Saturday, October 20, 2007

Up at Sit

I have been (re-)reading (some of) the Upanishads recently. I am making my way through the "classical" 13 (out of 114 or so total, depending on who's counting). Upanishad derives as something like "(the writings of those who) sit up beneath (the feet of spiritual teachers)," and translates as secret teaching, or gnostic insight, or mysteries for initiates, or something of the sort. It is the documentation, among other things, of the great transition from the more or less typical tribal polytheism of the Arya traditional religion transcribed in the Vedas, to the Vedantic philosophical mysticism and popular story-based Hinduism of today.

I suppose two things strike me immediately. One is the still-very-tactile nature of brahmin (priestly-class) life in India, the other the mysticism facilitated by parallelomania. For instance, on the first, food and hunger recur as themes repeatedly; someone who gets it spiritually is said to be someone who will eat food. Doubtless this has a spiritualized meaning, a la my bread is to do the will of my father. And doubtless too it has, as much of this material does, a specifically ascetic setting: for a person whose spiritual discipline involves frequent and heroic fasting, food must become an issue and a symbol--perhaps something along the lines of, the one who "gets it" won't need food, because he won't feel hungry (like all of us always do), because he'll be satisfied. But I have to think it also comes from a notion of the payoff of all this personal sacrifice: once you get it, you won't need to do all the fasting that enabled you to get it. Then you'll be, once again, an eater of food, this time with no remorse, no fault, and full spiritual satisfaction (which you couldn't have gotten just stuffing your face before you undertook these spiritual disciplines).

As for the parallelomania, I mean that not as a slam but as a description, even though I do think that, along with a grain of truth, it was mostly epistemologically suspect. What I am referring to is the constant pushing of analogy by phrasing it as metaphor and not simile, in the manner of communion. Jesus doesn't say this bread is like my body, he says it is. The West has had fits with this: look, it says "is," say one bunch; it's obviously literal, it means what it says--hence transubstantiation and all that. The other bunch say, oh, it's obviously a metaphor, meaning something like it's a simile but the analogy is not just accidental, or that, it's a literary figure, but it intends to mess with you at a deeper level than 'life is like a basketball game.'

So, in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (pronounced just like it sounds...), joy is fire, praise is fire, water is fire, earth is fire, death (which is hunger) is the self, death is fire, self is fire, the death-fire-self is an ascetic, he faces east (the sunrise?), so his right side is the south and his right arm the southeast (and, lest we forget, his right buttcheek, I kid you not, is the southwest)--and so on. Perhaps no more, but certainly no less, mind-numbing than some of the census materials in Numbers or the sacrifice regulations in Leviticus. Unlike them, based on seeing parallels where the less-enlightened might not.

Sacrifice here is both literal (they still talk about the royal horse sacrifice of the ancient Arya) and figurative (all their yogas, or spiritual disciplines). Loneliness, hunger, the gods are all part of the brahmin's life.

There are still brahmana-like specifications for how to conduct certain rituals--"well, then, in that circumstance you say..." kind of formulae. Right beside these, though, you get from the first the kind of 'yeah, but this is what things actually are, really' speculation that eventually leads to Shankara and advaita monism, the 'there's only The Big Divine...er, Thing' sort of philosophically mystical view many associate with intellectual Hinduism.

Along this line, and interesting from the point of view of Habermasian social philosophy that says that "I" come into existence via "us," is that what everything "really" is is Self, not my self, not God in a Western sense, but Self. And that selves come from Self, so that plurality is derived from a monism. We come from I.

As a Christian, I'm going to agree that we all come from *an* I, namely God. But I myself am not that "I," for we retain our unique identities as individual personal beings, even if we give full force to what being "in" Christ might mean. And God, in Christianity, is one but internally plural--the trinity notion--so that the One does not, as here, start out lonely or aspirational, and create or emanate other beings for that reason. The Christian God creates to enable more creatures to experience love as He does.

One sees different schools of thought vying, even in the same Upanishad. Does everything boil down to breath? Then the guys who say breath-control meditation is central come out winners. Is everything white, from eyes to semen, "really" soma, the perhaps-psychotropic drug that induced spiritually significant trances? Then maybe the priests who use it in connection with both sacrifices and meditation are right. What about followers of procedural karma, the guys who still do the Vedic sacrifices at face value? Or the ethical karmists, trying to earn their way to moksha, release from this world? Both of those, and the yogic ascetics, have their place, but the Ones Who Know (i.e., the authors of the Upanishads and their followers) know that knowing is the key to all the rest.

So everything hangs together, but instead of, as in Christianity, it all relating to and making sense in the context of a personal relationship to God in Christ, it all makes sense in terms of the way everything is everything else, or the way the one divine reality permeates everything.

Well, enough of this. Back to cleaning the yard and house for FallFest...

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