reflects back all the colors of the spectrum. Black is the color of movement because it absorbs all colors. Red is the color of potential energy while green is the color of realized energy because the earth is red before the rain when it holds the seed and green after the rain when the seed bursts forth into life.
In space, the Pole Star is still. Hence the northern direction came to be associated with stillness and wisdom and immortality while the southern direction came to be associated with change and hence death. In Vaastu, Yama, the god of death, is ruler of the south. It is the inauspicious direction representing change hence pain. To the north is Kubera, god of growth and wealth.
In the body, the left side represents change because even when we are still, the heart keeps beating against the chest. The right side by contrast is still thus representing the soul. Since change is undesirable, the left side became the inauspicious part. This made the right hand the auspicious part of the body.
Amongst humans, the celibate hermit represents the still soul while the dancing nymph represents the moving world. The two are constantly in conflict. Yet only when the hermit and nymph unite is life created. Thus life is a mix of the changing and unchanging truth. When a god marries a goddess it is a narrative expression of the union of the unchanging truth (Shiva, Vishnu) marrying the changing truth (Shakti, Lakshmi). Stories of Radha and Krishna, Sita and Ram, are at one level narrative expressions of the interactions between the unchanging truth and changing truth, the divine within and the divine without.
One may ask, why is a woman used to represent the changing truth? Why is shakti, maya and prakriti addressed in the feminine? Perhaps this is because like nature or prakriti, women create life inside their bodies. Men or purusha create life outside their bodies hence the male biology came to represent the soul. For the sages, the soul was as important as the flesh, the unchanging and changing truths validated each other. Later, perhaps with the rise of monastic ideas, when the hermit was seen as being superior to the householder, the soul became superior to the flesh and the unchanging truth became more valued than the changing truth. Consequently, the most popular symbol of the unchanging truth — man — became superior to the most popular symbol of the changing truth — woman. Alternatively, as society became more patriarchal, man saw himself as greater than woman, thus male symbols and ideas they embodied (spirit, soul, permanence) became greater than female symbols and ideas they embodied (matter, fertility, worldliness, change).
While there are temples dedicated only to gods or only to goddesses, most critical temples are the ones where the deity is enshrined with his or her consort. There can be no Ram without Sita, no Vishnu without Lakshmi, no Shankara without Gauri. What is the message here? Not gender equality — a very modern pedestrian interpretation — but that deeper, more profound, more human, message discovered by the Upanishadic sages — life will always be a mixture of stillness and movement, silence and noise, soul and flesh, spirit and substance. The unchanging divinity within and the ever-transforming divinity around.