Monday, July 6, 2015

The Gospel of Thomas and the Divine Twin

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Why was an entire "library" of ancient texts carefully sealed in a large storage jar at the base of the steep cliffs of the massif known today as the Jabal al-Tarif, along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt not far from the ancient city of Thebes, sometime during the second half of what we label today as the fourth century AD (the fourth century being the years in the 300s, since the first century AD are the years with numbers below 100, causing all the subsequent centuries to be "one higher" than the year-numbers, which is why the years in the 1900s were the "twentieth century")?

What would be the purpose of carefully sealing an upside-down bowl over the top of the large jar containing these texts, and burying them some distance from the city, underneath the talus at the base of the cliffs?

What was so important about the texts that someone would want to bury them? Were they worried about the texts being stolen? Or was there some other reason?

After this ancient jar was rediscovered in the 1940s (more details about that, along with some maps showing the location of the discovery, are in this previous post), and scholars began to decipher the ancient manuscripts, one possible reason these texts were buried began to suggest itself: these were ancient texts that were not included on the lists of approved writings that church authorities began to publish in the second half of that same fourth century -- and texts that did not make it onto the list of approve writings were no longer safe to have in one's possession (often texts excluded from the approved list were specifically denounced as heretical and spurious by the authorities).

Thus, it is quite possible that someone or some group who personally treasured these texts and their teachings, but did not feel it was safe to keep them in their immediate possession as the pressure against "heretical" texts ratcheted up during the second half of the fourth century, took them up the Nile to the cliffs away from the city and buried them there, fully intending to come back to them at some point in the future.

Apparently they never got the opportunity to go back.

These ancient texts, along with some others that have come to light in more recent discoveries, as well as a very few other fragments and manuscripts that had been found or preserved prior to those found in the jar at the Nag Hammadi, suggest to some researchers a very different history of the early centuries of the Christian church than has traditionally been taught. Some of the evidence can be interpreted as indicating that early teachings very different from what we today think of as "Christian teaching" were forcibly suppressed and driven underground (literally driven "under ground" in the case of the texts buried at Nag Hammadi) during the second, third, and especially fourth centuries, and replaced by an "approved list" of texts and teachings, which were to be interpreted from a primarily literalist perspective. 

In the next few posts, let's briefly examine a few of the ancient texts that were pretty much lost to history for nearly 1,600 years, surviving (as far as we know) only inside that sealed jar buried under the earth beneath the cliffs of Nag Hammadi and safely out of the way for the spread of literalist teachings until that jar was unearthed again in the twentieth century.

When we do so, we will find some teachings which seem to strongly resonate with some of the themes we have been examining recently in our examination of some of the "Star Myths" in the Mahabharata of ancient India, and in the Bhagavad Gita that is part of the Mahabharata. In fact, we will find teachings in some of those long-buried Nag Hammadi texts that I believe have clear affinity with much that is found in the ancient wisdom preserved in myth and sacred stories literally around the world -- and indeed, that is even found in the texts of what we think of today as the Bible (the texts that did make it onto those approved lists), but which are more evident in those Biblical texts when they are understood as esoteric allegory rather than as literal accounts.

Previous posts have presented evidence that the stories of the Bible were not intended to be understood as literal history but as esoteric allegory, and that forcing a literal reading onto them has resulted in an interpretation that is pretty much the polar opposite of their intended teaching -- see, for example, this discussion of the Easter cycle, or this discussion of the specific parts of the Easter cycle between the Triumphal Entry and the Betrayal, or this discussion of the Judgment of Solomon.

The entire "library" of texts that have survived from the discovery of that jar at Nag Hammadi (apparently, not all of the texts found in the jar survived, because when they were first found a few of the texts were actually burned as fuel for a cooking fire, according to stories surrounding the discovery) can be found online here, as well as in print form in various translations and collections (such as this collection edited by Nag Hammadi scholar and translator Marvin Meyer).

Out of that collection, we'll just look at a few passages from a couple of texts over the next few days or weeks. However, those interested in learning more can go straight to the Nag Hammadi texts themselves -- although the passages often appear cryptic at first, sometimes quite strange and alien, and even downright off-putting, remember that they are intended to be understood (I believe) as esoteric allegory and that as such they are intended to convey spiritual truths which our literal or rational mind would "choke on" or reject, but which can often be best absorbed through powerful stories or metaphors.

Remember also that these texts were considered precious enough by someone living in ancient times to bury them, possibly at some risk to themselves, because they couldn't bear to see them destroyed -- and remember as well that the teachings in these texts was apparently considered so dangerous by those trying to spread a different system that these specific texts were literally unavailable after a certain point; they were completely or nearly completely eradicated. 

And, it should be noted, these texts were not marginal or unimportant texts: some of them (such as the one we will discuss in a moment) were mentioned quite often by ancient authors (including literalist Christian authorities, who were denouncing the texts), and so their titles were know to modern scholars even though -- until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library -- their contents could not be consulted (except, in a few very limited cases, in a few fragments that survived, including in one case fragments which survived in a rubbish heap).

One of the most well-known and important of the texts found in that long-buried jar from Nag Hammadi is the text known as The Gospel of Thomas, which introduces itself as a record of the "secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded" (this is the translation version found here, by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer; there are several other versions of English translations available and linked from that location, and it is interesting to read the different translations to try to get additional perspectives on the ancient text). 

This opening line itself offers us some extremely important insights, based on the name "Didymos Judas Thomas" -- the title "Didymos" or "Didymus" for Thomas is also found in the canonical gospel of John (in chapters 11, 20, and 21) and it means "Twin" (as does the name Thomas itself, apparently, but Didymos comes from the Greek word for "Twin" and Thomas comes from the Aramaic word for "Twin").   

Of course, a character specifically identified as a Twin might suggest a connection to the Twins of Gemini, to those who have become familiar with the patterns found in Star Myths around the world, and it is certainly possible that the Thomas character has some connection to the zodiac constellation of Gemini.

However, it is also quite possible that something even more interesting is at work here, something related to the previous discussion entitled "Why divinities can appear in an instant: The inner connection to the Infinite." That post argued that the ancient Star Myths are intended to convey the knowledge to us that even in this incarnate existence, we have inside of us a connection to the infinite: a connection to the divine, what is also described as the "hidden divine spark" or the "god within" (and see other related discussions on this very important subject, such as "Namaste and Amen," or any of the many previous posts about Osiris and the casting down and raising-up-again of the Djed).

How does the character of "Didymos Judas Thomas" convey a related message? The answer comes when we ask, "if Thomas is a twin, who is the other twin in the pair?" After all, that is a natural question to ask if we are reading a story and we are told that a character is a twin, but we are not immediately introduced to the other twin.

Interestingly enough, in another of the Nag Hammadi texts -- and in fact in a text which was bound up together with the Gospel of Thomas in the book-form or "codex" known to Nag Hammadi scholars as "Codex II" -- a text called The Book of Thomas the Contender, we get a startling answer as to who the other twin of Thomas might be (in the esoteric allegory).

In Section II of The Book of Thomas the Contender, which is called "Dialogue between Thomas and the Savior," we read these words in a sub-section regarding the subject of ignorance and self-knowledge:
The savior said, "Brother Thomas, while you have time in the world, listen to me and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind. Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself . . ."
Did this text just say that the Savior addressed Thomas as "my twin"?

Yes, that is what was asserted in this text. Now, if you are one who wants to interpret literally ancient texts about what the Savior said, then you are probably going to reject this text as being heretical. If you try to take this text literally, it will cause big problems with other texts, such as the scriptures describing the birth of the Savior (in which it is never said that he was born as one in a set of twins, for instance).

But, if you are not troubled with a need to force every ancient scripture into a literal mold, and if you believe that they were not intended to be understood that way, then you can ask yourself what this assertion that Thomas was the twin of the Savior might mean -- what it might have been intended to convey.

As you did so, you might remember that in other ancient mythologies, most notably perhaps in Greek myth, there are sets of twins in which one twin is divine or immortal, and the other twin is human and mortal. These Thomas narratives in the Nag Hammadi texts seem to be resorting to this same metaphor: we have a divine twin ("the living Jesus" as he is called in the opening line of the Gospel of Thomas, and "the Savior" as he is called in the Book of Thomas the Contender), and we have the mortal counterpart, the human twin: Thomas, the one who writes down the sayings for us, which he received from the divine twin.

Now, as we saw at the end of the preceding discussion regarding the "inner connection to the Infinite," there is a passage in the wisdom-book of Proverbs which declares "there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." As that post argued, and presented evidence from myth (particularly myths in which a god or divine being appears instantly, which also happens to be one of the characteristics of the risen Christ) this teaching may well be trying to convey to us the knowledge that our connection to the infinite, to the realm of the gods, is not external to us: it is within us already.

The metaphor of a divine twin and a human twin, such as the Gemini Twins in Greek mythology of Pollux (divine) and Castor (human), may well be referring to just such a concept or teaching. Expressing it in this way can convey this truth to us in a powerful, metaphorical, esoteric manner.

If that is the case, then what we see here in the Gospel of Thomas (and in the Book of Thomas the Contender) may well be conveying the very same truth, just in a slightly different form than it is found in (for example) the Greek myth of Pollux and Castor. In the Nag Hammadi texts mentioned here, Jesus is the divine twin and Thomas is the human twin, but they are not in fact two different entities. This is a teaching about the "Christ within" (which is a teaching also found in the writings of the apostle who called himself Paul, a name which the Reverend Robert Taylor points out is very much linguistically related to Pollux and to Apollo).

We are already, perhaps, getting a sense as to why these texts ended up buried in a large jar in a secret location, where the authorities who had declared such teachings to be "heretical" could not find them and destroy them.

There is much within the Gospel of Thomas itself to back up the interpretation that has been suggested above. In future posts we may have occasion to examine a few more of them, but for now let's just look at another metaphor, offered as a saying of Jesus, found in section 109 of the Gospel of Thomas.

There, in the translation of Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, Jesus says:
The (Father's) kingdom is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And [when] he died he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know about it either. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, [discovered] the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.
This is a very interesting metaphor, and one that suggests that the "treasure" of the infinite is buried away deep inside us like the treasure in the story that lies buried under a field, which can remain there our entire lives without our knowing it. But it is something which we actually already have, if we just knew.

The scriptures appear to be trying to break through our ignorance on this subject, to tell us that we already are connected to something that is actually inexpressible in its infinity (that cannot be quantified or defined or even named, as the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching declare, and that thus lies beyond all the quantifying and labeling and chattering of the part of us that we call our mind).

Thomas is telling us the words of Jesus, but perhaps "Thomas" received these sayings from a divine source that was not external to him (though none the less divine and none the less real for that). In fact, we should not think of the Gospel of Thomas as being about some "twin" who lived thousands of years ago: as Alvin Boyd Kuhn advised us in a passage quoted in several previous posts, we won't understand ancient texts unless we realize that they are about us. Each and every individual soul that incarnates in this world is, according to such a reading, like Thomas: a twin to a living infinite inner divinity, possessed of a friend that sticketh closer than any "external twin" (as close as literal twins are to one another, this twin is even closer).

This teaching is also portrayed in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, with Arjuna and his companion and divine charioteer, the Lord Krishna (as well as in the episode in which Durga appears before the battle: see videos here and here and additional discussion here).

These are not the messages that are traditionally drawn from the scriptures of the Bible when they are approached with a literalist hermeneutic (because literalist readings necessarily start off by seeing the characters in the text as primarily external to us, since those characters are understood to be literal-historical figures). But they are messages which resonate strongly with all the other myths and sacred traditions of the world -- and they are in fact the messages which I believe these texts were intended to convey to us, before something happened and that message was all but wiped out, around the period of time that the Nag Hammadi library was being sealed away.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

New! "Terrain map" to help navigate this site

I've just posted a new series of "subject-headings" over at a website called which I hope will provide a sort of "terrain map" or "table of contents" to assist visitors in navigating through the wide range of related and interconnected subjects explored in this blog.

As I explain in a section of that site entitled "Welcome and Thank You for Visiting," during the course of pursuing and writing about these inter-related topics since this blog's inception in April of 2011, the discussion has ranged over such a wide landscape that I felt the need to define some general "regions" or "ecosystems" within the overall terrain.

The subjects that I have selected as categories are not exhaustive, nor are they the only way to try to group the different aspects of the investigation, but I hope that they will prove to be a helpful way of organizing the material and serve to make it somewhat more accessible, especially to those who may be new to the conversation.

These subject-headings can be thought of somewhat like the "chapters" in a large online book: if you read through all the sections and follow some of the links found in each one, you should get a fairly comprehensive overview of many of the issues which I feel are profoundly important for each of us as individuals and as part of a larger community of human beings on a planet which we share with all the other beings in our connected universe.

Those chapters or subject headings, as they stand right now, include:

With these sections now broadly defined, visitors can choose to read through them in roughly that order, or to skip around from one to another at their leisure. Now that this new "overview" or "directory" site is up and running, that might be the best place to direct friends or family members who you think might be interested in exploring these topics.

It is my sincere wish that these writings and discussions will be a blessing to those who, like me, are seeking to know and to apply this ancient profound wisdom which was given to all of humanity as a precious inheritance.

Namaste _/\_

Friday, July 3, 2015

Why divinities can appear in an instant: The inner connection to the Infinite

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Why do the deities in the Mahabharata often appear instantly, upon the recitation of a mantra, the singing of a hymn, or even simply upon being remembered? 

I believe that this characteristic was included in the ancient scriptures in order to show us that we have access to the infinite at all times -- and indeed that in a very real sense we can and should avail ourselves of that access on a regular basis, in this life.

Many previous posts have explored the critically important assertion of Alvin Boyd Kuhn which is in many ways a key to our understanding of the ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories of humanity, in which Kuhn (addressing the stories of the Bible in particular) declares:
Bible stories are in no sense a record of what happened to a man or a people as historical occurrence. As such they would have little significance for mankind. They would be the experience of a people not ourselves, and would not bear a relation to our life. But they are a record, under pictorial forms, of that which is ever occurring as a reality of the present in all lives. They mean nothing as outward events; but they mean everything as picturizations of that which is our living experience at all times. The actors are not old kings, priests and warriors; the one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul. The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it! [For full quotation and source with links, see this previous post].
Now, what Kuhn asserts in the above paragraph is just as true for the world's other myths. Let's see how it applies to the specific aspect of the Mahabharata mentioned above (the ability to summon the gods and goddesses at a moment's notice). 

If we apply this paragraph directly to the Mahabharata, we can paraphrase some of these assertions as follows:
The episodes in the Mahabharata in which men or women are depicted as summoning powerful deities through the recitation of a mantra, the singing of a hymn of praise, or even by simply thinking upon that deity and wishing for him or her to appear, are in no sense a record of what happened to a man or woman long ago in a more magical (or imaginary time and place). As such, while they might be tremendously entertaining, they would have little significance for our lives today. They would be the (miraculous and extraordinary) experience of a people not ourselves, and would not bear a relation to our life. But these events are actually recorded in these myths to provide us with a vivid picture of something that is in fact a verifiable reality of a situation that is present in your life and in mine -- indeed, a reality in all lives. They mean nothing as outward events: the beautiful wives of Pandu, for instance, did not summon gods outwardly. Nor was Arjuna's invocation of the goddess Durga an outward event. These are picturizations of truths which are part of our living experience at all times. We indeed are in contact with those same mighty supernatural powers -- with Krishna and Durga and the heavenly Twins or Ashvins -- right at this present moment. The actors in these myths are not beautiful wives or powerful warriors: in every single episode, these actors are none other than the human soul possessed by each and every one of us. The Mahabharata (and all the other myths and scriptures and sacred stories) is a drama of our lives -- our lives right here, right now, in this modern life, in the city where you live, in the situations you experience -- and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself or herself to be the central figure, present in every single scene!
In the previous post, we discussed some of the unusual marriage activity recorded in the Mahabharat, in which the two wives of Pandu take five different divine gods to be the fathers of the five powerful sons who collectively become the heroes of the story, the Pandavas (a name which means descendants of Pandu). The summoning of the five different gods is done through the recitation of a mantra: immediately upon its recitation, the desired god appears. 

Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, as we saw, Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) recites a hymn of praise to the goddess Durga, at which the powerful goddess appears and blesses him, telling Arjuna that he will be victorious and that in fact it would be completely impossible for him to be defeated in the upcoming battle.

At other points in the epic poem, such as in Book I and section 3, the celestial Twins called the Ashvins are summoned by a disciple named Upamanyu, who has consumed some leaves of a tree that made him blind, causing him to stumble into a deep well, where he was trapped until he called upon the Ashvins for succor. 

And there is also a powerful sage or rishi named Vyasa or Vyasadeva who is the mythical author of the Mahabharata itself and who also appears as a character who weaves in and out of the various scenes, appearing when he is needed before retreating again to his contemplation and disciplines in the remote mountains. Vyasa also has the characteristic of being able to appear whenever he is thought upon: at his birth (recounted in Book I and section 63) he tells his mother "As soon as thou remembers me when occasion comes, I shall appear unto thee." 

What are we to make of these wondrous episodes in the Mahabharata, each one of which is surrounded by all kinds of memorable action and human drama? These depictions of the gods and goddesses  (and, in the case of Vyasa, this epic poet and bringer of inspired verse) appearing at an instant when a human man or woman concentrates upon them are not to be understood as outward events, in Kuhn's argument, but rather as an inward reality, as a depiction of our experience in the here and now.

If Kuhn is right, then what (oh what) could these specific episodes be depicting?

I believe the answer is hinted at in yet another earlier post exploring the powerful teaching contained in the Mahabharata -- an examination of the Bhagavad Gita, which is a section within the Mahabharata itself. There, we saw compelling evidence that the conversation between the semi-divine bowman Arjuna and his companion and divine charioteer, the Lord Krishna, relate to the "metaphor of the chariot" found in other ancient Sanskrit scriptures. 

In that metaphor, the chariot helps us understand aspects of our incarnate condition. The war-cart itself is our body, and the mighty horses which pull it are our senses and our desires (both of which can easily run completely out of control, and threaten to wreck the entire enterprise). The reins in the metaphor, we are told in another Sanskrit scripture, are our mind, through which the horses can be controlled.

But obviously, there must be someone or something else behind and above the reins in order to direct the chariot: behind and above "the mind" itself, that is. This concept of a someone or something else, standing apart from the mind and above it, was discussed in the first blog post of this series, entitled "Self, the senses, and the mind." This higher self is referred to by many names, among them the True Self, the Supreme Self, the Lord in the chariot, and (in the Sanskrit text cited for this metaphor) the Atman. In other cultures and other traditions there are many other names to refer to the same concept.

But in all cases we are dealing with a Higher Self who is in some sense and to some degree connected to the infinite and the ultimate. This is the infinite, the ultimate, the un-definable: the divine charioteer who is beyond the "chattering" and the "endless transforming" and the "labeling and defining and delineating" of the mind (and again, the mind is not a negative or bad tool, any more than the reins on the chariot are a bad tool -- it is an essential tool, but it is not the one who should be driving the chariot).

We get in contact with this infinite aspect by standing apart from our mind, our senses, and our desires (not by getting these to somehow "go away" or "stop" being what they are -- the horses on the chariot will not go away, nor will they turn into something other than horses -- but we can stand apart from and above them in order to see that we are not them and we do not have to go wherever they want to pull us, that in fact we can tell them where we want them to take us). 

Practices we have at our disposal for getting into contact with the infinite include mantras, chanting or singing of hymns, prayer, meditation, yoga, rhythmic drumming, and more.

The gods and goddesses in the stories show up quite suddenly and instantly because they are, in a very real sense, already there. We are already connected with them. This does not mean that they are simply "our imagination" or "not real" (as if our "imagination" is not connected to the very same vital flow of infinity that is completely unlimited in its potential and its power). As we see in Kuhn's quotation above, which is so valuable that we can and should return to it in analysis like this, just because the myths are depicting inner realities as outward events does not mean that they are not "real" if they do not take place in the outward space. These myths are dramatizing truths about our living experience at all times. You and I are in contact with Krishna and with Durga right now: if we do not realize it, that is only because we are allowing the chatter of our minds or the horses of our senses to keep us from connecting with the power of the unbounded, the undefined, and the infinite (unbounded aspects of which Krishna and Durga show themselves to be in the Mahabharata).

It is also noteworthy to point out that divinities who can appear at a moment's notice are also found in other esoteric mythologies and scriptures around the world. The Norse god Thor, for instance, was notable for being able to appear whenever his name was called by the other gods, in time of need (which they had to do on more than one occasion). The other gods usually had to call on him when they were being bested by a powerful jotun, and thus Thor usually appeared in a fighting rage (or, if he wasn't in a rage when he appeared, one glance at the menacing jotun usually caused Thor to go into battle mode).

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

But, it should be noted that Thor's ability to appear in an instant means that he, too, is somehow representative of that divine charioteer who is above mind and above even the physical world, and yet somehow available to us at all times, if we just learn how to direct our focus in the right direction.

It is also not inappropriate, I believe, to point out that the risen Christ in the stories of the New Testament also displays the ability to simply appear out of nowhere amongst the disciples, sometimes when they are least expecting him to do so. 

In the preceding post, which looked at the two wives of Pandu who used a mantra to call upon divine gods to appear, we also saw that the pattern of five husbands in the Mahabharata appears to have an echo in the New Testament episode of the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, who likewise is said to have had five husbands. In that encounter, the previous post points out that Jesus tells the woman that she can have everlasting water, living water, springing up unto everlasting life -- and that this living water is somehow "within." 

I believe that this again is a "pictorial form" (in Kuhn's words) of something that is in fact a "present reality" in the life of each and every human soul. This "picture" is one of an unbounded, an infinite, and a life-giving stream, available for the asking because it is already "within" us. We already have access to this living water, but we need someone to tell us that it is something that we can actually get in touch with. That is what the ancient myths and scriptures are there to do.

By his demonstrated ability to simply appear out of nowhere and disappear again at will, the risen Christ in the gospels would also, under this interpretation, be pointing us towards connecting with the infinite within ourselves. And this, according to some analysts, is exactly what Paul in his epistles declares to his listeners, using the strongest language possible in some cases:

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you [. . .]? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)

Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907) and others have argued that the writer who calls himself Paul is pointing his listeners to a spiritual truth, not an external flesh-and-blood individual. He is pointing them to what he elsewhere declares to be "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). 

This is not to say that Paul did not believe what he was talking about to be "real" or that he did not believe it to have life-altering power: on the contrary, the tenor of his letters indicates that he knew what he spoke of to be absolutely real, and absolutely earth-shaking in its ability to transform. Nowhere in the above discussion should anything be taken to indicate that the infinite, the ultimate, the un-limitable and truly un-bounded divine power -- which the Bhagavad Gita describes as the Lord Krishna and which the Hymn to Durga addresses as Kali, as Maha-Kali, as Uma, and as "Durga, who dwelleth in accessible regions," and as "identical with Brahman" -- is in any way not real

But, as the quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn tells us, these are not stories about ancient events that happened to someone else: these are aspects of our life, right here and right now. They are telling us about a divine aspect to which we have access right here and right now, and with which we are already internally connected in some mysterious way.

As the verse in the Old Testament wisdom-book of Proverbs tells us, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24). 

Even closer than a brother, because not external to us at all.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Glorious Jupiter and Venus, and the Five-Husband Pattern in the Mahabharata and John 4

image: Stellarium (

Observers of the night sky have for some time now been watching with great anticipation the steady approach of the planet Jupiter to dazzling Venus in the western sky during the hours after sunset. 

The two are now extremely close, just over one degree apart on June 28. As described in the always-helpful "This Week's Sky at a Glance," from Sky & Telescope, the two will be a mere 0.6 degrees apart on June 29, and reach their closest point on June 30 when they will close to 0.3 degrees before Jupiter passes on and continues on his way. (Note that these dates are based on the the date effective for an observer located in most of the western hemisphere and North America in particular, but if you are located in another part of the globe you should be able to easily find a site on the web that will tell you what the calendar date will be in your area when these passages take place).

In the image above, you can see Jupiter approaching Venus directly above the letter "W" that signifies the cardinal direction west. Jupiter is located higher in the sky and towards the "left" for an observer facing west in the northern hemisphere -- Jupiter has been approaching Venus from further east on the ecliptic path that both the planets generally follow: that is to say, from the direction of the star Regulus which is also marked on the diagram above and which is located in the zodiac constellation of Leo the Lion, the importance of which will be discussed a bit later.

It is not hard to imagine why the approach of one significant celestial body to another in this manner was frequently allegorized as a seduction or a sexual liaison in the world's mythologies. During the buildup to a previous "close approach" of Jupiter to Venus, back in 2012, I discussed the fact that Zeus (Jupiter) was described in ancient mythology as pursuing Aphrodite (Venus) but being rejected by her and not actually having direct sexual relations with her, and that this detail from the myths is no doubt derived from the fact that Jupiter always passes close to Venus but the two never actually conjoin in the sky.

One might wonder why Venus is very often depicted as a female goddess, while Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are depicted as male gods. I believe it has to do with the fact that as an interior planet -- with an orbit that is within the orbit of the earth, relative to the sun (Venus orbiting on a path closer to the sun than does the earth) -- an observer on earth must always look in the general direction of the sun in order to see Venus (if you are having trouble visualizing this, there are some outstanding diagrams on the excellent website of Nick Anthony Fiorenza, here, and some further discussion of the celestial mechanics of our observation of Venus in a previous blog post here).

What this means is that Venus will never be seen to be very far from either the western horizon that the sun has just disappeared beneath (when the sun sets and Venus is on the part of her orbit when she is seen in the west) or from the eastern horizon whence the sun is preparing to burst forth in the morning (when the sun is getting ready to rise and Venus is on the part of her orbit when she is seen in the east). In other words, Venus will always be "tethered" to the sun and thus will never be seen ranging across the middle of the sky at midnight: Venus will always be seen above either the western horizon or the eastern horizon, in fairly close company to the sun (currently, Venus is seen above the western horizon, after the sun sets).

On the other hand, the "outer planets" whose orbits are outside of the earth's orbit around the sun (they orbit at a distance from the sun greater than the distance of earth's orbit) can be seen to range across the entire night sky. They always follow the same general "track" of the ecliptic path ( the path that the sun also follows, as well as the moon, although the moon like the planets can deviate by a small number of degrees either above or below the ecliptic line that the sun follows), but along this track they can be seen across the entire width of the sky -- unlike the interior planets who are "tethered" to the sun.

This means that Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn can be seen crossing the middle of the sky at midnight, when an observer on earth is turned completely away from the sun. A planet in the middle of the sky at midnight can only be located outside the orbit of the earth (because an observer on earth looking into the center of the sky at midnight is looking out into the heavens in the opposite direction from the sun, which is on the other side of the earth at that time). So Venus can never be seen out in that direction (neither can Mercury, whose characteristics will be addressed in a moment).

Because of these mechanics, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn can all approach Venus from the center of the sky, as Jupiter is doing now, and when they do so, they resemble a man pursuing a woman, or advancing their cause with a woman to seek either marriage or an amorous liaison with her.

Of course we all know that it is also possible for a woman to pursue a man, and such pursuits are certainly portrayed in the ancient myths -- but when Jupiter is striding across the sky in a long, purposeful pursuit of the beautiful shining Venus, as he has been doing for some time now and getting closer every night, the ancients allegorized this behavior in mythology as the confident but amorous leader of the gods chasing after the goddess of beauty in order to have an affair with her.

As for Mercury, his orbit is even closer to the sun than that of Venus, and so he can only be seen under the same conditions that we see Venus, but "even more so." Tethered even more tightly to the sun, Mercury can only be observed above the eastern horizon just before the sun comes up, or above the western horizon just after the sun goes down, and the planet has an even more limited range above the horizon (and away from the sun) than does Venus. Thus, Mercury is usually seen being approached by Venus, rather than the other way around -- and so he is the one who is described in myth as being pursued by the love goddess.

Once we understand that it was very common for these close conjunctions of celestial bodies to be described in mythology as sexual affairs, we can perhaps unravel what seems to be a very important theme found in more than one myth across different cultures: the situation in which a woman is described as having five husbands.

In the Mahabharata, for instance, one of the two epic Sanskrit poems of ancient India (and which by itself is equal to about 7.2 times the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey), the five principle heroes of the story -- the Pandavas or "sons of Pandu" -- are actually the children of the two wives of Pandu but by five different gods or divinities.

Pandu's two wives are Kunti (also known as Pritha) and Madri. Because of an incident in which the glorious Pandu while out hunting thoughtlessly shot a stag while it was mating, which turned out to be no ordinary stag but rather a powerful rishi in the form of a stag, who before expiring told Pandu that he would meet his death the next time he approached one of his wives out of desire, Pandu took vows of strict austerity and abstinence. Therefore, in order to obtain children, Pandu instructed his wives to use a powerful mantra which could instantly summon the celestial powers, which they did.

Kunti first summoned the god of justice in his spiritual form, and from their union was born the eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira. After that, she used her mantra to cause to appear the god of wind in his spiritual form, and from their union was born the mighty Bhima, who is also known as Vrikodara. Then, a third time, she used the mantra, and this time summoned Sakra, the king of the gods, and from their union was born the great hero Arjuna.

Then, Kunti told Madri the secret of the mantra, who used it to summon the divine Twins, known as the Ashvins, and from their union Madri herself had twins, whose names were Nakula and Sahadeva. The description of the births of Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva can be found in Book I and sections 123 and 124.

Together, these five heroes were known as the Pandavas. The Mahabharata relates many stories of their adventures during their upbringing, and how they were versed in the Vedas and in all the martial arts as they grew up. Their tremendous prowess caused their cousins, the descendants of Pandu's brother Dhritarastra, to become very jealous of them, leading to intense rivalry and eventually to the battle of Kurukshetra, which forms some of the central action of the Mahabharata, the celestial and spiritual aspects of which have been discussed in the two preceding blog posts and accompanying videos: here and here (with videos here and here).

Interestingly enough, when the mighty archer Arjuna won the hand of Draupadi, the Princess of Panchala and the most beautiful woman in the world, in a heroic test of his prowess designed by her father to test her many suitors, she becomes the common wife of all five of the brothers!

This situation arises because as they returned to the hut where Kunti was waiting for them, and called out to Kunti to see what they had won, she said (before they came into her view): "Enjoy ye all what hath been obtained," which leads them to decide to all share Draupadi (she appears to be amenable to this situation) but which is so directly contrary to custom and to the directives found in Vedic scripture that it leads to several discussions with leading human figures and with gods about whether or not such an arrangement can be proper, before it is finally decided that it is not usual but it can be condoned in certain situations (see Book I and sections 193 and following -- note that the Roman numerals used in the online version of the Mahabharata linked here are incorrect in this instance: the second "L" should be a "C," according to my analysis of the chapters and my understanding of the system).

However, as with so many other events described in the ancient myths, scriptures, and sacred stories, this is a situation which I believe has a celestial foundation and in no way reflects something that we should interpret literally -- any more than we should interpret literally the Old Testament stories about the rash vow of the reluctant general Jephthah, or about the two she-bears summoned by the prophet Elisha to rend the youths who taunted him.

To understand why this situation of Draupadi marrying all five Pandava brothers is almost certainly a celestial myth and not mean to be understood literally, first consider the fact that it seems to mirror very closely the five different divine fathers of the Pandavas themselves (although with two different women, Kunti and Madri, rather than with a single woman). What is it about five different "husbands" in mythology?

While we ponder that question, readers who are familiar with the scriptures of the Bible may be asking themselves whether there could be any relationship between these "five-husband" situations in the Mahabharata and the famous episode described in the New Testament book of John, chapter 4. There, Jesus is described as going through a city of Samaria, and coming to Jacob's well, and being wearied with his journey sitting down to rest at the well, where he encounters a woman of Samaria, and asking her for drink.

During the course of the conversation, he tells her to call her husband, and she tells him she has no husband, whereupon Jesus replies:
Thou has well said, I have no husband:
For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly [John 4:17 - 18].
This passage has been the subject of much interpretation and debate amongst those who try to understand it as if it were describing a literal and historical event, but I believe that here again we are dealing with a celestial allegory. It is certainly remarkable to find a situation with five "husbands" in the New Testament scriptures which parallels so closely the "five-husband pattern" that we have just observed operating not once but twice in the stories contained in the Mahabharata of ancient India (which scholars believe to have been in existence in many of its central details by about 400 BC, and to  contain stories and episodes whose origin goes back many centuries earlier than that).

I believe that we can begin to unravel the celestial metaphor at work in these "five-husband" myths, based on the understanding of the pattern of sexual allegory observed in the approach of Jupiter to Venus with which we began this discussion, above, and which can also be seen operating in other ancient myths such as the Greek myth of the dalliance between Aphrodite and Ares described in the Odyssey, in which the rightful husband of Aphrodite, Hephaestus, springs a trap for his unfaithful wife -- and which the author's of Hamlet's Mill (basing their analysis on the work of previous researchers from the eighteenth century and even from ancient times) argue is an allegorization of a conjunction between the planets Venus and Jupiter in the vicinity of the Pleiades (which represent the shimmering net with which Hephaestus traps the adulterous couple).

Now, it is certainly possible to interpret the identity of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 as being associated with the zodiac constellation of Virgo -- and indeed, I believe the story contains clues to make an identification with Virgo in this particular story a correct connection, as we will see in a moment.

However, I believe that the part of the story of the woman at the well in which we learn that she has "five husbands" comes from somewhere other than the sign or constellation of Virgo.

Seeing that the woman in many ancient myths is often related somehow to the sign and the constellation of Virgo, we might first try to use that knowledge to find the origin of the multiple husbands. We might ask ourselves, how would an identification with Virgo explain this persistent pattern of "five husbands" which we have observed in both the Mahabharata and the John 4 episodes?

What could there be in the heavens that add up to the number five and that somehow pursue Virgo in a way that could be allegorized in this way? Well, we know that there are five visible planets which an observer on earth can easily see with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It could be that the "five husbands" represent the five visible planets, passing through the constellation Virgo at various times, and giving rise to these myths about one woman having five husbands -- but I do not believe that this is the correct interpretation, for a couple of reasons.

First, as we have already seen, out of the five visible planets, Venus and Mercury are "interior planets" and thus they stay closely "tethered" to the sun. Because of this fact, and because of the planet's brilliance and beauty in the sky, Venus is usually depicted as a female goddess, who is "pursued" by the outer planets. This would seem to disqualify Venus from being one of the "husbands" if we are trying to count the five visible planets as the five husbands.

More importantly, the interpretation of the "five-husband pattern" as being based upon the constellation Virgo being visited by the five different visible planets does not work very well as an interpretation of the myth of the birth of the five Pandavas by the two wives of Pandu, Kunti and Madri, because Madri is specifically described as calling upon the twin Ashvins using the mantra, and by union with these divine Twins she herself bears the twin Pandavas, Nakula and Sahadeva. The celestial Twins are associated not with two of the visible planets (none of which can really be described as a "twin" to any of the others), but rather with the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. Because the Twins of Gemini do not "make their way" across the sky to the constellation Virgo, it is likely that the solution to the "five-husband pattern" is something else.

I believe that in the case of the two wives of Pandu, Kunti and Madri, we are dealing with the two interior planets, Venus and Mercury -- with Kunti (the primary consort of Pandu) corresponding to Venus and Madri corresponding to Mercury. Additional evidence to support this interpretation is found in an episode related in Book I, section 125: after the birth of the five Pandavas, Pandu forgets his vows when he is overwhelmed by Madri's beauty as they are alone in a place of great natural beauty during the spring when all the trees are blossoming, and as he approaches her in his passion, he perishes because of the curse described above (from the time he shot the rishi, who had taken the shape of a stag).

Madri, stricken with grief, decides to immolate herself upon Pandu's funeral pyre. Again, I believe that this event is not to be taken literally, but rather that it describes quite well the behavior of the planet Mercury, which is very close to the sun and always seen near the sun (not far above the western horizon after sunset, or not far above the eastern horizon before the dawn). Mercury can only be seen by an observer on earth when its orbit takes it farthest out from the sun: during much of its orbit, Mercury is either in front of the sun or behind the sun, or too close to the sun on one side or the other to be seen by an observer from earth. To an observer on earth, Mercury is often "swallowed up" by the sun as its orbit takes it too close to the blazing orb to be seen by us.

I believe that in these myths, Pandu is the sun itself (and specifically the sun in the upper half of the zodiac wheel, as is Achilles in the Iliad), and his two wives Kunti and Madri are Venus and Mercury, respectively: the two planets closest to the sun, and always appearing in his close vicinity.

Who, then, can be the five husbands who become the divine fathers of the five Pandauvas? They cannot be the three remaining visible planets, which obviously do not add up to five, and who would not account for the fact that Madri has union with the divine Twins (and, as we have just observed with the planet Jupiter, its orbit does not bring it close enough to Venus to actually "consummate" the union: the two pass one another on either side of the ecliptic line).

The answer, I believe, lies in the detail of the Twins who are the divine progenitors of Nakula and Sahadeva: the five husbands are five bright stars along the ecliptic path, found in different zodiac constellations, whose location in the sky will cause them to pass close enough to Venus (or Mercury) to be envisioned as having a "sexual union" with them.

When one of the planets actually covers another celestial object (from the perspective of an observer on earth), this is known as "occultation" (similar to a solar eclipse, which uses the term "occultation" to describe the covering of the sun by the intervening moon). If Venus were to completely cover a bright first-magnitude star, for example, this would be referred to as "occulting" that star -- and it would create a situation that would allegorically resemble sexual union (even more than what will take place in the next few days between Jupiter and Venus).

It just so happens that there are three first-magnitude stars which are close enough to the path of the ecliptic to be occulted by the planets -- including by Venus. They are the stars

  • Regulus (in Leo the Lion, which is along the line created by Jupiter and Venus right now, and a little above and to the left of the two approaching planets, for observers in the northern hemisphere above the tropics), 
  • Antares (in the heart of the Scorpion), 
  • and Spica (the brightest star in Virgo).

I believe that these are the three celestial divinities who, in their spiritual forms, fathered the first three Pandavas by Kunti (producing Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna).

The other two bright stars in the zodiac close enough to the celestial equator to be contenders are in fact the two bright stars who form the heads of the Twins of Gemini: Pollux and Castor. However, they are not close enough to be occulted, although in the distant past it is likely that they were (due to the changing of the earth's obliquity over the millennia, and the motion of precession). In spite of the fact that they do not currently lie in a location that can allow them to be directly occulted, because the Mahabharata specifically states that Madri summoned the celestial Twins, it is almost certain that these two stars constitute the other two "husbands" and round out the five.

In the case of Draupadi, we no longer are dealing with "two wives of Pandu" but only "one wife of all five Pandauvas," and since she is described as being the most beautiful and the most dazzling woman on earth, she is almost certainly the brilliant planet Venus (Mercury is not part of this particular "five-husband metaphor"). But, she still takes as her husbands the three first-magnitude zodiac stars Regulus (probably Yudhishthira), Antares (probably Bhima) and Spica (probably Arjuna), plus the stars of the Twins: Pollux and Castor (Nakula and Sahadeva).

Here is a diagram of the night sky facing to the south for an observer in the northern hemisphere, showing Venus and Jupiter, as well as Regulus just to their "left" (or east of them), Pollux and Castor (to their "right" or west, not far from the glow of the sun which can be seen setting in the west), and further east the first-magnitude stars Spica and Antares:

Note that Spica and Antares are actually located "below" or south of the celestial equator, which is the "latitude line" of zero degrees that can be seen arcing between the letters "E" and "W" in the simulated celestial "globe" above. The "latitude line" (properly termed the "parallels of declination") above that celestial equator zero-line is the ten-degree parallel: stars located along it are said to have a "declination" of ten degrees north, or "plus-ten" degrees. The parallel of declination below (to the south) of the zero-line of the celestial equator is the minus-ten parallel. Stars along it have a declination of ten degrees south, or "minus-ten" degrees. Because the line of the ecliptic "yawns" above and below the celestial equator as we go throughout the year by as much as 23.4 degrees (due to the tilt of the earth's axial rotation, also called "the obliquity of the ecliptic"), the planets and the sun and moon (which basically follow the track of the ecliptic) can "occult" the stars north and south of the celestial equator.

Thus, it is my present belief that the "five-husband" pattern found in the Mahabharata and in the New Testament book of John with the Samaritan woman at the well can be understood as mythologizing the allegorical "unions" of the brilliant feminine planet Venus with the five stars Regulus, Antares, Spica, and the Twins of Gemini.

Trying to make sense of the Samaritan woman at the well when interpreted literally rather than celestially causes some difficulties, as the perceptive analysis here (from someone who believes the story was intended to describe a literal-historical event) points out. That analysis first discusses the textual clue of Jesus arriving at the well "at about the sixth hour" (John 4:6). He argues that this means the time corresponding to what we would call six in the evening, not twelve noon as other literalist interpreters have tried to argue as part of their thesis that the woman must have been an outcast (due to the community's rejection of her having had five husbands).

How could she have obtained five husbands, if she was supposedly rejected by the community, this interpreter asks? And why would the community have listened to her after her encounter with Jesus? And, most importantly, if the whole community rejected her because of her five husbands, then the fact must have been common knowledge, and the fact that Jesus told it to her would not have been all that surprising, and would certainly not have led to her realization that he was the Messiah!

These kinds of literal analyses, however, are probably missing the point of the story as celestial allegory. While I believe that the "five-husband" pattern found in this New Testament story is a feature of ancient myth (as evidenced by its existence in the Mahabharata, from many hundred years BC), I believe that the "sixth hour" reference in this passage specifically refers to the constellation Virgo.

As already discussed at some length in the video about the goddess Durga, and the reason that Arjuna is urged by Lord Krishna to utter his hymn to Durga upon "the eve of battle," the zodiac sign of Virgo is located at the very "gateway" to the lower half of the zodiac wheel: metaphorically the half of the wheel associated with incarnation, where we undergo the endless interaction and struggle between the realms of matter and spirit, and the half of the wheel allegorized as the underworld, as well as with the ocean (and with water, one of the two "lower elements," along with earth).

Hence, the "woman at the well" -- at the edge of the lower element of water -- would correspond nicely with the sign of Virgo: and the fact that Virgo is the SIXTH sign of the zodiac during the Age of Aries (as counted from Aries, the first sign after the "upward crossing" at the spring equinox, the beginning of the sacred year in many ancient cultures) makes the connection between the woman at the well and the zodiac sign of Virgo almost a certainty.

We are also told specifically in the New Testament passage that the Samaritan woman "left her water pot, and went her way into the city" in John 4:28. This is another detail which helps connect her with Virgo -- because right besides Virgo in the heavens is the sinuous form of Hydra, the Serpent, who carries on his back the constellations of Corvus the Crow (a bright little constellation very close to Virgo, and always staring at her brightest star Spica, in fact) and Crater the Cup -- which is also near to Virgo and which can certainly be said to resemble a "water pot," thus accounting for this detail in the text.

Now, the reader may be wondering at this point, "But what does all this mean?"

I believe, in fact, that the meaning of these Star Myths is quite profound, and that the message they are intended to convey is extremely helpful to us in our daily lives -- even extremely practical. Some aspects of that message are discussed in the previous posts and videos linked already (in the discussions of the Bhagavad Gita and of the Hymn to Durga, both found in the Mahabharata). See also the discussion and metaphor found in the post just prior to those, entitled "Self, the senses, and the mind."

Those previous discussions, of aspects of the Mahabharata, explained that these Star Myths may well be intended to convey the knowledge that we have access -- immediately and at all times -- to what we might call "the infinite" or "the absolute" or "the unbounded" (and which cannot in fact be defined, because the very act of "defining" something means to draw a boundary around it), and that this access to the infinite is found within us.

I believe that we can see this message being conveyed again in the mythical birth of each of the Pandavas, in which Kunti and Madri are depicted as uttering a powerful mantra which has the ability to immediately summon a divine celestial power. If reciting a mantra can summon divinity, and if that divinity actually appears immediately, then these are two clues to point us towards the possible conclusion that the divinity is actually within us, all along.

But we can also, I believe, see the same message being conveyed in the story of the woman at the well. There, Jesus says to the woman that if she would ask, he would have given her "living water." This water, he says, is such that whosoever drinketh of it shall never thirst: "but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (John 4:14).

Note that this water is described as being "everlasting" -- it is, in fact, infinite. It has no ending, and thus no "boundary" in at least one direction.

Secondly, note that the promised water is found "within" the one who is given it. The contact with the infinite, in other words, is somehow inside of us.

And, just like the story of Kunti and Madri, all we actually have to do in order to obtain this intimate union with the infinite, is ask.

When they ask, the divine powers appear immediately.

In the teaching of John chapter four, the infinite well of living water is obtained in a similar fashion: by simply asking -- because we are already in contact with the infinite.

Ultimately, these stories are not just there to entertain us: they have a very powerful message, and one that can actually transform our lives.

This gives us plenty to meditate upon, as we watch the beautiful near-conjunction of Venus and Jupiter taking place in the celestial realms this week.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Star Myths of the World: The Hymn to Durga in the Mahabharata

If the evidence presented in previous discussions for concluding that the Bhagavad Gita and the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata which contains the Gita was not enough to convince the most skeptical reader that these ancient scriptures are indeed Star Myths, built upon the same system of celestial metaphor that can be shown to form the basis of virtually all of the myths, scriptures and sacred stories around the world (see here for links to evidence found in myths from ancient Japan to the Maya, from Africa to Scandinavia, and from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as well as the myths of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt), the new video above examines another powerful and decisive piece of evidence from the Mahabharata: the episode prior to the great battle of Kurukshetra in which Lord Krishna urges the great warrior Arjuna to utter a hymn to Durga.

Entitled "Star Myths of the World: the Hymn to Durga in the Mahabharata," the video shows that this direction from Krishna to seek out the great goddess Durga helps confirm that the great battle in that ancient epic is indeed a metaphor for the endless interplay and "struggle" between the visible material world and the invisible world of spirit which is taking place in the universe around us and indeed within us at all times in this incarnate human existence.

There are abundant clues throughout the Mahabharata that the entire epic uses the endless cycles of the heavenly bodies -- the sun, the moon, the visible planets, and especially the stars -- to convey profound truths about the nature of our incarnation in this material plane, and about the existence and importance of the unseen realm.

Just as the Bhagavad Gita itself is presented as the song and counsel of the divine Lord Krishna to the semi-divine bowman Arjuna prior to descending into the great struggle, in the two sections of the Mahabharata immediately prior to the Bhagavad Gita we see Krishna telling Arjuna to utter his hymn to Durga -- and it can be conclusively shown that the goddess Durga is replete with imagery associated with the sign and constellation of Virgo the Virgin, the very sign which is located immediately prior to the autumnal or fall equinox on the great wheel of the zodiac: the point at which the sun's arc "crosses down" into the lower half of the year, towards the winter months and the December solstice, the half of the year in which darkness reigns and nights are longer than days, the half of the year associated with incarnation in this "lower world" of matter, when the soul clothes itself in bodies made of the lower elements of earth and water.

Thus the sign of Virgo (outlined in blue on the zodiac wheel shown below) truly does stand at the very "eve of battle" -- the final position before the plunge into the struggle of incarnate existence:

The goddess Durga, whom we can see to be associated with the sign and constellation of Virgo using the superabundant clues and references provided in the Hymn to Durga uttered by Arjuna at Krishna's request in Mahabharata Book 6 and Section 23, thus can be seen as preparing the soul for incarnation, sending the soul into battle, and (as we see in the events described in this section, in which Durga herself appears to Arjuna and gives him blessing and encouragement for the struggle) as the one who guides the soul along the difficult path and promises that the struggle will not be in vain.

More than that, however, the contents of the hymn identify the goddess Durga as "identical with Brahman," and the one who supports the Sun and the Moon and makes them shine: in other words, as the infinite and undifferentiated and eternal Cosmic Principle, the undefinable and the un-namable -- just as we see in the Bhagavad Gita the Lord Krishna declares himself (and reveals himself) to be.

And yet she is immediately available to Arjuna, and appears when he utters his hymn to the Goddess. This indicates that we, the human soul embarked upon this journey of incarnation, in actual fact are in the presence of the ultimate and the infinite at all times -- and that we have access to the supreme and undifferentiated and undefinable at all times as well.

And perhaps this is why at the end of the section describing the directive from Krishna to Arjuna to utter his hymn to Durga, and giving the contents of the hymn itself and the results (the appearance of Durga to Arjuna, and her promise to him that he shall conquer, that he is in fact invincible, and that he is incapable of being defeated by his foes), the text of the Mahabharata tells us to recite this same hymn every day, and to do so when we rise, "at dawn."

In doing so, we are focusing upon the infinite and connecting with the infinite: transcending the "chatter" of the mind and the senses (which are endlessly defining, and partitioning, and assessing, and evaluating -- all important and necessary functions, but functions that can keep us from being in contact with that undifferentiated and undefinable infinite which we in fact can and do have access to at all times and in all places, even in our incarnate situation).

By beginning each new day connecting with this ultimate principle, who is in fact always with us, the Mahabharata promises that we "can have no enemies," and "no fear," freedom from animals that attack with their teeth -- and "also from kings" -- victory in all disputes, freedom from all bonds, from thieves, and the enjoyment of victory in every struggle.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

For more on the importance of hymns and chanting of praise, see also:


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Star Myths of the World: The Bhagavad Gita

Here's a new video I made for you entitled "Star Myths of the World: The Bhagavad Gita."

The Bhagavad Gita is specific section of an ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, which -- on a literal level -- appears to be primarily concerned with a massive battle between two different branches of the same family, in much the same way that the Iliad of ancient Greece appears (on a literal level) to be primarily concerned with a massive battle between the Achaeans (or Danaans) and the Trojans of the windswept city of Ilium.

The Mahabharata is overflowing with human and divine characters and with adventures, battles, love scenes, and stories within stories. It consists of over 100,000 couplets of poetry, and because a "couplet" by definition is two lines of poetry, that means it has over 200,000 individual lines. For comparison, the Iliad has almost 15,700 lines and the Odyssey has just over 12,000 lines.

The Mahabharata is most particularly well known because it contains an extremely significant and beloved and revealing section known as the Bhagavad Gita -- "the Song of the Lord."

The Bhagavad Gita takes place in the overall epic of the Mahabharata as two great armies are drawn up for battle upon the sacred plain of Kurukshetra, and between these two armies (the Pandava, descended from Pandu, and the Kaurava, descended from Kuru), the great bowman Arjuna and his divine charioteer, who is none other than the Lord Krishna himself, ride out to have a discourse on the meaning of life, dharma, karma, incarnation, reincarnation, consciousness and enlightenment.

Arjuna is one of the leaders of the Pandava, but he is suddenly having second thoughts about the battle, because he knows that many of his close kin including cousins, uncles, and teachers are on the other side, and he expresses the belief that it would be better for him to throw aside his bow and arrows and allow himself to be killed, rather than participate in such a war.

Krishna responds by telling Arjuna that the right thing to do is for Arjuna to do his duty, engage in the struggle, act according to what is right, and to renounce attachment to the results.

Lord Krishna gives this message to Arjuna in many different forms throughout the eighteen sections of the Bhagavad Gita.

Here are some representative passages from Krishna, telling this to Arjuna (from the translation available online here; another version can be found here):
Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure. The equanimity of mind is called Karma-yoga. Work done with selfish motives is inferior by far to the selfless service or Karma-yoga. Therefore be a Karma-yogi, O Arjuna. Those who seek to enjoy the fruits of their work are verily unhappy (because one has no control over the results) (2.48 - 2.49).
And again:
Therefore, always perform your duty efficiently and without attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme (3.19).
And also:
The ancient seekers of liberation also performed their duties with this understanding. Therefore, you should do your duty as the ancients did. Even the wise are confused about what is action and what is inaction. Therefore, I shall clearly explain what is action, knowing that one shall be liberated from the evil (of birth and death). The true nature of action is very difficult to understand. Therefore, one should know the nature of attached action, the nature of detached action, and also the nature of forbidden action. Attached action is selfish work that produces Karmic bondage, detached action is unselfish work or Seva that leads to nirvana, and forbidden action is harmful to society. The one who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is a wise person. Such a person is a yogi and has accomplished everything (4.15 - 4.18).
Now, I believe that these words take on even greater meaning for us when we realize that this famous sacred text is not in fact about an ancient warrior who is preparing to engage in a bloody battle, but that it is actually about each and every human soul, figuratively contemplating the awful descent into incarnation, and the struggle of human life.

The battlefield being described in the Mahabharata is not a physical battlefield but represents the interplay, the give-and-take, the struggle between the physical world and the unseen spirit world, which exists in every aspect of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, and exists within each of us as well. 

When we come into this physical world and take on this physical form, it is a struggle to even remember the invisible spirit aspect within ourselves and in the physical world around us, even though it is there, present, all the time -- inside each one of us and in fact inside and shining-through every aspect and every molecule of this physical universe. But there appear to be forces arrayed all around us and even within us that seek to drag our spirit down to the level of the physical, and even to deny the very existence of the spiritual, to reduce everything to the material (for an interesting "blast-from-the-past" blog post related to this topic, see "The ideology of materialism," published here almost exactly three years ago in June of 2012).

Arjuna is understandably reluctant to plunge into this state of affairs, this incarnation. But Krishna tells him that it is his duty to do so -- and he counsels Arjuna that when he gets to the struggle, one of the most important principles is to avoid attachment to the outcome.

When Krishna tells Arjuna that he must strive to do right, without attachment, he is now talking not just about "right action" but also about what we commonly refer to as the "state of mind" while taking that action (but, do note that he is also talking about right action: action that does not harm others).

In other words, Krishna is not just talking about our actions in the external world but also about our inner state while performing those actions. 

And in order to have that detachment, we must be able to detach from the aspects of our incarnate state which, until we learn what Krishna is trying to convey to us, normally carry us off in all kinds of unproductive directions -- our passions, our emotions, our senses, our desires . . . and even what we call our mind.

As discussed in this previous post entitled "Self, senses, and the mind," we must understand that our True Self is not actually the same thing as the mind -- even though we generally tend to think of ourselves and our mind as one and the same. While the mind is an incredibly important part of who we are, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures describe its proper role as more of a wonderful tool, but only a tool and not properly our master or even our Self.

In the metaphor from the Katha Upanishad cited in that preceding post, the mind is described as the reins of the chariot -- not the actual charioteer.

In order to truly follow the advice that Krishna keeps repeating to Arjuna, we must be able to use mind like the reins of the chariot. This metaphor helps us to see that he is not telling us that we must "turn off our mind" or act as if we have "no mind" (although there is a famous expression from Buddhism called "no mind" or "mu shin," I believe the state this phrase is pointing towards is actually the same thing that Krishna is pointing us towards in the Gita as well). What I believe that it is saying in these passages from the Mahabharata and the Katha Upanishad is that our True Self is actually above and behind the mind, able to stand apart from it and not be carried away when the mind is trying to be helpful but is actually not being helpful at all.

And where and what is this True Self to be found?

The words of the Gita, the song of Lord Krishna, tell us quite plainly.

When Krishna tells Arjuna to do right but without attachment to the results, he also tells him to connect instead to the Lord, to attain the Supreme.

He then proceeds to describe himself as the infinite, the supreme, the unbounded, the unlimited . . . and he allows Arjuna to briefly see Krishna in his infinite universal form (in part 11):
with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons. Wearing garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides. If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being (11.10 - 11.12).
Elsewhere, Krishna tells Arjuna, "my manifestations are endless" (10.19). If so, then Krishna is beyond definition, beyond being bounded, beyond being described as "it is this, it is not that."

And this relates directly to the concept of not attaching to the mind -- which is a definer, an analyzer, a discriminator between "this and not that," and a creator of "verbal virtual reality," in the felicitous phrase of Dr. Darrah Westrup in the video discussed in the preceding post on Self, senses and mind.

Krishna is telling Arjuna to connect with the Higher Self who is beyond all of the mind's chatter.

The Lord Krishna is that divine charioteer.

And, because he is the infinite and the unbounded, this Higher Self with which we connect, this Atma, is Krishna. Krishna tells Arjuna outright:
O Arjuna, I am the Atma abiding in the heart of all beings. I am also the beginning, the middle, and the end of all beings (10.20).
Those who see me in everything and everything in me, are not separated from me and I am not separated from them. The non-dualists, who adore me as abiding in all beings, abide in me irrespective of their mode of living (6.30 - 6.31).
And so we see that when Krishna is sending Arjuna into the struggle, he tells Arjuna (the incarnating soul) to do what is right, but not to become attached to that which will drag him down -- and to connect instead to the infinite. 

The infinite that is above and behind even our mind -- as essential a tool as mind truly is.

To connect with this infinite, which is already "abiding in the heart of all beings," we do not have to "go anywhere." 

But, we do have to learn how, and practice. As discussed in the previous post entitled "The Djed Column every day: Yoga," there remains in the culture of India a broad and deep living tradition which flows unbroken back to remote antiquity and the ancient wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads and other sutras, in the practice of Yoga -- involving meditation, breath control, chanting, right living, right eating, the asanas or postures . . . all of them intended as a path to our True Self.

The good news which Krishna imparts to Arjuna is that this connection to the infinite is already very close to each one of us -- "I am easily attainable, O Arjuna," Lord Krishna says, "by that ever-steadfast yogi who always thinks of me and whose mind does not go elsewhere" (8.14).

Interestingly enough, much of the Mahabharata and the Baghavad Gita can be convincingly shown to connect directly to the very same system of celestial allegory that forms the foundation of virtually all of the world's myths, scriptures, and sacred stories (including the stories in the Old and New Testaments of what we refer to today as the Bible).

In fact, I believe that the Baghavad Gita is an extremely clear and lucid example of the idea that these ancient Star Myths used their system of celestial metaphor in order to convey profound spiritual truths about the nature of our cosmos and our human condition within this dual physical-spiritual incarnate existence. 

When they are taken literally (as if describing historical events and persons), the myths necessarily become externalized to a greater or lesser degree: they become stories about other people, living in other times, in other places, remote from our experience.

But when their true celestial and esoteric nature is understood, they take on a new and (I believe) intensely personal aspect. 

They are not about ancient kings, warriors, or divine figures (see the wonderfully helpful quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn discussed in previous posts here, here and here). They are about each and every one of us. 

They are for you, they are all about you, and they were given to help you -- in this metaphorical battlefield of Kurukshetra.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).