In the 1970s, the neurologist Benjamin Libet sought to determine the precise timing between conscious awareness of a voluntary decision and electrical activity in the brain.i
Common sense normally expects that the awareness of a decision to act precedes the neural activity allowing the action itself. The very surprising result of Libet’s experiments is that it seems to be the opposite…
These experiments, which are now famous, involved the observation of the temporal link between the subjective sensation associated with the decisional « threshold » (the moment of « awareness » of the decision) and the neural activity associated with the motor movements that are supposed to follow this decision.
The results of Libet’s experiments, which are highly paradoxical and have been confirmed many times, have been commented on by neuroscientists, mostly as a confirmation of the internal autonomy of the brain with respect to consciousness, and subsequently as a confirmation of the absence of free will…
These results can be summarized as follows: unconscious cerebral events precede by a time that can vary from several tenths of a second to several seconds, the conscious sensation of having made a voluntary decision to perform a motor action (for example, pressing a button)ii.
These « unconscious brain events » are observable in the form of electrical potentials, called « readiness potentials » or « premotor potentials ». These electrical potentials measure the activity of the motor cortex and of the brain region involved in the preparation of voluntary muscle movements.
For most commentators, Libet’s experiments confirm the absence of any human free will, because, according to them, they highlight the fact that the brain itself autonomously produces « preparatory potentials » for motor movement before the decision to act reaches consciousness.
Everything happens, therefore, as if the « consciousness of acting » were a simple « illusion », consecutive to the decision taken unconsciously by the brain itself, independently of any conscious involvement of the subjectiii.
In other words, unconscious neurological processes would first provoke the motor act (its preparation and initialization) and then the « conscious » sensation in the subject of having taken the decision to act, by his own (« conscious ») will.
The general conclusion drawn by Libet from these observations is that brain processes determine decisions, which are then perceived as subjective by the brain through the phenomenon of consciousness.
Libet does, however, consider the notion of a veto – the ability of « consciousness » to block an act that is being prepared or even already committed – as possible. This would be the only space of free will or « free will » that remains at the disposal of « consciousness », that of blocking the action, always possibly possible in the very short time (a few hundred milliseconds) that takes place between the subjective perception of the decision and the execution of the act itself.
The deterministic interpretation of Libet’s findings, culminating in the radical questioning of the idea of free will, is currently largely predominant among neuroscientists and biologists. Biologist Anthony Cashmore summarizes the majority thinking by saying that belief in free will « is nothing less than a continuation of belief in vitalism »iv.
There are some skeptics, however, who still resist.
Some question the implicit assumption that decisions must be initiated by consciousness in order to be considered « free ». The idea is that ultimately free will is not related to consciousness but only to « control », and that one could assume the existence of a « pre-conscious free will « .v
Others consider that the role of the experimental context should not be neglected, in particular the conscious choice, made by the subjects undergoing the experiments, to pay special attention to bodily signals which usually remain subconscious.
On the other hand, it must be emphasized, as Alexander Wendt does, that no one really knows what « readiness potentials » are, or how they can be the cause of a behaviorvi. For example, they might only serve to present the occurrence of a choice (rather than embodying the choice itself), which would amount to saving the idea of free will.
Alexander Wendt believes that quantum perspectives potentially renew the debate around Libet’s experiments, but that precisely they have never been considered for their interpretation until now. However, he mentions Roger Penrose’s opinion that these results show the inadequacy of the classical conception of time. Penrose suggests that Libet’s results could be explained by a kind of « retro-causation » or « advanced action » that is allowed by quantum theory.vii
For his part, Henry Stapp establishes a link between the Libet experiments and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox on the question of non-locality. Stuart Hameroff, based on his own theory of the quantum brain, believes that « non-local temporality and the backward time referral of quantum information [advanced action] can provide real-time conscious control of a voluntary action ».viii
The most argued criticism of Libet’s results on the basis of quantum theories is that of Fred Alan Wolfix who also relies on the quantum notion of temporal non-locality. But he adds considerations related to the evolutionary advantage. Being able to sense an impending experience has an obvious value in terms of survival chances in case of danger, especially if this pre-awareness capacity allows to gain more than half a second, without waiting for full consciousness to be acquired. Furthermore, he proposes the image of the brain as « a giant delayed choice machine ». Finally, Wolf shows that the time-symmetric quantum perspective can explain an important anomaly in Libet’s experiment: the subjective anti-dating. In fact, not only does the quantum perspective account for it, but it predicts it.
Concluding his study on this question, Alexander Wendt clearly states his rejection of deterministic and materialistic theories: « So my point is not that human behavior cannot be made more predictable – more ‘classical’ – through coercion, discipline, or incentives, but rather that no matter how successful such schemes are, there is a spontaneous vital force in the human being that fundamentally eludes causal determination »x.
Would Wendt demonstrate « vitalism »? I would opt for the belief in an irreducible entity, present in the depths of the human being. By consulting the multi-millennial traditions of humanity, one can note the multiple ways in which one has given an account, since the dawn of humanity, of this irreducible entity, constitutive of our deepest being, this absolute, secret, hidden, abyssal entity, which stands in the depths of the being, and which is infinitely more original than what we call the « me », or the « consciousness ».
The Veda calls it ātman, the Hebrew Bible uses several words, which have their own nuances, נִשְׁמַת (neshmah), נֶפֶשׁ (néfèsh), רוּחַ (rouaḥ), the Greeks speak of νοῦς (noûs) and ψυχή (psyche).
To make an image, we could call it the « self », the « soul », or the « fine point of the spirit ». The word is not the most important thing, it is the idea itself that is important, – the idea that all cultures have known how to express it in their own way, by means of words that have all in some way their own genius.
Only modern science, positivist, causalist (but also with a strong materialist and determinist tendency) has not only no word but no conception of this « entity », by nature immaterial (thus obviously escaping EEG, fMRI, PET Scan, TMS…), and above all conceptually elusive in the frame of reference of science, namely the experimental and rationalist epistemology.
I would only like, in the framework of this short article, to indicate briefly, but forcefully, that the results of Libet’s experiment could perfectly well be interpreted in a way that is radically opposed to the conventional interpretation (causalist, materialist, physicalist… and determinist).
Let us assume for a moment, for the purpose of establishing my hypothesis, that:
Far below the immense, abysmal depths of consciousness, far beyond even that underlying continent, the Unconscious, which Sigmund Freud and C.-G. Jung, the first explorers, the first cartographers, only scratched the surface of, there exists, for each of us, an entity that I will call « ι » (the Greek iota).
Why this name?
This entity, named » ι « , summarizes in a way a great number of concepts already consecrated by the tradition. A few expressions can be quoted, chosen in their multiplicity: scintilla animae (« spark of the soul »), scintilla conscientiae (« spark of the conscience »)xi, « fine point of the soul » (Teresa of Avila), « living flame » or even « hair » (John of the Cross)xii.
In De Veritate, Thomas Aquinas states: « Just as the spark is the purest thing in fire and the highest thing in the judgment of the conscience ».xiii
Master Eckhart also uses the image of the spark, but to refine it by reducing it to freedom itself, freedom seen as an absolutely one and simple entity: « This little stronghold of the soul, I said it was a spark, but now I say this: it is free of all names, devoid of all forms, absolutely uncluttered and free, as God is uncluttered and free in himself. He is as absolutely one and simple as God is one and simple. »
Francis de Sales speaks of « the point of the spirit », « the depth of the soul » or « the high region of the spirit ».
To gather this bundle of approaches, in a simple and unique image, I propose to concentrate them in this » ι « , this Greek iota. Totally immaterial, infinitely elusive, » ι » is the initial spark that makes you yourself, and not another. It is the first germ around which the successive layers of consciousness and being have slowly accumulated, since conception, and which have not ceased, day after day, to grow, to unfold, to become more complex by epigenesis. This » ι » is the tiny seed, resisting to all the storms, to all the winds, to all the storms, and which, stubborn, trusting, ineradicable, pushes at every moment in the solitude of its own I-ness. This » ι » remains , as I remain. The » ι » remains, but in order to leave, to fly towards the top, towards the elsewhere, towards the absolutely-other.
Let us consider now the relation between the » ι « , the consciousness and the (neuronal) brain.
The » ι » holds under its calm glance the whole of the abysses of the unconscious, just like the lapping of the consciousness. The » ι » is alive, the very spark of the life. The » ι » lives and wants, freely. There is no one freer than him. What « ι » really wants, God also wants, I would even say. It is their very alliance.
What happens then in a human brain, when the « ι » of such and such a particular person, starts to « want », either to escape in urgency from a hungry tiger, or to dedicate himself to some distant goal, or to participate in a neurological experiment of the good professor Libet?
Well, the « ι » enters in quantum resonance (in a non-local and intricate way) with the whole of the receptors of its « body » (for example the micro-tubules whose putative role in the emergence of consciousness we owe to Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff). This results in a rapid mobilization of the « preparation potentials », the premotor potentials acting on the motor cortex, and a parallel mobilization of the « consciousness » initiating centers (there are several of them, which function in parallel, but which are activated in conscious mode only when necessary, often remaining in subconscious mode, and most of the time in unconscious mode)
Here is my provisional interpretation of Libet’s experiments: the fact that the activation of the preparatory potentials precedes by 350ms the sensation of « awareness » has no meaning in relation to the hidden, undetectable, but implacably prevalent presence of the « ι ».
The » ι » is there. It watches. It wants. It lives. It always lives.
All the rest, the microtubules, the neurons, the cortex, the self, the consciousness, are simply its devoted, more or less obedient, skillful or sleepy, servants.
iBenjamin Libet (1985), « Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action », The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(4), 529-566. Benjamin Libet (2004), Mind Time, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
iiBenjamin Libet found that the readiness potential appears 350-400ms before the awareness of the intention to act and 550ms before the initiation of the act itself.
iiiCf. Daniel Wegner (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
ivQuoted by Sven Walter, « Willusionism, Epiphenomenalism and the Feeling of the Conscious Will », Synthese, 191(10), 2215-2238
vCf. Alexander Wendt. Quantum Mind and Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 186, Note 59.
viAlexander Wendt. Quantum Mind and Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 186
viiRoger Penrose (1994), Shadows of the Mind : A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, Oxford University Press, p. 383-390
viiiStuart Hameroff, « How Quantum Brain Biology Can Rescue Conscious Free Will », Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6, article 93, p. 14, quoted buy Alexander Wendt. Quantum Mind and Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 187
ixFred Alan Wolf (1998), « The Timing of Conscious Experience », Journal of Scientific Exploration, 12(4), 511-542
xAlexander Wendt. Quantum Mind and Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 188
Paramecia are organisms composed of a single cell. They can swim, find food, mate, reproduce, remember their past experiences, derive patterns of behavior, and thus « learn », – all this without having a nervous system, having neither neurons nor synapses. How are such behaviors requiring a form of consciousness and even intelligence possible in a single-cell organism without neural networks?
The question is important because it opens new perspectives on the nature of « consciousness ». Indeed, one could infer from these observations that part of our own cognitive capacities are not of neuronal origin, but are based on other, more fundamental, biological phenomena below the level of neural networks.
According to the hypothesis of Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrosei, the ability to learn from single-cell organisms and the emergence of elementary forms of consciousness within our own neuronal cells could originate in the microtubules that form their cytoskeleton, at the level of the dendrites and the cell body (soma).
The microtubules would be the place where tiny moments of « proto-consciousness » hatch, – tiny moments but constantly repeated, millions of times a second, and whose aggregation and integration at a higher level by the neural networks would constitute the « consciousness » itself.
One could also assume that these moments of « proto-consciousness » that constantly emerge in the billions of microtubules of the dendrites of each of our neurons form not only the source of consciousness but also the basis of our unconscious (or at least of its biological substrate).
It has been shown that the brain waves detected by electroencephalography (EEG) actually derive from the deep vibrations that are produced at the level of the microtubules composing the cytoskeleton of the dendrites and the cell bodies of the neurons.
Neuronal membrane activities can also resonate throughout the various regions of the brain, depending on gamma wave frequencies that can range from 30 to 90 Hz.ii
The vibratory phenomena that are initiated within the microtubules (more precisely at the level of the « tubulins » of which they are composed) modify the reactions and action potentials of neurons and synapses. They participate in the initial emergence of neurobiological processes leading to consciousness.
However, these resonance phenomena, considered from the point of view of their profound nature, are essentially quantum in nature, according to the thesis presented by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroffiii.
The molecules of the membranes of neuronal cells possess a dipolar moment and behave like oscillators with excitation quanta. Moreover, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, they can give rise to quantum entanglement phenomena linking and correlating in this way the particles of the microtubules of several adjacent neurons, allowing an increasing integration of networks at the neuronal scale.
Hameroff and Penrose assert that proto-consciousness events are thus somehow the result of « quantum computations » performed in the microtubules (this term ‘quantum computation’ is associated with the image of the microtubule as a quantum computer). The results of these ‘calculations’ are ‘objectified’ after their quantum ‘reduction’ (hence the term ‘objective reduction’, or Diósi-Penrose’s ‘Objective Reduction’, noted O.R., to qualify this theory).
But does it make sense to speak of ‘moments of proto-consciousness’? Isn’t consciousness precisely first of all the feeling of a unity subsuming a whole, a whole made of myriads of continuously integrated possibilities?
Consciousness is described by these theorists of quantum neurology as a sequence of discontinuous micro-moments, quanta of emerging consciousness.
However, consciousness is also defined, macroscopically, as a presence to oneself, as an intuition of the reality of the self, as an ability to make choices, to have a memory founding the persistence of the feeling of the self, and as ‘thought’, capable of preparing and projecting the expression of a will.
Are the two positions, that of the succession of discontinuous, quantum, proto-consciousness moments and that of the unitive consciousness of the Self, compatible?
The Sarvāstivāda school, one of the major currents of ancient Buddhism, goes in this direction, since it affirms that 6,480,000 « moments » of consciousness occur in 24 hours, that is, a micro-salve of consciousness every 13.3 ms (frequency of 75 Hz). Other Buddhist schools describe the appearance of a thought every 20ms (50 Hz)iv.
Consciousness would thus consist of a succession of discontinuous events, synchronizing different parts of the brain, according to various frequencies.
From a philosophical point of view, we can distinguish three main classes of theories of the origin and place of consciousness in the universe, as Penrose and Hameroff do:
A. Consciousness is not an independent phenomenon, but appears as a natural, evolutionary consequence of the biological adaptation of the brain and nervous system. According to this view, prevalent in science, consciousness emerges as a property of complex biological combinations, and as an epiphenomenon, a side effect, without independent existence. It is therefore fundamentally illusory, that is, it constructs its own reality rather than actually perceiving it. It may have arisen spontaneously, and then be preserved because it brings a comparative advantage to the species that benefit from it. In this view, consciousness is not an intrinsic characteristic of the universe, but results from a simple chance of evolution.
B. Consciousness is a separate phenomenon, it is distinct from the physical world, not controlled by it, and it has always been present in the universe. Plato’s idealism, Descartes’ dualism, religious views and other spiritual approaches posit that consciousness has always been present in the universe, as the support of being, as a creative entity, or as an attribute of an omnipresent « God ». In this view consciousness can causally influence physical matter and human behavior but has no (yet) scientific basis. In another approach ‘panpsychism’ attributes a form of consciousness to matter, but without scientific identity or causal influence. Idealism asserts that consciousness is all that exists, the material world (and science) being only an illusion. In this view, consciousness is outside and beyond the cognitive capacities of ‘scientists’ (but not of philosophers, mystics or poets).
C. Consciousness results from distinct physical events, which have always existed in the universe, and which have always given rise to forms of ‘proto-consciousness’, resulting from precise physical laws, but which are not yet fully understood. Biology has evolved to take advantage of these events by ‘orchestrating’ them and coupling them with neural activity. The result is ‘moments’ of consciousness, capable of bringing out ‘meaning’. These events of consciousness are also carriers of ‘cognition’, and thus capable of causally controlling behaviour. These moments are associated with the reduction of quantum states. This position was presented in a general way by A.N. Whiteheadv and is now explicitly defended in the theory of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, which they call the « Orch O.R. » theory (acronym for « orchestrated objective reduction »).
The three main classes of theory on consciousness that have just been described can be summarized as follows:
A. Science/Materialism. Consciousness plays no distinct role, not independent of matter.
B. Dualism/Spirituality. Consciousness remains beyond the cognitive capacities of science.
C. Science/Consciousness. Consciousness in fact plays an essential role in physical laws, although this role is not (yet) elucidated.
One could add a theory D, I would suggest, which would take up some salient aspects of the three previous theories, but to derive an original synthesis from them, by finding a way to eliminate the apparently dire incompatibilities that seem to radically distance them from each other.
Personally, this seems to me to be the most promising path for the future.
The Orch O.R. theory represents a first step towards the integration of the theories A, B and C.
It tries to explain how consciousness can emerge from what Penrose and Hameroff call neuronal ‘computation’.
But how can proto-consciousness events arise spontaneously from a computational complexity synchronized by successive ‘flashes’, and cooperatively bringing together diverse regions of the brain?
The observation shows that gamma-wave EEGs (above 30 Hz) are the best correlate of consciousness events, in that they denote synchronicity with the integrated potentials of dendrites and neuronal cell bodies.
Microtubule Associated Proteins (MAPs) interconnect the microtubules of neuronal cells in recursive networks. They facilitate the « integration » of dendrite and soma activity of these cells.
The Orch OR theory innovates by positing that this complex integration, in time and space, is in fact made possible by quantum entanglement phenomena of the tubulin particles of microtubules belonging to adjacent neurons.
Through these quantum entanglement phenomena, dendrite networks thus collectively integrate their own computational capabilities. This integration is not deterministic, passive. It involves complex computational treatments that use lateral connections between neurons and the differentiated polarization synchronization of their membranes.
The neurons connected by their dendrites synchronize their local field potentials (LFPs) during the integration phase, but they do not necessarily synchronize their electrical discharges in the axons afterwards. Other factors are therefore at work.
It can be observed that molecules used in anesthesia selectively ‘erase’ consciousness by associating with specific sites in the post-synaptic dendrites and soma.
What is established is that dendritic and somatic integration is thus closely related to consciousness, and it is this integration that is at the origin of the electric bursts of the axons that ‘convey’ the carrier processes of ‘proto-consciousness’, which will eventually be integrated by the brain to allow ‘conscious’ control of behavior.
Descartes considered the pineal gland as the possible seat of consciousness; Penrose and Hameroff believe that this seat is in fact delocalized in the microtubules.
This theory also has the advantage of explaining how intracellular processing in the cyto-skeletons of unicellular organisms is the means by which they can have cognitive functions even when they are devoid of synapses.
However, this theory does not explain at all the nature of « proto-consciousness ». It only describes the conjunction of two phenomena, the reduction of quantum states linking by entanglement sets of microtubules, and the appearance of supposed moments of proto-consciousness.
But the causal relationship between « orchestrated objective reduction » and proto-consciousness is not proven. There is no evidence of the « production » of proto-consciousness during this « reduction ».
It could just as well be that there is a « transmission » of proto-consciousness elements, coming from a sphere other than material.
This is where theory D seems to me to be able to come to the rescue, by proposing an active synthesis between the theories A, B and C.
As theory B posits, we can consider consciousness as a pre-existing « web » in the entire universe, surrounding matter on all sides.
Universal consciousness can be represented as a « web » of connected points of existence, of connected quanta of consciousness.
Matter, on the other hand, can be interpreted as a « web » of energetic existence points.
These various kinds of existences (spiritual/conscious and material/energetic) have in common the fact of « being ».
The reality of « being » would then be their fundamental basis, their common « ontic » essence, and consequently also the framework of their potential mutual interactions.
In some cases, for example during the instantaneous change of state (such as during the quantum reduction occurring in the microtubules of neuronal cells), the layers of consciousness and matter interact within what I would call a « qubit of existence ».
This qubit would not be unrelated to certain fundamental constants, such as Planck’s constant, or to the dimensionless relationships that exist between the fundamental phenomena of the universe (such as the relationship between the influence of universal gravitation and electromagnetic fields in all parts of the universe).
In the qubit of existence, or qubit ontic, two forms of being coexist, the « being » based on energy associated with consciousness or spirit, and the « being » based on energy associated with matter.
These two forms of energy, which are probably also two phases of the same more fundamental and even more original energy, can interact or resonate under certain conditions.
Since their common point is « being », according to the two energetic modalities mentioned, one material, the other spiritual, it is not unimaginable to suppose that these two energetic modalities can intertwine with each other.
We know Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC², where E is energy, M is mass and c is the speed of light. This formula represents a kind of quintessential result of hard science.
I would like to propose a comparable formula, which would be an attempt by soft science to transcend the separations of worlds:
If we continue the analogy, a qubit of primordial energy can be modulated, at any point in the Universe, into a spiritual qubit and a material qubit, according to several phases, combining in various proportions, and which can occasionally enter into resonance, as has been suggested.
The energetic (spirit/matter) vibrations are the means of coupling the two material and spiritual worlds through their « ontic » vibrations (the vibrations associated with their way of « being »).
The place where this coupling takes place is, for example, in the microtubules which concentrate an extraordinary density of active molecules, and which are, through the resonant forces of Van der Waals, intertwined.
The appearance of consciousness within the microtubules would therefore not be the result of a local production of proto-consciousness, initiated by quantum reduction, as Penrose and Hameroff posit.
It would be the result of a transmission between the pre-existing world of consciousness and the material world, here interfaced at the microtubule level.
This is the hypothesis known as the theory of transmission, which was formulated by William James in 1898vi.
« The brain is represented as a transmissive organ. (…) Matter is not that which produces Consciousness, but that which limits it, and confines its intensity within certain limits: material organization does not construct consciousness out of arrangements of atoms, but contracts its manifestation within the sphere which it permits. (…) One’s finite mundane consciousness would be an extract from one’s larger, truer personality, the latter having even now some sort of reality behind the scenes. One’s brain would also leave effects upon the part remaining behind the veil; for when a thing is torn, both fragments feel the operation. »vii
The brain can then be represented as an organ of transmission. It can be argued that Matter is not what produces Consciousness, but what limits it, and what confines its intensity within certain limits. Material organization does not construct Consciousness from arrangements of atoms, but reduces its manifestation to the sphere it constructs. Everyone’s consciousness, finite, common, would only be an extract of a greater consciousness, of a truer nature, which would possess a kind of reality behind the scene. Our brain could produce effects, leave traces, on this greater level of consciousness that remains behind the veil.
After death, this greater consciousness would keep alive theses traces, left over. For when something is torn, both fragments undergo the operation. The consciousness that we have when we are awake, and which we renounce when we sleep or die, is only one of the faces, one of the phases of a much larger consciousness to which we are permanently linked (for example through quantum reduction of microtubules…).
This greater, much larger consciousness is still ours. Its other name is the “Self”.
It extends our consciousness from here below, and is perhaps also the origin of it. It feeds on our earthly consciousness, and in return feeds us also, permanently, subliminally, or sometimes, illuminatingly.
It should not be confused with an infinite ‘ocean’ of undifferentiated consciousness in which we are only ‘dead swimmers’ following its course ‘to other nebulae’viii.
Mind can thus interfere with matter in the form of waves or shocks of proto-consciousness, on the occasion of ‘quantum reduction’.
What is the metaphor of this « reduction »?
I would gladly argue that the spiritual influences the so-called « real » world by means of the « reduction » of the possible, and precisely its « reduction » to the real, the « reduction » of the potential to the actual.
A « reduction » represents a certain closing of local quantum indeterminism, but also the infinitely rapid opening of an immense field of new potentialities, to come.
iStuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Pages 86-103
ii « The best measurable correlate of consciousness through modern science is gamma synchrony electro-encephalography (EEG), 30 to 90Hz coherent neuronal membrane activities occurring across various synchronized brain regions ». Stuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Page 41
iiiStuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Pages 86-103
ivA. von Rospatt. The Buddhist doctrine of Momentariness : a Survey of of of the origins and early phase of this doctrine up to Vasubandha. Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995
vA.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929. Adventures of Ideas, 1933.
viWilliam James. Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine.Ed. by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898.
viiWilliam James. Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine.Ed. by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898.
viiiGuillaume Apollinaire. The Song of the Unloved
The Rig Veda is the most ancient source from which to draw in an attempt to understand the state of the first conceptual representations of humanity by itself, more than four millennia ago. Religion and society, then, were in an infancy that did not exclude a profound wisdom, more original than what Greek and Roman antiquity were able to conceive later, and of which the Hebrew wisdom itself was a later heir.
The memory of the Veda, long unwritten and transmitted orally for thousands of years by pure thinkers and rigorous ascetics, bears witness to an intellectual and moral state of humanity in an age much earlier than the time of Abraham. When this prophet left Ur in Chaldea, around 1200 B.C., for his exile to the south, many centuries had already nourished the valleys of the Oxus and watered the Indus basin. Several millennia before him, time had sedimented layers of human memory, ever deeper. The Vedic priests celebrated the idea of a unique and universal deity long before the « monotheisms ». Melchisedec himself, the oldest prophetic figure in the Bible, is a newcomer, if we place him in the obscure sequence of times that preceded him.
This observation must be taken into account if we want to put an end to the drama of exceptions and the drifts of history, and understand what humanity as a whole carries within it, since the beginning.
Homo sapiens has always been possessed by multiple intuitions, immanent, of the Divine, and even, for some individuals of this species, by singular ‘transcendent’ visions that they have sometimes been able to share and transmit. We must try to grasp these intuitions and visions today, by questioning what remains of their memory, if we want to draw prospective lines towards the distant future that is looming in the dark shadow of the future.
The Hebrew Bible is a fairly recent document, and its price should not make us forget its relative youth. Its age goes back at most to a thousand years before our era. In contrast, the Veda is one or even two millennia older. This seniority, in fact rather short, should certainly not make us forget that it is itself based on much more remote memories, of which the Chauvet cave (~30 000 years) is only a simple marker, pointing out the mystery of the very origins of the Homo genus, as for the specific nature of its « consciousness ».
This is why it is important to consider what remains of the memory of the Veda, in order to try to draw more general lessons from it, and to try to understand the unity of the human adventure, in order to foresee its possible evolutions – so much so that the past is one of the forms in power of the future.
To illustrate this point, I would like to propose here a brief review of some of the symbols and paradigms of the Veda, to weigh and consider their potential universality.
Butter, oil and sacred anointings.
In those ancient times, melted butter (ghṛita) alone represented a kind of cosmic miracle. It embodied the cosmic alliance of the sun, nature and life: the sun, the source of all life in nature, makes the grass grow, which feeds the cow, which exudes its intimate juice, the milk, which becomes butter by the action of man (the churning), and finally comes to flow freely as sôma on the altar of the sacrifice to mingle with the sacred fire, and nourish the flame, engender light, and spread the odor capable of rising to the heavens, concluding the cycle. A simple and profound ceremony, originating in the mists of time, and already possessing the vision of the universal cohesion between the divine, the cosmos and the human.
« From the ocean, the wave of honey arose, with the sôma, it took on the form of ambrosia. This is the secret name of the Butter, language of the Gods, navel of the immortal. (…) Arranged in three parts, the Gods discovered in the cow the Butter that the Paṇi had hidden. Indra begat one of these parts, the Sun the second, the third was extracted from the sage, and prepared by rite. (…) They spring from the ocean of the Spirit, these flows of Butter a hundred times enclosed, invisible to the enemy. I consider them, the golden rod is in their midst (…) They leap before Agni, beautiful and smiling like young women at the rendezvous; the flows of Butter caress the flaming logs, the Fire welcomes them, satisfied. « i
If one finds in Butter connotations too domestic to be able to bear the presence of the sacred, let it be thought that the Priests, the Prophets and the Kings of Israel, for example, were not afraid to be anointed with a sacred oil, Shemen Hamish’hah, a « chrism », a maximum concentration of meaning, where the product of the Cosmos, the work of men, and the life-giving power of the God magically converge.
Hair and divine links
Hair is one of the oldest metaphors that the human brain has ever conceived. It is also a metonymy. The hair is on the head, on top of the man, above his very thoughts, links also with the divine sphere (this is why the Jews cover themselves with the yarmulke). But the hair also covers the lower abdomen, and announces the deep transformation of the body, for life, love and generation. Finally, the fertile earth itself is covered with a kind of hair when the harvest is coming. Here again, the ancient genius combines in a single image, the Divine, Man and Nature.
A hymn in the Veda combines these images in a single formula:
« Make the grass grow on these three surfaces, O Indra, the Father’s head, and the field there, and my belly! This Field over here, which is ours, and my body here, and the Father’s head, make it all hairy! »ii
But the hair has other connotations as well, which go further than mere metonymic circulation. The hair in the Veda also serves as an image to describe the action of God himself. It is one of the metaphors that allow to qualify him indirectly, as, much later, other monotheistic religions will do, choosing his power, his mercy, or his clemency.
« The Hairy One carries the Fire, the Hairy One carries the Soma, the Hairy One carries the worlds. The Hairy One carries all that is seen from heaven. The Hairy One is called Light. »iii
The Word, divinized.
More than five thousand years ago, the Word was already considered by the Veda as having a life of « her » own, of divine essence. The Word is a « Person, » says the Veda. The Word (vāc) is the very essence of the Veda.
« More than one who sees has not seen the Word. More than one who hears has not heard it. To this one She has opened Her body as to her husband a loving wife in rich attire. « iv
Is this not a foreshadowing, two thousand years earlier, of the Psalms of David which personify Wisdom as a figure, divine and « feminine », associated as a goddess with the unique God?
Thought, image of freedom
In the Veda, Thought (manas) is one of the most powerful metaphors that man has ever conceived for the essence of the Divine. Many other religions, millennia later, also celebrated the divine « Thought » and sought to define certain attributes of « her ». But, in the Veda, this original intuition, developed in all its emergent force, confirms Man in the idea that his own thought, his own faculty of thinking, has always been and remains in power the source of a radical astonishment, and the intimate certainty of a primary freedom.
« She in whom prayers, melodies and formulas rest, like the grapes at the hub of the chariot, she in whom all the reflection of creatures is woven, the Thought: may what She conceives be propitious to me! »v
The Infinite, so old and always young…
The idea of an « infinite », « hidden » God, on whom everything rests, was conceived by Man long before Abraham or Moses. The Veda attests that this idea was already celebrated millennia before these famous figures.
« Manifest, he is hidden. Ancient is his name. Vast is his concept. All this universe is based on him. On him rests all that moves and breathes (…) The Infinite is extended in many directions, the Infinite and the finite have common borders. The Guardian of the Vault of Heaven travels through them, separating them, he who knows what is past and what is to come. (…) Desireless, wise, immortal, self-born, satiated with vital sap, suffering no lack – he does not fear death who has recognized the wise Ātman, unaged, ever young. « vi
The Love of the Creator for the Created
The Bible, with the famous Shir ha-Chirim, the Song of Songs, has accustomed us to the idea that the celebration of love, with human words and crude images, could also be a metaphor for the love between the soul and God. This very idea is already found in the Veda, to describe the cry of love between the God and his creature, the human soul:
« As the creeper holds the tree embraced through and through, so embrace me, be my lover, and do not depart from me! As the eagle, in order to soar, strikes at the ground with its two wings, so I strike at your soul, be my lover and do not depart from me! As the sun one day surrounds the sky and the earth, so I surround your soul. Be my lover and do not depart from me! Desire my body, my feet, desire my thighs; let your eyes, your hair, lover, be consumed with passion for me! »vii
From this brief return to Vedic memory, and from these few allusions to much more ancient and immanent memories (going back to the origin of the Sapiens species), I conclude that a comparative anthropology of the culture of the depths and that a paleontology of the intuitions of the sacred is not only possible, but indispensable. They are necessary first of all to relativize at last the excessive claims of such or such late religious or philosophical traditions, unduly arrogating themselves specious privileges. Above all, they confirm the necessity and the fruitfulness of a research on the very essence of the human conscience, outside the current framework of thought, materialist, positivist, nominalist, and of which the crushed, wounded modernity suffers so much from the absence of recognition.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word חָכְמָה, ḥokhmah, refers to a stealthy and mysterious entity, sometimes defined by the article (the ḥokhmah)i but more often undefined, usually as a singular and sometimes as a pluralii. She may ‘dwell’ in the minds of men or among peoples. We do not know where she comes from.iii She is said to have helped the Most High in his work of Creation.iv
Here is a brief anthology of her furtive appearances:
She brings life.v She makes the face glow.vi She is a torrent or a spring.vii She can be from the East or from Egypt.viii She can fill Joshuaix or Solomonx. She may be found in the humblexi and the oldxii, in the simple manxiii or in the righteousxiv.
She may come with knowledgexv or with powerxvi, or with intelligencexvii. But she is far better than strength.xviii
She may hide in a whisperxix, in a cryxx, or in secrecyxxi.
She can be called ‘friend’xxii, ‘sister’xxiii or ‘mother’ or ‘wife’. She makes one happy.xxiv She leads to royalty.xxv
She is ‘spirit’.xxvi She is bright, and she does not fade.xxvii Faster than any movement, she is infinitely mobile.xxviii She dwells in her own house, and he who dwells with her, is the only one God loves.xxix
She accompanies the angel of « Elohim », and also the Lord called « Adonai « xxxii.. She is in Thôtxxxiii, but it is YHVH who gives herxxxiv.. She shares the throne of the Lord.xxxv She is with Him, and she knows His works.xxxvi She was created before all things.xxxvii
It is through her that men were formed.xxxviii And it is she who saves them.xxxix
These snippets, these flashes, are only a tiny part of her infinite essence. But a simple letter, the smallest in the Hebrew alphabet, י, Yod, can understand and embody her (symbolically) in her entirety.
Yod is the first letter of the Tetragrammaton: יהוה. In the Jewish kabbalah, and perhaps for this reason, the Yod corresponds primarily to the sefira Ḥokhmahxl, ‘Wisdom’, which brings us to the heart of the matter.
The Tetragrammaton יהוה, an admittedly unspeakable name, can at least, in principle, be transcribed in Latin letters: YHVH. Y for י, H for ה, V for ו, H for ה. This name, YHVH, as we know, is the unpronounceable name of God. But if we write it with an interstitial blank YH VH, it is also the name of the primordial Man, – according to the Zohar which we will now recall here.
The commentary on the Book of Ruth in the Zohar does not bother with detours. From the outset, served by an immensely dense style, it plunges into the mystery, it leaps into the abyss, it confronts the primordial night, it explores the depths of the Obscure, it seeks the forgotten origin of the worlds.
The Zohar on Ruth, – a powerful wine, a learned nectar, with aromas of myrrh and incense. To be savored slowly.
« The Holy One blessed be He created in man YH VH, which is His holy name, the breath of the breath which is called Adam. And lights spread out in nine flashes, which are linked from the Yod. They constitute the one light without separation; therefore the body of man is called Adam’s garment. The He is called breath, and it mates with the Yod, it spreads into many lights that are one. YodHe are without separation, so ‘Elohim created man in his own image, in the image of Elohim he created him, male and female he created them… and he called them Adam’ (Gen 1:27 and 5:2). Vav is called spirit, and he is called son of Yod He; He [final] is called soul and he is called daughter. Thus there is Father and Mother, Son and Daughter. And the secret of the word Yod He Vav He is called Adam. His light spreads in forty-five flashes and this is the number of Adamxxli, mahxlii, ‘what is it?’ « xliii.
Cabalistic logic. Sacredness of the letter, of the number. Unity of the meaning, but multiplicity of its powers. Any idea germinates, and generates drifts, new shadows, nascent suns, moons alone. Thought never ceases its dream, it aspires to breath, to song, to hymn.
The letter connects heaven and earth. Literally: יה → יהוה and וה . By reading יה, the kabbalist guesses the inchoative, seminal and sexual role of י, – from which the lights of the sefirot will emanate. Let us summarize what the Zohar says: YHVH → YH VH → Adam → the Yod, י, the ‘breath of breath’ → Ḥokhmah , the ‘one light’ → from which the other ‘lights’ or sefirot emanate.
YHVH ‘creates in man YH VH’, that is, He creates in man two pairs יה and וה, respectively YH and VH, which will also be, symbolically, the name of the primordial Man, Adam, ‘YH VH’. These two pairs of letters can be interpreted symbolically, as metaphors of union and filiation: YH = Father-Mother, and VH = Son-Daughter.
It is indeed an ancient interpretation of the Kabbalah that the Yod, י, represents the male principle, and that the letter He, ה, represents the female principle. The Vav, ו, symbolizes the filial fruit of the union of י and ה. The second ה of the Tetragrammaton is then interpreted as the « Daughter », when associated with the Vav ו…
Human, carnal images, hiding another idea, a wisdom, divine, spiritual… A second set of metaphors is invoked here by the cabal, which explains: YH = Wisdom-Intelligence (Ḥokhmah-Binah) and VH = Beauty-Royalty (Tiferet-Malkhut). From Ḥokhmah, other sefirot emanate.
The Zohar further teaches us that Ḥokhmah, associated with י , the 1st letter of the Tetragrammaton, means the « breath of the breath », and is also called « Adam »…
Is this « Adam » the same as « the Adam » (הָאָדָם ha-‘adam), who was created after the creation of Heaven and Earth (Gen 2:7)? And what difference, if any, is there between « Adam », breath of breath, and « the Adam » of Genesis?
The Zohar asked this very question and answered it, in an opaque, concise, condensed style:
« What is the difference between Adam and Adam? Here is the difference: YHVH is called Adam, and the body is called Adam, what difference is there between the one and the other? Indeed, where it is said: ‘Elohim created Adam in his own image’, he is YHVH; and where it is not said ‘in his own image’, he is body. After it is said: ‘YHVH Elohim formed’ (Gen 2:7), that is, he formed Adam, he ‘made him’, as it is written: ‘YHVH Elohim made for Adam and his wife a robe of skin and clothed them with it’ (Gen 3:21). In the beginning there is a robe of light, in the likeness of the one above, after they stumbled, there is a robe of skin.xliv In this connection it is said: ‘All those who are called by my name, whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, and even whom I have made’ (Is 43:7)xlv. ‘I have created’ is Yod He Vav He, ‘I have formed’ is the robe of light, ‘and I have made’ is the robe of skin. »xlvi
The clues left by Scripture are thin, to be sure. But Isaiah, with a single sentence, illuminates the intelligence of the creation of Man. And he opens up infinite perspectives to our own understanding of the text which relates it.
Charles Mopsik commented on this key passage as follows: « The verse of Isaiah as read in the Zohar presents a progression of the constitution of man according to three verbs: the verb to create refers to Adam’s constitution as a divine name (the aforementioned four souls [breath of breath, breath, spirit, soul]), the verb to form refers to the constitution of his primordial body, which is a robe of light, and finally the verb to make refers to his constitution after the fall, where his body becomes a material envelope, a tunic of skin, which ‘wrath’, i.e., the Other side, the realm of impurity, borders in the form of the inclination to evil. « xlvii
The creation of Man, in Genesis, is described with three Hebrew, essential words: nechamah, ruaḥ and nefech. These words have several meanings. But to keep it simple, they may be translated respectively as « breath », « spirit » and « soul ».
So we learned that there were also, in the very first place, before anything was created, a « breath of breath ».
And the « breath of breath » was wisdom, י.
i‘Ha–ḥokhmah’, like in וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תִּמָּצֵא ,Vé-ha-ḥokhmah, méïn timmatsa’, Job 28,12
ii It can be used as a feminine plural noun חָכְמוֹת, ḥokhmot, meaning then, depending on the translation, « wise women », or « wisdoms », or « Wisdom », as in חָכְמוֹת, בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ , « The wise women – or wisdoms – built his house » (Pv 9:1) or as חָכְמוֹת, בַּחוּץ תָּרֹנָּה , « The wise women – or Wisdom – shouted through the streets » (Pv 1,20)
iii וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תִּמָּצֵא Vé-ha-ḥokhmah, méïn timmatsa’ ? Job 28,12
iv« YHVH with Wisdom founded the earth, with understanding he established the heavens. » Pv 3,19
v« It is that wisdom gives life to those who possess it ». Qo 7,12
vi« The wisdom of man makes his face shine and gives his face a double ascendancy » Qo 8,1
vii« An overflowing stream, a source of wisdom » Pv 18,4
viii« The wisdom of Solomon was greater than the wisdom of all the children of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt » 1 Kings 5:10
ix« Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom » Dt 34,9
xThe Proverbs are attributed to him, as is the Qohelet.
xlZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.83, note 136.
xliThe numerical value of the Tetragrammaton YHVH is 45, as is the numerical value of the word Adam.
xliiThe expression « What? » or « What? » (mah) also has 45 as a numerical value.
xliiiZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.82-83. (Ch. Mopsik translates nechama as ‘breath’ and nechama [of the] nechama as ‘breath of the breath’, which is a bit artificial. I prefer to translate nechama, more classically, by ‘breath’, and in its redoubling, by ‘breath of the breath’).
xlivZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.84
xlv כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי, וְלִכְבוֹדִי בְּרָאתִיו: יְצַרְתִּיו, אַף-עֲשִׂיתִיו. The three verbs used here by Isaiah imply a progression of God’s ever-increasing involvement with man; bara’, yatsar, ‘assa, mean respectively: « to create » (to bring out of nothing), « to shape/form », and « to make/complete ».
xlviZohar. Midrash Ha-Neelam on Ruth, 78c. Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and annotated by Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1987, p.84
In the 4th millennium B.C., in Sumer, Inanna embodied life, fertility, love, sex, war, justice and royal power, – but also the essence of femininity, the subversion of the forbidden, and the conjugation of opposites. Originally a local deity of Uruk, she gradually imposed herself throughout Mesopotamia, and as far as Assyria and Phoenicia, as the supreme deity, the Goddess par excellence. Over the millennia, her importance continued to grow in relation to the other divinities, transcending their specificities and particularities. In the 1st millennium BC, from the reign of Assurbanipal, the supremacy of Inanna, under her Akkadian name Ishtar, was such that she even took pre-eminence over the national god Ashur.
The etymological origin of the name Inanna can be explained phonetically by the Sumerian words nin, ‘lady’, and an ‘sky’, – ‘the Lady of Heaven’. Yet the name Inanna is never written using the cuneiform signs that represent the words nin, 𒊩𒌆 (SAL.TUG2), and an, 𒀭(AN). Inanna’s name is written using the single ideogram 𒈹, preceded by the generic sign 𒀭which was always attached in Sumer to the names of deities to designate their divine status. The cuneiform sign 𒈹 is in reality the later, and ‘horizontal’ transposition of the vertical symbol of the goddess, which figures a kind of totem pole in the most ancient representations of her name :
This symbol represents in a stylized way a pole decorated at its top with a woven crown of reeds, and wrapped with banners. These poles were placed on either side of the entrance to the temples dedicated to Inanna, and marked the limit between the profane and the sacred.
Curiously, around the same time, ancient Egypt used the hieroglyph nṯr to mean the word ‘God’, and this hieroglyph also graphically symbolizes a temple banner :
This hieroglyph obviously derives from the various forms of totem poles used near the entrance of Egyptian temples:
We can assume that the Sumerian symbol of Inanna and this Egyptian hieroglyph come from much more ancient sources, not without connection with the immemorial symbolism of the shamanic masts floating fabrics, foliage or feathers, and whose use is still observed today, throughout the world, in Asia, America, Europe and Africa…
It seems to me that in this convergence of symbols of the divine, in Sumer, in ancient Egypt and even in contemporary shamanism, there is the living trace of a mode of representation of the divine, whose origin is to be found in the first confrontations of Homo Sapiens with the ‘mystery’, from the depths of the Paleolithic. The poles bearing crowns of reeds, garlands or banners, symbolized since ancient times the subliminal perception of the Divine, whose ‘presence’ they revealed by the aerial breaths of which they were animated.
In Akkadian, Inanna took the Semitic name of Ishtar, of which one finds already the trace in Akkad, in Babylonia and in Assyria, even before the reign of Sargon of Akkad, known as « Sargon the Great », (-2300 BC). Scholars have linked the name Ishtar with the name of another Semitic god, Attar, mentioned in later inscriptions in Ugarit, Syria, and southern Arabia.
The famous vase from the Uruk civilization (4000 to 300 B.C.), which was found among other cult objects from the Uruk III period, depicts a column of naked men carrying baskets, vessels, and various dishes, as well as a ram and goats, to a female figure facing a man holding a box and a stack of bowls (which represent the cuneiform sign EN, meaning « high priest. The female figure, on the other hand, is next to two symbols of Inanna, two poles with reed crowns. The main center of the cult of Inanna was the temple of E-anna, in Uruk. E-anna means ‘the House of Heaven’, E- An, 𒂍𒀭. The cult of Inanna was observed over a period of more than four millennia, first in Uruk and Sumer, then in Babylon, Akkad and Assyria, as Ishtar, and in Phoenicia, as Astarte, and finally later in Greece, as Aphrodite, and in Rome, as Venus…
Her influence declined irreparably between the 1st and 5th centuries of our era, following the progression of Christianity, but she was still venerated in the Assyrian communities of upper Mesopotamia until the 18th century…
In many mythical stories, Inanna is inclined to take over the domains of competence of other deities, stealing for example from Enki, the God of Wisdom, the ‘me’, that is to say all the inventions and achievements, abstract and concrete, of ‘civilization’, as we will see in a moment, or dislodging the God of Heaven, An, to take his place in the temple of E-anna, or exercising a superior form of divine justice, by destroying Mount Ebih, which had not wanted, in its arrogance as a mountain sure of its strength and durability, to prostrate itself at his feet.
Inanna was certainly not felt by the Mesopotamians to be a « Mother » goddess, a divine figure supposed to embody the maternal woman or the idea of motherhood. So who was she?
To give a first idea, it is not uninteresting to return to the original texts. The text Inanna and Enki published in the Sumerian Textual Corpus of Literature (ETCSL) collated by the University of Oxford i begins to describe the personality of Inanna by an allusion to the beauty of her genitals:
« She put the šu-gura, the desert crown, on her head. …… when she went out to the shepherd, to the sheepfold, …… her genitals were remarkable. She praised herself, full of delight at her genitals, she praised herself, full of delight at her genitals « ii .
Inanna has no complex about her sex. She proudly shows it off and claims her desires and needs explicitly:
» Inana praises … her genitals in song: « These genitals, …, like a horn, … a great waggon, this moored Boat of Heaven … of mine, clothed in beauty like the new crescent moon, this waste land abandoned in the desert …, this field of ducks where my ducks sit, this high well-watered field of mine: my own genitals, the maiden’s, a well-watered opened-up mound — who will be their ploughman? My genitals, the lady’s, the moist and well-watered ground — who will put an ox there? » « Lady, the king shall plough them for you; Dumuzid the king shall plough them for you. » « Plough in my genitals, man of my heart! »…bathed her holy hips, …holy …, the holy basin « .iii
Another fragment of the Oxford ETCSL text Inanna and Enki clarifies Inanna’s ambiguou intentions and feelings about Enki, who also happens to be her ‘father:
« I, Inana, personally intend to go to the abzu, I shall utter a plea to Lord Enki. Like the sweet oil of the cedar, who will … for my holy … perfume? It shall never escape me that I have been neglected by him who has had sex. » iv
Enki receives her very well, and invites her to drink beer. An improvised part of underground drinking follows, between the God and the Goddess.
« So it came about that Enki and Inana were drinking beer together in the abzu, and enjoying the taste of sweet wine. The bronze aga vessels were filled to the brim, and the two of them started a competition, drinking from the bronze vessels of Uraš. « v
The real goal of Inanna was to win this competition, to make Enki drunk and to see him collapse into ethylic sleep, so that she could at her leisure rob him of the most precious goods of civilization, the ‘me’. The ‘me’, whose cuneiform sign 𒈨 combines the verticality of the divine gift and the horizontality of its sharing among men, these me are very numerous. The text gives a detailed sample:
« I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … » Holy Inana received heroism, power, wickedness, righteousness, the plundering of cities, making lamentations, rejoicing. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … »
Holy Inana received deceit, the rebel lands, kindness, being on the move, being sedentary. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may …not … »
Holy Inana received the craft of the carpenter, the craft of the coppersmith, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the leather-worker, the craft of the fuller, the craft of the builder, the craft of the reed-worker. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may not .…… »
Holy Inana received wisdom, attentiveness, holy purification rites, the shepherd’s hut, piling up glowing charcoals, the sheepfold, respect, awe, reverent silence. « In the name of my power, in the name of my abzu, I will give them to holy Inana, my daughter; may not . »vi
Inanna in turn recites and recapitulates the entire list of these attributes obtained through cunning, and she adds, for good measure:
« He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary. »vii
Rich basket, conquered of high fight, after force sips of beer, for an ambitious goddess, plunged in the darkness of the abzu…
Reading these texts, imbued with a jubilant force, to which is added the astonishing variety of archaeological and documentary materials concerning Inanna, one can hardly be surprised at the multitude of interpretations that contemporary Sumer specialists make about her.
The great Sumer scholar Samuel Noah Kramer describes Inanna, rather soberly, as « the deity of love, – ambitious, aggressive and demanding ».viii
Thorkild Jacobsen, a scholar of Mesopotamian religions, writes: « She is depicted in all the roles that a woman can fill, except those that require maturity and a sense of responsibility: she is never described as a wife and helper, let alone as a mother.ix Sylvia Brinton-Perera adds: « Although she has two sons and the kings and people of Sumer are called her offspring, she is not a mother figure in the sense we understand. Like the goddess Artemis, she belongs to that « intermediate region, halfway between the state of a mother and that of a virgin, a region full of joie de vivre and an appetite for murder, fecundity and animality ». She represents the quintessence of the young girl in what she has of positive, sensual, ferocious, dynamic, eternally young virgin (…). She is never a peaceful housewife nor a mother subjected to the law of the father. She keeps her independence and her magnetism, whether she is in love, newly married or a widow « x. Tikva Frymer-Kensky adopts a point of view with resolutely feminist and gendered perspectives, – without fear of anachronism, more than five millennia later: « Inanna represents the undomesticated woman, she embodies all the fear and fascination that such a woman arouses (…) Inanna is a woman in a man’s life, which makes her fundamentally different from other women, and which places her on the borderline that marks the differences between men and women. Inanna transcends gender polarities, it is said that she transforms men into women and vice versa. The cult of Inanna attests to her role as the one who blurs the gender boundary (and therefore protects it).xi
Johanna Stuckey, a specialist in religious studies and women’s studies, takes up this point of view and, like Tikva Frymer-Kensky, uses the same word ‘frontier’ to describe her ambivalence: « Inanna is on the frontier of full femininity (…) Inanna was a woman who behaved like a man and basically lived the same existence as young men, exulting in combat and constantly seeking new sexual experiences.xii Moreover, Mesopotamian texts usually refer to her as ‘the woman’, and even when she ‘warriors’ she always remains ‘the woman’.xiii
From all this a curious image emerges, rich, complex, transcending all norms, all clichés. Inanna is unique and incomparable, she is the « wonder of Sumer », she is « the » Goddess par excellence, – one of her symbols is the famous eight-pointed starxiv 𒀭, which is supposed to represent originally the star of the morning and the one of the evening, Venus, but which will end up representing in the Sumerian language the very concept of ‘divinity’. Inanna is at the same time the daughter of the God of Heaven, An, or, according to other traditions, that of the Moon God, Nanna (or Sin, in Akkadian), the sister of the Sun God, Utu (or Shamash in Akkadian), and the very ambiguous wife of the God ‘Son of Life’ (Dumuzi, in Akkadian Tammuz) whom she will send to death in his place, but she is above all totally free, in love and fickle, aggressive and wise, warrior and benefactress, provocative and seeking justice, taking all risks, including that of confronting her father, the supreme God, the God of Heaven, An, to take his place. She is a feminine and unclassifiable divinity, going far beyond the patterns of the patriarchal societies of then and now.
She is both the goddess of prostitutes and the goddess of marital sexuality, but above all she embodies the (divine) essence of pure desire, she is the goddess of passion that leads unrestrainedly to sexual union and ecstasy, detached from any link with any socially recognized value.
Quite late, in the 17th century B.C., the Babylonian king Ammi-ditana composed a hymn celebrating Inanna/Ishtar, which is one of the most beautiful in all the literature of ancient Mesopotamia:
« Celebrate the Goddess, the most august of Goddesses! Honored be the Lady of the peoples, the greatest of the gods! Celebrate Ishtar, the most august of goddesses, Honored be the Sovereign of women, the greatest of the gods! – She is joyful and clothed in love. Full of seduction, venality, voluptuousness! Ishtar-joyous clothed with love, Full of seduction, of venality, of voluptuousness! – Her lips are all honey! Her mouth is alive! At Her aspect, joy bursts! She is majestic, head covered with jewels: Splendid are Her forms; Her eyes, piercing and vigilant! – She is the goddess to whom one can ask advice She holds the fate of all things in her hands! From her contemplation is born joy, Joy of life, glory, luck, success! – She loves good understanding, mutual love, happiness, She holds benevolence! The girl she calls has found a mother in her: She points to her in the crowd, She articulates her name! – Who is it? Who then can equal Her greatness?xv
The most famous myth that has established the reputation of Inanna, in the past and still today, is undoubtedly the story of her descent to Kur xvi, the underground and dark domain, the world below, to try to take possession of this kingdom beyond the grave at the expense of her elder sister Ereshkigal. We have two versions, one Sumerian, the other Akkadian.
Here is the beginning of the Sumerian version:
« One day, from heaven, she wanted to leave for Hell, From heaven, the goddess wanted to go to Hell, From heaven, Inanna wanted to go to Hell. My Lady left heaven and earth to descend to the world below, Inanna left heaven and earth to descend to the world below. She gave up her advantages to go down to the world below! To descend to the world below, she left the E-Anna of Uruk (…) She equipped herself with the Seven Powers, After having gathered them and held them in her hand And having taken them all, in full, to leave! So she wore the Turban, Crown-of-the-steppe ; Attached to her forehead the Heart-Catchers; Grabbed the Module of lazulite; Adjusted to the neck the lazulite Necklace; Elegantly placed the Pearl Couplings on her throat; Passed on his hands the golden Bracelets; Stretched on his chest the Breast-Cover [called] ‘Man! come! come!’ ; Wrapped his body with the pala, the royal Cloak, And made up his eyes with the Blush [called] ‘Let him come! Let him come’. » xvii
The Akkadian version is much darker, and Ishtar, much less coquettish than Inanna…
« In the Land of No Return, the domain of Ereshkigal, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, decided to surrender! She decided to surrender, the daughter of Sin, To the Dark Abode, the residence of Irkalla, In the Abode from which never come out those who have entered it, By the way there is no return, In the Abode where the arrivals are deprived of light, subsisting only on humus, fed by earth, Slumped in darkness, never seeing the day, Clothed, like birds, in a garment of feathers, While dust piles up on locks and sashes. At the sovereign divinity of the Immense Earth, the goddess who sits in the Irkalla, In Ereshkigal, ruler of the Immense Earth, The goddess who dwells in the Irkalla, in this very house of Irkalla From which those who go there no longer return, This place where there is no light for anyone, This place where the dead are covered with dust, This dark abode where the stars never rise. « xviii
The affair turned into a disaster for Inanna/Ishtar (in the true, etymological, sense of the word disaster, the ‘fall of the star’…). Ereshkigal did not take kindly to his sister’s initiative in usurping his kingdom.
« When Ereshkigal heard this address, His face turned pale like a branch cut from a tamarisk tree, And, like a splinter of reed, her lips were darkened! What does she want from me? What else has she imagined? I want to banquet in person with the Annunaki (She must say to herself); To feed myself like them with murky water. »xix
Following Ereshkigal’s injunctions, Inanna/Ishatar is sentenced to death by the seven chthonic gods, the Anunnaki. She is executed, and Ereshkigal hangs her corpse on a nail.
But the God Enki, God of Water, (in Akkadian, Ea), mobilizes, and sends to her rescue two creatures explicitly presented as ‘inverts’, who will go and resurrect her with the water of life.
Some have seen this as an opportunity for a Christ-like interpretation.
« The soul, represented by Inanna, paid for its arrogance in claiming to conquer the netherworld. It ‘died’ in the material world, represented by the netherworld, but was purified and born again. The kurgarra and galaturra (…) correspond to the Gnostic ‛adjuvant’ (helper), or ‛appeal’ sent by the Father (…) to awaken the ‘sleeping’ soul. These adjutants console Ereshkigal in the midst of suffering, which, in reality, is the guilty face of Ishtar (= the fallen soul) who, at that moment, moans ‘like a woman about to give birth’. One of the adjutants pours on the body « the plant that gives life », and the other does the same with « the water that gives life ». The sprinkling of the water of life on Inanna’s body corresponds to the baptism which, in the Exegesis of the Soul, which deals with the Soul, is indispensable for the rebirth and purification of the soul. (…) Inanna, the impure soul, was saved and was able to return to her original state, thus showing the others the way to salvation. In other words, after being « awakened » by the « helpers », she could begin her gradual ascent from death to life, from impurity to purity. And yet, her rescue and resurrection could not have taken place without a savior, someone who could take her place. It is the duty of the good shepherd/king Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband, to play the role of this savior. According to Parpola, Dumuzi’s sacrifice explains why the king, the son of a god and therefore a god himself, had to die. He was sent to earth to be the perfect man, the shepherd, to set an example for his people and guide them on the right path. The king, like Dumuzi, died for the redemption of innocent souls, represented by Inanna. But as Inanna/Ishtar herself was resurrected from death, so too was her savior, Dumuzi the king and perfect man, promised resurrection. « xx
In a forthcoming article, I propose to study the relationship between Inanna and Dumuzi in greater detail by developing this allegory, – elaborated in Sumer over six thousand years ago, this allegory of the fallen soul, wanting to come out of death and seeking resurrection, begging the savior God, Dumuzi, 𒌉𒍣, the God « son of Life (𒌉 from or dumu, ‘son’ and 𒍣 zi, ‘life’ or ‘spirit’) to sacrifice himself for her. ..
xivNote that this star of Inanna is sometimes represented with only six branches, thus prefiguring, by more than two millennia, the Jewish symbol, the ‘Magen David’ or ‘Star of David’, which imposed itself late as a symbol of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century of our era.
xvHymn of Ammi-ditana from Babylon to Ishtar, My translation in English from the French translation by J. Bottéro, The oldest religion in the world, in Mesopotamia, Paris, 1998, p.282-285.
xviThe Mesopotamian netherworld had several Sumerian names: Kur, Irkalla, Kukku, Arali, Kigal and in Akkadian, Erṣetu.
xviiJean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p.276-277
xviiiJean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p. 319-325.
xixJean Bottéro and Samuel Noah Kramer. When the gods made man: Mesopotamian mythology. Gallimard, 1989, p. 320
xx Pirjo Lapinkivi, The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence, State Archives of Assyria Studies XV, Helsinki, University Press, 2004, p.192. Text quoted by F. Vandendorpe, Inanna: analysis of the symbolic effectiveness of the myth. Univ. of Leuven 2010
More than two millennia before the times of Melchisedechi and Abraham, other wandering and pious men were already singing the hymns of Ṛg Veda. Passing them on faithfully, generation after generation, they celebrated through hymns and prayers, the mysteries of a Supreme God, a Lord creator of worlds, of all creatures, of all lives.
Intelligence of the divine did just not begin in Ur in Chaldea, nor sacred wisdom in Salem.
Some sort of intelligence and wisdom probably reigned, more than five thousand years ago, among chosen, attentive, dedicated spirits. These men left as a legacy the hymns they sang, in precise and chiselled phrases, evoking the salient mysteries that already assailed them:
Of the Creator of all things, what can be said? What is His name?
What is the primary source of « Being »? How to name the primordial « Sun », from which the entire Cosmos emerged?
Who is really the Lord imposing His lordship on all beings, – and on the ‘Being’ itself ?
And what does this pronoun, Who, really mean in this context?
What is the role of Man, his true part in this mystery at play?
A Vedic hymn, famous among all, summarizes and condenses all these difficult questions into one single one, both limpid and obscure.
It is Hymn X, 121 of Ṛg Veda, often titled « To the Unknown God ».
In the English translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, this Hymn is entitled « Ka ».iiKa, in Sanskrit, means «who ? »
This Hymn is dedicated to the God whom the Veda literally calls « Who? »
Griffith translates the exclamation recurring nine times throughout this ten-verses Hymn as follows :
« What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
But from the point of view of Sanskrit grammar, it is perfectly possible to personify this interrogative pronoun, Ka (Who?) as the very name of the Unknown God.
Hence this possible translation :
To the God ‘Who?’
1. In the beginning appeared the Golden Germ.
As soon as he was born, he became the Lord of Being,
The support of Earth and this Heaven.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
2. He, who gives life force and endurance,
He, whose commandments are laws for the Gods,
He, whose shadow is Immortal Life, – and Death.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
3. ‘Who?‘ iii – in His greatness appeared, the only sovereign
Of everything that lives, breathes and sleeps,
He, the Lord of Man and all four-membered creatures.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
4. To Him belongs by right, by His own power,
The snow-covered mountains, the flows of the world and the sea.
His arms embrace the four quarters of the sky.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
5. ‘Who?’ holds the Mighty Heavens and the Earth in safety,
He formed the light, and above it the vast vault of Heaven.
‘Who?’ measured the ether of the intermediate worlds.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
6. Towards Him, trembling, forces crushed,
Subjected to his glory, raise their eyes.
Through Him, the sun of dawn projects its light.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
7. When came the mighty waters, carrying
The Universal Germ from which Fire springs,
The One Spirit of God was born to be.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
8. This Unit, which, in its power, watched over the Waters,
Pregnant with the life forces engendering the Sacrifice,
She is the God of Gods, and there is nothing on Her side.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
9. O Father of the Earth, ruling by immutable laws,
Give it to us, and may we become lords of oblation!
What is this divine Germ (Hiraṇyagarbha , or ‘Golden Germ’, in Sanskrit), mentioned in verses 1, 7 and 8?
One does not know, but one can sense it. The Divine is not the result of a creation, nor of an evolution, or of a becoming, as if it was not, – then was. The Veda here attempts a breakthrough in the understanding of the very nature of the divinity, through the image of the ‘germ’, the image of pure life.
The idea of a ‘God’ is only valid from the creature’s point of view. The idea of ‘God’ appears best through its relation to the idea of ‘creature’. For Himself, God is not ‘God’, – He must be, in His own eyes, something completely different, which has nothing to do with the pathos of creation and the creature.
One can make the same remark about « Being ». The « Being » appears only when the beings appear. God creates the beings and the Being at the same time. He Himself is beyond Being, since it is through Him that Being comes to « be ». And before the beings, before the Being itself, it seems that a divine, mysterious life obviously ‘lived’. Not that it ‘was’, since the Being was not yet, but it ‘lived’, hidden, and then ‘was born’. But from what womb? From what prior, primordial, primal uterus? We do not know. We only know that, in an abyssmal mystery (and not in time or space), an even deeper mystery, a sui generis mystery, grew, in this very depth, which was then to come to being, but without the Mystery itself being revealed by this growth and by this outcoming of being.
The place of origin of the mystery is not known, but the Veda calls it ‘Golden Germ’ (hiraṇyagarbha). This metaphor of a ‘Germ’ implies (logically?) some primal ovary and womb, and some desire, some life older than all life, and older than the Being itself.
Life came from this Living One, in Whom, by Whom and from Whom, it was given to the Being ; it was then given to be, and it was given thereby to beings, to all beings.
This mysterious process, which the word ‘Germ’ evokes, is also called ‘Sacrifice’, a word that appears in verse 8: Yajña (यज्ञ). Why « sacrifice » ? Because the divine Seed dies to Herself, She sacrifices Herself, so that out of Her own Life, life, all lives, may be born.
The Veda also says : May God be born to Himself, through His sacrifice…
What a strange thing to say!
By being born, God becomes ‘God’, He becomes the Lord of Being, for the Being, and the Lord of beings. Hymn 121 takes here its mystical flight, and celebrates a God who is the Father of creatures, and who is also always transcendent to the Being, to the world and to his own ‘divinity’ (inasmuch as this divinity allows itself to be seen in its Creation, and allows itself to be grasped in the Unity that it founds).
But who is this God who is so transcendent? Who is this God who hides, behind the appearance of the Origin, below or beyond the very Beginning?
There is no better noun, one might think, than this interrogative pronoun: ‘Who?’.
This pronoun in the form of a question, this ‘Who?’ , this Ka, does not call for an answer. Rather, it calls for another question, which Man addresses to himself: To whom? To whom must Man, seized by the unheard-of depth of the mystery, in turn offer his own sacrifice?
A haunting litany: « What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
It is not that the name of this God is strictly speaking unknown. Verse 10 uses the expression Prajāpati , ‘Lord of creatures’. It is found in other texts, for example in this passage from Taittirīya Saṁhitā :
« Indra, the latest addition to Prajāpati, was named ‘Lord of the Gods’ by his Father, but they did not accept him. Indra asked her Father to give her the splendor that is in the sun, so that she could be ‘Lord of the Gods’. Prajāpati answered her:
But these two names, Prajāpati and Ka, refer only to something related to creatures, referring either to their Creator, or simply to their ignorance or perplexity.
These names say nothing about the essence of God. This essence is undoubtedly above all intelligibility, and above all essence.
Ka, ‘who?’, in the original Sanskrit text, is actually used in the singular dative form of the pronoun, kasmai (to whom?).
One cannot ask the question ‘who?’ with regard to ‘God’, but only to ‘whom’? One cannot seek to question His essence, but only to try to distinguish Him among all the other possible objects of worship.
God is mentally unknowable. Except perhaps in that we know that a part of His essence is ‘sacrifice’. But we still know nothing of the essence of His ‘sacrifice’. One may only ‘participate’ in it, more or less actively.
One may try to better understand the essence of one’s own sacrifice, one’s own ‘oblation’, if one is ready to pay the price it demands. Indeed, one is both subject and object of one’s oblation. In the same way, God is both subject and object of His sacrifice. One can then try to understand, by anagogy, the essence of His sacrifice through the essence of one’s own oblation.
This precisely is what Raimundo Panikkar describes as the essential ‘Vedic experience’. It is certainly not the personal experience of those Vedic priests and prophets who were chanting their hymns two thousand years before Abraham met Melchisedek, but it could be at least a certain experience of the sacred, of which we ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ could still feel the breath and the burning.
iמַלְכֵּי-צֶדֶק , (malkî-ṣedeq) : ‘King of Salem’ and ‘Priest of the Most High (El-Elyôn)’.
iiRalph T.H. Griffith. The Hymns of the Rig Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publihers. Delhi, 2004, p.628
iiiIn the original Sanskit: क , Ka ? « To Whom ? »
iv Prajāpati : » Lord of creatures « . This expression, so often quoted in the later texts of the Atharva Veda and Brāhmaṇa, is never used in the Ṛg Veda, except in this one place (RV X,121,10). It may therefore have been interpolated later. Or, – more likely in my opinion, it represents here, effectively and spontaneously, the first historically recorded appearance (in the oldest religious tradition in the world that has formally come down to us), or the ‘birth’ of the concept of ‘Lord of Creation’, ‘Lord of creatures’, – Prajāpati .
vTB II, 2, 10, 1-2 quoted by Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience. Mantramañjarī. Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1977, p.69
After an absolute, mystical experience of the end, or an NDE, one’s existence may then, probably, be focused on the fact that one has witnessed the indescribable as such, the non-separation of the whole, an imminence of actual death, and yet the survival of consciousness, and the possibility of its super-life. The miracle of which one has been the dumbfounded and almost impotent witness, destroys forever the face value of ideas, forms, sensations, human realities, which all have become too ‘provincial’.
The mystical experience has no essence. For some it represents the destruction of the individual, of the self. For others it prefigures a change of paradigm. For still others, there is nothing to say, nothing to prove, everything is beyond imagination, and expression.
It is quite inexplicable that one’s unassuming self can somewhat unexpectedly absorb and sustain the entire mystical experience, though it effectively destroys any idea of the Divine, of the Cosmos, and even the Self.
It is equally incomprehensible that the (human) self remains capable of resisting the ecstatic impact of the (divine) Self. Face to Face. Panim.
How can it be that the human self suddenly gets out of itself and ecstatically merges with the divine Self, disappears into it, remains conscious and aware of this assimilation, this disintegration, throughout the cancellation of itself?
The individual, the self, is to be swallowed up in the Whole, the Godhead. The paradox is that this small self, swallowed up by the divine ocean, never loses its consciousness of still being this particular self, a small but effective point of consciousness tossed about in an unheard-of ecstatic storm, a wind of infinite strength. This weak self remains irresistibly invincible, unbreakable, it does not dissolve, ever, whatever infinitely powerful is the Self that invades and overcomes it…
Mysticism and tragedy have this in common that they transform into close neighbors, death and life, the nothing and the whole, the freedom and the dissolution of the self. The mystic experience melts, allows oneself to be absorbed, in and by these superior powers ; the tragic experience confronts the self with them and shatters it. In the first case, the self escapes any personal interpretation of what led it there, free to rush without restraint in an indescribable ecstasy. In the second case, the tragic self loses its individuality at the very moment when it makes the supreme choice, the one that is supposed to confirm it in the purity of the Self, the one in which it discovers the proper power of exaltation. Who can say then what is alive and what is dead, in the mystical self and in the tragic self, so much death now seems a super-life, and life a kind of mild death.
Heraclitus famously said: “The immortals are mortal and the mortals, immortal; the life of some is the death of others, the death of some is the life of others.”i
Super-life, or its miracle, is not something you see every day, admittedly. There are some people who laugh about any sort of miracle. The passage of the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and the clouds, the resurrection of Lazarus, the multiplication of the loaves, they just laugh about it. And how old-fashioned it all seems to them, how useless, how forever devoid of any (modern) meaning!
But for the witnesses who see with their own eyes, there is no doubt, only the miracle is real, really real, resplendent with surreality. But this glitter and splash is also a door to death. The miracle in reality announces an after-world, a meta-reality, for which nothing prepares us, except what the miracle precisely lets us glimpse.
Death then, for those who accept to learn the lesson, is only an obligatory passage, like the Red Sea once was, towards a desert traversed by columns and clouds, towards some putative Promised Land, or some resurrection, in another universe where one will be satiated with ‘super-essential’ bread (in Greek epiousion, – as in τὸν ἄρτον τὸν ἐπιούσιον).
When death approaches with its velvet steps the eyes open. The soul becomes more conscious of itself, not of its victories or defeats, which then matter little, but of its irresistible inner drive for life. Life wants to live. But the border is there, tangible, the soul approaches it, is it a wall, a door, a bottomless abyss?
Until the last moment the enigma remains. Only a few souls have seen in advance what was beyond the experience. By what miracle? They see what awaits them behind death, something like a thousand suns, or rather a zillion suns, as words fail them. And they see their very self melting away, a drop of pure fire in the infinite ocean.
No, no, that is just illusion, assert the skeptics, simple chemistry of the brain during its initial necrosis, derisory neurochemical whirlwind, panic of asphyxiated synapses.
What does the polemic matter at this hour? One moment more and one will be fixed for ever, in a direction or another. One cannot, by the sole force of reasoning, exclude one or the other way, the one leading to nothingness and the one opening on the ocean of possibilities. After all, was not birth, if one remembers, like a red and very narrow passage, leaving a first world behind?
It is in the last moments, oh paradox, that life takes on all its meaning, takes on all its weight, fills itself with all the emotions, regrets, hopes, laughter and happiness. All this melts into a single point, hyper-dense, heavy with all the experience, an over-concentrated center, and which is, however, no more than a light baggage, a meager bundle, suddenly, for the eternal migrant that the living being discovers to be in the vicinity of death.
The essence of the man lies in this unique point, made of a nebula of myriads of moments, this total sum of existence and oblivion. This is another way of solving the hackneyed question of essence and existence. Neither one nor the other precedes. It is this single dense point, gravitating from a whole life, which is only real, miraculously real, and which allows to add a little to the oceanic immensity.
The surreal ocean that aggregates, and agrees, all that has lived, and will live.
Taken together, the Self, the inner being, hidden in its abyss, under several veils, and the Ego, the outer being, filled with sensations, thoughts, feelings, vibrating with the life of circumstances and contingencies, offer the image of a radical duality. This constitutive, intrinsic duality is analogous, it seems to me, to that of the God who ‘hides’ Himself, but who nevertheless reveals Himself in some way, and sometimes lets Himself be seen (or understood). This is a very ancient (human) experience of the divine. Far from presenting Himself to man in all His glory, God certainly hides Himself, everywhere, all the time, and in many ways. There are indeed many ways for Him to let Himself be hidden. But how would we know that God exists, if He were always, irremediably, hidden? First of all, the Jewish Scriptures, and not the least, affirm that He is, and that He is hidden. Isaiah proclaims: Aken attah El misttatter. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר .
Moreover, though admittedly a negative proof, it is easy to see how many never see Him, always deny Him, and ignore Him without remorse. But, although very well hidden, God is discovered, sometimes, it is said, to the pure, to the humble, and also to those who ‘really’ seek Him.
Anecdotes abound on this subject, and they must be taken for what they are worth. Rabindranath Tagore wrote: « There was a curious character who came to see me from time to time and used to ask all sorts of absurd questions. Once, for example, he asked me, ‘Have you ever seen God, Sir, with your own eyes?’ And when I had to answer him in the negative, he said that he had seen Him. ‘And what did you see?’ I asked. – ‘He was agitated, convulsing and pulsating before my eyes’, he answered.» ii
I liked this last sentence, at first reading, insofar as the divine seemed to appear here (an undeniable innovation), not as a noun, a substance, or any monolithic or monotheistic attribute, but in the form of three verbs, knotted together – ‘agitate’, ‘convulse’, ‘palpitate’.
Unfortunately, either in metaphysical irony or as a precaution against laughter, the great Tagore immediately nipped this embryonic, agitated, convulsive and palpitating image of divinity in the bud in the very next sentence, inflicting on the reader a brief and Jesuitical judgment: « You can imagine that we were not interested in engaging in deep discussions with such an individual. » iii
For my part, on the contrary, I could not imagine that. It is certain that, whatever it may be, the deep « nature », the « essence » of God, is hidden much more often than it shows itself or lets itself be found.
About God, therefore, the doubt lasts. But, from time to time, sparks fly. Fires blaze. Two hundred and fifty years before the short Bengali theophany just mentioned, Blaise Pascal dared a revolutionary and anachronistic (pre-Hegelian and non-materialist) dialectic, of the ‘and, and’ type. He affirmed that « men are at the same time unworthy of God and capable of God: unworthy by their corruption, capable by their first nature » iv.
Man: angel and beast.
The debate would be very long, and very undecided. Excellent dialectician, Pascal specified, very usefully: « Instead of complaining that God has hidden himself, you will give him thanks that he has discovered himself so much; and you will give him thanks again that he has not discovered himself to the superb wise men, unworthy of knowing a God so holy. » v Sharp as a diamond, the Pascalian sentence never makes acceptance of the conveniences and the clichés, of the views of the PolitBuro of all obediences, and of the religious little marquis. Zero tolerance for any arrogance, any smugness, in these transcendent subjects, in these high matters. On the other hand, what a balance, on the razor blade, between extremes and dualisms, not to blunt them, but to exacerbate them, to magnify them: « If there were no darkness man would not feel his corruption, if there were no light man would not hope for a remedy, so it is not only right, but useful for us that God be hidden in part and discovered in part since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his misery, and to know his misery without knowing God. » vi This is not all. God makes it clear that He is hiding. That seems to be His strategy. This is how He wants to present Himself, in His creation and with man, with His presence and with His absence… « That God wanted to hide himself. If there were only one religion, God would be very obvious. Likewise, if there were only martyrs in our religion.
God being thus hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true, and any religion which does not give the reason for it is not instructive. Ours does all this. Vere tu es deus absconditus.vii«
Here, Pascal quotes Isaiah in Latin. « Truly, You are a hidden God. » Deus absconditus.
I prefer, for my part, the strength of Hebrew sound: El misttatter.
How would we have known that God was hidden if Scripture had not revealed Him? The Scripture certainly reveals Him, in a clear and ambiguous way. « It says in so many places that those who seek God will find him. It does not speak of this light as the day at noon. It is not said that those who seek the day at noon, or water in the sea, will find it; and so it is necessary that the evidence of God is not such in nature; also it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. » viii Absconditus in Latin, misttatter in Hebrew, caché in French.
But, in the Greek translation of this verse of Isaiah by the seventy rabbis of Alexandria, we read:
σὺ γὰρ εἶ θεός, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδειμεν Su gar eï theos, kai ouk êdeimen.
Which litterally means: « Truly You are God, and we did not know it »… A whole different perspective appears, then. Languages inevitably bring their own veils. How do we interpret these variations? The fact that we do not know whether God is ‘really God’, or whether He is ‘really hidden’, does not necessarily imply that He might not really be God, or that He will always be hidden. Pascal states that if God has only appeared once, the chances are that He is always in a position to appear again, when He pleases. But did He appear only once? Who can say with absolute certainty? On the other hand, if He really never appeared to any man, then yes, we would be justified in making the perfectly reasonable observation that the divinity is indeed ‘absent’, and we would be led to make the no less likely hypothesis that it will remain so. But this would not prevent, on the other hand, that other interpretations of this absence could be made, such as that man is decidedly unworthy of the divine presence (hence his absence), or even that man is unworthy of the consciousness of this absence.
Now Pascal, for his part, really saw God, – he saw Him precisely on Monday, November 23, 1654, from half past ten in the evening to half past midnight. « Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not God of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. » ix This point being acquired (why put in doubt this writing of Pascal, discovered after his death, and sewn in the lining of his pourpoint?), one can let oneself be carried along by the sequences, the deductions and the exercise of reason that Pascal himself proposes.
« If nothing of God had ever appeared, this eternal deprivation would be equivocal, and could just as well refer to the absence of any divinity as to the unworthiness of men to know it; but the fact that he appears sometimes, and not always, removes the equivocation. If he appears once, he is always; and thus one cannot conclude anything except that there is a God, and that men are unworthy of him» x. Pascal’s reasoning is tight, impeccable. How can one not follow it and approve its course? It must be admitted: either God has never appeared on earth or among men, or He may have appeared at least once or a few times. This alternative embodies the ‘tragic’ question, – a ‘theatrical’ question on the forefront of the world stage… One must choose. Either the total and eternal absence and disappearance of God on earth, since the beginning of time, or a few untimely divine appearances, a few rare theophanies, reserved for a few chosen ones…
In all cases, God seemed to have left the scene of the world since His last appearance, or to have decided never to appear again, thus putting in scene His deliberate absence. But, paradoxically, the significance of this absence had not yet been perceived, and even less understood, except by a tiny handful of out-of-touch thinkers, for whom, in the face of this absence of God, « no authentic human value has any more necessary foundation, and, on the other hand, all non-values remain possible and even probable. » xi A Marxist and consummate dialectician, Lucien Goldmann, devoted his thesis to the ‘hidden god’. He established a formal link between the theophany staged by Isaiah, and the ‘tragic vision’ incarnated by Racine, and Pascal. « The voice of God no longer speaks to man in an immediate way. Here is one of the fundamental points of the tragic thought. Vere tu es Deus absconditus‘, Pascal will write. » xii Pascal’s quotation of the verse from Isaiah will be taken up several times by Goldmann, like an antiphon, and even in the title of his book. « Deus absconditus. Hidden God. Fundamental idea for the tragic vision of God, and for Pascal’s work in particular (…): God is hidden from most men but he is visible to those he has chosen by granting them grace. » xiii
Goldmann interprets Pascal in his own strictly ‘dialectical’ way. He rejects any reading of Pascal according to binary oppositions ‘either…or…’. « This way of understanding the idea of the hidden God would be false and contrary to the whole of Pascalian thought which never says yes or no but always yes and no. The hidden God is for Pascal a God who is present and absent and not present sometimes and absent sometimes; but always present and always absent. » xiv The constant presence of opposites and the work of immanent contradiction demand it. And this presence of opposites is itself a very real metaphor for the absent presence (or present absence) of the hidden God. « The being of the hidden God is for Pascal, as for the tragic man in general, a permanent presence more important and more real than all empirical and sensible presences, the only essential presence. A God always absent and always present, that is the center of tragedy. » xv
But what does ‘always present and always absent‘ really mean? This is the ‘dialectical’ answer of a Marxist thinker tackling the (tragic) theophany of absence, – as seen by the prophet Isaiah, and by Pascal. In this difficult confrontation with such unmaterialist personalities, Goldmann felt the need to call to the rescue another Marxist, Georg von Lucàcs, to support his dialectical views on the absent (and present) God. « In 1910, without thinking of Pascal, Lucàcs began his essay: ‘Tragedy is a game, a game of man and his destiny, a game in which God is the spectator. But he is only a spectator, and neither his words nor his gestures are ever mixed with the words and gestures of the actors. Only his eyes rest on them’. xvi
To then pose the central problem of all tragic thought: ‘Can he still live, the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen?’ Is there not incompatibility between life and the divine presence? » xvii
It is piquant to see a confirmed Marxist make an implicit allusion to the famous passage in Exodus where the meeting of God and Moses on Mount Horeb is staged, and where the danger of death associated with the vision of the divine face is underlined. It is no less piquant to see Lucàcs seeming to confuse (is this intentional?) the ‘gaze of God’ falling on man with the fact that man ‘sees the face’ of God… It is also very significant that Lucàcs, a Marxist dialectician, combines, as early as 1910, an impeccable historical materialism with the storm of powerful inner tensions, of deep spiritual aspirations, going so far as to affirm the reality of the ‘miracle’ (for God alone)…
What is perhaps even more significant is that the thought of this Hungarian Jew, a materialist revolutionary, seems to be deeply mixed with a kind of despair as to the human condition, and a strong ontological pessimism, tempered with a putative openness towards the reality of the divine (miracle)… « Daily life is an anarchy of chiaroscuro; nothing is ever fully realized, nothing reaches its essence… everything flows, one into the other, without barriers in an impure mixture; everything is destroyed and broken, nothing ever reaches the authentic life. For men love in existence what it has of atmospheric, of uncertain… they love the great uncertainty like a monotonous and sleepy lullaby. They hate all that is univocal and are afraid of it (…) The man of the empirical life never knows where his rivers end, because where nothing is realized everything remains possible (…) But the miracle is realization (…) It is determined and determining; it penetrates in an unforeseeable way in the life and transforms it in a clear and univocal account. He removes from the soul all its deceptive veils woven of brilliant moments and vague feelings rich in meaning; drawn with hard and implacable strokes, the soul is thus in its most naked essence before his gaze. » And Lucàcs to conclude, in an eminently unexpected apex: « But before God the miracle alone is real. » xviii
Strange and provocative sentence, all the more mysterious that it wants to be materialist and dialectic…
Does Lucàcs invite man to consider history (or revolution) as a miracle that he has to realize, like God? Or does he consider historical materialism as the miraculous unfolding of something divine in man? Stranger still is Lucien Goldmann’s commentary on this sentence of Lucàcs: « We can now understand the meaning and importance for the tragic thinker and writer of the question: ‘Can the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen still live?’» xix
But, isn’t the classic question rather: ‘Can the man who looks up to God still live? Doesn’t Lucàcs’ new, revised question, taken up by Goldmann, imply a univocal answer ? Such as : – ‘For man to live, God must be hidden’ or even, more radically: ‘For man to live, God must die’. But this last formulation would undoubtedly sound far too ‘Christian’…
In the end, can God really ‘hide’ or a fortiori can He really ‘die’? Are these words, ‘hide’, ‘die’, really compatible with a transcendent God? Is Isaiah’s expression, ‘the hidden God’ (El misttatter), clear, univocal, or does it itself hide a universe of less apparent, more ambiguous meanings? A return to the text of Isaiah is no doubt necessary here. In theory, and to be complete, it would also be necessary to return to other religious traditions, even more ancient than the Jewish one, which have also dealt with the theme of the hidden god (or the unknown god), notably the Vedic tradition and that of ancient Egypt. The limits of this article do not allow it. Nevertheless, it must be said emphatically that the intuition of a ‘hidden god’ is probably as old as humanity itself. However, it must be recognized that Isaiah has, from the heart of Jewish tradition, strongly and solemnly verbalized the idea of the ‘hidden God’, while immediately associating it with that of the ‘saving God’. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר–אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מוֹשִׁיעַ. Aken attah, El misttatter – Elohai Israel, mochi’a. « Truly, You, hidden God – God of Israel, Savior. » xx A few centuries after Isaiah, the idea of the God of Israel, ‘hidden’ and ‘savior’, became part of the consciousness called, perhaps too roughly, ‘Judeo-Christian’. It is therefore impossible to understand the semantic value of the expression « hidden God » without associating it with « God the savior », in the context of the rich and sensitive inspiration of the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps, moreover, other metaphorical, anagogical or mystical meanings are still buried in Isaiah’s verses, so obviously full of a sensitive and gripping mystery?
Shortly before directly addressing the ‘hidden God’ and ‘savior’, Isaiah had reported the words of the God of Israel addressing the Persian Cyrus, – a key figure in the history of Israel, at once Persian emperor, savior of the Jewish people, figure of the Messiah, and even, according to Christians, a prefiguration of Christ. This last claim was not totally unfounded, at least on the linguistic level, for Cyrus is clearly designated by Isaiah as the « Anointed » (mochi’a)xxi of the Lord. Now the Hebrew word mochi’a is translated precisely as christos, ‘anointed’ in Greek, and ‘messiah‘ in English.
According to Isaiah, this is what God said to His ‘messiah’, Cyrus: « I will give you treasures (otserot) in darkness (ḥochekh), and hidden (misttarim) riches (matmunei) , that you may know that I am YHVH, calling you by your name (chem), – the God of Israel (Elohai Israel). » xxii
Let us note incidentally that the word matmunei, ‘riches’, comes from the verb טָמַן, taman, ‘to hide, to bury’, as the verse says: « all darkness (ḥochekh) bury (tamun) his treasures » xxiii. We thus learn that the ‘treasures’ that Isaiah mentions in verse 45:3, are triply concealed: they are in ‘darkness’, they are ‘buried’ and they are ‘hidden’…
The accumulation of these veils and multiple hiding places invites us to think that such well hidden treasures are only ever a means, a pretext. They hide in their turn, in reality, the reason, even more profound, for which they are hidden…
These treasures are perhaps hidden in the darkness and they are carefully buried, so that Cyrus sees there motivation to discover finally, he the Anointed One, what it is really necessary for him to know. And what he really needs to know are three names (chem), revealed to him, by God… First the unspeakable name, ‘YHVH’, then the name by which YHVH will henceforth call Cyrus, (a name which is not given by Isaiah), and finally the name Elohéï Israel (‘God of Israel’).
As for us, what we are given to know is that the ‘hidden God’ (El misttatter) is also the God who gives Cyrus ‘hidden riches’ (matmunei misttarim). The verbal root of misttatter and misttarim is סָתַר, satar. In the Hithpael mode, this verb takes on the meaning of ‘to hide’, as in Is 45:15, « You, God, hide yourself », or ‘to become darkened’, as in Is 29:14, « And the mind will be darkened ».
In the Hiphil mode, the verb satar, used with the word panim, ‘face’, takes on the meaning of ‘covering the face’, or ‘turning away the face’, opening up other moral, mystical or anagogical meanings. We find satar and panim associated in the verses: « Moses covered his face » (Ex 3:6), « God turned away his face » (Ps 10:11), « Turn away your face from my sins » (Ps 51:11), « Do not turn away your face from me » (Ps 27:9), « Your sins make him turn his face away from you » (Is 59:2).
Note that, in the same verbal mode, satar can also take on the meaning of « to protect, to shelter », as in: « Shelter me under the shadow of your wings » (Ps 17:8). In biblical Hebrew, there are at least a dozen verbal roots meaning « to hide » xxiv , several of which are associated with meanings evoking material hiding places (such as « to bury », « to preserve », « to make a shelter »). Others, rarer, refer to immaterial hiding places or shelters and meanings such as ‘keep’, ‘protect’. Among this abundance of roots, the verbal root satar offers precisely the particularityxxv of associating the idea of « hiding place » and « secret » with that of « protection », carried for example by the word sétèr: « You are my protection (sétèr) » (Ps 32:7); « He who dwells under the protection (sétèr) of the Most High, in the shadow (tsèl) of the Almighty » (Ps 91:1).xxvi
Isaiah 45:15, « Truly, You, the hidden God, » uses the verbal root satar for the word « hidden » (misttatter). Satar thus evokes not only the idea of a God « who hides » but also connotes a God « who protects, shelters » and « saves » (from the enemy or from affliction). Thus we learn that the God « who hides » is also the God « who reveals ». And, what He reveals of His Self does « save ».
iiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
iiiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
ivPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 557. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
vPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 288. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 586. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1906
viiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 585. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viiiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 242. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
ixPascal. Memorial. In Pensées, Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904, p.4
xPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 559. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
xiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 44. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 45
xiiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46
xivLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xvLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 47
xviiiGeorg von Lucàcs. Die Seele und dir Formen. p. 328-330, quoted in Lucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 48-49
xixLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 49
xxivIt would be out of place to make an exhaustive analysis of this in this article, but we will return to it later. The roots in question are as follows: חבא, חבה, טמן ,כּחד,כּסה, נצר, כּפר, סכךְ, סתם, סתר, עמם, עלם. They cover a wide semantic spectrum: ‘to hide, to hide, to bury, to cover, to cover, to keep, to guard, to protect, to preserve, to make a shelter, to close, to keep secret, to obscure, to be obscure’.
xxvAs well as the verbal roots צפן and סכךְ, although these have slightly different nuances.
xxviIt would be indispensable to enter into the depths of the Hebrew language in order to grasp all the subtlety of the semantic intentions and the breadth of the metaphorical and intertextual evocations that are at stake. Only then is it possible to understand the ambivalence of the language, which is all the more amplified in the context of divine presence and action. The same verbal root (tsur) indeed evokes both ‘enemy’ and ‘protection’, ‘fight’ and ‘shelter’, but also subliminally evokes the famous ‘rock’ (tsur) in the cleft of which God placed Moses to ‘protect’ him when He appeared to him in His glory on Mount Horeb. « I will place you in the cleft of the rock (tsur) and I will shelter you (or hide you, – verb שָׂכַךֽ sakhakh) from my ‘hand’ (kaf, literally, from my ‘hollow’) until I have passed over. « (Ex 33:22) For example, puns and alliterations proliferate in verse 7 of Psalm 32. Just after the first hemisphere ‘You are my protection (attah seter li)’, we read: מִצַּר תִּצְּרֵנִי , mi-tsar ti-tsre-ni (« from the enemy, or from affliction, you save me »). There is here a double alliteration playing on the phonetic proximity of the STR root of the word sétèr (‘protection’), of the TSR root of the word tsar, denoting the enemy or affliction, and of the tsar verb ‘to protect, guard, save’. This is not just an alliteration, but a deliberate play on words, all derived from the verbal root צוּר , tsour, ‘to besiege, fight, afflict; to bind, enclose’: – the word צַר, tsar, ‘adversary, enemy; distress, affliction; stone’; – the word צוּר , tsur, ‘rock, stone’; – the verb צָרַר, tsar, ‘to bind, envelop, guard; oppress, fight; be cramped, be afflicted, be in anguish’.
Caph, כ , the eleventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has the shape of an inverted C, and presents, graphically and symbolically, the figure of a ‘hollow’. This idea of the hollow is also found in the Hebrew word כָּף caph, which can also be transcribed kaf. This word refers to several parts of the human body, the hollow or palm of the hand, the sole of the foot, the concavity of the hip (more technically, the ischium of the iliac bone), all having in common a ‘hollow’ shape. The notion of ‘hollow’ attached to this word etymologically derives from the verbal root כָּפַף , kafaf, ‘to fold, bend’, and in the passive ‘to be folded, bent; to be hollow’.
Curiously enough, the word kaf is directly associated with what must be called the ‘body’ of God, or at least with its bodily metaphors, in two particularly significant episodes in the Hebrew Bible, – Jacob’s nightly battle with Godi, and the passage of the Glory of God before Mosesii. In both of these key moments, the idea of the « hollow » carried by the kaf plays a crucial role.
In the first episode, a ‘man’ (i.e. God himself, or one of his envoys) strikes Jacob in the ‘hollow’ (kaf) of the hip, causing its dislocation, hastening the end of the battle. Since that day, the children of Israel, in memory of this blow to the kaf, respect a dietary prohibition prescribing the removal of the sciatic nerve, supposed to symbolize the part of Jacob’s body bruised by the blow.
In the second episode, God addresses Moses, saying: « I will place you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my kaf, [literally – with my ‘hollow’, or the ‘palm’ of my hand, – if one may so express oneself in speaking anthropomorphically of the Lord…], until I have passediii. »
In the first episode, God ‘touches’ or ‘strikes’ Jacob’s kaf. The verb used to describe the action is נָגַע, nâga‘, ‘to touch, to smite’. Whether He touches or strikes Jacob, God must undoubtedly use His ‘hand’, i.e., His kaf, to wound Jacob’s kaf. Admittedly the kaf of God is only implied here in the Genesis text. But it is implicitly made necessary by the use of the verb nâga‘, which implies a physical contact effective enough to dislocate Jacob’s hip. God’s kaf (or the ‘hollow’ of the hand) ‘touched’ or ‘struck’ Jacob’s kaf (the ‘hollow’ of the hip). Hollow against hollow.
In the second episode, God uses two levels of protection, two types of cover, to shield Moses from the deadly brilliance of His Glory. On the one hand, He places him in the ‘cleft of the rock’ (niqrat ha-tsur), and on the other, He covers Moses with His kaf. Hollow on hollow.
Two questions then arise: -Why are two layers of protection (the ‘cleft of the rock’ and then God’s kaf) necessary here? -What exactly is the kaf of God, – if we give up translating this word by an expression that is far too anthropomorphic, and therefore unacceptable, like ‘palm of the hand’?
To the first question, we can answer that God probably wants to protect Moses’body by hiding him in the cleft of the rock, but that he also wants to protect Moses’ spirit or soul by covering Moses with His kaf. The second question invites us to return to the etymology of the word kaf to try to understand its meaning in the context of this theophany. God says that He will ‘cover’ Moses with His kaf. The verb used for ‘cover’ is שָׂכַךְ, sâkhakh, very close to the verb סָכַךְ, sâkhakh, ‘to make a shelter’, from which is derived the word soukhot (designating the booths of the Feast of Booths).
Now there is another Hebrew verb meaning ‘to cover’, which is also very close phonetically and etymologically to kaf, it is the verb כָּפַר kafar, ‘to cover, to forgive; to atone, to purify’. This puts us on a promising track. When God ‘covers’ Moses with the divine kaf, there is expressed here an idea of protection and shelter, but perhaps also, more subliminally, the idea of ‘covering’ (kafar) Moses’ weaknesses, or sins, in order to cleanse him of them so that he is allowed to see God, if only ‘from behind’.
The following verse indeed tells us what happens after God’s passage. « Then I will remove my kaf, and you will see me from behind, but my face cannot be seen.iv
The shifts in meaning between kaf, kafaf, kafar, reveal a certain kinship between ‘hollow’, ‘palm’, ‘covering’ and, in an allegorical sense, ‘covering’ [faults], ‘forgiving’ and ‘purifying’v. This is indeed a second level of protection that God agrees to give to the spirit of Moses after having placed his body in the « cleft of the rock ».
These shifts take on an additional symbolic dimension when we consider the word כֵּף kef, which is perfectly similar to kaf, except for the vocalization, and has the same etymological provenance as kaf.
Now kef means ‘rock’, which implies a symbolic proximity between the idea of ‘hollow’ and that of ‘rock’. Note that the ‘rock’ into whose cleft God places Moses (in Ex 33:22) is not designated as a kef, but as a tsur, which is another word for rock. However, the simple fact that the words kaf (‘hollow’) and kef (‘rock’) have the same verbal root kafaf, ‘to be curved, to be hollow’, draws our attention to the fact that some rocks can all the better offer refuge or protection because they are ‘hollow’, such as caverns or caves, whereas other types of rocks possess only crevices or slits, such as the rock called צוּר , tsur.
Note also that the word tsur, ‘rock’, comes from the verbal root צור , tsour, which means ‘to bind, wrap, confine, compress, enclose’. According to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary, this verbal root, tsour, itself derives from the Akkadian words uṣurutu and eṣēru (‘to draw, to form, to shape’).
The Hebrew words kef and tsur thus both mean ‘rock’, but both words come from two verbal roots that connote, respectively, the ideas of folding, curving, hollowing, and the ideas of enveloping, confining, enclosing, but also of shaping, molding.
One will be sensitive to the proximity and the shifts of these universes of meaning, within the framework of the two exceptional scenes that we evoked, the night fight of Jacob and the vision of Moses on Sinai.
Through the metaphors and metonymies with they encourage, these words draw a wider landscape of meaning, which includes ‘hollow’ and ‘rock’, ‘protection’ and ‘forgiveness’, ‘envelopment’ and ‘enclosure’, ‘form’, ‘shaping’, and the ‘model’ that imposes its ‘shape’ on the image.
From the kaf, of ‘hollow’ form, כ, both open on one side and closed on the other three sides, spring multiple ‘images’: the dislocated hollow of Jacob’s hip, the protective hollow of the divine kaf, or the slit on the closed form of the tsur.
Faced with these insights into Hebrew semantic universe, the goyim could easily feel little concerned by these purely internal considerations proper to the Hebrew language.
Yet, through another twist, I think they may be incited to open up to the mystery that kaf, kef and tsur do cover, hide and conceal.
It so happens that the word kef, ‘rock, stone’, is precisely the word that serves as the root of the name Kephas, the new name that Jesus gave to his disciple Simon: « You are Simon, son of Jonah; you shall be called Kephas, which means Peter (stone) »vi reports the Gospel of John. Kephas (i.e. Simon-Peter) was from then on, by the play of displacements that the word kef authorizes and encourages, the ‘foundation stone’ on which Jesus built his Church, thus taking up in his own way the example given by the prophet Isaiah: « I have set deep in Zion a stone, a tried and tested stone, a cornerstone « .vii
But Kephas, it should be noted, was also the very same name of the high priest Caiaphas who was to condemn Jesus to death. The etymology thus linked in an indissoluble and perhaps symbolic way the patronymic of the first of the popes of the Church with the patronymic of one of the last high priests of the Temple of Jerusalem…
What a metaphysical irony that Jesus chose to name his apostle Simon Kephas (that is, Caiaphas)… What a metaphysical irony that the high priest Caiaphas (i.e., Kephas or ‘Peter’), was also the name of the one who plotted shortly after Jesus’ death…
Let us conclude.
The divine kaf, the ‘hollow’ that strikes, dislocates, protects or forgives, is close in many ways to the kef, the ‘rock’, that establishes, and founds.
The name Kephas, which gave rise to the non-Hebrew names Petrus, Boutros, Peter, Pierre, is also the name of one of the last high priests of Jerusalem, Caiaphas.
The Temple and the Church seem here to be linked through a single root, kef, which binds together the twilight of the former and the dawn of the latter. Today the Temple of Jerusalem is no more, and the destiny of its high priests seems to have ended. The Church, on the other hand, is still there, – as is of course the Synagogue.
It is the Temple that seems to have no more any kef to be built upon.
Some words, which are supposed to ‘express’ something, in fact hide what they do not openly say, what they indeed cover. And the One who speaks these words also hides ‘behind’ them, – in the emptiness of their ‘hollow’…
vI would like to thank Professor M. Buydens (Université Libre de Bruxelles and Université de Louvain) for suggesting that I exploit the similarity between the Hebrew words kaf, kafar and the Arabic word kafir, ‘infidel’. I found in Kazimirski’s Arabic-French dictionary that the word kafir comes from the verbal root kafara, ‘to cover; to hide, to conceal’ and, in a derived way, ‘to forget, to deny the benefits received’, hence ‘to be ungrateful; to be unfaithful, to be incredulous, not to believe in one God’. It can be inferred from this that, according to the respective genius of the languages, the Hebrew word kafar connotes the idea of ‘covering [evil]’, and therefore ‘forgiving’. The Arabic word kafara connotes the idea of ‘covering [the good]’, and therefore ‘denying, denying, being unfaithful’…
viiIs 28,16. Let us note that Isaiah uses here another word for ‘stone’, the word אֶבֶן, even, whose etymology is the same as that of the word ben, ‘son’, and which connotes the fact of founding, the fact of building… The word even is very ancient, and is found in Phoenician, Aramaic, Ethiopian and even in Egyptian (ôbn), according to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary.
During a strange and famous night, Jacob struggled for a long time with a ‘man’, hand to hand, thigh to thigh. Neither winner nor loser. Finally, the ‘man’ struck Jacob in the hollow (kaf) of the hip (yarakh). The hip dislocated.i
In Hebrew, the word kaf has several meanings: « the hollow, the palm of the hand; the sole of the foot; or the concavity of the hip (the ischium, one of the three bones that make up the hipbone) ». These meanings all derive from the verbal root kafaf meaning ‘that which is curved, that which is hollow’. In another vocalization (kef), this word also means ‘rock, cave’.
Jacob’s battle did not end until his adversary, the man, wanted to leave at dawn. But Jacob would not let him go. He said to him: « I will not leave you until you have blessed me »ii .
This was a strange request, addressed to a determined adversary who had been able to hit him in the weakest point, in the hollow of the thigh, dislocating it. A strange, disjointed dialogue followed. The man asked Jacob: “What is your name?” He answered: “Jacob”. The man replied, « Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed »iii. Was it against God himself that Jacob had been fighting all night? And had Jacob fought not only against God, but also ‘with men’? And had he decisively defeated all them, divine and human, only at the price of a dislocated hip?
However his apparent success was not complete… His name had indeed been changed for eternity, and he had received eloquent praise, but Jacob was still not blessed, despite his urgent request. Changing his tactics, he questioned the ‘man’: « Let me, I pray thee, know thy name. He answered : – Why do you ask my name? And he blessed him there »iv.
‘He blessed him, there’. In Hebrew: Va yebarekh cham. The word cham means ‘there’; but in a very close vocalization, the word chem means ‘name’. Jacob asked the man for his ‘name’ (chem), and in response the man blessed him, ‘there’ (cham).
This is literally a ‘metaphor’, – that is to say, a ‘displacement’ of the ‘name’ (chem) to a place, ‘there’ (cham). And this ‘there’, this ‘place’, was soon to receive a new name (Peni-El), given by Jacob-Israel.
The divine transcendence, which does not reveal its name (chem) here, suggests that Jacob is faced with an absolute non-knowledge, a radical impossibility of hearing the (ineffable) name. This non-knowledge and this transcendent non-saying can nevertheless be grasped, through a metaphor of immanence, through the displacement towards the ‘there’ (cham), but also through a metaphor inscribed in the body, in the hollow (kaf) of the hip and in the ‘displacement’ (the dislocation) that this hollow makes possible.
What a curious encounter, then, that of Jacob with the divine!
Jacob had fought without winning, nor being defeated, but the hollow of his hip was struck, and of this dislocated hip, the children of Israel still keep the memory by a food taboo… Jacob had asked to be blessed by his adversary, but the latter had only changed his name (chem), – without however blessing him. Jacob then asked the man for his own name (chem), and the man, as his only answer, finally blessed him, ‘there’ (cham), but still without giving him his name (chem). Since he did not know this name, which was kept secret, Jacob gave this place, this ‘there’ (cham), the name (chem) of ‘Peni-El‘. « For, he said, I have seen God face to face, and my life (nefech) has been saved. »v Since he could not hear the proper name of God, Jacob gave a name to this place, using the generic word El, which means ‘god’. Peni-El, word for word, ‘face of God’.
This was an a posteriori affirmation that the ‘man’ against whom Jacob had fought was in fact God, or at least some living being who had presented him with a ‘face’ of God… Now, it had long been accepted in the ancient religion of the Hebrews that one cannot see the face of God without dying. Jacob had struggled ‘against God’ and had seen His face, yet he had not died. His own name had been changed, and he had been blessed, – but the name (of God) had not been revealed to him. This revelation would be made much later to Moses, but then Moses would not see the ‘face of God’, since he had to take refuge in the ‘hollow’ of another rock, and see only the back of God…
To Jacob and Moses were revealed the Name or the Face, – not the Name and the Face.
Let us add that all this scene took place at night. Then the sun came. « The sun was beginning to shine on him when he left Peni-El »vi.
This direct reference to the sun (and to the light of day) seems to give the solar star the role of a negator of the night, and of revelation. It is probably not unrelated either, from the Hebrew point of view, to the ancient Egyptian culture, which is known to have seen in the ‘sun’, as in ‘night’, one of the symbols of the divine.
To understand this implicit reference in its relation to the story of Jacob’s struggle against ‘man’ or against ‘God’, it may be useful to cite a singular episode in the story of Ra, – this solar God who also, strikingly enough, refused to reveal his ineffable name to a tireless questioner, Isis.
The famous Egyptologist, Gaston Maspéro, has described this story in detail, taking as his source the ‘hieratic’ papyri of Turin, dating back to the Ramesside period of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, from the end of the fourteenth century to the twelfth century B.C., and thus some two or three centuries before the period corresponding to the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
« Nothing shows this better than the story of Ra. His universe was the outline of ours, for Shu did not yet exist, Nouît continued to rest in the arms of Sibou, and the sky was one with the earth. « vii
By dint of his generosity towards men, the God Ra had kept only one of his powers, his own Name, which his father and mother had given him, which they had revealed to him alone and which he kept hidden in the depths of his chest, for fear that a magician or a sorcerer would seize it.viii But Ra was getting old, his body was bending, « his mouth was shivering, his drool was running to the ground, and his saliva was dripping on the ground »ix. It so happened that « Isis, until then a simple woman in the service of Pharaoh, conceived the project of robbing him of his secret ‘in order to possess the world and to make herself a goddess by the name of the august godx. Violence would not have succeeded: weakened as he was by years, no one had enough strength to fight against him successfully. But Isis ‘was a woman who knew more in her malice than millions of men, who was skillful among millions of gods, who was equal to millions of spirits, and who knew everything in heaven or on earth, as much as Ra did’xi. She devised a most ingenious stratagem. If a man or a god was ill, the only way to cure him was to know his true name and to call upon the evil being who was tormenting himxii. Isis resolved to launch a terrible evil against Ra, the cause of which she would conceal from him, and then to offer to heal him and to wrest from him through suffering the mysterious word indispensable to the success of the exorcism. She collected the mud impregnated with the divine slime, and kneaded a sacred snake of it which she buried in the dust of the road. The god, bitten unexpectedly as he left for his daily rounds, uttered a howl: ‘his voice went up to heaven and his Novena, « What is it, what is it? », and his gods, « What is it, what is it? », but he did not find what to answer them, so much his lips were chattering, so much his limbs were trembling, so much the venom was taking on his flesh, as the Nile takes on the ground which it invades. »xiii He came back to himself however and managed to express what he felt (…): ‘Here, let them bring me the children of the gods with the beneficent words, who know the power of their mouth and whose knowledge reaches the sky! They came, the children of the gods, each of them with their grimoires. She came, Isis, with her sorcery, her mouth full of life-giving breaths, her recipe for destroying pain, her words that pour life into breathless throats, and she said: ‘What is this, what is this, O father-gods? Is it not that a serpent produces pain in you, that one of your children raises his head against you? Surely he will be overthrown by beneficent incantations and I will force him to retreat at the sight of your rays.’xiv The Sun, learning the cause of his torments, is frightened (…). Isis offers him her remedy and discreetly asks him for the ineffable name, but he guesses the ruse and tries to get out of it by enumerating his titles. He takes the universe as witness that he is called ‘Khopri in the morning, Ra at noon, Toumou in the evening’. The venom did not flow back, but it still worked and the great god was not relieved. Then Isis said to Ra: ‘Your name is not stated in what you have recited to me! Tell me and the venom will come out, for the individual lives, let him be charmed in his own name.’ The venom was like fire, it was strong like the burning of the flame, so the Majesty of Ra said: ‘I grant that you search me, O mother Isis, and that my name pass from my breast into your breast.’xv The almighty name was really hidden in the body of the god, and it could only be extracted by a surgical operation, similar to that which corpses undergo at the beginning of mummification. Isis undertook it, succeeded, drove out the poison, and became a goddess by virtue of the Name. The skill of a simple woman had stripped Ra of his last talisman. »xvi
Let us put in parallel the two stories, that of the fight of Jacob in Genesis and that of the extortion of the ineffable name of Ra by Isis, in the Turin papyrus. Jacob is a man, intelligent, rich, head of a large family and of a numerous domesticity. Isis is a simple woman, a servant of the Pharaoh, but very cunning and determined at all costs to reach a divine status. Jacob fights against a man who is in reality God (or an envoy of God, possessing his ‘face’). He asks him for his blessing and his name, but only obtains the blessing, the change of his own name, without the ineffable name of God (only known under the generic name ‘El’) being revealed to him. Isis deceives the God (publicly known as Ra, Khopri, or Tumu) by her cunning. This great god shows himself weak and suffering, and he is easily fooled by this woman, Isis. She uses the God’s creative powers without his knowledge, and forms, from a mud impregnated with the divine saliva, a snake that bites the God and inoculates him with a deadly venom. The Sun God is now so weak that he cannot even bear, although he is the Sun of the universe, the ‘fire’ of the venom, ‘burning’ like a ‘flame’… Jacob « fights » hand to hand with the God-man, who strikes him in the « hollow » of the hip, without ever revealing his Name. Isis, for her part, « searches » the breast of the God Ra, with his (somewhat forced) agreement, in order to finally extract his (unmentioned) Name, and incorporate it directly into her own breast, which has become divine.
An idea somewhat similar to this search in the ‘breast’, though to some extent reversed, is found in the account of Moses’ encounter with God on Horeb. « The Lord said to him again, ‘Put your hand in your breast’. He put his hand in his breast and took it out, and it was leprous, white as snow. He said again, ‘Put your hand back into your breast’. And he put his hand in his breast again, and then he took it out, and behold, it had regained its color. « xvii The similarity is in the search of the ‘breast’. The difference is that Moses searches his own breast, whereas Isis searched the breast of Ra…
Note that in the case of Jacob as in that of Isis, the ineffable name is still not revealed. Jacob only knows the generic name El. As for Isis, she is given to see the Name transported from the bosom of Ra into her own bosom, divinizing her in the process, but without her publicly revealing the Name itself.
However, it is undeniable that Isis succeeded where Jacob failed. She got to know the Name, in her heart.
There is yet another difference between Isis and Jacob.
Jacob, by his new name, embodied the birth of ‘Israel’. As for Isis, she became a goddess, and the faithful companion, in life and in death, of the god Osiris. She transcended, when the time came, his dismemberment, and prepared the conditions of his resurrection. She participated in the metaphysical adventure of this murdered, dismembered and resurrected God, whose divided body, cut into pieces, was distributed through the nomes of Egypt, to transmit to them life, strength and eternity.
Today, Isis seems to have no more reality than that which is given to ancient dreams. And yet, the metaphor of the murdered God (Osiris), whose body was cut up and distributed throughout Egypt and the rest of the world, offers some analogy with the Christian idea of the messianic God, murdered and shared in communion.
Man’s play with metaphors continues to this day… Who will win, in the end, the transcendence of the ‘name’ (chem), – or the immanence of the ‘there’ (cham)? The ‘hollowness’ of Jacob’s hip, or the ‘fullness’ of Isis’ breast?
Or should we expect something else, as ineffable as the Name? Something that would unite together the full and the hollow, the chem and the cham?
viiG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 160
viiiG. Maspéro indicates in a note that the legend of the Sun stripped of its heart by Isis was published in three fragments by Pleyte and Rossi (Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. XXXI, LXXVII, CXXXI-CXXXVIII), without them suspecting its value, which was recognized by Lefébure (Un chapitre de la Chronique solaire, in the Zeitschrift, 1883, p.27-33). In op.cit. p. 162, note 2.
ixPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 2-3, in op.cit. p. 162, note 3.
xPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 1-2, in op.cit. p. 162, note 4.
xiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXI, I, 14 – pl. CXXXII, I,1, in op.cit. p. 162, note 5.
xiiOn the power of divine names and the value of knowing their exact names, see G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d’Archéologie Égyptiennes, vol. II, pp. 208 ff.
xiiiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 6-8, in op.cit. p. 163, note 1.
xivPleyte-Rossi, The Hieratic Papyrus of Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 9- pl… CCXXXIII, I,3, in op.cit. p. 163, note 2.
xvPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 10-12, in op.cit. p. 164, note 1.
xviG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 161-164.
« The first sign of the beginning of knowledge is the desire to die. »i
Kafka had been searching for a long time for the key that could open the doors to true « knowledge ». At the age of 34, he seemed to have found a key, and it was death, or at least the desire to die.
It was not just any kind of death, or a death that would only continue the torment of living, in another life after death, in another prison.
Nor was it just any knowledge, a knowledge that would be only mental, or bookish, or cabalistic…
Kafka dreamed of a death that leads to freedom, infinite freedom.
He was looking for a single knowledge, the knowledge that finally brings to life, and saves, a knowledge that would be the ultimate, – the decisive encounter with « the master ».
« The master »? Language can only be allusive. Never resign yourself to delivering proper names to the crowd. But one can give some clues anyway, in these times of unbelief and contempt for all forms of faith…
« This life seems unbearable, another, inaccessible. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to leave the old cell that one hates to be transferred to a new cell that one will learn to hate. At the same time, a remnant of faith continues to make you believe that, during the transfer, the master will pass by chance in the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: ‘You won’t put him back in prison, he will come to me. » ii
This excerpt from the Winter Diary 1917-1918 is one of the few « aphorisms » that Kafka copied and numbered a little later, in 1920, which seems to give them special value.
After Kafka’s death, Max Brod gave this set of one hundred and nine aphorisms the somewhat grandiloquent but catchy title of « Meditations on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Path ».
The aphorism that we have just quoted is No. 13.
Aphorism No. 6, written five days earlier, is more scathing, but perhaps even more embarrassing for the faithful followers of the « Tradition ».
« The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual. This is why the revolutionary spiritual movements are within their rights in declaring null and void all that precedes them, because nothing has happened yet. » iii
Then all the Law and all the prophets are null and void?
Did nothing « happen » on Mount Moriah or Mount Sinai?
Kafka, – a heretic? A ‘spiritual’ adventurer, a ‘revolutionary’?
We will see in a moment that this is precisely the opinion of a Gershom Scholem about him.
But before opening Kafka’s heresy trial with Scholem, it may be enlightening to quote the brief commentary Kafka accompanies in his aphorism n°6 :
« Human history is the second that passes between two steps taken by a traveler.»iv
After the image of the « master », that of the « traveller »…
This is a very beautiful Name, less grandiose than the « Most High », less mysterious than the Tetragrammaton, less philosophical than « I am » (ehyeh)… Its beauty comes from the idea of eternal exile, of continuous exodus, of perpetual movement…
It is a Name that reduces all human history to a single second, a simple stride. The whole of Humanity is not even founded on firm ground, a sure hold, it is as if it were suspended, fleeting, « between two steps »…
It is a humble and fantastic image.
We come to the obvious: to give up in a second any desire to know the purpose of an endless journey.
Any pretended knowledge on this subject seems derisory to the one who guesses the extent of the gap between the long path of the « traveler », his wide stride, and the unbearable fleetingness of the worlds.
From now on, how can we put up with the arrogance of all those who claim to know?
Among the ‘knowers’, the cabalists play a special role.
The cabal, as we know, has forged a strong reputation since the Middle Ages as a company that explores mystery and works with knowledge.
According to Gershom Scholem, who has studied it in depth, the cabal thinks it holds the keys to knowing the truth:
« The cabalist affirms that there is a tradition of truth, and that it is transmissible. An ironic assertion, since the truth in question is anything but transmissible. It can be known, but it cannot be transmitted, and it is precisely what becomes transmissible in it that no longer contains it – the authentic tradition remains hidden.»v
Scholem does not deny that such and such a cabalist may perhaps « know » the essence of the secret. He only doubts that if he knows it, this essence, he can « transmit » the knowledge to others. In the best of cases he can only transmit its external sign.
Scholem is even more pessimistic when he adds that what can be transmitted from tradition is empty of truth, that what is transmitted « no longer contains it ».
Irony of a cabal that bursts out of hollowed-out splendor. Despair and desolation of a lucid and empty light .
« There is something infinitely distressing in establishing that supreme knowledge is irrelevant, as the first pages of the Zohar teach. »vi
What does the cabal have to do with Kafka?
It so happens that in his « Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Cabal », Gershom Scholem curiously enlists the writer in the service of the cabal. He believes that Kafka carries (without knowing it) the ‘feeling of the world proper to the cabal’. In return, he grants him a little of the « austere splendor » of the Zohar (not without a pleonasticvii effect):
« The limit between religion and nihilism has found in [Kafka] an impassable expression. That is why his writings, which are the secularized exposition of the cabal’s own (unknown to him) sense of the world, have for many today’s readers something of the austere splendor of the canonical – of the perfect that breaks down. » viii
Kafka, – vacillating ‘between religion and nihilism’?
Kafka, – ‘secularizing’ the cabal, without even having known it?
The mysteries here seem to be embedded, merged!
Isn’t this, by the way, the very essence of tsimtsum? The world as a frenzy of entrenchment, contraction, fusion, opacification.
« The materialist language of the Lurianic Kabbalah, especially in its way of inferring tsimtsum (God’s self-retraction), suggests that perhaps the symbolism that uses such images and formulas could be the same thing. »ix
Through the (oh so materialistic) image of contraction, of shrinkage, the tsimtsum gives to be seen and understood. But the divine self-retraction is embodied with difficulty in this symbolism of narrowness, constraint, contraction. The divine tsimtsum that consents to darkness, to erasure, logically implies another tsimtsum, that of intelligence, and the highlighting of its crushing, its confusion, its incompetence, its humiliation, in front of the mystery of a tsimtsum thatexceeds it.
But at least the image of the tsimtsum has a « materialist » (though non-historical) aura, which in 1934, in the words of a Scholem, could pass for a compliment.
« To understand Kabbalists as mystical materialists of dialectical orientation would be absolutely non-historical, but anything but absurd. » x
The cabal is seen as a mystical enterprise based on a dialectical, non-historical materialism.
It is a vocabulary of the 1930’s, which makes it possible to call « dialectical contradiction » a God fully being becoming « nothingness », or a One God giving birth to multiple emanations (the sefirot)…
« What is the basic meaning of the separation between Eyn Sof and the first Sefira? Precisely that the fullness of being of the hidden God, which remains transcendent to all knowledge (even intuitive knowledge), becomes void in the original act of emanation, when it is converted exclusively to creation. It is this nothingness of God that must necessarily appear to the mystics as the ultimate stage of a ‘becoming nothing’. » xi
These are essential questions that taunt the truly superior minds, those who still have not digested the original Fall, the Sin, and the initial exclusion from Paradise, now lost.
« In Prague, a century before Kafka, Jonas Wehle (…) was the first to ask himself the question (and to answer it in the affirmative) whether, with the expulsion of man, paradise had not lost more than man himself. Was it only a sympathy of souls that, a hundred years later, led Kafka to thoughts that answered that question so profoundly? Perhaps it is because we don’t know what happened to Paradise that he makes all these considerations to explain why Good is ‘in some sense inconsolable’. Considerations that seem to come straight out of a heretical Kabbalah. »xii
Now, Kafka, – a « heretical » Kabbalist ?
Scholem once again presents Kafka as a ‘heretical’ neo-kabbalist, in letters written to Walter Benjamin in 1934, on the occasion of the publication of the essay Benjamin had just written on Kafka in the Jüdische Rundschau...
In this essay, Benjamin denies the theological dimension of Kafka’s works. For him, Kafka makes theater. He is a stranger to the world.
« Kafka wanted to be counted among ordinary men. At every step he came up against the limits of the intelligible: and he willingly made them felt to others. At times, he seems close enough to say, with Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: ‘Then it is a mystery, incomprehensible to us, and we would have the right to preach to men, to teach them that it is not the free decision of hearts nor love that matters, but the mystery to which they must blindly submit, even against the will of their consciencexiii. Kafka did not always escape the temptations of mysticism. (…) Kafka had a singular ability to forge parables for himself. Yet he never allowed himself to be reduced to the interpretable, and on the contrary, he took every conceivable measure to hinder the interpretation of his texts. One must grope one’s way into it, with prudence, with circumspection, with distrust. (…) Kafka’s world is a great theater. In his eyes man is by nature an actor. (…) Salvation is not a bounty on life, it is the last outcome of a man who, according to Kafka’s formula, ‘his own frontal bone stands in the way’xiv. We find the law of this theater in the midst of Communication at an Academy: « I imitated because I was looking for a way out and for no other reason ».xv (…) Indeed, the man of today lives in his body like K. in the village at the foot of the castle; he escapes from it, he is hostile to it. It can happen that one morning the man wakes up and finds himself transformed into a vermin. The foreign country – his foreign country – has seized him. It is this air there that blows in Kafka, and that is why he was not tempted to found a religion. » xvi
Kafka is therefore not a cabalist. The ‘supernatural’ interpretation of his work does not hold. « There are two ways of fundamentally misunderstanding Kafka’s writings. One is the naturalistic interpretation, the other the supernatural interpretation; both, the psychoanalytical and the theological readings, miss the point. »xvii
Walter Benjamin clearly disagrees with Willy Haas, who had interpreted Kafka’s entire work « on a theological model », an interpretation summarized by this excerpt: « In his great novel The Castle, [writes Willy Haas], Kafka represented the higher power, the reign of grace; in his no less great novel The Trial, he represented the lower power, the reign of judgment and damnation. In a third novel, America, he tried to represent, according to a strict stylization, the land between these two powers […] earthly destiny and its difficult demands. « xviii
Benjamin also finds Bernhard Rang’s analysis « untenable » when he writes: « Insofar as the Castle can be seen as the seat of grace, K.’s vain attempt and vain efforts mean precisely, from a theological point of view, that man can never, by his will and free will alone, provoke and force God’s grace. Worry and impatience only prevent and disturb the sublime peace of the divine order. »xix
These analyses by Bernhard Rang or Willy Haas try to show that for Kafka, « man is always wrong before God « xx.
However, Benjamin, who fiercely denies the thread of « theological » interpretation, thinks that Kafka has certainly raised many questions about « judgment », « fault », « punishment », but without ever giving them an answer. Kafka never actually identified any of the « primitive powers » that he staged. For Benjamin, Kafka remained deeply dissatisfied with his work. In fact, he wanted to destroy it, as his will testifies. Benjamin interprets Kafka from this (doctrinal) failure. « Failure is his grandiose attempt to bring literature into the realm of doctrine, and to give it back, as a parable, the modest vigor that seemed to him alone appropriate before reason. « xxi
« It was as if the shame had to survive him. »xxii This sentence, the last one in The Trial, symbolizes for Benjamin the fundamental attitude of Kafka. It is not a shame that affects him personally, but a shame that extends to his entire world, his entire era, and perhaps all of humanity. « The time in which Kafka lives does not represent for him any progress compared to the first beginnings. The world in which his novels are set is a swamp. »xxiii
What is this swamp? That of oblivion. Benjamin quotes Willy Haas again, this time to praise him for having understood the deep movement of the trial: « The object of this trial, or rather the real hero of this incredible book, is oblivion […] whose main characteristic is to forget himself […] In the figure of the accused, he has become a mute character here. « xxiv
Benjamin adds: « That this ‘mysterious center’ comes from ‘the Jewish religion’ can hardly be contested. Here memory as piety plays a quite mysterious role. One of Jehovah’s qualities – not any, but the most profound of his qualities – is to remember, to have an infallible memory, ‘to the third and fourth generation’, even the ‘hundredth generation’; the holiest act […] of the rite […] consists in erasing the sins from the book of memory’xxv. »
What is forgotten, Benjamin concludes, is mixed with « the forgotten reality of the primitive world »xxvi, and this union produces « ever new fruits. »xxvii
Among these fruits arises, in the light, « the inter-world », that is to say « precisely the fullness of the world which is the only real thing. Every spirit must be concrete, particular, to obtain a place and a right of city. [….] The spiritual, insofar as it still plays a role, is transformed into spirits. The spirits become quite individual individuals, bearing themselves a name and linked in the most particular way to the name of the worshipper […]. Without inconvenience their profusion is added to the profusion of the world […] One is not afraid to increase the crowd of spirits: […] New ones are constantly being added to the old ones, all of them have their own name which distinguishes them from the others. « xxviii
These sentences by Franz Rosenzweig, quoted by Benjamin, actually deal with the Chinese cult of ancestors. But for Kafka, the world of the ancestors goes back to the infinite, and « has its roots in the animal world »xxix.
For Kafka, beasts are the symbol and receptacle of all that has been forgotten by humans: « One thing is certain: of all Kafka’s creatures, it is the beasts that reflect the most. « xxx
And, « Odradek is the form that things that have been forgotten take. »xxxi Odradek, this « little hunchback », represents for Kafka, « the primary foundation » that neither « mythical divination » nor « existential theology » provide,xxxii and this foundation is that of the popular genius, « that of the Germans, as well as that of the Jews »xxxiii.
Walter Benjamin then strikes a blow, moving on to a higher order, well beyond religiosities, synagogues and churches: « If Kafka did not pray – which we do not know -, at least he possessed to the highest degree what Malebranche calls ‘the natural prayer of the soul’: the faculty of attention. In which, like the saints in their prayer, he enveloped every creature. « xxxiv
As we said, for Scholem, Kafka was a « heretical cabalist ». For Benjamin, he was like a « saint », enveloping creatures in his prayers… In a way, both of them are united in a kind of reserve, and even denigration, towards him.
Scholem wrote to Benjamin: « Kafka’s world is the world of revelation, but from a perspective in which revelation is reduced to its Nothingness (Nichts). » For him, Kafka presents himself as unable to understand what is incomprehensible about the Law, and the very fact that it is incomprehensible. Whereas the Cabal displays a calm certainty of being able not only to approach but to ‘understand’ the incomprehensibility of the Law.
Benjamin shares Scholem’s disapproval of Kafka, and goes even further, reproaching him for his lack of ‘wisdom’ and his ‘decline’, which participates in the general ‘decline’ of the tradition: « Kafka’s true genius was (…) to have sacrificed the truth in order to cling to its transmissibility, to its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings (…) do not stand modestly at the feet of doctrine, as the Haggadah stands at the feet of the Halakhah. Although they are apparently submissive, when one least expects it, they strike a violent blow against that submission. This is why, as far as Kafka is concerned, we cannot speak of wisdom. All that remains are the consequences of his decline. « xxxv
Kafka, – a man who lacks wisdom, and in « decline ». No one is a prophet in his own country.
For my part, I see in Kafka the trace of a dazzling vision, against which the cabal, religion, and this very world, weigh but little. Not that he really « saw ». « I have never yet been in this place: one breathes differently, a star, more blinding than the sun, shines beside it. « xxxvi
What is this place? Paradise? And if he did not « see », what did he « understand »? Kafka wrote that we were created to live in Paradise, and that Paradise was made to serve us. We have been excluded from it. He also wrote that we are not ‘in a state of sin’ because we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten from the Tree of Life. The story is not over, it may not even have begun. Despite all the « grand narratives » and their false promises. « The path is infinite « xxxvii, he asserted. And perhaps this path is the expulsion itself, both eternal. « In its main part, the expulsion from Paradise is eternal: thus, it is true that the expulsion from Paradise is definitive, that life in this world is inescapable « xxxviii.
Here, we are certainly very far from the Cabal or dialectical materialism.
But for Kafka, another possibility emerges, fantastically improbable. The eternity of expulsion « makes it possible that not only can we continually remain in Paradise, but that we are in fact continually there, regardless of whether we know it or not here. « xxxix
What an heresy, indeed!
iFranz Kafka. « Diary », October 25, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, Ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.446.
iiFranz Kafka. « Diary », October 25, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.446.
iiiFranz Kafka. » Diary », October 20, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.442.
ivFranz Kafka. » Diary », October 20, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.443.
vGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 249.
viGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, III’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 249.
viiThe Hebrew word zohar (זֹהַר) means « radiance, splendor ».
viiiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah, X’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 256.
ixGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, IV’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 251.
xGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, IV’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 251.
xiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, V’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 252.
xiiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah, X’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 255-256.
xiiiF.M. Dostoëvski. The Brothers Karamazov. Book V, chap. 5, Trad. Henri Mongault. Ed. Gallimard. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1952, p. 278.
xivFranz Kafka, Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.493
xvFranz Kafka, Œuvres complètes, t.II, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.517
xviWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.429-433
xviiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p. 435
xviiiW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.435
xixBernhard Rang « Franz Kafka » Die Schildgenossen, Augsburg. p.176, quoted in Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.436
xxWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.436
xxiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.438
xxiiFranz Kafka. The Trial. Œuvres complètes, t.I, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.466
xxiiiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.439
xxivW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441
xxvW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441
xxviWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441
xxviiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441
xxviiiFranz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. A. Derczanski and J.-L. Schlegel, Paris Le Seuil, 1982, p. 92, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.442
xxixWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.442
xxxWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.443
xxxiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.444
xxxiiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.445
xxxiiiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.445-446
xxxivWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.446
xxxvQuoted by David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Cabal and Counter-history. Followed by G. Scholem: « Dix propositions anhistoriques sur la cabale. « Trad. J.M. Mandosio. Ed de l’Éclat. 2001, p.277
xxxviFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , November 7, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.447
xxxviiFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , November 25, 1917, aphorism 39b. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.453.
xxxviiiFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , December 11, 1917, aphorism 64-65. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.458.
xxxixFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , December 11, 1917, aphorism 64-65. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.458.
The Taittirya Brāhamaṇa thus describes what happened before the beginning of the universe :
« In the beginning, in truth, this universe was nothingness; there was no heaven, no earth, and no atmosphere. The non-being that alone was then made spirit, saying: I want to be! (…) From the non-being the spirit was emitted, the spirit emitted Prajāpati, Prajāpati emitted the beings. » i
The translation of the idea of creation by the word ’emit’ does not take into account the original meanings of the verbal root sṛj सृज्, which is much more colourful: « to let go, to spread, to let flow, to ejaculate; to create, to procreate, to engender, to give birth; to emit, to throw. » ii
In another account of the origins, the spermatic image is even more precise:
« In the beginning, in truth, there was only the Brahman; as the juice of his vigor overflowed, he became Brahma. Brahma meditated silently with the mind; his mind became Prajāpati. » iii
In both cases, the fundamental idea is that creation is the result of a kind of ‘sacrifice’ made by the Supreme Being – that is, a gift emanating from his very essence, from his inner juice. Prajāpati is the divine figure who embodies this original sacrifice, because he is the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) », and has an intermediate nature, partly mortal, partly immortal.
« Prajāpati created the living beings. By his inspirations he created the gods, and by his expirations he created the mortal beings. Above the beings he created Death, to consume them. Now, from Prajāpati, one half was mortal, one half was immortal. With his mortal part he was afraid of death, and being afraid, he became double, clay and water (…) Five parts of his body were mortal, hair, skin, flesh, bones, marrow; and five immortal parts: spirit, speech, breath, sight, hearing. » iv
Prajāpati is the Lord of creatures, the primordial being, both mortal and immortal. He created the universe by his own Sacrifice, sharing his essence with Fire, Breath or the Word.
« That, Prajāpati wanted. Through Agni, He mated with the earth. An egg hatched. He touched it: ‘Let it grow! Let it grow and multiply,’ He said. And the embryo that was inside was created as Vāyu (the Wind) (…) By Vāyu, He mated with the air. An egg hatched. He touched it and said, ‘May you be glorified!’ By this Āditya (the Sun) was created (…) By Āditya he mated with Heaven (…) Having created these worlds, He desired, ‘May I create my own creatures in these worlds!’
By His Spirit (manas) he mated with the Word (vāc). He became pregnant with eight drops. They gave birth to the eight Vasus, which He placed on the earth.
By His Spirit, He mated with the Word. He became pregnant with eleven drops. They gave birth to the eleven Rudras, which He placed in the air.
By His Spirit, He mated with the Word. He became pregnant with twelve drops, which gave birth to the twelve Ādityas, which He placed in the sky.
By His Spirit He mated with the Word. He became pregnant. He created All the Gods and placed them in the place. » v
The Word (vāc) is the companion of Prajāpati. As the Satapatha-Brahamaṇa tells us, He mates with her four times. Another text, Kāṭhaka, presents things in a similar way: « Prajāpati was the universe. Vāc was His companion; He mated with Her. She conceived, separated from Him. She engendered the creatures, and then She returned to Prajāpati »vi.
Vāc is here the Word, which creates and generates. But elsewhere, she is not the divine and indefinite Word, which is the agent of creation, but short and precise words of one or two syllables: « After a year, Prajāpati wanted to speak: He said bhūḥ and the earth was; he said bhuvaḥ and space was, he said svaḥ and heaven was. » vii
These three worlds, earth, space, heaven, correspond to the three categories of sounds : vowels, consonants and spirals.
The process of creation by word then continues in all its logic, division and syllabary pulverization:
« Prajāpati was the entire universe. Vāc wasHis, Vāc was His companion. He considered: This Vāc, I want to emit her, she will be infinitely transformed into everything. He emitted Vāc, shewasgoing to be transformed into everything. She who was at the very top, she grew as the drop of water grows. Prajāpati cut off a third of her, ā, it was the earth (…) He cut off a third of her, ka, and it was the atmosphere (…) He threw up a third of her, ha, andit was heaven (…) He divided Vāc, which was one syllable, into three. » viii
Words, speeches, syllables are the matrix (and matter) from which the universe and all creatures are generated.
But all this has a price, – the Sacrifice of the Creator.
After having « emitted » all the worlds and all the beings, Prajāpati lost his intrinsic unity, it broke up. « When Prajāpati emitted the creatures, his members broke off. Now Prajāpati, certainly, is the year. His limbs are the two transitions of day and night [i.e. dawn and dusk], the full moon and the new moon, and the beginning of the seasons. ixHe had cast out the creatures, he fell in pieces.x Being nothing more than a heart, he lay there. He cried out: Ah, my life! The waters heard Him; with the agnihotra [the sacrifice of milk] they came to His aid, they brought Him the throne. » xi
Fortunately the gods are there, watching over Him. Agni, Vāyu, Āditya, Candramas recover his scattered limbs, and the pasus bring back the hair, skin, bones, marrow. « Prajāpati, when He had emitted the beings lay exhausted. The gods gathered the juice and vigor of the beings and used it to heal him. » xii
The supreme Creator, Prajāpati, the primordial God sacrificed himself entirely so that the universe, as well as all living creatures, could come to be. His sacrifice empties Prajāpati of all his substance. « When He had created all existing things, Prajāpati felt emptied; he was afraid of death. » xiii
This unique moment in the history of the theogonic representations, however, offers the opportunity to draw a parallel with other religious traditions, and specifically with the Passion of Christ, feeling « sadness and anguish » xiv(« My soul is sad to death »xv), and fear of death. He repeatedly asked God to spare him from his torment, but in the end he had to endure mockery, flogging, torture and crucifixion, right up to the final cry of abandonment by the Father (« My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? »xvi).
The term used by Christian theology to describe this ‘revelation’ of the divine was originally coined by St. Paul. It is ‘kenosis’, from the Greek kenosis, a word that comes from the verb κενόω, ‘to empty’. Another form of emptying of the divine was also conceptualized by Judaism, though later, with the concept of tsimtsum, ‘contraction’ [of the Divine], an idea forged by the Jewish cabal in the Middle Ages.
Although these analogies are worth strongly emphasizing, and would deserve to be the object of a comparative anthropological study, the idea of the Primordial Sacrifice, granted by the One and Supreme Creator, retains all its anteriority, strength and originality.
Prajāpati is not Christ, although it is a disturbing prefiguration of his metaphysical destiny. He is the God Creator of all worlds and all beings. His Sacrifice made possible the creation of the universe, and it continues in the continuation of time, and it is metaphorized in each of the existing beings throughout the world. In every moment of Time, the Supreme God continues to divide himself so that the World continues to be.
Prajāpati thought: « ‘How can I bring all these beings back into my body? How can I again become the body of all these beings? He divided his body into two parts. There were three hundred and sixty bricks on one side and as many on the other. He failed. « xvii
Then he divided it into three parts of two hundred and forty bricks. Another failure. Then into four parts of one hundred and eighty bricks. Fail again. Then into five parts of one hundred and forty-four bricks. Fail again. Then in six parts of one hundred and twenty bricks. Failure.
He did not attempt to divide it into seven. But he divided it into eight parts of ninety bricks. Failure. Then into nine parts of eighty bricks. It failed. Then into ten parts of seventy-two bricks. Failure. He made no attempt to divide it into eleven.
He divided it into twelve parts of sixty bricks. Failure. He did not attempt to divide it into thirteen or fourteen parts. He divided it into fifteen parts of forty-eight bricks. Failure. He divided it into sixteen parts of forty-five bricks. Failure.
He made no attempt to divide it into seventeen parts. He divided it into eighteen parts of forty bricks. Failure. He made no attempt to divide it into nineteen parts. It was divided into twenty parts of thirty-six bricks. Failure.
He did not attempt to be divided into twenty-one, twenty-two, or twenty-three parts. It was divided into twenty-four parts of thirty bricks.
There He stopped at the fifteenth part. And that is why there are fifteen forms of ascending moons and fifteen forms of descending moons. And it is also because He divided Himself into twenty-four parts that there are twenty-four half months.
Nevertheless, with these twenty-four parts of thirty bricks, it had not yet divided sufficiently. So he divided ṚgVeda into twelve thousand verses and he divided the other two Vedas in the same way, respectively eight thousand for the Yajur Veda and four thousand for the Sāma Veda. He further divided the three Weda into ninety times ten thousand eight hundred and eighty syllables.
Then He continued to divide Himself until He became the body of all things and beings, which are composed of meters, vital breaths or deities.
What we will remember is that the initial and continuous Sacrifice of the Supreme Creator reaches the height of primordial reality, and that it is palpable in Time and Space. The Sacrifice is before all beings. The Sacrifice is both theCreator and the Creation. All the phenomena of the universe owe its existence to it, and are the image of it indefinitely repeated. The Sacrifice is infinite, eternal, and it is Man’s task to accomplish it in order to resurrect it and make it live without end.
« The eternity of the Sacrifice is divided into infinitely numerous periods; whoever offers it kills him, and every death raises him up. The supreme Male, the Man par excellence (Puruṣa) dies and is reborn again and again. » xviii
This is why it is also up to man, who is in the image of the primordial Man (Puruṣa), to carry out for his part the « sacrifice » which is in the image of the primordial sacrifice of Prajāpati.
Some two millennia after those ideas were conceptualized in the Veda, Jesus of Galilea incarnated them on Golgotha.
iTaittirya Brāhamaṇa. 2,2,9,10: » asato ‘dhi mano’ sṛjyata, manaḥ Prajāpatim asṛjyata. Prajāpatiḥ prajā asṛjyata. « Quoted by Sylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhamaṇas. Ed. Ernest Leroux, Paris, 1898, p. 14.
ii The root sṛj is also the etymological origin of the word ‘source’.
There are many kinds of beings, divine, human, natural, artificial, material, without forgetting the beings of reason and language, the ideal, symbolic and modal beings, etc.. From this multiplicity of types of beings, one can conjecture the existence of a rich assortment of possible ontologies. In the crowd of all these beings, man may have a special role. He does not know who he really is, and he knows that he does not; he also knows that he is not only what he knows he is. So there is still a lot of room for research. He becomes more what he is in particular when the question of being in general within him is revealed. He begins to understand his own nature when he understands that it is entirely within this questioning, that of its origin and that of its end.
How does he know all this? Considering the opaque mystery from which he emerges, and the even darker abyss into which death projects him, he draws inductions, builds hypotheses, formulates theories.
This is why it is said that man is a metaphysical animal, more apt than the sea urchin, the fly, the monkey or the angel, to ask himself the question of his specific being, and thus to attack without respite the question of being in general, the ontological question.
It was no small intuition to come to think of the passage from the particular to the general, that is to say, to conceive the abstraction of being, as emanating from the innumerable cohorts of concrete beings.
This intuition establishes a community of essence between all that « is », without setting aside a radical variation between the « levels of being » of the various beings. Some of them bathe in the super-luminous consciousness of their Self, others grope in twilight limbo, and still others crawl endlessly in the night of dead dreams.
Man is a being placed in a world that is also a being, and in the midst of other, different kinds of beings. These different kinds of beings manifest themselves in one way or another, but without ever revealing themselves completely. It is difficult, if not impossible, for man to penetrate the mystery of being in others beings than himself, since he already fails to penetrate this mystery in himself.
His consciousness manifests itself to him, too, and never ceases to reveal itself, always again, without ever being exhausted, by his questioning, except, of course, in death. And there, can we presume that the questions that the consciousness asks finally find an answer, final, complete, terminal? Doesn’t death lead either to a nothingness with no room for questions or answers, or is it only a passage towards a state where the Self continues, in other forms, to ask itself still other questions?
There is in the being of man a mixture of infinity (in potency) and finitude (in act). Forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards, and on all other sides, man is objectively surrounded by the finite, he is ‘confined’. His perspectives are quickly crushed. His ‘self’ is only a point, without dimension, and the unlimited that surrounds it in theory is only a conjecture, a phantasm, a representation without explicit content.
This point, this limit point, is a self without dictable content, but it is the basis of all metaphysics, the most laconic or the most talkative. Without this point, this raft of the being, everything dissolves quickly into a dreamless nothingness. But with it, we can begin to found, paradoxically, an ontology of unveiling. On this point, this single point, can we build worlds, chasms, firmaments, empyreas? We don’t really know, it is the human spirit that works, that weaves on its loom canvases and veils.
Why is the mind inclined to always weave? Because the point of consciousness is essentially naked. It needs linen, wool and words to dress its nudity, which is also solitude.
When man thinks that he is finished, that he is alone, he also thinks that he might not be, in theory.
When he believes in reality, dense and low, he also believes in mirages, ethereal, elevated, which the crowd and its time propagate.
Man is an infinitely finite and ultimately infinite being.
Penetrated by a finitude and solitude that surrounds him on all sides, man turns towards transcendence as a way out. But this does not give him any guarantee, any certainty. It is necessary to continue without assurance the search, a source of anguish, a fountain of worry. Afflictions of not knowing where one is going.
Anxiety is perhaps too strong a word, too dramatic. Faced with nothingness, the strong soul is not moved: if the great hole is an empty place, what does she have to fear, the soul that finds without a blow the blackness and the unconscious in which she has slept in non-existence, before appearing briefly on the scene of a world without meaning.
The alternative is much more stimulating naturally. This is why for thousands and thousands of generations man has continued to ask himself the metaphysical question without worrying about the laziness of the materialists, the sneers of the strong minds.
Anxiety is also called transcendental curiosity.
What can be the nature of a world whose meaning is neither given nor said?
It is the act of looking nothingness in the face that is the first victory of the mind. It is laid bare by its very question. And if he does not hasten to dress his metaphysical nakedness with some hasty veil, if he does not hurry to put an end to this skinning, then he can seize himself as such, naked, skinned, raw, between life and death, without knowing what will prevail.
This non-knowledge, this ignorance, this suffering, one may want to put an end to it. Religions such as Vedic, Buddhist, but also Jewish and Christian, theorize in their own way how to escape from it.
Religions don’t do metaphysics. They propose coded answers, forged over millennia. But every man is newly born: in a completely new way, he in turn asks himself very old questions.
He may adopt the lesson of the ancient masters, but he may also notice their metaphysical vanity, noting that their answers are based on unfounded assertions.
All things considered, a well-born man is worthy of a prophet or a sage of old, if he has intuitions of comparable strength or even visions superior to this or that ancient one.
For all these past geniuses also had to walk a narrow path. They all had to feel the precariousness, the fragility of their certainties.
Their faith has always been in a state of wavering.
Doubt founds man and gives him his irrefutable nobility.
It is this doubt that gives man’s time its eternal varnish. Because its truth is not in what it shows, but in what it hides. Behind the veil of time probably lies the great mystery of all times, – but perhaps there is nothing but the sneers of the disheveled matter.
Ontology of the doubt, ontology of the bet, ontology of the die and the Rubicon, royal and prophetic, which the well-born soul adopts as its only homeland, its only religion, its only metaphysics.
If time is the only real wealth, eminently limited, why do we spend our time wasting it, in nothingness?
It is only if it is not the only wealth, the only reality, that it is reasonable to waste time thinking about it, this time that veils the future, and everything that is above it, or after it.
It is there, in thought, that the well-born man, and reborn, pierces the wall of the presence to oneself. The horizon of time, so low, so blurred, so close, he rolls it up like a canvas, and sets out on his way to the stars.
For the being (of man) is not made of time. Once the tent is taken down, he migrates out of time. He opens, and discovers what is no longer time, what is above and outside of time, a timeless, a meta-time.
There is no more time. Does everything stop then?
No, the flow continues. Other dimensions are emerging. The world with three dimensions of space and one of time is replaced by a world with 17 or 256 dimensions of space and as much time.
The time is no longer temporal, but… gustatory or tactile.
Time is a strong and hollow intuition. It is constantly occupying the mind, and it is an empty form.
And man seeks the full, not the empty.
He has the intuition that only emptiness can come out of emptiness. There is no future in sight in the void. The man full of himself cannot imagine living his own emptiness. He continues to search for more fullness, which fills all the emptiness he experiences.
But does man have a full intuition? One can think so. Fetuses and lovers experience a relative fullness, which leaves unforgettable marks, working tirelessly in the unconscious, and giving hope for other plenitudes to come, less relative, more absolute perhaps.
Reason is of little use in the face of this mystery; it is incapable of discerning any path. It is too embarrassed by its weight of rules and logic.
Intuition here is more flexible, to guess the future and the potency not yet revealed. Less formal, but more founded, – in a sense.
Where does intuition come from? If it has the slightest validity, even if it is only that of a mustard seed, intuition comes from elsewhere, from the beyond and the unthinkable. It is a kind of antenna sensitive to all the noises, all the rumors that reason does not hear.
Of two things one.
Either intuition is actually in contact, in some unspeakable way, with the after-world, the beyond, the universe of the possible, the spheres of the unthinkable, and then the precious drops of meta-temporal elixir that it captures and exudes are more valuable than all the riches of the world.
Either intuition is not in contact with any of this, and then what is it worth? Not even the fabric from which dreams are made, aborted before they fly. And then, decidedly, man is a beast seized with torpor.
We must imagine a world where thought takes the form of pure intuition. Their immediacy, their sharpness is unparalleled. Time is suddenly abolished before the force of these intuitions. A fountain of understanding flows in great waves, it drowns the dazed mind, covers it with revelations, opens new paths, unveils worlds. Far behind intuition, the spirit takes flight, heavily but surely.
The mind is heavy, clayey. Intuition is burning, cherubic. Its light warms the distant ones, that thought, for its part, cools and freezes.
Not that thinking is not useful. It has its utility, at the back, in support, with the train. But not in the front, looking forward.
Above all, intuition has this generous, gushing, crackling character. Source or flare. Each drop, each spark, is the promise of an infinity to come, of which they are the humble and brilliant messengers.
It is a strange phenomenon that intuition, from the moment we see it, is not only for what it suggests, but what it implies. Its « beyond » signs the end of the narrow. It reveals doors opening onto myriads. It unveils worlds where the thin is loaded with thickness. The pollen announces the forest, the smell makes the forgotten Orients shimmer, the grain promises the premises.
Intuition is not a phenomenon. On the contrary, it is more real than the real.
Human knowledge comes from two sources: the ability to receive impressions, and the ability to represent forms. It is by associating these impressions (coming from the world) and these forms (coming from the mind) that the faculty of ‘knowing’ can blossom.
What are these forms that come from the mind, these concepts pre-positioned to interpret impressions?
They do not result from the activity of thought, but from the fullness of intuition. Intuition already inhabits the gaze of the newborn child, and sows its virgin brain.
Intuition reigns supreme in the most crucial, sublime, transcendental moments.
Intuition reveals in a tenuous and tenacious way what we are not yet conscious of being.
By a sparkle of intuition, man, being finite, surrounded on all sides, without vision, without perspective, suddendly discovers that he is infinitely more than he had ever imagined.
A ‘white mule’ (śvata aśvatara) gave its name to the famous Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad. Apart from the alliteration, why such a name?
Was Śvetāśvatara the putative name of the author, thus defined as alover of equine beauty, or of horseback riding?
Siddheswar Varma and Gambhīrānanda both prefer to understand this name as a metaphor for ‘One whose organs of sense are very pure’i.
Indeed, purity was probably needed to tackle the issues addressed by this Upaniṣad:
« Is Brahman thecauseii? Where did we come from? What do we live by? What do we rely on?» iii
The answer to all these questions may be found by considering the One.
The One, – i.e. the Brahman, manifests itself in the world through its attributes and powers (guṇa), which have been given divine names (Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva). These three names symbolize respectively Consciousness (sattva, purity, truth, intelligence), Passion (rájas, strength, desire, action) and Darkness (támas, darkness, ignorance, inertia, or limitation).
The ‘Great Wheel of Brahman‘ iv gives life to the Whole, in the endless flow of rebirths (saṃsāra).
The individual soul ‘wanders here and there’ in the great Whole. She is like a ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)v. In search of deliverance, this drifting fowl goes astray when she flies separate from the Self. But when she attaches herself to it, when she tastes its ‘joy’, she attains immortality.
The Whole is a great mixture, of mortals and immortals, of realities and appearances. The goose that flies free in it, without knowing where she is going, is in reality bound, garroted. She thinks she is a conscious subject, but she is a mere self, deaf and blind, unaware of joy, of the Self of the Brahman.
To get on her path, she must find within herself a Trinitarian image of the One, an inner triad, composed of her soul (jīva), her personal lord (Īśvara) and her nature (prakṛti). This triad is both ‘three’ and ‘one’, which is also a familiar image in Christianity, – appearing in John, more than two thousand years after the Veda.
This triadic soul is not just an image, she is already Brahman, she is in Brahman, she is with Brahman. She is the One.
The One governs the Whole, the perishable, the imperishable and the Self. It is by meditating on the One, and uniting with it, that the Self can deliver itself from the famous māyā, the ‘power of measure’ that rules the world.
Māyā originally and etymologically means ‘divine omnipotence’, – a power of creation, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom.
The meaning of māyā as ‘illusion’ is only derived. It takes on this (paradoxically) antonymous meaning of ‘deception’, of ‘mere appearance’, when the self does not recognize the immanent presence of power. When knowledge, intelligence and wisdom are absent, illusion takes their place and occupies the whole field.
Thus māyā can be (truly) understood as power, measure and wisdom, when one sees it at work, or (falsely) as an illusion, when one is blind to her.
It is not the māyā as such that is ‘illusion’. Illusion about the world only comes when the creative power of the māyā is not recognized as such, but one gets caught by the result of her operation.
By her dual nature, by her power of occultation and manifestation, the māyā hides but also reveals the divine principle, the Brahman who is her master and source.
To know the essence of māyā istoknow this principle, – Brahman. In order to reach her, it is necessary to untie oneself from all bonds, to leave the path of birth and death, to unite with the supreme and secret Lord, to fulfill His desire, and to dwell in the Self (Ātman).
The māyā may be compared to a netvi. It wraps everything. You can’t escape it. It is the cosmic power of the Lord, in act in the Whole. It is the All.
To finally escape māyā, you have to see her at work, understand her in her essence, make her a companion.
He presents a double face, therefore, a duality of truth and illusion. It is through māyā that one can get to know māyā, and her creator, the Brahman.
This is why it is said that there are two kinds of māyā, one that leads to the divine (vidhyā-māyā) and the other that leads away from it (avidhyā-māyā).
Everything, even the name of the Brahman, is doubly māyā, both illusion and wisdom.
« It is only through māyā that one can conquer the supreme Wisdom, the bliss. How could we have imagined these things without māyā? From it alone come duality and relativity.”vii
The māyā has also been compared to the countless colors produced by the One who is « colorless », as light diffracts in the rainbow.
« The One, the colourless One, by the way of its power produces multiple colors for a hidden purpose.”viii
Nature bears witness, with blue, green, yellow, the brilliance of lightning, the color of the seasons or the oceans. Red, white and black are the color of fire, water and earthix.
« You are the blue-night bee, the green [bird] with yellow eyes, [the clouds] bearing lightning, the seasons, the seas.”x
To see the māyā it is necessary to consider her under both her two aspects, inseparable at the same time.
One day Nārada said to the Lord of the universe: « Lord, show me Your māyā, which makes the impossible possible ».
The Lord agreed and asked him to fetch water. On his way to the river, he met a beautiful young girl by the shore and forgot all about his quest. He fell in love and lost track of time. And he spent his life in a dream, in ‘illusion’, without realizing that he had before his eyes what he had asked the Lord to ‘see’. He saw the māyā at work, but he was not aware of it, without being conscious of it. Only at the end of his days, perhaps he woke up from his dream.
To call māyā « illusion » is to see only the veil, and not what that veil covers.
A completely different line of understanding of the meaning of māyā emerges when one chooses to return it to its original, etymological meaning of « power (yā) of measurement (mā)« .
Everything is māyā, the world, time, wisdom, dreams, action and sacrifice. The divine is also māyā, in its essence, in its power, in its ‘measure’.
« The hymns, sacrifices, rites, observances, past and future, and what the Veda proclaims – out of him, the master of measure has created this All, and in him, the other is enclosed by this power of measure (māyā).
Let it be known that the primordial nature is power of measure (māyā), that the Great Lord is master of measure (māyin). All this world is thus penetrated by the beings that form His members.»xi
In these two essential verses from Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad (4.9 and 4.10) one may note important Sanskrit words :
माया māyā, « the power of measurement » or « illusion »,
महेश्वरम् maheśvaram, « the Great Lord »,
मायिनं māyin, « the master of measurement » or « of illusion »,
प्रकृति prakṛti, « the material or primordial nature ».
There is a real difference in interpretation between the translators who give māyā the meaning of « power of measurement », such as Alyette Degrâces, and those who give it the meaning of « illusion », as Michel Hulin does:
« Understand the material nature (प्रकृति prakṛti) as illusion (माया māyā) and the Great Lord (महेश्वरम् maheśvaram) as illusionist (मायिनं māyin).”xii
The famous Sanskritist Max Müller has chosen not to translate māyā, proposing only in brackets the word ‘Art’ :
« That from which the maker (māyin) sends forth all this – the sacred verses, the offerings, the sacrifice, the panaceas, the past, the future, and all that the Vedas declare – in that the other is bound up through that māyā.
Know then Prakṛiti (nature) is Māyā (Art), and the great Lord the Māyin (maker); the whole world is filled with what are his members.»xiii
In note, Müller comments :
« It’s impossible to find terms that match māyā and māyin. Māyā means ‘fabrication’ or ‘art’, but since any fabrication or creation is only a phenomenon or illusion, as far as the Supreme Self is concerned, māyā also carries the meaning of illusion. Similarly, māyin is the maker, the artist, but also the magician, the juggler. What seems to be meant by this verse is that everything, everything that exists or seems to exist, proceeds from akṣara [the immortal], which corresponds to Brahman, but that the actual creator, or author of all emanations is Īśa, the Lord, who, as creator, acts through māyā or devātmaśakti. It is possible, moreover, that anya, ‘the other’, is used to mean the individual puruṣa.» xiv
Following Max Müller, Alyette Degrâces refuses to use the words ‘illusion’ and ‘illusionist’. About the word māyin she explains, obviously inspired by the position of the German Sanskritist established in Oxford:
« This term is impossible to translate, and especially not as ‘illusionist’ as it is found in many translations (but not Max Müller or the Indian translators). The māyā, witha root MĀ « measure » means « a power of measurement », where measure means knowledge. If the measurement is bad, then we will speak of illusion, but not before. Brahman is here māyin « master of measurement, of this power of measurement », through which the world manifests itself. When the Brahman takes on a relative aspect and creates the world, maintains it or resorbs it, it is defined by attributes, it is said saguṇa, aparaṃ Brahman or the master of measure (māyin) by which the world is deployed and in relation to which the human being must actualize his power of measure in order not to superimpose or confuse the two levels of Brahman, one of which is the support of everything. » xv
Aparaṃ Brahman is the « inferior » (non supreme) Brahman, endowed with « qualities », « virtues » (saguṇa). He is the creative Brahman of theUniverse and is distinguished from the supreme Brahman, who is nameless, without quality, without desire.
By consulting Monier-Williams’ dictionary at māyā, one can see that the oldest meanings of the word have nothing to do with the notion of illusion, but refer to the meanings of « wisdom », « supernatural or extraordinary power ».
It is only in the Ṛg Veda, therefore later on, that the other notions appear, that Monier-Williams enumerates in this way : « Illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic. An unreal or illusory image, phantom, apparition. »
These later meanings are all frankly pejorative, and contrast sharply with the original meanings of the word, « wisdom », « power », based on the etymology of « measure » (MĀ-).
One can consider that there was, before the age of Ṛg Veda, itself already very old (more than a millennium before Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), an almost complete reversal of the meaning of the word māyā, going from « wisdom » to « deception, fraud, illusion ».
These considerations may help to answer a recurring question: « Why was this Creation created at all?”
Why did the Brahman ‘paraṃ’, thesupreme Brahman, the supreme ’cause’, delegate to the Brahman ‘aparaṃ’ (the non-supreme Brahman) thecare of creating a universe so full of evils and “illusions”?
In fact, māyā originally did not mean “illusion” but « Wisdom » and « Power ».
Then undertanding the universe as full of evils and illusions is still an illusion.
Brahman, as the master of Māyā, is really the master of Wisdom, Power, Measure.
And all Creation, – the Whole, has also vocation to appropriate this Wisdom, this Power, this Measure, this Māyā.
A millennium later, the (Hebrew) Scriptures took up the idea again.
Firstly, Wisdom is at the foundation and origin of the Whole.
« This God who does not manifest his own intelligence – in Him I, who desire deliverance, take refuge.”xviii
Then, the (Hebrew) Scriptures staged a kind of delegation of power comparable to the one we have just seen between the paraṃ brahman (the supreme brahman) and the aparaṃ brahman (the non supremebrahman).
In the Scriptures, YHVH plays a role analogous to that of the Brahman and delegates to Wisdom (ḥokhmah) thecare of founding the earth:
Job had understood the essence of Māyā, distinguishing it even hiddden under the cover of a swamp bird with black and white plumage. It was certainly not a ‘wild goose’, but the ibis could be advantageously compared to it on the banks of the Nile (or the Jordan River).
Citing the Ibis as an image of wisdom, Job was certainly not unaware that this bird was the symbol of the Egyptian God Thoth, God of Wisdom.
The God Thoth is a strange Egyptian prefiguration of the Creator Word, of which a text found in Edfu relates the birth and announces the mission:
« In the heart of the primordial ocean appeared the emerged land. On it, the Eight came into existence. They made a lotus appear from which Ra, assimilated to Shu, came out. Then came a lotus bud from which emerged a dwarf, a necessary woman, whom Ra saw and desired. From their union was born Thoth who created the world through the Word. » xxi
After this short detour through the ḥokhmah ofthe Scriptures, and through the Ibis and the Thoth God, figures of wisdom in ancient Egypt, let us return to Vedic wisdom, and its curious and paradoxical alliance with the notion of ignorance, in Brahman itself.
In the Veda, it is the Brahman aparaṃ that creates Wisdom. On the other hand, in the Brahman paraṃ, in Supreme Brahman, thereis not only Knowledge, there is also Ignorance.
« In the imperishable (akṣara), in the supreme Brahmanxxii, infinite, where both, knowledge and ignorance, stand hidden, ignorance is perishablexxiii, while knowledge is immortalxxiv. And He who rules over both, knowledge and ignorance, is another.”xxv
How is it that within the Supreme Brahman, can ‘ignorance’ be hidden?
Moreover, how could there be something ‘perishable’ in the very bosom of the ‘imperishable’ (akṣara), in the bosom of the ‘immortal’?
If one wishes to respect the letter and spirit of the Veda, one must resolve to imagine that even the Brahman is not and cannot be ‘omniscient’.
And also that there is something ‘perishable’ in the Brahman.
How to explain it?
One may assume that the Brahman does not yet know ‘at present’ the infinity of which It is the ‘potential’ bearer.
Let us imagine that the Brahman is symbolized by an infinity of points, each of them being charged with an another infinity of points, themselves in potency of infinite potentialities, and so on, let us repeat these recurrences infinitely. And let us imagine that this infinity with the infinitely repeated power of infinite potentialities is moreover not simply arithmetic or geometrical, but that it is very much alive, each ‘point’ being in fact a symbol for a ‘soul’, constantly developing a life of her own.
One can then perhaps conceive that the Brahman, although knowing Itself in potency, does not know Itself absolutely ‘in act’. The Brahman is unconscious of the extent of Its potency.
Its power, its Māyā, is so ‘infinitely infinite’ that even its knowledge, certainly already infinite, has not yet been able to encompass all that there is still to be known, because all that is yet to be and to become simply does not yet exist, and still sleeps in non-knowledge, and in ignorance of what is yet to be born, one day, possibly.
The ‘infinitely infinite’ wisdom of the Brahman, therefore, has not yet been able to take the full measure of the height, depth and breadth of wisdom that the Brahman can possibly attain.
There are infinites that go beyond infinity itself.
One could call these kinds of infinitely infinite, « transfinity », to adapt a word invented by Georg Cantor. Conscious of the theological implications of his work in mathematics, Cantor had even compared the « absolute infinite » to God , the infinity of a class like that of all cardinals or ordinals.
Identifying a set of “transfinite” Brahman should therefore not be too inconceivable a priori.
But it is the consequence of the metaphysical interpretation of these stacks of transfinite entities that is potentially the most controversial.
It invites us to consider the existence of a kind of ignorance ‘in act’ at the heart of Brahman.
Another verse accumulates clues in this sense.
It speaks of the Brahman, ‘benevolent’, who ‘makes non-existence’.
« Known by the mind, called incorporeal, He the benevolent one who makes existence and non-existence, He the God who makes creation with His parts – those who know Him have left their bodies.”xxvi
How can a supreme and benevolent God ‘make’ the ‘non-existent’?
What this God ‘makes’ is only done because He amputates certain ‘parts’ of Himself.
It is with this sacrifice, this separation of the divine from the divine, that what would have remained in non-existence can come into existence.
It is because God consents to a certain form of non-existence, in Himself, that the existing can come into existence.
It is interesting to compare the version of A. Degraces with Max Müller’s translation, which brings additional clarity to these obscure lines.
« Those who know him who is to be grasped by the mind, who is not to be called the nest (the body), who makes existence and non-existence, the happy one (Śiva), who also creates the elements, they have left the body.» xxvii
A few comments:
‘The nest (the body)‘. The Sanskrit word comes from the verb: nīdhā, नीधा, « to deposit, to pose, to place; to hide, to entrust to ». Hence the ideas of ‘nest’, ‘hiding place’, ‘treasure’, implicitly associated with that of ‘body’.
However, Müller notes that Śaṅkara prefers to read here the word anilākhyam, ‘that which is called the wind’, which is prāṇasya prāṇa, the ‘breath of the breath’.
The image is beautiful: it is through the breath, which comes and then leaves the body, that life continues.
‘Who also creates the elements’. Kalāsargakaram, ‘He who creates the elements. Müller mentions several possible interpretations of this expression.
That of Śaṅkara, which includes: ‘He who creates the sixteen kalās mentioned by the Âtharvaṇikas, beginning with the breath (prāṇa) and ending with the name (nāman). The list of these kalās is, according to Śaṅkarānanda: prāṇa,śraddhā, kha, vāyu, jyotih, ap, pṛthivī, indriya, manaḥ, anna, vīrya, tapah, mantra, karman, kalā, nāman.
Vigñānātman suggests two other explanations, ‘He who creates by means of kalā, [his own power]’, or ‘He who creates the Vedas and other sciences’.
The general idea is that in order to ‘know’ the Immortal, the Brahman, theBenevolent, the creator of existence and non-existence, one must leave the ‘nest’.
We must go into exile.
Abraham and Moses also went into exile.
The last part of Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad refers to the ‘Supreme Lord of Lords’, the ‘Supreme Divinity of Deities’, expressions that are, formally at least, analogous to the names YHVH Elohim and YHVH Tsabaoth, – which appeared among Hebrews more than a thousand years after the Veda was composed.
« He, the supreme Lord of lords, He the supreme God of deities, the supreme Master of masters, He who is beyond, let us find Him as the God, the Lord of the world who is to be praised.” xxviii
Once again, let’s compare with the version of Max Müller :
« Let us know that highest great Lord of lords, the highest deity of deities, the master of masters, the highest above, as God, the Lord of the world, the adorable.» xxix
The first verse can be read:
तमीश्वराणां परमं महेश्वरं
Tam īśvarāṇām paramam Maheśvaram.
‘He, of the lords, – the supreme Lord’.
Who are the ‘lords’ (īśvarāṇām)? Śaṅkara, in its commentary, quotes Death, the Son of the Sun and others (Cf. SUb 6.7).
And above all, who is this ‘He’ (tam)?
A series of qualifiers are listed:
He, the supreme God of gods (devatānām paramam Daivatam).
He, the Master (patīnām) of the Masters, the Master of Prajāpatis, – which are ten in number: Marīci, Atri, Aṅgiras, Pulastya, Pulaka, Kratu, Vasiṣṭa, Pracetas, Bhṛgu, Nārata.
He, who is ‘Higher’ (paramam) ‘than the High’ (parastāt)
He, the One God (ekaḥ devaḥ), hidden (gūḍhaḥ) in all beings (sarva-bhūteṣu), the All-pervading One (sarva-vyāpī), He is the inner self of all beings (sarva-bhūta-antarātmā), He is the Watcher of all acts (karma-adhyakṣaḥ), He resides in all beings (sarva-bhūta-adhivāsaḥ), He is the Witness or Seer (in Sanskrit sākṣī), the Knower, the one who gives intelligence (cetā), the unique Absolute (kevalaḥ), the one who is beyond qualities (nirguṇaḥ).
« He is the Eternal among the eternal, the Intelligent among the intelligent, the One who fulfills the desires of many”. xxxi
Once again, we must turn to Max Müller, to detect here another level of meaning, which deserves to be deepened.
Müller: « I have formerly translated this verse, according to the reading nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts. This would be a true description of the Highest Self, who, though himself eternal and passive, has to think (jivātman) non-eternal thoughts. I took the first cetanah in the sens of cettā, the second in the sense of cetanam xxxii. The commentators, however, take a different, and it may be, from their point, a more correct view. Śaṅkara says : ‘He is the eternal of the eternals, i.e. as he possesses eternity among living souls (jīvas), these living souls also may claim eternity. Or the eternals may be meant for earth, water, &c. And in the same way, he is the thinker among thinkers.’
Śaṅkarānanda says: ‘He is eternal, imperishable, among eternal, imperishable things, such as the ether, &c. He is thinking among thinkers.’
Vigñānātman says : ‘The Highest Lord is the cause of eternity in eternal things on earth, and the cause of thought in the thinkers on earth.’ But he allows another construction, namely, that he is the eternal thinker of those who on earth are endowed with eternity and thought. In the end all these interpretations come to the same, viz. that there is only one eternal, and only one thinker, from whom all that is (or seems to be) eternal and all that is thought on earth is derived.» xxxiii
One reads in the commentary by Śaṅkara of this verses, translated by Gambhirananda :
« Nityaḥ, ‘the eternal’, nityānām, ‘among the eternal, among the individual souls’ – the idea being that the eternality of these is derived from His eternality; so also, cetanaḥ, the consciousness, cetanānām, among the conscious, the knowers. (…) How is the consciousness of the conscious ? » xxxiv
To this last question, – ‘How is the consciousness of the conscious?’ –, Śaṅkara answers with the following stanza from the Upaniṣad:
“There the sun does not shine, neither do the moon and the stars ; nor do these flashes of lightning shine. How can this fire ? He shining, all these shine; through His lustre all these are variously illumined.”xxxv
The meaning is that Brahman is the light that illuminates all other lights. Their brilliance is caused by the inner light of the Brahman’s self-consciousness, according to Śaṅkaraxxxvi.
Brahman illuminates and shines through all kinds of lights that manifest themselves in the world. From them it is inferred that the ‘consciousness of the conscious’, the consciousness of the Brahman is in essence ‘fulguration’, Brahman isthe ‘effulgent’ Self.
Max Müller initially decided to translate the verse SU 6.13 by reading it literally: nityo ‘nityānām cetanaś cetanānām, which he understands as follows: “the eternal thinker of non-eternal thoughts”.
It is indeed a paradoxical idea, opening at once a metaphysical reflection on the very nature of thought and on that of eternity…
However, given the almost unanimous agreement of various historical commentators, which he quotes contrary to his own intuition, Müller seems to renounce, not without some regret, this stimulating translation, and he finally translates, taking over the version from Śaṅkarānanda :
« He is the eternal among the eternals, the thinker among thinkers, who, though one, fulfills the desire of many.»xxxvii
However, I think that Müller’s first intuition is more promising. There is a lot to dig into in the idea of an ‘eternal thinker’ who would think ‘non-eternal thoughts’.
The literally staggering implication of this idea is that non-eternal thoughts of the Eternal would be constitutive of the existence of time itself (by nature non-eternal). They would also be, moreover, the condition of the possibility of the existence of (non-eternal) creations.
These ‘non-eternal’ thoughts and creations would be intrinsically growing, metamorphic, evolutionary, always in genesis, in potency.
Perhaps this would also be the beginning of an intuition of a metaphysics of pity and mercy, a recognition of the grace that God could feel for his Creation, considering its weakness, its fall and its eventual redemption?
In other words, the very fact that the God, the Brahman, could have non-eternal thoughts would be the necessary condition so that, by his renunciation of the absoluteness and eternity of hisjudgments, non-eternal creatures would be allowed to pass from non-eternity to eternity.
For if the Brahman‘s thoughts were to be eternal in nature, then there would be no way to change a closed world, predetermined from all eternity, and consequently totally lacking in meaning, – and mercy.
We may have an indication to support this view when we read :
« He, who first created Brahmā, who in truth presented him with the Veda, that God who manifests Himself by His own intelligencexxxviii – in Him I, who desire deliverance, seek refuge.” xxxix
‘This God who manifests Himself through His own intelligence.’
Śaṅkara gives several other interpretations of the original text.
Some read here in Sanskrit ātma-buddhi-prasādam, ‘He who makes the knowledge of the Self favorable’. For, when the Supreme Lord sometimes makes grace of it, the intelligence of the creature acquires valid knowledge about Him, then frees itself from its relative existence, and continues to identify itself with the Brahman.
Others read here ātma-buddhi-prakāśam, ‘He who reveals the knowledge of the Self’.
Yet another interpretation: ātmā(the Self) is Himself the buddhi (Wisdom, Knowledge). The one who reveals Himself as knowledge of the Self is ātma-buddhi-prakāśam. xl
“In Him, desiring deliverance (mumukṣuḥ) I seek (prapadye) refuge (śaraṇam)”: is this not the proven Vedic intuition of the Brahman‘s mercy towards his creature?
As we can see, the Veda was penetrated by the explosive power of several directions of research on the nature of Brahman. But history shows that the explicit development of these researches towards the idea of ‘divine mercy’ was to be more specifically part of the subsequent contribution of other religions, which were still to come, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
However, the Veda was already affirming, as the first witness, its own genius. The Brahman: He is the ‘wild goose’. He is the Self, He is the ‘fire that has entered the ocean’, He is the ‘matrix’ and the ‘all-pervading’.
« He is He, the wild goose, the One in the middle of this universe. He is truly the fire that entered the ocean. And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there.”xli
At the beginning of Upaniṣad we already encountered the image of the ‘wild goose’ (haṃsa)xlii, which applied to the individual soul, ‘wandering here and there’ in the great Whole. Now this goose is more than the soul, more than the Whole, it is the Brahman himself.
‘And only when we know Him do we surpass death. There is no other way to get there’.
Śaṅkara breaks down each word of the verse, which then reveals its rhythm 3-3 4-3 4 4-3 :
Viditvā, knowing; tam eva, He alone; atiyety, one goes beyond; mṛtyum, fromdeath; na vidyate, there is no; anyaḥ panthāḥ, another way; ayanā, where to go. xliii
The images of the ‘Matrix’ and ‘All-penetrating’ appear in the next two stanzas (SU 6.16 and 6.17):
« He is the creator of All, the connoisseur of All, He is the Self and the matrix, the connoisseur, the creator of time.”xliv
‘He is the Self and the Matrix‘, ātma-yoniḥ’.
Śaṅkara offers three interpretations of this curious expression: He is its own cause – He is the Self and the matrix (yoni) – He is the matrix (source), ofall things.
The Brahman is Yoni, and He is also the All-pervading One.
« He who becomes that [light]xlv, immortal, established as the Lord, the knower, the all-pervading, the protector of this universe, it is He who governs this world forever. There is no other cause for sovereignty.”xlvi
At the beginning and the end of the Upaniṣad of the ‘white mule’, we find thus repeated this image, white and black, of the goose – of the Self – flying in the sky.
The goose flies in a sky that veils.
What does this sky veil? – The end of suffering.
This is what one of the final verses says:
“When men have rolled up the sky like a skin, only then will the suffering end, in case God would not have been recognized.”xlvii
‘When men have rolled up the sky.‘
Further to the West, at about the same time, the prophet Isaiah used a metaphor similar to the one chosen by Śvetāśvatara :
There is indeed a common point between these two intuitions, the Vedic and the Jewish.
In a completely unorthodox way, I will use Hebrew to explain Sanskrit, and vice versa.
To say ‘to roll up’ the heavens, the Hebrew uses as a metaphor the verb גָּלָה galah, « to discover oneself, to appear; to emigrate, to be exiled”; and in the niphal form, “tobe discovered, to be naked, to manifest, to reveal oneself ».
When the heavens are ‘rolled up’, then God can ‘manifest, reveal Himself’. Or on the contrary, He can ‘exile Himself, go away’.
This ambiguity and double meaning of the word, can also be found in this other verse of Isaiah: « The (golden) time [of my life] is broken and departs from me.”xlix
The Jewish man rolls up the scrolls of Torah when he has finished reading it.
The Vedic man winds the scrolls of the heaven when he has finished his life of flying and wandering. That is to say, he rolls up his life, like a shepherd’s ‘tent’, when they decamp.
But this tent can also be ‘ripped off’ (נִסַּע nessa‘), and thrown away (וְנִגְלָה vé-niglah).l
These metaphors were spun by Isaiah:
“I used to say, ‘In the middle of my days I’m leaving, at the gates of Sheol I’ll be kept for the rest of my years’.
I said: ‘I will not see YHVH in the land of the living, I will no longer have a look for anyone among the inhabitants of the world’.
My time [of life] is plucked up, and cast away from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life.” li
The Vedic sky, like man’s life, may be compared to a kind of tent.
And the wild goose shows the way.
At the end, one has to roll up the sky and your life, and go on an infinite transhumance.
iŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, p. v
iiHere I slightly adapt Alyette Degrâces’ translation of the word karāṇa by adding the article “the”, based on Max Müller’s translation: « Is Brahman the cause? « which, according to Müller, is itself based on the preferences of Śaṅkara. See Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 1.1.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.231, note 1. The Huet dictionary gives for karāṇa: ‘reason, cause, motive; origin; principle’. Gambhirananda translates as ‘source’: ‘What is the nature of Brahman, the source? »
xxiiBrahman param is what is beyond (para) Brahmā.
xxiiiPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).
xxivPerishable: kṣara. Śaṅkara explains in Sub 5.1 that this ‘perishable’ character is the ’cause of existence in the world’ (saṃsṛtikārana). Immortal: akṣara. Śaṅkara explains that this character of immortality is the ’cause of deliverance’ (mokṣahetu).
xxvŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.1. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 411
xxviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 5.14. Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 413
xxviiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 4.9-10.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.258-259
xxviiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 415
xxixMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.7.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.263
xxxŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.9.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416
xxxiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 416
xxxiiThese nuances correspond to two declined cases of the noun cetana, respectively, the first to the nominative (thinker) and the second to the genitive plural (of thoughts). The Sanskrit-English Dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams gives for cetana: ‘conscious, intelligent, feeling; an intelligent being; soul, mind; consciousness, understanding, sense, intelligence’. For cetas: ‘splendour; consciousness, intelligence, thinking soul, heart, mind’. In addition, the Sanskrit-French Dictionary of Huet gives for cetana: ‘intelligence, soul; consciousness, sensitivity; understanding, sense, intelligence’. The root is this, ‘to think, reflect, understand; to know, know. The root is this-, ‘thinking, thinking, thinking, understanding; knowing, knowing.’ For cetas: ‘consciousness, mind, heart, wisdom, thinking’.
xxxiiiMax Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.13.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.264, note 4
xxxivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.13, p.193
xxxvŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.14, p.193. See almost identical stanzas in MuU 2.2.11, KaU 2.2.15, BhG 15.6
xliiiŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad with the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Swami Gambhirananda. Ed. Adavaita Ashrama. Kolkata 2009, SU 6.15, p.195
xlivŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.16.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417
xlvŚaṅkara includes here the word tanmayaḥ (‘made of it’) as actually meaning jyotirmaya, ‘made of light’, cf. Sub 6:17.
xlviŚvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.17.Alyette Degrâces, Fayard, 2014, p. 417
xlvii« Only when men shall roll up the sky like a hide, will there be an end of misery, unless God has first been known. ». Max Muller. Sacred Books of The East. Śvetāśvatara-Upaniṣad 6.20.Oxford 1884.Vol XV, p.266
Śaṅkara, the very famous Indian scholar of the ninth century AD, wanted to clear the Creator of all the evil in the world. The existence of evil and suffering agitates spirits, encourages questioning and sows doubt about the Lord’s intentions and His very nature, – leading the most skeptical to question the role of the Brahman in Creation.
A first objection to his responsibility points to the lack of any motive strong enough to compel the Brahman to come out of his own bliss and get down to the task of creating the Universe.
« The conscious, supreme Self could not create this Universal Sphere. Why could it not? Because it would lack a motive for this action.»i
Why would the Brahman undertake such an effort? Wouldn’t the Whole of Creation be considerably less than his own Self anyway? The Whole is nothing compared to the Self, to the Brahman. Śaṅkara quotes a famous Upaniṣad in this regard to support his position: « Truly it is not for the sake of the Whole that the Whole is dear, but for the sake of the Self that the Whole is dear.”ii
Why then would the Self consent to divest itself of its beatitude, freed from all desire, to undertake the colossal task of creating a universe? If it had done so, then it would directly contradict the Veda, which describes the Self as « desireless ».
Or would the Brahman have temporarily lost his mind, would a moment of madness have led him astray, during which he would have committed the universe? But then this would also contradict the Veda’s view that the Brahman is omniscient.
Consequently, it is perfectly incongruous to posit that the universe was created by a supremely intelligent or blissful Being.
A second line of criticism is the hypothesis that the Brahman created the Universe simply to ‘pass the time’.
“Creation for Brahman is a mere pastime”iii. His power being infinite, and all his desires being fulfilled, Creation is just one game among others, without any real stakes or consequences, just as a king would indulge in some sports activity, or any other relaxation, without any particular reason, or even as a kind of reflex, automatic activity, such as breathing, which does not require any a priori reason, but simply takes place, without the consciousness taking part in it.
The third objection concerns the existence of evil in the universe, and the cruelty and injustice it would reveal in the Lord, the Brahman.
« Yet the Lord cannot be the cause of the universe.
– Why then?
– Because he would then have been biased and cruel, by procuring extreme happiness for some, such as gods, etc., and extreme misery for others, such as animals, and by reserving a mixed fate for others, including humans. He would have fabricated a world of inequalities, thus manifesting preferences and rejections, in the manner of an ordinary man. This would ruin the nature of the Lord, made of purity, etc., as Revelation and Tradition make it known to us. Moreover, by dispensing pain and death to beings, he would show a ‘cruelty’, a ferocity abhorred even by the dregs of the people.
– To this we answer: No, ‘because it takes into account (merit and demerit)’. If the Lord created this world of inequalities without taking anything into account, he would indeed be guilty of both sins […] but in reality, in composing this unequal creation, he has regard for merit and demerit. Just as Parjanya [god of rain] plays the role of general cause in the production of rice, barley, etc., while the particular potentialities contained in the seeds of these various grains account for their mutual differences, so the Lord is the general cause of gods, men and others (classes of living beings), while the unequal condition between these classes of beings has as its particular causes the acts (previously) performed by each individual soul.”iv
Everyone is responsible for his or her actions, and pays the price or reaps the benefit, age after age, in the cycle of reincarnations.
The Lord is not responsible for evil, it is the creatures who freely indulge in evil deeds, and who, as a result, are reborn endlessly to do more evil.
All this seems quite logical. The Lord created the Whole, but is responsible for nothing.
It is therefore that creatures are essentially, eminently free (and therefore responsible) for what they are, and what they become.
Two sets of questions then arise.
– Who is responsible for the intimate nature of each being? Of their very essence? That is to say, of the faculty of this or that being to act in accordance with the nature of ‘good’ or ‘evil’? Why is one called ‘good’ and the other ‘evil’? If it is not the Lord Creator Himself, who populated the world with good, bad, or intermediate creatures, and thus launched them into the endless cycle of transmigration, who is it?
– What is the purpose of Creation? Why was it created, with its seemingly inevitable procession of suffering and pain? What interests does this immense circus of samsara serve?
The theory of māyā (illusion) is one of the possible answers to these questions, at least it is the answer of Advaita, the »non-duality », as theorized by Śaṅkara.
Advaita says that the Whole has always been the Self itself. But the creatures who are part of the Whole ignore it. They do not know that their own self is the Self. The endless cycle of reincarnations only ends when awakening or liberation makes beings aware of the identity of their self with the Self.
By translating māyā as ‘illusion’, I am picking up a long tradition of translations.
A famous formula uses the word and applies it by extension to the Lord, who would then be an « illusionist ».
« Understand the material nature (prakṛti) as an illusion and the Great Lord (maheśvara) as an illusionist.”v
Despite the almost universal consensus, there is still serious doubt about the meaning of the very notion of māyā.
Alyette Degrâces for instance refuses the very idea of ‘illusion’ and she translates the verse as follows:
« Nature is the power of measurement and the Great Lord is the master of measurement.”vi
And in a note about the Lord « master of the māyā », she develops a tight argument to justify having thus departed from the usual translation of māyā by ‘illusion’.
« This term is impossible to translate, and especially not as an illusionist as it is found in many translations (but not Max Müller’s or the Indian translators). The māyā, witha root MĀ « measure » means « a power of measurement », where measure means “knowledge”. If the measurement is bad, then we will speak of illusion, but not before. Brahman is here māyin « master of measurement, of this power of measurement », through which the world manifests itself. When the Brahman takes on a relative aspect and creates the world, maintains it or absorbs it, it is defined by attributes, it is said saguṇa, aparaṃ Brahman or the master of measure (māyin) by which the world is deployed and in relation to which the human being must actualize his power of measure in order not to superimpose or confuse the two levels of Brahman, one of which is the support of everything.”vii
Aparaṃ Brahman is the « inferior », non supreme Brahman, endowed with « qualities », « virtues » (saguṇa). He is the creative Brahman of theUniverse and is distinguished from the supreme Brahman, who is nameless, without quality, without desire.
By consulting Monier-Williams’ dictionary at māyā, we can see that the oldest meanings of the word have nothing to do with the notion of illusion, but refer to the meanings of « wisdom », « supernatural or extraordinary power ». It is only in the ṚgVeda that other notions appear, that Monier-Williams enumerates in this way: « Illusion, unreality, deception, fraud, trick, sorcery, witchcraft, magic. An unreal or illusory image, phantom, apparition.”
These last meanings are all frankly pejorative, and are clearly in contrast with the original meaning of the word, « wisdom », itself based on the etymology of « measure ».
We can then consider that, before the age of ṚgVeda (i.e. more than a millennium before the time of Abraham), there has been a complete reversal of the meaning of the word, changing from « wisdom » to « deception, fraud, illusion ».
These considerations may put us in a position to answer the following question:
Why did the supreme Brahman delegate to the Brahman ‘aparaṃ’ the care of creating a universe so full of evils and illusions?
The reason is that evils and illusions, frauds and deceptions, are there for « wisdom » to live and flourish.
The world of māyā, originally, is not the world of evils and illusions but the world that « wisdom » founded, and that creatures must « measure ».
The Brahman is the master of wisdom.
And creation, the whole creation, therefore the Whole, also has the vocation of appropriating « wisdom ».
A millennium after ṚgVeda, other Scriptures took up the idea again.
After the Fall, Adam and Eve, deprived of their ‘garment of glory’, discovered that they were naked.
Before that, they were clothed with the light of divine glory.
Double light, double splendor, that of being in glory, and that of glory clothing oneself.
That is why, later on, Job and Justice (or Righteousness) could be said to « clothe » each other:
“I clothed myself with Justice and she clothed herself with me”i.
Isaiah speaks of a ‘garment’ that saves and delivers: « For He has clothed me with a garment of salvation and wrapped me in a cloak of deliverance.»ii
The Jewish cabal of the Middle Ages associated the idea of ‘clothing’ with the Shekinah and the Torah.
« The Torah of Creation (torah da beria) is the garment of the Presence (chekinah). And if man had not been created, the Presence would have been left unclothed, like a poor man. Therefore, whoever commits a fault, it is as if he stripped the Presence of her adornment, and this is what Adam’s punishment consisted of. »iii
The Torah herself unfolds like a veil, she is covered with black darkness, and she is clothed with white light.
« See: darkness is the blackness of the Torah [the written lines] and light is the white of the Torah [what is between the lines].”iv
It is by the splendor of her light, by what can be read between the lines, that she is dressed, more than by what she hides.
The Torah can be read, whether in darkness or in light, but the Presence does not reveal or unveil herself. If naked, she would be the figure of exile itself.
« For that is what exile (galout) is, it is the unveiling of the nakedness of the Presence, which is expressed in the verse, ‘Because of your outbursts, your mother has been repudiated’. (Is 50:1) Because of the unveiling of the nakedness Israel has been exiled and the Presence has also been exiled: the Presence is naked.»v
Christianity, too, has considered the metaphor of a garment of salvation and glory.
Reciprocally, Christ put on humanity like a garment (« induere hominem »), as wrote St. Augustinevii. Christ was clothed in the divine form (forma dei), and he annihilated himself « taking the form of the servant (forma servi)viii » in order to « clothe man ». « Have you forgotten that it was written about Christ Jesus that before he was clothed with humanity (‘hominem fuisset indutus‘) he was in forma deiix?
Death is a second nudity, after the nudity resulting from the Adamic fall. But baptism is a new garment, which announces and prepares « the garment of immortality ». « Baptism has erased death from the flesh; that which is mortal has dissipated into the garment of immortality ».x
From all this, seems to emerge the idea that Human nature is fundamentally « naked ».
And this very nudity is stripped off, like a used clothe, at the time of death.
For the Greeks whom nudity hardly frightened, and whose beauty they much valued, the body is ‘the clothing of the soul’.
Contrary to Jewish and Christian thinkers, Greek philosophers « impatiently await the moment when the soul puts off this garment to show herself in her nakedness »xi.
But for Paul, nudity symbolizes death. « When death robs us, we become naked in righteousness; in this robbery by death the laying off of the garment, which began at baptism, is finally accomplished. »xii
However, death is the occasion to put on a new « garment », a new « tent », a « heavenly dwelling »xiii.
It is this new garment that represents true ‘life’, a life beyond ‘death’. What is this new garment? It is the spirit.
Paul does not seek death, he wants life. He does not wish just a soul, bound to a mortal body. He wishes to possess something higher than the soul – and for him what is higher than the soul is the spirit, the pneuma.
In this sense, the garment is for Paul an overcoming of the primitive dualism between body and soul, between being clothed and being naked.
The metaphor of the garment thus becomes an expression of the supernatural, of the revelation of a divine reality that transcends the experiences of man’s life.
The water of baptism was already a kind of garment.
Yet we have to put on a second garment, – of glory, more radiant than the one worn by Adam and Eve in paradise.
It will « make the mortal element disappear in the garment of immortality.»xv
This ‘garment’ does not hide and cover, but reveals, illuminates, shines. It is made of glory, light, splendor.
In the beginning, when the Presence appeared, dressed in her splendor, then Word, Thought and Creation came on the great stage of the world. « He wrapped Himself in splendor – the supreme Right of Thought – to create the heavens. In that splendor, the beginning of all light, He created the heavens.» xvi
A passage from the Midrach Rabba evokes this moment of creative splendor, ‘the beginning of all light’, and of all thought:
« Tell me where was the light created? He replied, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped himself in it as in a garment, and illuminated the whole world from one end to the other with all its glory. Then he added with a sigh: ‘There is a verse that says it explicitly: ‘You are clothed in splendor and majesty. You are clothed in light’xvii.» xviii
In the first chapter of Genesis, which recounts the first moments of creation, the word ‘light’, אוֹר, ‘or’, is mentioned five times in three of the opening verses (Gen 1:3-5).
These five quotations symbolically evoke the five books of the Torah according to the interpretation of the Midrach Rabbahxix. « God said, ‘Let there be light’xx » corresponds to Genesis. « And the light was » xxi refers to Exodus. « God saw that the light was good »xxii represents the Leviticus. « And God separated the light from the darkness » xxiii points to the Numbers. « God called the light day » xxiv refers to Deuteronomy.
Curiously, in the first chapter of his own Gospel, St. John mimics this repetition, with fifteen evocations of the ‘light’.
He uses seven times the word ‘light’, phôs (ϕῶς), in the first verses.
« Life was the light of men. » (Jn 1:4)
« The light shines in the darkness. » (Jn 1:5)
« He came to serve as a witness, to bear witness to the light. » (Jn 1:7)
« He was not the light, but he appeared to bear witness to the light. » (Jn 1:8)
« This light was the true light, which, when it comes into the world, enlightens every man. » (Jn 1:9)
Then, John evokes ‘light’ again eight more times, in a pronominal, personal or possessive form (in Greek αύτόν), or as the implicit subject of active verbs.
« She was (ἦν) in the world, and the world was made by her (αύτοῦ), and the world did not know her (αύτόν). » (Jn 1:10)
« She came to her family’s house, and her family did not receive her (αύτόν). » (Jn 1:11)
« But to all who have received her (αύτόν), to those who believe in her (αύτοῦ) name, she has given the power to become children of God. » (Jn 1:12)
What does such an accumulation of repetitions mean?
The light is one, but her shimmers, her glitters, her sparkles, her scintillation are legion.
Light, Or, is unique, but her true meaning is always in potency.
A passage from the Zohar sheds some light (if I may say) on this question, just by replacing the word ‘light’ with another question:
« When the abyssal light unfolded, her clarity gave hold to questioning, although it was still beyond the reach of all that is below. That is why she was called in an interrogative way, she was called Who. » xxv
We also read in Isaiah:
« Lift up your eyes to the heights, and see Who created this. » xxvi
Mi bara’ ellèh.
‘Who’ and ‘that’, these words are in a way ‘naked’, begging for a meaning.
« The words were elusive, for it was impossible to question the ultimate. Wisdom was composed of nothingness, she was so closed and so deep that she could not resist questioning, but no one could grasp anything of her.”xxvii
Why should we seek to become the bráhman, since the Veda states that we already are?
The revealed words, which later, after many centuries of oral tradition, became Scripture, seem to carry within them profound contradictions.
For example, the Veda affirms that, in brâhman, being and thinking are one, absolutely one.
How can there be then, on the one hand, very real and well hidden, the bráhman, absolutely one, being and thought, and on the other hand, in the world, men, who are also thinking, conscious beings, and who think of themselves as individual, finite, separate beings?
If men are not really bráhman, then what are they, since everything is in bráhman, and everything is bráhman? Are they only an illusion, or even just nothing, a mere nothingness?
If they really are bráhman, then why do they think of themselves as individuals and as separate from it/her? Or even, why do they think of themselves as the only existing and thinking ones, the bráhman her- or itself being in their eyes only an illusion…
Shouldn’t their thought and being be ‘naturally’ united with the thought and being of the bráhman because it/she is absolutely one?
If being and thinking are part of the essence of the bráhman, how is it that thinking beings, conscious beings, can so easily doubt that they are already, in some way, bráhman?
For it is a common observation. The individual soul (jīva) feels a thousand miles away from being bráhman because she is overwhelmed by her obvious narrowness, by her limits. She is suffocated by the consciousness of the determinations (upādhi) that she undergoes, by her incarnation in a body.
If one adopts the path, particularly developed by Śaṅkaraii, of the identity of the self (of man) and of the Self (of bráhman), then one must conclude that these limits, these narrownesses, these determinations are only illusion, they are only « names and forms projected in it by nescience » (avidyā–pratyupasthāpita nāma-rūpa).
Nescience is what best defines the human condition. Man, who is supposed to be bráhman, does not even suspect it, and his conscience is in full confusion. All planes (reality, illusion, names, forms) are superimposed. This superposition (adhyāsa) seems innate, natural, consubstantial.
Where does this metaphysical illusion, this confusion come from?
Could it have been deposited in man from the very beginning, by the Creator?
But then, why this deliberate deception, and to what end?
Another hypothesis: if the Creator is not at the origin of this illusion, this confusion, this ignorance, would they come from an even deeper source?
If the Creator is not responsible for them, it is because they are already there, came before Him, and are immanent, and present not only in creation, but also in Him.
What? How could bráhman be in such ignorance, such confusion, even partial? Isn’t It/He/She supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient?
It is however a path of reflection that must necessarily be considered if we want to exempt bráhman from having deliberately created confusion and ignorance in its/her/his Creation…
You have to face the alternative.
« Indeed, either the bráhman would be ‘affected’ by nescience, in the sense that the individual living being is affected, and it/she would then become a kind of super-jīva, the Great Ignorant, the Great Suffering and the Great Transmigrant. Or it/she would not be fooled by its/her own māyā, which it/she would use above all as an instrument to create, abuse and torment souls, which would then be like toys or puppets in its/her hands. »iii
This alternative led, from the 10th century onwards, to the creation of two schools of thought, the « school of Bhāmati » and the « school of Vivaraṇa ». Both are in the tradition of Śaṅkara and advocate respectively the idea that nescience is « rooted in the living individual » (jīvāśritā), or that the notion of nescience is « rooted in bráhman » (brahmāśritā).
Who is the bearer of nescience? Man or bráhman?
In fact we don’t know. Nobody decides. And speculation in this respect seems futile.
A famous formula sums up this vanity: sad-asad-anirvacanīyā, « impossible to determine (अनिर्वचनीय anirvacanīyā), either as existing (sad) or as non-existent (asad)« .
This idea that there is something inexplicable often comes up.
So is the illusion, māyā, real or not?
Answer: « It is neither real nor unreal. Since the world appears, māyā is not unreal. But since māyā is contradicted by the knowledge of the Self, it is not real either.
So what is she? As she cannot be both real and non-real, she is inexplicable, indeterminable, anirvacanīyā. iv
What is inexplicable, we must not stop there. It must be transcended. We must go higher.
If the body, the mind, the life itself are māyā, one must seek liberation (mokṣa), to reach the eternal nature of the Self.
» ‘The Self (ātman), who is free from evil, free from old age, free from death, free from suffering, free from hunger and thirst, whose desires are reality, whose intentions are reality, – it is He whom one should seek, He whom one should desire to understand. He obtains all the worlds and all the desires, the one who discovers the Self and understands it’, thus spoke Prajāpati. »v
But how do you do it in practice?
It is enough to be perplexed, enough to get lost…
« From this Self we can only say ‘neither… nor…’. It is elusive because it cannot be grasped. »vi
Famous formula, – one of the « great words », with « I am bráhman » ix.
You are the Self. You are That.
In its context: « It is what is the fine essence (aṇiman), the whole has it as its essence (etad-ātmaka), it is reality, it is the Self (ātman). You are that (tat tvam asi), Ṡvetaku. » x
You are That, and nothing else.
« But if someone worships another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, I am another,’ he doesn’t know. Like cattle, he is for the gods. » xi
This Vedic formula is reminiscent of that of the Psalmist: « Man in his luxury does not understand, he is like dumb cattle. »xii
But the nuance is a bit different. In the psalm, the mutity (of man) stems from his lack of understanding. In the Upaniṣad, the lack of knowledge (of man) leads to mutity (of the gods).
The logic of the absolute identity of the self and the Self leads us to ask the question again, in crude terms: What does the idea of the nescience of bráhman imply?
Could it be that its/her omniscience is fundamentally limited, for example to what has been, and to what is, leaving the space of possibilities wide open?
Could it be that Creation, still in the process of unfolding, has an essential role in the emergence of a future knowledge, not yet happened, not yet known?
Could it be that the great narrative of Cosmogenesis can only be understood by putting it in parallel with the development of a Psychogenesis (of the world)?
From another angle :
Does the Supreme Lord (parameśvara) use māyā as an instrument to unfold the universe, while remaining hidden, in His own order, in His own kingdom?
Or would He be the (sacrificial) « victim » of His own māyā?
Or, yet another hypothesis, would He be the « architect » of a māyā that would cover at the same time man, the world and Himself?
Would He have deliberately planned, as an essential condition of the great cosmo-theandric psychodrama, His own letting go?
In this case, would the determinations, names and forms (upādhi and nāma-rūpa) that are imposed on men and living beings have similar forms for bráhman?
For example, would His ‘clemency’, His ‘rigor’, His ‘intelligence’, His ‘wisdom’, which are all ‘names’ or ‘attributes’ of the supreme divinity (I am quoting here names and attributes which are found in Judaism) be the nāma-rūpa of bráhman?
Names and forms (nāma-rūpa) are supposed to be contained in bráhman like a block of clay that contains the infinity of shapes that the potter can draw from it.
There would therefore be names and forms in the latent state, and names and forms in the manifest state.
But why this radical difference?
In other words, what animates the ‘potter’? Why does he model this particular vase and not another one?
Does he make his choices freely, and just by chance?
And by the way, who is this potter? The bráhman? Or only one of its/her forms (rūpa)?
No. The bráhman created ‘in Herself’, – in Hebrew it sounds like: אַךְ בָּך, akh bakhxiii, the possibility of a Potter, and the power of Clay. Why is this? Because She does not yet know who She will be, nor what She would like to become?
Being « everything », She is infinitely powerful, but in order for acts to emerge from this infinite Power, a seed, a will is still needed. Where would this seed, this will come from?
Every will comes from a desire, which reveals a lack, Schopenhauer taught us.xiv
The bráhmanis everything, so what is It/She missing?
The only logical possibility that is left : the bráhman is missing « missing ».
It/She lacks desire.
In fact, one of Its/Her names is akāma, « without desire ».
« In It/Her », there is therefore this lack, this absence of desire, because It/She is fullness, because It/She is already Everything.
But if the bráhman were only akāma, « without desire », then there would be nothing, no act, no will, no world, no man, nothing.
Indeed, we need to understand akāma in another way.
If It/She is a-kāma, « without desire », It/She is also « a- » , « without » (the privative a- inSanskrit).
If It/She is « a- » or « without », it is because in It/Her there is a lack. A metaphysical lack.
It/She lacks Its/Her own lack.
Lacking of a lack, It/She desires to desire, It/She wishes to desire.
In It/She comes the desire, the will, wherever It/She is a-, wherever It/She is « without », wherever It/She is « not »-this or « not »-that, neti neti.
The bráhman, confronted with the immanent presence, « in It/Her », of that « lack », of that « a- » , is then confronted with the apparent separation of Its/Her being (sat) and Its/Her thought (cit).
In philosophical terms, « thought » finds in front of itself « being », a « being » in its raw state.
This raw being, which is not « thought », which is « unthought » (a-cit), having no or no more internal unity, fragments, dissolves, incarnates itself in an unlimited diversity of bodies.
These fragments of the being of the bráhman are like pieces of a hologram. Each one of them is the Whole, but less well defined, more blurred. But also, coming from the unlimited bráhman, each of them has its own unlimited power.
Thought does not divide, it augments, it multiplies itself, it generates.
Thoughts are alive. They are not like the inert pieces of a broken pot, but like the begotten children of living beings.
On the same question, Śaṅkara proposes yet another idea, that of gambling.
As happens in the life of an idle King, the Supreme Lord was able to create His Creation by play (līlā).
But this metaphor still brings us back to lack. The bráhman isthe only reality, but this reality possesses an emptiness, an idleness, – hence some room to play.
It is necessary to reinterpret the essential unity of the bráhman and theliving man (jīva), the unity of the Supreme Self and the Incarnate Self. It is the unity resulting from fullness and lack.
The incarnate self acts and suffers. The supreme Self is beyond « evil » and beyond « the other », – beyond any Other, therefore, but It is not beyond its own lack of lack.
The Self is creator, omniscient, omnipotent, in relation to all that was, and all that is, in act. But He is not omnipotent in relation to what is in potency, to all that will be or might be, and to all that will exist only because it is already and will continue to be part of His own lack, and of the desire that this lack will create. This lack, this desire, yet to come, will be like a means for the bráhman to surpass itself/herself,to surpass its/her own infinity.
The bráhman is like « a block of salt is, without interior or exterior, it is only a whole block of flavor (eka rasa). So is this Self (ātman), without interior or exterior, it is only a whole block of knowledge ».xv
It is a new confirmation. The bráhman is here three times « without ». Without interior. Without exterior. Without any taste other than the taste of salt alone.
It is a sad and dry infinity, frankly, deep down, that of an infinite block of salt.
In addition, the infinite thirst that such an infinite block of salt may generate, is obviously still missing here.
iThere may be other assumptions as well. After considering the impossibility of deciding on this first alternative, a third way will have to be considered, the one that man is the potential bráhman but not the actual bráhman. Conversely, the bráhman is also in potency, and in this potency he is man.
iiŚaṅkara. The Thousand Teachings. Transl. by Anasuya from the edition by A.J. Alston. Ed. Arfuyen. 2013
iiiMichel Hulin. Śaṅkara and non-duality. Ed. Bayard. Paris, 2001, p.92
ivŚaṅkara. The Thousand Teachings.Transl. by Anasuya from the edition by A.J. Alston. Ed. Arfuyen. 2013, p.30
vChāndogya-upaniṣad 8.7.1. Translation in French by Alyette Degrâces (adapted and modified by myself in English) . Ed. Fayard. 2014, p. 199
viBṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad 3.9.26 and 4.5.15. Transl. by Alyette Degrâces. Ed. Fayard. 2014, p. 275 and p. 298.
viiBṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad 3.9.26 cited by Śaṅkara. The Thousand Teachings. Trad. Anasuya from the edition by A.J. Alston. Ed. Arfuyen. 2013, p. 39.
viiiChāndogya-upaniṣad 6.8.7 cited by Śaṅkara. The Thousand Teachings. Trad. Anasuya from the edition by A.J. Alston. Ed. Arfuyen. 2013, p. 47.
An (on purpose) unclear text of the Zohar evokes light, darkness, depth and night, and ties together these words in knots – in a web of warps and wefts.
Line after line, a veil of words is woven, – and, through the drifts that the Hebrew language encourages, this veil is also a sail, a wing, a shadow. i
Tight sentences, sealed signs, winged saltos.
A slow reading is required.
« It is said: ‘Light is sown for the righteous and for those who are upright in heart, it is joy’ii. The worlds will let their fragrance exhale and become one. But until the day of the world to come, the light will remain hidden, kept secret. This light came out of the heart of Darkness, which was carved by the onslaught of the All-Hidden One, so that from the hidden light a secret way to the darkness below took shape and the light could be deposited there. What is the darkness below? It is that which is called night and of which it is written, ‘As for that darkness, He called it night’.iii Tradition states the following verse: ‘He uncovers the depths from the darkness’.iv Rabbi Yossi explains it this way: For if you say that it is from this enclosed darkness that the depths are uncovered, know that all the supreme crowns are still hidden there and are also called ‘depths’. What then is ‘uncovered’? In fact, all the supreme things that are concealed are only revealed from the darkness of night, [and not from the Darkness Above]. Come and see: all the enclosed depths that emerge from the bosom of Thought and that the Voice grasps again are only revealed when the Word brings them to light. And what is the Word if not the Word? This Word is called Cessation (Sabbath) (…) This Word emanating from the dimension of darkness reveals the depths within it. It is written ‘From darkness’, that is, it comes from the dark realm, it has its source precisely ‘since’ the dark realm. » v
Gobbledygook? No. Dense compactness. And in this density, not everything is so sealed, so hidden, that no meaning emerge.
We discover that what is to be discovered here are not the supreme realities, but only the depths of the obscure Word, the depths that arise from Thought, brought to light by Words.
We also discover that darkness has more than one veil, and that every veil veils several nights.
There is the Darkness Below (which is ‘night’) and the Darkness Above (which is original darkness). There is the darkness of the depths and the darkness of emergence, the darkness of the sources, the darkness of the Word, the darkness of Thought, wrapped in their own abysses.
That is why it is written: « Let a veil separate for you the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. »vi
All of what is unveiled veil, by the same token, what is not yet unveiled.
This is also why it is written: « He takes the clouds for His chariot. »vii
The Zohar explains, in his inimitable style, that « Rabbi Yissa Saba divides the word ‘clouds’ (avim) into ‘av (opacity) and iam (the sea). The opacity which is the darkness from the left covers the sea. ‘He is moving forward on the wings of the wind’viii. This is the breath of the sanctuary of the Above which is, in the esoteric sense, the ‘Two golden cherubs’ix. It is written elsewhere: ‘He rode on a cherub and flew, and hovered on the wings of the wind’.x»xi
Let us note here, in passing, the paronomase, which is only possible in Hebrew, יִּרְכַּב / כְּרוּב , yrkav / kerouv (it overlaps / cherub). The psalmist is intoxicated with a love for game of words.
The wind, in Hebrew, is also the spirit (ruaḥ). The next verse of the psalm reveals where this flight of the spirit, this cherubic ride, goes:
The names of things are not reality. On the contrary, they veil it. The man who seeks the essence or nature of things will not find it in names that hide it, much more than they reveal it.
Hallâj developed this idea (deeper than it seems at first glance) in his theory of the « veil of name », ḥijâb al-ism.
The word « veil », ḥijâb (حِجاب), has a very general meaning here. It does not refer, as often in the media, to the woman’s veil, which is rather called burqa’ or sitâr, in classical Arabic.
The « veil of the name » placed on things is necessary. It is God Himself who is at the origin of it. The « veil » is there for the good of men. Reality without this « veil » would blind them, or make them lose consciousness.
Men need this « veil », and their own nature is itself covered in their eyes by another « veil ».
Hallâj formulates his theory as follows:
« He has clothed them (creating them) with the veil of their name, and they exist; but if He manifested to them the knowledge of His power, they would faint; and if He revealed to them the reality, they would die.»i
There was already the Jewish idea of assured death for the man who would see Godii. Here, death also awaits the man who would see, not God face to face, but only the world, nature or things, – without their veil.
What is this « veil of the name » placed over the world?
« The veil? It is a curtain, interposed between the seeker and his object, between the novice and his desire, between the shooter and his goal. One must hope that the veils are only for the creatures, not for the Creator. It is not God who wears a veil, it is the creatures he has veiled. » iii
And Hallâj here cracks a play on words, which does not lack wit, in Arabic, so fond of alliterations and paronomases: « i’jâbuka hijâbuka ».
Louis Massignon translates: « Your veil is your infatuation! » iv
I propose to translate rather, word for word: « Your wonder is your veil! ».
There is a real difference in nuance, and even meaning, between these two interpretations.
The translation of the word i’jâb by « wonder » is strictly in accordance with the translation found in dictionariesv . The word i’jâb, إِءْجاب , means « wonder, admiration ». It comes from the verbal root ‘ajiba,عَجِبَ, which means « to be amazed, to be seized with astonishment at the sight of something ».
It is the word ‘ujb ءُجْب, which also comes from the same root, but with a phonetization very different from i’jâb, which means « fatuity, sufficiency, admiration of oneself », the meaning chosen by Massignon to render the meaning of the word i’jâb.
From the semantic point of view, Massignon’s translation, which is lexically faulty, appears to be tinged above all with a certain ontological pessimism: man, by his « sufficiency », by his « infatuation », is supposed to have thus provoked a « veil » between himself and the object of his search, namely the divine. Man admires himself – how could he be concerned with anything else, for example, marveling at the divine?
Sticking to the dictionary, I translate i’jâb as « wonder », which opens up a very interesting and rich research avenue. Man has glimpsed a little of the divine splendor, a little of its glory, and he is « amazed » by it. But it is precisely for this reason that a « veil » is then placed over his mind to protect him from too much light, on the one hand, and to encourage him to continue his research, which is certainly infinite, on the other hand.
It is the wonder itself that must be veiled.
For it is wonder itself that is the veil.
Beyond wonder, which amazes and fills, there is astonishment, which incites, awakens, and sets in motion.
After his (mystical) joke Hallâj continued talking, and once again played with the verb ‘ajibtu (« I am surprised »): ‘ajibtu minka wa minni...
I translate: « I am seized with astonishment, by You, and by me. »
No trace of fatuity or vanity here. There is only astonishment there. The soul is overwhelmed by a double and dazzling intuition that Hallâj describes:
« I am seized with astonishment, by You, and by me, – O Vow of my desire!
You had brought me closer to You,
to the point that I thought You were my ‘me’,
Then You escaped in ecstasy,
to the point that you have deprived me of my ‘I’, in You.
O my happiness, during my life,
O my rest, after my burial!
It is no longer for me, outside of You, a jubilation,
if I judge by my fear and confidence,
Ah! in the gardens of Your intentions I have embraced all science,
The Jewish religion, like the Muslim religion, has a real problem with the Name. The problem is that the Name (of the One) is certainly not one, but multiple.
Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes: « He who invokes by this name Allah invokes by the same token the thousand names contained in all the revealed books. »vii
The name « Allah » comes from the contraction of the definite article al, ال, « the », and the common noun ilah, إِلَه , « god, divinity », plural âliha آلِهة.
In pre-Islamic times, a creator god named Allah already existed within the Arab polytheistic pantheon.
« The god », or « the deity », al ilah, merge into the word allah (the capital letter does not exist in Arabic), ٱللَّه which is traditionally written الله. viii
Henri Meschonnic, a serialpolemicist, never one to rest on sharp points and sarcastic persiflings, notes on this subject: « The very name of Allah, according to the commonly accepted etymology, has nothing that distinguishes it. It is by designating the god, that it signifies him. A name that is ‘a defect of a name’, where we have seen ‘repercussions on Islam whose mystical elements seem to create uncertainty as to the true name of God »ixx.
In this field, uncertainty seems to be universal. Thus, Jewish solutions as to the « true name of God » increase the number of questions by multiplying the nominalization of God’s attributes, or their antonyms. Or again by artificially presenting the word « name » שֵׁם (chem) for the Name of God (which one does not name):
וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ
v’qarati bishem Adonai lefanikh
« And I will call by the ‘Name’ YHVH, in front of your face.»xi
What is that Name (chem) that the word YHVH can’t tell?
A little later, the Lord came down from the cloud, approached Moses, and : « He called by the Name, YHVH », וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, יְהוָה . xii
What is this Name? Not just « YHVH », only, – but rather a very long enumeration, beginning with a triple enunciation (twice YHVH and once EL), and continuing with a litany of attributes, the first of which are:
« And He calls YHVH YHVH God (El) Merciful Clement Slow to Anger Rich in Grace and Faithfulnessxiii.
And the Litany of Names continues, precise and contradictory, and extending endlessly through the generations: « Custodian of His grace to thousands, Tolerating fault, transgression and sin, Leaving nothing unpunished, Punishing the faults of fathers on children and grandchildren, until the third and fourth generation. » xiv
Let’s summarize. The real Name of YHVH is quite a long name:
iiiMs. London 888, f. 326 b. Quoted by Louis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184
ivLouis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184
vI consulted the Larousse Arab-French Dictionary, as well as Kazimirsky’s Arab-French Dictionary.
viLouis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184
viiIbn ‘Ata’ Allah, Treatise on the Name Allah, p.106.
viiiThe Wikipedia article on Allah states: Most opinions converge on the view that the word is composed of al and ilāh (the deity, a definite case) and that the first vowel of the word (i) has been removed by apocope, because of the frequency of use of the word. This opinion is also attributed to the famous grammarian Sībawayh (8th century). The word consists of the article ال al, which marks the determination as the French article « le » and has an unstable hamza (letter), and ilāh إِلَاه or ilah إِلَه, which means « (un) god ». Al followed by ilāh is the determined form, would give Allāh (« the God »)2 by apocope of the second term. The word would then have been univerbé. The term Allah is etymologically related to the terms for the deity in the Semitic languages: He or El. Allah is the Arabic form of the generic divine invocation in the Bible: « Elijah, » « Eli » or « Eloi » meaning « My God » in Hebrew. The Akkadians already used the word ilu to say « god » between 4000 and 2000 BC. In pre-Islamic times, the Arabic term Ilâh was used to designate a deity2. The name Allâhumma, sometimes used in prayer, could be the counterpart of the name « Elohim » (plural of majesty of Eloha meaning « God » in the Bible). (…)
For some, this explanation is not valid and would be based on popular etymology. It would be all the more astonishing since the apocope of the i in ʾilāh is not very credible because it is the first vowel of the word really meaning « god ». They also put forward the fact that terms considered sacred are often preserved by taboo. On the other hand, the radical ʾel or ʾil designating a deity is frequent in other Semitic languages: in Hebrew, אל El (« god »), אלהים Elohim (« gods »), ʾāllāhā in Aramaic, could be at the origin of the Arabic word by borrowing then amuising the final ā (which is in Aramaic a disinential vowel, which are rarely pronounced in common Arabic) and finally shortening the first ā by metanalysis and confusion with the article ʾal. One approach would be to derive the name of Allah from another root than إِلَهٌ. For some, the name would derive from al and lâh, from the verb لَاهَ which means « veiled », « elevated », which could associate this name with the meaning of the « Most High ».
ixJ. Chelhod. The structures & of the sacred among the Arabs. Paris, 1964. p.98
xHenri Meschonnic. « God absent, God present in language « . In L’utopie du Juif. Edition Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 198-199
On June 23, 1930, he wrote another poem, which shows the depth of his dereliction, – and also opens a path, pierces every fence, projects himself in the broad, in the vast, – in the world, and exile himself, in thought, again.
How to interpret this radical change in his state of mind?
Should we understand it as the terrible disappointment of an idealistic soul, unable to bear the violence of the reality, the one he had before his eyes, or to stomach the repetition of yet another violence, known to him, under other forms, and under other longitudes?
Or should we understand it as a terrible naivety, not suspecting what was inevitably to come, and which was already looming in 1930, on the slimy, red and black threatening stage of History?
Two years before leaving for Israel, Gershom Scholem had addressed a poem to Walter Benjamin, on July 15, 1921, – entitled « The Angel’s Salute ».
At his friend’s request, he had kept on his behalf Paul Klee’s famous drawing (belonging to Walter Benjamin) at home and had placed it on the wall in his Berlin apartment.
Klee’s « Angelus Novus » was to be later on called the « Angel of History », by Walter Benjamin himself, shortly before his suicide in France.
In his poem, « The Angel’s Salute », Scholem made the « Angel of History » say :
Gershom Scholem obviously sees himself as this « good man », who houses the Angel in his « room », – but Scholem, apparently, was struck that he did not interest the « angelic man ».
In fact, Klee’s Angel really does not « look at anyone ».
But it was Scholem’s idea that the Angel allegedly did not « need any face »…
Why this angelic indifference?
Maybe because Klee’s Angel only sees Elyon’s Face?
Or maybe because any angel’s face is already « all faces » (panim)?
Or perhaps because any face, as the Hebrew word panim teaches it, is in itself a plurality.
And then all the faces of History form an infinite plurality of pluralities.
Or maybe the Angel does not need plurality, nor the plurality of pluralities, but only needs the One?
There is something overwhelming to imagine that the « Angel of History » is not interested in the « good man » in the 1930’s, and that he does not need to look at his good face, or at any other human face for that matter.
What does this jaded Angel come to do, then, on this wall, in this room, in the center of Berlin, in the 1920’s?
Thinking of it, a century later, I had to turn to yet another voice.
The important differences of interpretation of Ishmael’s role in the transmission of the Abrahamic inheritance, according to Judaism and Islam, focused in particular on the question of the identity of the son of Abraham who was taken to the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. For the Jews, it is unquestionably Isaac, as Genesis indicates. Muslims claim that it was Ishmael. However, the Koran does not name the son chosen for the sacrifice. In fact, Sura 36 indirectly suggests that this son was Isaac, contrary to later reinterpretations of later Islamic traditions.
It may be that, contrary to the historical importance of this controversy, this is not really an essential question, since Ishmael appears as a sort of inverted double of Isaac, and the linked destinies of these two half-brothers seem to compose (together) an allegorical and even anagogical figure – that of the ‘Sacrificed’, a figure of man ‘sacrificed’ in the service of a divine project that is entirely beyond him.
The conflict between the divine project and human views appears immediately when one compares the relatively banal and natural circumstances of the conception of Abram’s child (resulting from his desire to ensure his descent ii, a desire favored by his wife Sarai), with the particularly improbable and exceptional circumstances of the conception of the child of Abraham and Sarah.
One can then sense the tragic nature of the destiny of Ishmael, the first-born (and beloved) son of Abraham, but whose ‘legitimacy’ cannot be compared to that of his half-brother, born thirteen years later. But in what way is it Ishmael’s ‘fault’ that he was not ‘chosen’ as the son of Abraham to embody the Covenant? Was he ‘chosen’ only to embody the arbitrary dispossession of a mysterious ‘filiation’, of a nature other than genetic, in order to signify to the multitudes of generations to come a certain aspect of the divine mystery?
This leads us to reflect on the respective roles of the two mothers (Hagar and Sarah) in the correlated destiny of Ishmael and Isaac, and invites us to deepen the analysis of the personalities of the two mothers in order to get a better idea of those of the two sons.
The figure of Ishmael is both tragic and ambiguous. I will attempt here to trace its contours by citing a few ‘features’ both for and against, by seeking to raise a part of the mystery, and to penetrate the ambiguity of the paradigm of election, which can mean that « the election of some implies the setting aside of others », or on the contrary, that « election is not a rejection of the other ».iii
Elements Against Ishmael :
a) Ishmael, a young man, « plays » with Isaac, a barely weaned child, provoking the wrath of Sarah. This key scene is reported in Genesis 21:9: « Sarah saw the son of Hagar mocked him (Isaac). » The Hebrew word מְצַחֵק lends itself to several interpretations. It comes from the root צָחַק, in the verbal form Piel. The meanings of the verb seem at first glance relatively insignificant:
Qal :To laugh, rto ejoice. As in : Gen 18,12 « Sara laughs (secretly) ». Gen 21:6 « Whoever hears of it will rejoice with me.
Piël : To play, to joke, to laugh. As in Gen 19:14 « But it seemed that he was joking, that he said it in jest. » Ex 32:6 « They stood up to play, or to dance ». Judge 16:25 « That he might play, or sing, before them ». Gen 26:8 « Isaac played or joked with his wife. Gen 39:14 « To play with us, to insult us ».
However, Rashi’s meanings of the word in the context of Gen 21:9 are much more serious: ‘idolatry’, ‘immorality’, and even ‘murder’. « Ridicule: this is idolatry. Thus, ‘they rose up to have fun’ (Ex 32:6). Another explanation: This is immorality. Thus ‘for my own amusement’ (Gen 39:17). Another explanation: this is murder. So ‘let these young men stand up and enjoy themselves before us’ (2 Sam 2:14). Ishmael was arguing with Isaac about the inheritance. I am the elder, he said, and I will take double share. They went out into the field and Ishmael took his bow and shot arrows at him. Just as in: he who plays the foolish game of brandons and arrows, and says: but I am having fun! (Prov 26:18-19).»
Rashi’s judgment is extremely derogatory and accusatory. The accusation of ‘immorality’ is a veiled euphemism for ‘pedophilia’ (Isaac is a young child). And all this derived from a special interpretation of the single word tsaḥaq, – the very word that gave Isaac his name… Yet this word comes up strangely often in the context that interests us. Four important biblical characters ‘laugh’ (from the verb tsaḥaq), in Genesis: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael – except Hagar, who never laughs, but cries. Abraham laughs (or smiles) at the news that he is going to be a father, Sarah laughs inwardly, mocking her old husband, Isaac laughs while wrestling and caressing his wife Rebecca (vi), but only Ishmael, who also laughs while playing, is seriously accused by Rashi of the nature of this laughter, and of this ‘game’.
b) According to the commentators (Berechit Rabbah), Ishmael boasted to Isaac that he had the courage to voluntarily accept circumcision at the age of thirteen, whereas Isaac underwent it passively at the age of eight days.
c) Genesis states that Ishmael is a ‘primrose’, a misanthropic loner, an ‘archer’ who ‘lives in the wilderness’ and who ‘lays his hand on all’.
d) In Gen 17:20 it says that Ishmael « will beget twelve princes. « But Rashi, on this point, asserts that Ishmael in fact only begat ‘clouds’, relying on the Midrash which interprets the word נְשִׂיאִים (nessi’im) as meaning ‘clouds’ and ‘wind’. The word nessi’im can indeed mean either ‘princes’ or ‘clouds’, according to the dictionary (vii). But Rashi, for his own reason, chooses the pejorative meaning, whereas it is God Himself who pronounces this word after having blessed Ishmael.
Elements in Favor of Ishmael:
a) Ishmael suffers several times the effects of Sarah’s hatred and the consequences of Abraham’s injustice (or cowardice), who does not defend him, passively obeys Sarah and remorselessly favors his younger son. This has not escaped the attention of some commentators. Ramban (the Nahmanides) said about sending Hagar and Ishmael back to the desert: « Our mother Sarai was guilty of doing so and Abram of having tolerated it ». On the other hand, Rashi says nothing about this sensitive subject.
Yet Abraham loves and cares for his son Ishmael, but probably not enough to resist the pressures, preferring the younger, in deeds. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to guess the deep psychological problems Ishmael is experiencing about not being the ‘preferred’, the ‘chosen’ (by God) to take on the inheritance and the Covenant, – although he is nevertheless ‘loved’ by his father Abraham, – just as Esau, Isaac’s eldest son and beloved, was later robbed of his inheritance (and blessing) by Jacob, because of his mother Rebekah, and despite Isaac’s clearly expressed will.
(b) Ishmael is the son of « an Egyptian handmaid » (Genesis 16:1), but in reality she, Hagar, according to Rashi, is the daughter of the Pharaoh: « Hagar was the daughter of the Pharaoh. When he saw the miracles of which Sarai was the object, he said: Better for my daughter to be the servant in such a house than the mistress in another house. » (Commentary of Genesis 16:1 by Rashi)
One can undoubtedly understand the frustrations of a young man, first-born of Abraham and grandson of the Pharaoh, in front of the bullying inflicted by Sarah.
c) Moreover, Ishmael is subjected throughout his childhood and adolescence to a form of disdain that is truly undeserved. Indeed, Hagar was legally married, by the will of Sarah, and by the desire of Abraham to leave his fortune to an heir of his flesh, and this after the legal deadline of ten years of observation of Sarah’s sterility had elapsed. Ishmael is therefore legally and legitimately the first-born son of Abraham, and of his second wife. But he does not have the actual status, as Sarah jealously watches over him.
d) Ishmael is thrown out twice in the desert, once when his mother is pregnant with him (in theory), and another time when he is seventeen years old (being 13 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth + 4 years corresponding to Isaac’s weaning). In both cases, his mother Hagar had proven encounters with angels, which testifies to a very high spiritual status, which she did not fail to give to her son. Examples of women in the Hebrew Bible having had a divine vision are extremely rare. To my knowledge, in fact, there are none, except for Hagar, who had divine visions on several occasions. Rashi notes of Gen 16:13: « She [Hagar] expresses surprise. Could I have thought that even here in the desert I would see God’s messengers after seeing them in the house of Abraham where I was accustomed to seeing them? The proof that she was accustomed to seeing angels is that Manoë when he first saw the angel said, « Surely we will die » (Jug 13:27). Hagar saw angels four times and was not the least bit afraid. »
But to this, we can add that Hagar is even more remarkable because she is the only person in all the Scriptures who stands out for having given not only one but two new names to God: אֵל רֳאִי , El Ro’ï, « God of Vision »viii , and חַי רֹאִי , Ḥaï Ro’ï, the « Living One of Vision »(ix). She also gave a name to the nearby well, the well of the « Living One of My Vision »: בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי , B’ér la-Ḥaï Ro’ï. x
It is also near this well that Isaac will come to settle, after Abraham’s death, – and especially after God has finally blessed him, which Abraham had always refused to do (xii). One can imagine that Isaac had then, at last, understood the depth of the events which had taken place in this place, and with which he had, in spite of himself, been associated.
In stark contrast to Hagar, Sarah also had a divine vision, albeit a very brief one, when she participated in a conversation between Abraham and God. But God ignored Sarah, addressing Abraham directly, asking him for an explanation of Sarah’s behavior, rather than addressing her (xiii). She intervened in an attempt to justify her behavior because « she was afraid, » but God rebuked her curtly: « No, you laughed.
Making her case worse, she herself later reproached Ishmael for having laughed too, and drove him out for that reason.
e) Ishmael, after these events, remained in the presence of God. According to Genesis 21:20, « God was with this child, and he grew up (…) and became an archer. « Curiously, Rashi does not comment on the fact that « God was with this child. On the other hand, about « he became an archer », Rashi notes proudly: « He was a robber… ».
f) In the desire to see Ishmael die, Sarah twice casts spells on him (the ‘evil eye’), according to Rashi. The first time, to make the child carried by Hagar die, and to provoke his abortionxv, and the second time to make him sick, even though he was hunted with his mother in the desert, thus forcing him to drink much and to consume quickly the meager water resources.
g) At the time of his circumcision, Ishmael is thirteen years old and he obeys Abraham without difficulty (whereas he could have refused, according to Rashi, the latter counts to his advantage). Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael (Gen 16:16). Rashi comments: « This is written in praise of Ishmael. Ishmael will therefore be thirteen years old when he is circumcised, and he will not object. »
h) Ishmael is blessed by God during Abraham’s lifetime, whereas Isaac is blessed by God only after Abraham’s death (who refused to bless him, knowing that he was to beget Esau, according to Rashi).xvi
i) Ishmael, in spite of all the liabilities of his tormented life, was reconciled with Isaac, before the latter married Rebekah. Indeed, when his fiancée Rebekah arrives, Isaac has just returned from a visitexvii to the Well of the Living of My Vision, near which Hagar and Ishmael lived.
Moreover, his father Abraham ended up « regularizing the situation » with his mother Hagar, since he married her after Sarah’s death. Indeed, according to Rashi, « Qeturah is Hagar. Thus, for the second time, Ishmael is « legitimized », which makes it all the more remarkable that he gives precedence to his younger brother at Abraham’s funeral.
(j) Ishmael lets Isaac take the precellence at the burial of their father Abraham, as we know from Gen 25:9: « [Abraham] was buried by Isaac and Ishmael, his sons. « The preferential order of the names testifies to this.
k) The verse Gen 25:17 gives a final positive indication about Ishmael: « The number of years of Ishmael’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. He expired and died. « Rashi comments on the expression « he expired » in this highly significant way: « This term is used only in connection with the righteous. »
Let’s now conclude.
On the one hand, Islam, which claims to be a ‘purer’, more ‘native’ religion, and in which the figure of Abraham represents a paradigm, that of the ‘Muslim’ entirely ‘submitted’ to the will of God, – recognizes in Isaac and Ishmael two ‘prophets’.
On the other hand, Ishmael is certainly not recognized as a ‘prophet’ in Israel.
These two characters, intimately linked by their destiny (sons of the same father, and what a father!, but not of the same mother), are also, curiously, figures of the ‘sacrifice’, although in different ways, and which need to be interpreted.
The sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah ended with the intervention of an angel, just as the imminent death of Ishmael in the desert near a hidden spring ended after the intervention of an angel.
It seems to me that a revision of the trial once held against Ishmael, at the instigation of Sarah, and sanctioned by his undeserved rejection outside the camp of Abraham, and the case againt Ishmael should be re-opened.
It seems indispensable, and not unrelated to the present state of the world, to repair the injustice that was once done to Ishmael.
i Qur’an 36:101-113: « So we gave him the good news of a lonely boy. Then when he was old enough to go with him, [Abraham] said, « O my son, I see myself in a dream, immolating you. See what you think of it. He said, « O my dear father, do as you are commanded: you will find me, if it pleases God, among those who endure. And when they both came together and he threw him on his forehead, behold, We called him « Abraham »! You have confirmed the vision. This is how We reward those who do good. Verily that was the manifest trial. And We ransomed him with a bountiful sacrifice. And We perpetuated his name in posterity: « Peace be upon Abraham. Thus do We reward those who do good, for he was of Our believing servants. And We gave him the good news of Isaac as a prophet of the righteous among the righteous. And We blessed him and Isaac. »
This account seems to indicate indirectly that the (unnamed) son who was taken to the place of the sacrifice is, in fact, Isaac, since Isaac’s name is mentioned twice, in verses 112 and 113, immediately after verses 101-106, which describe the scene of the sacrifice, – whereas the name Ishmael, on the other hand, is not mentioned at all on this occasion. Moreover, God seems to want to reward Isaac for his attitude of faith by announcing on this same occasion his future role as a prophet, which the Qur’an never does about Ishmael.
ii Gen 15, 2-4. Let us note that the divine promise immediately instils a certain ambiguity: « But behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man shall not inherit you, but he who comes out of your loins shall be your heir. If Eliezer [« this one, » to whom the verse refers] is clearly excluded from the inheritance, the word of God does not decide a priori between the children to come, Ishmael and Isaac.
ivTranslation of the French Rabbinate, adapted to Rachi’s commentary. Fondation S. et O. Lévy. Paris, 1988
« v » Hagar raised her voice, and she cried. (Gen 21:16)
viGn 26.8. Rachi comments: « Isaac says to himself, ‘Now I don’t have to worry anymore because nothing has been done to him so far. And he was no longer on guard. Abimelec looked – he saw them together. »
viiHebrew-French Dictionary by Sander and Trenel, Paris 1859
xvRachi comments on Gen 16:5 as follows: « Sarai looked upon Agar’s pregnancy with a bad eye and she had an abortion. That is why the angel said to Hagar, « You are about to conceive » (Gen 16:11). Now she was already pregnant and the angel tells her that she will be pregnant. This proves that the first pregnancy was not successful. »
xviRachi explains that « Abraham was afraid to bless Isaac because he saw that his son would give birth to Esau. »
Some Upaniṣad explain that the ultimate goal of the Veda, of its hymns, songs and formulas, is metaphysical knowledge.
What does this knowledge consist of?
Some wise men have said that such knowledge may fit in just one sentence.
Others indicate that it touches on the nature of the world and the nature of the Self.
They state, for example, that « the world is a triad consisting of name, form and action »i, and they add, without contradiction, that it is also « one », and that this One is the Self. Who is the Self, then? It is like the world, in appearance, but above all it possesses immortality. « The Self is one and it is this triad. And it is the Immortal, hidden by reality. In truth the Immortal is breath ; reality is name and form. This breath is here hidden by both of them. » ii
Why do we read ‘both of them’ here, if the world is a ‘triad’?
In the triad of the world, what ‘hides’ is above all the ‘name’ and the ‘form’. Action can hide, in the world, but it can also reveal.
Thus the One ‘acts’, as the sun acts. The divine breath also acts, without word or form. The weight of words differs according to the context…
We will ask again: why this opposition between, on the one hand, ‘name, form, action’, and on the other hand ‘breath’? Why reality on the one hand, and the Immortal on the other? Why this cut, if everything is one? Why is the reality of the world so unreal, so obviously fleeting, so little immortal, and so separated from the One?
Perhaps reality participates in some way in the One, in a way that is difficult to conceive, and therefore participates in the Immortal.
Reality is apparently separated from the One, but it is also said to ‘hide’ It, to ‘cover’ It with the veil of its ‘reality’ and ‘appearance’. It is separated from It, but in another way, it is in contact with It, as a hiding place contains what it hides, as a garment covers a nakedness, as an illusion covers an ignorance, as existence veils the essence.
Hence another question. Why is it all arranged this way? Why these grandiose entities, the Self, the World, Man? And why these separations between the Self, the World and Man, metaphysically disjointed, separated? What rhymes the World and Man, in an adventure that goes beyond them entirely?
What is the purpose of this metaphysical arrangement?
A possible lead opens up with C.G. Jung, who identifies the Self, the Unconscious, – and God.
« As far as the Self is concerned, I could say that it is an equivalent of God ».iiiiv
The crucial idea is that God needs man’s conscience. This is the reason for man’s creation. Jung postulates « the existence of a [supreme] being who is essentially unconscious. Such a model would explain why God created a man with consciousness and why He seeks His purpose in him. On this point the Old Testament, the New Testament and Buddhism agree. Master Eckhart says that ‘God is not happy in His divinity. So He gives birth to Himself in man. This is what happened with Job: the creator sees himself through the eyes of human consciousness.»v
What does it (metaphysically) imply that the Self does not have a full awareness of itself, and even that It is much more unconscious than conscious? How can this be explained? The Self is so infinite that It can absolutely not have a full, absolute consciousness of Itself. Consciousness is an attention to oneself, a focus on oneself. It would be contrary to the very idea of consciousness to be ‘conscious’ of infinitely everything, of everything at once, for all the infinitely future times and the infinitely past times.
An integral omniscience, an omni-conscience, is in intrinsic contradiction with the concept of infinity. For if the Self is infinite, it is infinite in act and potency. And yet consciousness is in act. It is the unconscious that is in potency. The conscious Self can realize the infinite in act, at any moment, and everywhere in the World, or in the heart of each man, but It cannot also put into act what unrealized potency still lies in the infinity of possibilities. It cannot be ‘in act’, for example, today, in hearts and minds of the countless generations yet to come, who are still ‘in potency’ to come into existence.
The idea that there is a very important part of the unconscious in the Self, and even a part of the infinite unconscious, is not heretical. Quite the contrary.
The Self does not have a total, absolute, consciousness of Itself, but only a consciousness of what in It is in act. It ‘needs’ to realize its part of the unconscious, which is in potency in It, and which is also in potency in the world, and in Man…
This is the role of reality, the role of the world and its triad ‘name, form, action’. Only ‘reality’ can ‘realize’ that the Self resides in it, and what the Self expects of it. It is this ‘realisation’ that contributes to the emergence of the part of the unconscious, the part of potency, that the Self contains, in germ; in Its infinite unconscious.
The Self has been walking on Its own, from all eternity, and for eternities to come (although this expression may seem odd, and apparently contradictory). In this unfinished ‘adventure’, the Self needs to get out of Its ‘present’, out of Its own ‘presence’ to Itself. It needs to ‘dream’. In short, the Self ‘dreams’ creation, the world and Man, in order to continue to make what is still in potency happen in act.
This is how the Self knows Itself, through the existence of that which is not the Self, but which participates in It. The Self thus learns more about Itself than if It remained alone, mortally alone. Its immortality and infinity come from there, from Its power of renewal, from an absolute renewal since it comes from what is not absolutely the Self, but from what is other to It (for instance the heart of Man).
The world and Man, all this is the dream of the God, that God whom the Veda calls Man, Puruṣa, or the Lord of creatures, Prajāpati, and whom Upaniṣads calls the Self, ātman.
Man is the dream of the God who dreams of what He does not yet know what He will be. This is not ignorance. It is only the open infinite of a future yet to happen.
He also gave His name: « I shall be who I shall be ». vi אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh acher ehyeh. If the God who revealed Himself to Moses in this way with a verb in an « imperfective aspect » ‘, it is because the Hebrew language allows one side of the veil to be lifted. God is not yet « perfective », as is the verb that names Him.
Pascal developed the idea of a ‘bet’ that man should make, to win infinity. I would like to suggest that another ‘bet’, this time divine, accompanies the human bet. It is the wager that God made in creating His creation, accepting that non-self coexists with Him, in the time of His dream.
What is the nature of the divine wager? It is the bet that Man, by names, by forms, and by actions, will come to help the divinity to accomplish the realization of the Self, yet to do, yet to create, the Self always in potency.
God dreams that Man will deliver Him from His absence (to Himself).
For this potency, which still sleeps, in a dreamless sleep, in the infinite darkness of His unconscious, is what the God dreams about.
In His own light, He knows no other night than His own.
Henri Meschonnici was a formidable polemicist, and even, in this respect, a « serial killer », according to Michel Deguy. Meschonnic proposed « that we leave the word ‘Shoah’ in the dustbin of history. »ii This word was, according to him, « intolerable », it would represent « a pollution of the mind » and would aggravate a « generalized misunderstanding ». For this Hebrew word, which appears thirteen times in the Bible, refers only to thunderstorm, « a natural phenomenon, simply ». « The scandal is first of all to use a word that designates a natural phenomenon to refer to a barbarity that is all human. » Another scandal would be that Claude Lanzmann appropriated the highly publicized use of the word ‘shoah’, while diverting its meaningiii: « The author of the Shoah is Hitler, Lanzmann is the author of Shoah. »iv
Henri Meschonnic also attacked the « idolatry » of the Kabbalah: « Language is no longer anywhere in the Kabbalah. It is only an illusion, a utopia. It is replaced by the letters of the script taken for hieroglyphics of the world. A cosmism. And a theism. Then, paradoxically, one must recognize the sacred, more than the divine. A form of idolatry. »v
In a similar way, he attacked Leon Askenazi (the famous Rabbi ‘Manitou’), for his word games in the Torah, – this « idolatry that passes for thought »vi.
Idolatry. Idolettrism. Quite a sharp point. But, on the other hand, he tempers a little, hinting that this « idolatry » is also a « utopia »: « Kabbalah is a utopia of language. A utopia of the Jew. Since its indefinite and self-referential allegorisation is supposed to have the following effect: ‘A particular link is thus established between the letter yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which represents the ten Sefirot, and the Jewish people, the Yehudim‘vii.» viii
What is this « utopia of the Jew »? A fuse formula summarizes it: Hebrew is the « holy language » par excellence (lechon ha-qodech).
We are here in heavy, very heavy stuff. Meschonnic quotes in support the famous medieval cabalist, Aboulafia, and one of his current thurifer, Elliot Wolfson:
« The cabal will be the exclusive property of the Jewish people, (…) the only nation to have real access to the sacred language of creation, revelation and redemption.»ix
For the comparatist, this type of formula (« the only nation to… », the « sacred language of »,…) seems to be an old cliché, to be found in all latitudes, at all times, in most cultures, so much so that exceptionalism seems really not that exceptional…
More than a thousand years before Abraham, and long before the Torah had even begun to be written down, the Vedic tradition already considered Sanskrit as a « perfect » language. Sanskrit holds its name from the word ‘samskṛta‘ , which means « perfect » in Sanskrit). Moreover, the Vedic tradition considered the entire Vedic corpus as pure, divine revelation.
More recently, for hundreds of millions of believers, the Quran, too, is considered « descended » directly from the Divinity into the Arabic language, which is considered by its locutors a « clear » and « perfect » language.
There is, therefore, obviously on this planet, a certain abundance of « perfect languages » and « divine revelations », seemingly indifferent to their putative concurrents.
What should we conclude from this rush? That these revelations, and these languages, contradict and exclude each other? That only one of them is the true one, the only one « chosen »? Or, should we adopt a more diplomatic formulation, that they all contain some truth? Or, to be more pessimistic, should we suppose that they all somehow lack their intended purpose, whose transcendence escapes them?
What strikes one, in these immense religious and intellectual adventures, which often display, in theory and in practice, ambitions of universal scope, is the paradoxically provincial, navel-gazing, somewhat narrow-minded side of their later commentators. There is no shortage of late voices, coming, a few millennia after the founders, to set themselves up as self-proclaimed defenders, arrogating to themselves the monopoly of exception and election.
In the Babel of languages, Hebrew certainly does not escape the shocking statements about its absolute specificity and its intrinsic superiority over all other languages.
« Divine consonants, human vowels, is the high revelation of Hebrew. »x
The « sanctity » of the Hebrew language is contagious. It extends to the people who speak it.
Hence a sharp alternative:
« The truth that Hebrew is the holy language of a holy people, and the untruth that it is the spoken language of a people like all peoples, seem irreconcilable. » xi
Franz Rosenzweig asked a binary question. There is no way out.
On one side a « holy language » and a « holy people », and on the other side « all peoples » and all other languages, immersed in the no-man’s-land of « untruth » (and un-holiness). Faced with this alternative, what is the answer?
The issue deserves attention.
Franz Rosenzweig seems very sure of his fact: he provides some elements of idiosyncratic argumentation, the scathing lesson of which could perhaps also be of interest to speakers of English, German or Latin – and why not, for good measure, Greek, Arabic or Sanskrit?
« To read Hebrew means: to be ready to gather the entire heritage of the language; to read German, English or Latin, one reaps only the harvest given by the furrows of the language of one season: of one generation. »xii
Franz Rosenzweig does not seem to suspect that the few ‘languages of a season’ he quotes are only the most recent, among a large and immemorial ‘harvest’ of other Indo-European languages, much more original, and some of them with sophisticated grammars, and incidentally with a vocabulary twenty times richer than the biblicalxiii lexicon. Among these languages, Avestic and Sanskrit go back to several millennia before our era, and have both served to compose « sacred » texts (respectively the Avesta and the Veda), which testify to very ancient « revelations », certainly older than the revelation « mosaic ».
It may be argued that Avestic and Sanskrit are nowadays only « dead languages », and that the Avesta or Veda no longer irrigate living times, but only celebrate forgotten Gods…
In contrast, it should also be noted, biblical Hebrew has « risen » again with modern Hebrew, while the Torah continues to live on through the people who bear it and the religions that draw inspiration from it.
These are indeed crucial points.
One could however answer that the Veda religion has not completely disappeared from the world consciousness… or from the depths of the collective unconscious. The history of the Spirit has only just begun. The Vedanta, the Upanishads, Baghavad Gîta, – forever under a bushel? The future, the distant future, will tell.
On the other hand, it can also be argued that the « spirit » of Sanskrit is not really dead, but that it is still very much alive today, and that it is constantly regenerating itself in the vast body of Indo-European languages that are spoken throughout the world, and through their own genius.
The « spirit » of Sanskrit. The « spirit » of Indo-European languages…
Is there a « spirit » of languages? And what does it mean?
Franz Rosenzweig asked this question in a lecture on « the spirit of the Hebrew language ».
« What is the spirit of the German language? Does a language have a ‘spirit’? The answer is: only the language has a spirit. As many languages we know, as many times we are a man. Can you ‘know’ more than one language? Our ‘knowledge’ is just as flat as French ‘savoir‘ (knowledge). We live in one language.» xiv
The word ‘knowledge’, – a ‘flat’ word?
To live is to react…
The French word ‘savoir’ comes from the Latin sapio, sapere, « to have flavor », and figuratively « to have taste, sense, reason ». This Latin word gave in French the words ‘sapience’, ‘saveur’, ‘sève’, ‘sapide’ (and its antonym ‘insipide’). Its etymological origin goes back to the Sanskrit सबर् sabar, « nectar, sap, milk », from which the words Saft in German, sap inEnglish, sapor in Latin also derive.
There is an irony here, a sort of ‘meta-linguistic’ irony, to note that the words ‘flavor’, ‘taste’, are translated ta’am inHebrew, in the plural te’amim.
Now it just so happens that Henri Meschonnic advocated a close attention to the presence in the biblical language of the signs of cantillation, the טְעָמִים, te’amim, supposed to enlighten the deep meaning of the verses by giving them their true rhythm, their melody. « The word, already used by Rabbi Akiva, of te’amim, (…) is the plural of ta’am, which means the taste, in the gustatory sense, the taste of what one has in the mouth.xv In medieval Hebrew, the word also referred to the ratio. It is of capital importance that this word, which designates the junctions-disjunctions, groupings and ungroupings of discourse, with for each ‘accent’ a melodic line, be a word of the body and the mouth. The mouth is what speaks. »xvi
The irony, then, is that the French word ‘savoir’ (which Rosenzweig found ‘flat’) and the Hebrew word te’amim share the same connotations, associating ‘taste’, ‘flavor’ and ‘ratio’...
We quickly return to provincialism and navel-gazing, as we see. One must resolve to understand, once and for all, that outside of Hebrew, there is no salvation. Literally. The Hebrew language holds the divine in it…
Rosenzweig puts it this way:
« The spirit of the Hebrew language is ‘the spirit of God’. (Es ist Geist Gottes). » xvii
Difficult to make more synthetic and more exclusive.
In search of this ‘spirit’ (of the Hebrew language), and interested in the interpretative power attributed to the te’amim, I looked for some possible examples of reference in Meschonnic’s writings.
He particularly emphasizes a verse from Isaiah, usually translated, for centuries, in the Gospels:
« A voice cries out in the desert: prepare a way for the Lord. « (Is. 40:3)
Meschonnic says of this translation: « It is the ‘Christian way’, as James Kugel says. The identification with John the Baptist in Matthew (3:3), Mark (1:3) and John (1:23) depended on it. »
It is true that there is a discrepancy of interpretation between the passages of the Gospels quoted and what we read in the Jerusalem Bible, which gives the following translation:
« A voice cries out, ‘In the desert, make way for the LORD’. »
So? What is the rigjht reading?
» A voice cries out in the desert »?
Or: « A voice cries out: ‘in the desert etc.' »?
Meschonnic notes that in the Hebrew original, there is a major disjunctive accent (zaqef qatan) after « a screaming voice » (qol qoré):
« So ‘in the desert’ is related to ‘make way’, not about the preceding verb. I translate: ‘A voice cries out in the desert make way for Adonaï’. This text is liked to the exile in Babylon, and calls for a return to Jerusalem. Its meaning is geographical and historical, according to its rhythm in Hebrew. But when cut after ‘desert’, it becomes the Christian and eschatological call. Quite another theology. It is the rhythm that makes, or undoes, the meaning.»xviii
Meschonnic concludes his development with a shock formula :
« Rhythm is not only the Jew of the sign, it is also the Jew of the Jew, and it shares the utopia of the poem by being the utopia of meaning. »xix
The rhythm, the ta’am, is the « Jew of the Jew ». Difficult to find a formulation less goy, and more irrefutable…
However, the rhythm is not enough.
If we place the same verse (Is 40:3) in the immediate context of the first ten verses of the « second » Isaiah (Is 40:1-10), we suddenly see a rich density of possible meanings, proliferating, allusive, elusive, carried by voices, words, utterances, cries, repetitions, variations, ellipses, obscurities and openings.
A textual criticism, aimed at semantics, syntax, allegories and anagogy, would encourage a multiplication of questions – far beyond what the ta’am ta’am is.
Why is God twice named « our God » (אלֹהֵינוּ Elohei-nou) xxin Is 40:3 and Is 40:8, and twice named « your God » (אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Elohei-khem)xxi in Is 40:1 and Is 40:9?
Is « ours » also « yours », or is it not?
Why is God named ‘YHVH’ five times in Isaiah 40:2, Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah 40:5 (twice), and Isaiah 40:7, but only once ‘YHVH Adonai’ in Isaiah 40:10xxii? In other words, why is God here named six times ‘YHVH’, and once ‘Adonai’?
In what way do the expression « all flesh » כָל-בָּשָׂר khol-bachar, in Is 40:5, and the expression « all flesh » כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר kol-ha-bachar, in Is 40:6, differ? xxiii
Why is the article defined in one case and not in the other?
Could it be that the expression « all flesh will see it » וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר vé-raou khol-bachar, implies a universality (total, inclusive) of the vision of the glory of YHVH, – « all flesh » then meaning « all creatures made of flesh »?
Whereas the expression « all flesh, – grass », כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר kol-ha-bachar ḥatsir, only implies that « everything » in the flesh is like « grass »?
Why do two voices, undefined, come from unnamed mouths (Is 40:3 and Is 40:6), – when the spoken word is from « the mouth of YHVH », כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר, ki pi YHVH dibber (Is 40:5), and « the word of our God »,וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ devar Elohenou, (Is 40:8), are they duly and by name attributed to God?
Why does the first of these two (undefined) voices shout :
« A voice cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the wilderness, make a straight road for our God’. »(Isaiah 40:3)
Why does the second, undefined voice first say: ‘Cry out’, – before saying what to cry out?
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « (Isaiah 40:6)
To whom does « your God » address himself when Isaiah says :
iv Claude Lanzmann writes: « I fought to impose ‘Shoah’ without knowing that I was thus proceeding to a radical act of nomination, since almost immediately the title of the film became, in many languages, the very name of the event in its absolute singularity. The film was immediately eponymous, people everywhere began to say « the Shoah ». The identification between the film and what it represents goes so far that daring people speak of me as « the author of the Shoah, » to which I can only reply: « No, I’m « Shoah », the Shoah is Hitler. » Le Monde, February 26, 2005
vHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.127
viHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.132
viiH. Meschonnic quotes here Elliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, theosophy and theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p.123.
viiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.128
ixElliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, Theosophy and Theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p. 57, quoted by H. Meschonnic, op. cit. p. 128.
xRaymond Abelio. In a soul and a body. Gallimard, 1973, p.259. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.137
xiFranz Rosenzweig. New Hebrew ? On the occasion of the translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Collected Writings III p. 725. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiFranz Rosenzweig. « Neo-Hebrew » in L’écriture, le verbe et autres essais. p.28. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiiTo get an idea of this, just compare the Sanskrit-English dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams and the Hebrew-English dictionary by Brown-Driver-Briggs, both considered as references in the study of Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew.
xivFranz Rosenzweig. « On the Spirit of the Hebrew Language. – es a language have a ‘spirit’ ? The answer is: only the language has spirit. As many languages as one can, so much one can be human. Can one ‘know’ more than one language ? Our ‘can’ is as shallow as the French ‘savoir’. One lives in a language. « Collected Writings III p. 719. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.139-140
xvMeschonnic notes that in Arabic, mat’am means « resaturant ».
xviHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.147-148
xviiFranz Rosenzweig. « Vom Geist der hebräische Sprache. « Gesammelte Schriften III p. 721. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 140
xviiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 165
xixHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 171
xx« A way cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the steppe, smooth a road for our God. « קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַבַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ (Is 40,3)
« The grass withers, the flower withers, but the word of our God endures forever. « יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם (Is 40,8)
xxi« Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,1)
« Lift up your voice, fear not, say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!' » הָרִימִי, אַל-תִּירָאִי, אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה, הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,9)
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה (Is 40,6)
xxiv« The grass withers, the flower withers, when the breath of YHVH passes over them; yes, the people are grass. »
The Latin word virus, of the neutral gender, has no plural. This word initially meant « juice » but also « sperm », « venom », « poison », « pungency », and « bitterness ».
The Greek word for virus is ῑός, « venom », but also « rust ».
The etymologyi of these two words goes back to the Sanskrit word विष viṣa, which means, in the neutral gender: « poison, venom ». But the root of this Sanskrit word, viṣ-,basically means « to be active, to act, to do, to accomplish »ii. It thus had originally no negative connotation. It rather implied an idea of action, efficiency, accomplishment. The word विष viṣa, when in the masculine gender, means « servant » (implying the idea of being « active, zealous »).
One may learn from these etymological roots a useful lesson.
As one knows, when viruses infect living beings, they transmit to their genome some bits of their RNA, for example in the form of plasmids.
The COVID-19 pandemic is actually infecting a huge percentage of the entire human race, which will now share fragments of this widely distributed and constantly mutating ‘genetic heritage’.
The virus and its variants are then partly contributing to the overall, on-going mutation of human genome, and are also forcing humankind to be « active and zealous », in order to politically mutate and adapt its global ‘governance’ to reach a level of efficiency that should be higher, hopefully, than the genetic efficiency of the virus itself.
What is happening before our eyes can be undersood as a real-time ‘mutation’ affecting potentially the whole of humanity, genetically, but also politically, and even metaphysically, I would try to argue.
On a metaphorical level, this global pandemic could be compared to a form of incarnation (etymologically, a ‘penetration into the flesh’, an ’embodiment’).
The plasmids that we may inherit from the COVID-19 embody not just an ‘infection’ but also a metaphysical metaphor at work, — that of a continuous, immanent process of symbiotic incarnationof the « inanimate-unconscious » viral reign into the « animate-conscious » human species.
While using the word ‘incarnation’, a quote comes to my mind:
« The true history of the world seems to be that of the progressive incarnation of the divinity »iii.
It is certainly not my intention to compare the putative incarnation of the « divinity » in world ‘true history’ to a slow viral infection, but this metaphor offers some food for thought.
It links in a single knot the « inanimate-unconscious » viral reign, the « animate-conscious » human species, and the « animate-unconscious » divine reign.
The ‘progressive incarnation’ of the virus has its own way and timeline. Likewise the ‘progressive incarnation’ of the divinity. The word incarnation, in both cases, reveals an analogous process at work, in the respective natures of the divinity, the humankind and the allegedly ‘inanimate’, material world.
Undoubtedly, at a given moment, for some reasons of Her own, the Divinity has, in a way, resolved to come out of Herself, if only to allow Her own ‘Creation’ to exist, more or less independently from Her.
Was the eternal « confinement » of the Divinity no longer suitable, at one point? Did Her absolute, compact, total perfection appear to Her somewhat incomplete, notwithstanding Her apparent completeness?
One may conjecture that the Divinity got out of Herself, in order to break the tautology of her Being alone, the repetition of the Sublime, the circularity of the Supreme, the loneliness of the Holiness.
Before the world was even created, what did the Godhead do? She was, one may assume, bathed in an holy, infinite Unconscious. For what is called ‘consciousness’, and of which Man is so proud, is really a term that is not worthy of the supreme Divinity.
The Divinity is so infinite that She cannot know Herself like a mere ‘consciousness’ would. If the Divinity fully knew Herself in such a conscious way, then She would in some subtle manner be limited by this very ‘knowledge’ of Herself, by this projected ‘consciousness’ of Herself that would infringe on Her absolute freedom. This limitation is not conceivable in a divine context.
The Divinity must be beyond any form of consciousness. In other words, She is ‘unconscious’ of Her own, absolute infinity.
To put it another way, before the world or time was created, the Divinity did not yet know the scope of Her own Wisdom, let alone the sound of Her own Word, which had never been uttered (since there was really no ear up there and then to hear).
This is expressed in the Kabbalah’s image of the Divine Wisdom as standing ‘near’, besides the Divinity. There is not identity, but a separation.
In the unconsciousness (of the infinity of Her own Wisdom), the Divinity stood in a state of absolute timelessness.
She stood as a living Entity.
This ‘ignorance’ hid the mystery of Her unconsciousness from the Light of Her otherwise absolute knowledge.
iSee Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet. Etymological dictionary of the Latin language. Klincksieck, Paris, 2001, p.740, and cf. Pierre Chantraine. Etymological Dictionary of the Greek Language. Klincksieck, Paris, 1977, p.466.
iiGérard Huet. Sanskrit-French dictionary. 2013. p. 559
iiiC.G. Jung. The Divine in man. Albin Michel. 1999, p.134
One day, according to the Bhagavadgītā (भगवद्गीता), the Supreme Lord came down to reveal to a man named Arjuna, the « most secret wisdom », the « secret of secrets », the « purest knowledge », a « knowledge, queen among all sciences ».
In a few decisive words, human reason was then stripped of everything and reduced to begging. Human nature was compared to « dust », but, more inexplicably, it was also promised to a very high destiny, a putative glory, though still infinitely distant, embryonic, potential. Faced with these impassable mysteries, she was invited to scrutinize endlessly her own background, and her own end.
« This entire universe is penetrated by Me, in My unmanifested form. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. At the same time, nothing that is created is in Me. See My supernatural power! I sustain all beings, I am everywhere present, and yet, I remain the very source of all creation.»i
We also learn from Bhagavadgītā that the supreme God may descend in person into this world, taking on human form. « Fools denigrate Me when I come down to this world in human form. They know nothing of My spiritual and absolute nature, nor of My total supremacy.»ii
It is not without interest to recall here that the Hebrew Bible, for its part, repeatedly expressed a strangely similar idea. Thus, three « men », posing as « envoys » of the Lord, came to meet Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre. One of them, called YHVH in the Genesis text, spoke to Abraham face to face.
In the Veda, the supreme God is infinitely high, transcendent, absolute, but He is also tolerant. He recognizes that multiple modes of belief can coexist. There are men for whom God is the supreme, original Person. There are those who prostrate themselves before God with love and devotion. There are those who worship Him as the One, and others who worship Him in Immanence, in His presence among the infinite diversity of beings and things, and there are still others who see Him in the Universal. iii
In the Veda, the supreme God is at once unique, absolute, transcendent, immanent, universal; He is All in all.
« But I am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter, and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Ṛg, the Sāma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend, I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the place of rest and the eternal seed (…) I am immortality, and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna ». iv
In his third lecturev on Vedanta given in London in 1894, Max Müller recalled that the Supreme Spirit, the bráhman, ( ब्रह्मन्, a name of the neutral gender, with the tonic accent on the verbal root BRAH-, taken to the full degree – ‘guṇa’) said: « Even those who worship idols worship Me », as reported by Bhagavadgītā.
And Müller added that, within the framework of Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman, this supreme principle, must be distinguished from the brahmán (with the tonic accent on the second syllable), who represents amale agent name meaning « Creator ». According to the Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman could even state of himself: « Even those who worship a personal God in the image of an active creator, or a King of kings, worship Me or, at least, think of Me ».
In this view, the brahmán (the Creator) would be, in reality, only a manifestation of the bráhman (the Supreme Principle). The bráhman also seems to hint here, not without a certain irony, that one could perfectly well support the opposite position, and that would not bother Him…
Here again, with the famous opening of the first verse of Genesis: Bereshit bara Elohim (Gen 1:1), Judaism professed an intuition strangely comparable.
This verse could be read, according to some commentators of the Bereshit Rabbah: » ‘Be-rechit’ created the Elohim« (i.e. » ‘In the principle‘ created the Gods »).
Other commentators even proposed to understand: « With the Most Precious, *** created the Gods ».
I note here by means of the three asterisks the ineffability of the Name of the Supreme Principle (unnamed but implied).
Combining these interpretations, one could understand the first verse of Genesis (berechit bara elohim) in this way:
« The Principle, ‘with‘ the ‘Most Precious’, created the Elohim. »
The Principle is not named but implied.
The particle be- in the expression be-rechit can mean ‘with’.
One of the possible meanings of the word rechit can be ‘primal fruit’ or ‘most precious’.
For the comparatist, these possibilities (however slight) of convergence between traditions as different as Vedic and Hebrew, are sources of endless meditation and tonic inspiration…
One of the greatest commentator on Vedic heritage, Ādi Śaṅkara (आदि शङ्कर ) explained: « When bráhman is defined in the Upanishads only in negative terms, excluding all differences in name and form due to non-science, it is the superior [bráhman]. But when it is defined in terms such as: « the intelligence whose body is spirit and light, distinguished by a special name and form, solely for the purpose of worship » (Chand., III, 14, 2), it is the other, the lower brahmán. » vi
If this is so, Max Müller commented, the text that says that bráhman has no second (Chand., VI, 2, 1) seems to be contradicted.
But, « No, answers Śaṅkara, because all this is only the illusion of name and form caused by non-science. In reality the two brahman are one and the same brahman, oneconceivable, the other inconceivable, one phenomenal, the other absolutely real ». vii
The distinction made by Śaṅkara is clear. But in the Upanishads, the line of demarcation between the bráhman (supreme) and the brahmán (creator) is not always so clear.
When Śaṅkara interprets the many passages of the Upanishads that describe the return of the human soul after death to ‘brahman‘ (without the tonic accent being distinguished), Sankara always interprets it as the inferior brahmán.
Müller explained: « This soul, as Śaṅkara strongly says, ‘becomes Brahman by being Brahman’viii, that is, by knowing him, by knowing what he is and has always been. Put aside the non-science and light bursts forth, and in that light the human self and the divine self shine in their eternal unity. From this point of view of the highest reality, there is no difference between the Supreme Brahman and the individual self or Ātman (Ved. Sutras, I, 4, p. 339). The body, with all the conditions, or upadhis,towhich it is subordinated, may continue for some time, even after the light of knowledge has appeared, but death will come and bring immediate freedom and absolute bliss; while those who, through their good works, are admitted to the heavenly paradise, must wait there until they obtain supreme enlightenment, and are only then restored to their true nature, their true freedom, that is, their true unity with Brahman. » ix
Of the true Brahman, the Upanishads still say of Him: « Verily, friend, this imperishable Being is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long, neither red (like fire) nor fluid (like water). He is without shadow, without darkness, without air, without ether, without bonds, without eyes, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without spirit, without light, without breath, without mouth, without measure, He has neither inside nor outside ».
And this series of negations, or rather abstractions, continues until all the petals are stripped off, and only the chalice, the pollen, the inconceivable Brahman, the Self of the world, remains.
« He sees, but is not seen; He hears, but is not heard; He perceives, but is not perceived; moreover, there is in the world only Brahman who sees, hears, perceives, or knows. » x
Since He is the only one to ‘see’, the metaphysical term that would best suit this Being would be ‘light’.
But this does not mean that Brahman is, in itself, « light », but only that the whole light, in all its manifestations, is in Brahman.
This light is notably the Conscious Light, which is another name for knowledge, or consciousness. Müller evokes the Mundaka Upanishad: « ‘It is the light of lights; when it shines, the sun does not shine, nor the moon nor the stars, nor lightning, much less fire. When Brahman shines, everything shines with Him: His light illuminates the world. Conscious light represents, as best as possible, Brahman’s knowledge, and it is known that Thomas Aquinas also called God the intelligent sun (Sol intelligibilis). For, although all purely human attributes are taken away from Brahman, knowledge, though a knowledge without external objects, is left to Him.»xi
The ‘light’ of ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ seems to be the only anthropomorphic metaphor that almost all religions dare to apply to the Supreme Being as the least inadequate.
In doing so, these religions, such as Vedic, Hebrew, Buddhist or Christian, often forget what the narrow limits of human knowledge or wisdom are, even at their highest level of perfection, and how unworthy of Divinity these metaphors are in reality.
There is indeed in all knowledge as in all human wisdom an essentially passive element.
This ‘passivity’ is perfectly incompatible with the Divinity… At least, in principle.
One cannot help but notice in several religions the idea of a sort of (active) passivity of the supreme Divinity, who takes the initiative to withdraw from being and the world, for the sake of His creature.
Several examples are worth mentioning here, by order of their appearance on world stage.
-The Supreme Creator, Prajāpati, प्रजापति, literally « Father and Lord of creatures », felt « emptied » right after creating all worlds and beings.
-Similarly, the Son of the only God felt his « emptiness » (kenosis, from the Greek kenos, empty, opposing pleos, full) and his « abandonment » by God just before his death.
-In the Jewish Kabbalah, God also consented to His own « contraction » (tsimtsum) in order to leave a little bit of being to His creation.
In this implicit, hidden, subterranean analogy between the passivity of human wisdom and the divine recess, there may be room for a form of tragic, sublime and overwhelming irony.
The paradox is that this analogy and irony, then, would also allow the infinitesimal human ‘wisdom’ to approach in small steps one of the deepest aspects of the mystery.
viiF. Max Müller, op. cit. 3rd conference, p.39-40
viiiIt should probably be specified here, thanks to the tonic accents: « The soul becomes Brahman by being Brahman. « But one could also write, it seems to me, by analogy with the ‘procession’ of the divine persons that Christian theology has formalized: « The spirit becomes Brahman by beingBrahman. »
It is said that Being is. Apart from being a tautology, nothing is less certain. Rather, one should say that Being is also whatisbecoming, and therefore what it is not, yet. One could also say that it is, at least partly, what has been, and therefore what it is no longer. We should not, therefore, just say that Being is (strictly speaking).
Being is indeed all that it is in essence, and in potency, including all that it will be and all that it has been.
The essence of Being is not only to be, but to have been, in some ways that may be not fully understood, and also to contain some potentialities that may be revealed sometime in the future. Now, admittedly, ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are not, strictly speaking, ‘being’, but one can however think and say that ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are a certain way of being.
From that I infer that a part of the essence of Being lies in what is ‘thought‘ and ‘said‘ about it. The essence of Being has something to do with thought and words.
One may then expand this idea and state that there is no unspeakable Being, just as there is no Being without essence and existence, and just as there is no abstract Being.
A ‘mere’ Being, a Being that would be absolutely unthinkable, and absolutely unspeakable, is just a play on words, a mental chimera.
A ‘mere’ Being would necessarily refer to some other prior entity that would be ‘before’ it, — an entity that would be also in essence unspeakable and would moreover not be called ‘Being’, because this would be a name, – and there could not be any speakable name, starting with the name ‘Being’, for an entity that would be in essence unspeakable.
Hence, I assume that Being can only be conceived by the word, and with the word. A ‘Being without word’, or ‘before all words’, would not be ‘Being’, but something more original than ‘Being’, an entity without the need for any words (even the word ‘Being’), an entity for which no word exists, for which no word is suitable.
No word can designate what is before or beyond Being. Words can only suit what is, what has been or what will be, — not what is beyond Being.
Being and Wording are therefore linked. Said otherwise, Being and the Word make a couple. They are of the same essence. A reciprocal essence links these two entities. One constitutes a part of the essence of the other. The Word is part of the essence of Being, and Being is part of the essence of the Word.
Is the Word first? No, because if the Word were first, if it were before Being, then it would be before Being is, which is a logical contradiction.
Is Being first? No, for how could it be called ‘Being’ before the Word was? If we can say that Being is, if we can say that the Being is Being, then it implies that the Word is also already present, — in the presence of Being. The presence of the Word would be necessary to say the existence of Being.
As I said, Being and Word are linked to each other, they are and they say together.
From the outset, Being is not just Being, but is to be this whole, this linked, compact couple of Being and Word.
Being is to be from the outset all that is implied in being Being and being Word.
Being is to be from the outset the whole of Being, ‘all’ the essence of Being, all that is Being, all that constitutes it.
Being implies being ‘con-sistent‘ (from the Latin cum-sistere).
Being implies to be ‘co-existent‘ with all that is proper to being.
Being is with itself, it is in the presence of itself, in the presence of everything that constitutes its essence, including the Word that tells this essence.
Being involves Being-With-Oneself and Being-Word. If Being is consistent, and it has to be, it coexists with all that is ‘being’ in itself and all that is « thoughtable » and »speakable » in it.
The coexistence of Being with the whole of Being and all its parts constitutes the immanent ‘self’ of Being. This immanent ‘self’ resonates with itself. It is this resonance that constitues the Word.
Hence the deepest origin of consciousness.
Hence also the origin of transcendence, which is constituted by the consciousness of immanence.
Being implies the immanence of Being, and immanence implies immanent consciousness, and the consciousness of immanence.
The immanent consciousness and the consciousness of immanence are already potential steps towards transcendent consciousness (in relation to Being).
The fact for Being to be-with-oneself carries in potency the appearance of the consciousness of being, of the awareness of the self by the self.
Being implies a fold of Being upon itself. This fold is an implication-explanation, which is also the beginning of a reflection, to move on to an optical metaphor.
At the beginning of Being, then, is this fold, this reflection, which can also be called ‘spirit’ (in Sanskrit manas), because the spirit is what ‘unfolds’, or what ‘reflects’.
And in this unfolding fold, the Vedic Word (वाच् vāc) was born.
Victor, thoughtful, once stood near the dolmen of Rozel. A dark and talkative ghost appeared to him. From his mouth of night flowed a powerful, agitated stream, mixing raw and chosen words, where dead trunks and black silt layed. The nyctalope poet was even more loquacious, and his verses sprang, in hurried theories, out of their grassy, wordy bushes.
The images added up, like glasses at the bar:
The immense can be heard. Everything speaks. Everything has consciousness. The tombs are dressed in grass and night. The abyss prays. All lives. The depth is imperfect. Evil is in the universe. Everything goes to the worst, always, without ceasing. The soul chooses. The tree is religious. The pebble is vile, blind, hideous. Matter is evil, – fatal fruit. The incontinent poet rhymes ‘ombre‘ (shadow) with ‘sombre‘ (dark) several times without any shame. And, to compensate, ‘vivant‘ (alive) with ‘en avant‘ (forward).
He had a sad forehead, this great man, this exile with sad sweats, funeral impulses. He bent, this poet, from the weight of the infinite, nothing less, and from the silly light of the gloomy suns.
God is here. Are we so sure? Of course we are! He is not out of anything, by the way. The azure, and the rays, hide His wingspan.
Interpelled in vain, the Spirit continues his way, without wanting to hear Man alone, despising his ‘vile flesh’. The word ‘vile’ returns like an antiphon. The enormous life always continues, it enters the invisible, it ascends to the heavens, it travels ‘millions of leagues’, it reaches even to the ‘radiant toe’ of the ‘archangel sun’ and vanishes in God. Yes ‘in God’! That is, in the depths! Jacob and Cato have already passed through these ladders, with their future of duty, mourning, and exile. They have passed through these precipices and abysses, where the larvae and the mysteries, the vapors and the hydrants, are hurried.
Following them, the seers and angels plunged, towards the winged souls.
But for the banished who remain stuck in the nadir, shipwreck is promised, and the ‘rimless abyss’, full of ‘rain’, opens up.
« Of all that lived rains unceasingly the ashes;
And one sees everything at the bottom, when the eye dares to go down there,
Beyond the life, and the breath and the noise, An ugly black sun from which the night radiates! »i
The Spirit thunders and threatens. As a prophet, he says: the top goes down, the ideal goes to matter, the spirit falls to the animal, the great crashes into the small, the fire announces the ashes, blindness is born of the seer, and darkness of the flamboyant.
But the rhymes save! ‘Azure’ goes with ‘pure’.
Above is joy, below is filth and evil.
It’s perfectly binary. Structurally binary.
In the infinite, one goes up, – or one falls.
Every being is in balance, and weighs its own weight. For elevation, or fall.
Let man contemplate, then, the cesspool or the temple!
Underneath even the worst of the rough ones, there are still the plants without eyelids, and under the stones, there is chaos.
But, always, the soul must continue to descend, towards the dungeon, the punishment and the scaffold.
Ah! Victor! How your hard and funny verses judge worlds and History!
With a light gesture, you cut down your cleaver, soaked with unbelievable alexandrines!
« Once, without understanding it and with a dazed eye
India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis. »ii
‘India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis’. Seriously ???
You Victor, you saw! You Clarified Poet, young Genius of Jersey! You, Seer, you knew, much better than her, this old India, that the bramble becomes a claw, and the cat’s tongue becomes a rose leaf, – to drink the blood of the mouse, in the shadows and the shouts !
Ah, Victor, seeing from your higher heaven, you contemplate the unheard-of spectacle of the lower regions, and you listen to the immense cry of misfortune, the sighs of the pebbles and the desperate.
You see ‘everywhere, everywhere, everywhere’, angels ‘with dead wings’, gloomy larvae, and ragged forests. Punishment seeks darkness, and Babel, when it is overthrown, always flees into the depths of the night. The man for you, O Victor, full of victories, glory and knowledge, is never but a brute drunk with nothingness, who empties the drunken glass of his sleeps, night after night.
But there is a but. When you think twice, man is in prison but his soul remains free. The magi thought that legions of unknown and enslaved souls were constantly trampled underfoot by men who denied them. The ashes in the hearth, or the sepulchre, also claim that a heap of evil sleeps in them.
Man says: No! He prostitutes his mouth to nothingness, while even his dog lying in the night (that sinister constellation) sees God. This is because man is nothing, even if the starry beast is little. He denies, he doubts, in the shadow, the dark and gloomy, the vile and hideous, and he rushes into this abyss, this universal sewer.
Ah! Victor! Why didn’t you crush, with a heavy foot, that immortal worm that was gnawing at your overripe soul?
Alas! Alas! Alas! All is alive! Everything thinks!
Triple complaint, quintuple exclamation. One must cry over all the hideous ugliness of the world.
The spider is filthy, the slug is wet, the aphid is vile, the crab is hideous, the bark beetle is awful (like the sun!), the toad is scary.
But there is still hope at the end!
The underworld will refer to itself as eden. It will be the real day. Beauty will flood the night. The pariah universe will stutter in praise. Mass graves will sing. The mud will palpitate.
The pains will end, – as this poem ends: with the ‘Beginning’!
To Victor, however, I would like to address a short message from beyond time, a brief word from beyond the age, a distant sign from India, who ‘glimpsed’ something that Hugo neither saw nor suspected:
Before the very Beginning, there was neither being nor non-being, and ‘all darkness was enveloped in darkness.’ iii
Wise men commented: the spirit (in Sanskrit: manas) is the one and only thing that can be both existing and non-existent. The spirit exists, they said, only in things, but things, if they have no spirit, then they are non-existentiv.
The seers have long sought wise views on these difficult questions.
They thought, for example, that there was a hidden, deep, obscure link between Being and Non-Being. And they asked themselves: What link? And who could really know anything about it?
They replied ironically: « He certainly knows it – or maybe He Himself doesn’t even know it ! »v
i Victor Hugo. Contemplations. XXVI , « What the Mouth of Shadow Says ».
The anthropology of the ‘beginning’ is quite rich. A brief review of three traditions, Vedic, Jewish and Christian, here cited in the order of their historical arrival on the world stage, may help to compare their respective myths of ‘beginning’ and understand their implications.
1. The Gospel of John introduced the Greek idea of logos, ‘in the beginning’.
« In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ». (Jn 1:1)
It is certainly worth digging a little deeper into the meaning of the two words ἀρχῇ (arkhè) and λόγος (logos), given their importance here.
Ἐν ἀρχῇ. En arkhè.
What is the real (deep) meaning of this expression?
Should one translate by « In the beginning »? Or « In the Principle »? Or something else?
The original meaning of the verb arkho, arkhein, commonly used since Homer, is ‘to take the initiative, to begin’. In the active sense, the word means ‘to command’.i With the preverb en-, the verb en-arkhomai means ‘to begin the sacrifice’, and later ‘to exercise magistracy’. The notion of sacrifice is very present in the cloud of meanings associated with this word. Kat-arkho : ‘to begin a sacrifice’. Pros-arkho, ‘to offer a gift’. Ex-arkho means ‘to begin, to sing (a song)’. Hup-arkho, ‘to begin, to be in the beginning’, hence ‘to be fundamental, to exist’, and finally ‘to be’.
Many compounds use as first term the word arkhè, meaning either ‘who starts’ or ‘who commands’. The oldest meaning is ‘who takes the initiative of’. There is the Homeric meaning of arkhé-kakos, ‘who is at the origin of evils’. The derived word arkhosgave rise to the formation of a very large number of compounds (more than 150 have been recordedii), of which Chantraine notes that they all refer to the notion of leading, of command, — and not to the notion of beginning.
The feminine noun arkhe, which is the word used in the Gospel of John, can mean ‘beginning’, but philosophers use it to designate ‘principles’, ‘first elements’ (Anaximander is the first to use it in this sense), or to mean ‘power, sovereignty’.
Chantraine concludes that the meanings of arkhè whicharerelated to the notions of ‘taking the initiative’, of ‘starting’, are the oldest, but that meanings that express the idea of ‘command’ also are very old, since they already appear in Homer. In all the derivations and subsequent compositions, it is the notion of ‘commanding’ that dominates, including in a religious sense: ‘to make the first gesture, to take the initiative (of sacrifice)’.
One may conjecture from all this, that the Johannine expression ‘en arkhè‘does not contain the deep idea of an ‘absolute beginning’. Rather, it may refer to the idea of a (divine) sacrificial initiative or inauguration (of the divine ‘sacrifice’), which presupposes not an absolute, temporal beginning, but rather an intemporal, divine decision, – and the pre-existence of a whole background necessary for the conception and execution of this divine, inaugural and atemporal ‘sacrifice’.
Now, what about λόγος, logos ? How to translate this word with the right nuance? Does logos mean here ‘verb’ ? ‘Word’ ? ‘Reason’ ? ‘Speech’ ?
The word logos comes from the Greek verb lego, legein, whose original meaning is ‘to gather, to choose’, at least in the ways Homer uses this word in the Iliad. This value is preserved with the verbal compounds using the preverbs dia– or ek– (dia-legeinor ek-legein,‘to sort, to choose’), epi-legein ‘to choose, to pay attention to’, sul-legein ‘togather’. Legeinsometimes means ‘to enumerate’ in the Odyssey, and ‘to utter insults’, or ‘to chat, to discourse’ in the Iliad. This is how the use of lego, legein in the sense of ‘to tell, to say’ appeared, a use that competes with other Greek verbs that also have the meaning of ‘to say’: agoreuo, phèmi.
The noun logos is very ancient and can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey with the meaning of ‘speech, word’, and in Ionic and Attic dialects with meanings such as ‘narrative, account, consideration, explanation, reasoning, reason’, – as opposed to ‘reality’ (ergon). Then, much later, logos has come to mean ‘immanent reason’, and in Christian theology, it started to mean the second person of the Trinity, or even God.iii
Usually Jn 1:1 is translated, as we know : ‘In the beginning was the Word’. But if one wants to remain faithful to the most original meaning of these words, en arkhè and logos, one may choose to translate this verse in quite a different way.
I propose (not as a provocation, but for a brain-storming purpose) to tranlate :
« At the principle there was a choice. »
Read: « At the principle » — [of the divine sacrifice] — « there was a [divine] choice ».
Explanation: The divine Entity which proceeded, ‘in the beginning’, did not Itself begin to be at the time of this ‘beginning’. It was necessarily already there,before any being andbefore any beginning, in order toinitiate and make the ‘beginning’ and the ‘being’ possible. The ‘beginning’ is thus only relative, since the divine Entity was and is always before and any beginning and any time, out of time and any beginning.
Also, let’s argue that the expression ‘en arkhe‘ in Jn 1:1 rather refers to the idea and initiative of a ‘primordial sacrifice‘ or a primal ‘initiation’, — of which the Greek language keeps a deep memory in the verb arkhein, whencompounded with the preverb en-: en-arkhomai, ‘to initiate the sacrifice’, a composition very close to the Johannine formula enarkhe.
As for the choice of the word ‘choice‘ to translate logos, it is justified by the long memory of the meanings of the word logos. The word logos only meant ‘word’ at a very late period, and when it finally meant that, this was in competition with other Greek words with the same meaning of ‘to say’, or ‘to speak’, such as phèmi, or agoreuo. as already said.
In reality, the original meaning of the verb lego, legein,is not ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’, but revolves around the ideas of ‘gathering’ and ‘choosing’, which are mental operations prior to any speech. The idea of ‘speaking’ is basically only second, it only comes after the ‘choice’ made by the mind to ‘gather’ [its ideas] and ‘distinguish’ or ‘elect’ them [in order to ‘express’ them].
2. About a thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Hebrew tradition tells yet another story of ‘beginning’, not that of the beginning of a ‘Word’ or a ‘Verb’, but that of a unity coupled with a multiplicity in order to initiate ‘creation’.
« In the beginning God created heaven and earth ».
The word אֱלֹהִים , elohim, is translated by ‘God’. However, elohim is grammatically a plural (and could be, — grammatically speaking –, translated as »the Gods »), as the other plural in this verse, ha-chamayim, should be translated by ‘the heavens’. The fact that the verb bara (created) is in the singular is not a difficulty from this point of view. In the grammar of ancient Semitic languages (to which the grammar of classical Arabic still bears witness today, for it has preserved, more than Hebrew, these ancient grammatical rules) the plurals of non-human animated beings that are subjects of verbs, put these in the 3rd person singular. Elohim is a plural of non-human animated beings, because they are divine.
Another grammatical rule states that when the verb is at the beginning of the sentence, and is followed by the subject, the verb should always be in the singular form, even when the subject is plural.
From these two different grammatical rules, therefore, the verb of which elohim is the subject must be put in the singular (bara).
In other words, the fact that the verb bara is a 3rd person singular does not imply that the subject elohim should grammatically be also a singular.
As for the initial particle, בְּ be, in the expression be-rechit, it has many meanings, including ‘with’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’.
In accordance with several midrachic interpretations found in the Bereshit Rabbah, I propose not to translate be-rechit by ‘in the beginning’, but to suggest quite another translation.
By giving the particle בְּ be- the meaning of ‘with‘ or ‘by‘, be-rechit may be translatedby: « with [the ‘rechit‘] ».
Again in accordance with several midrachic interpretations, I also suggest giving back to ‘rechit‘ its original meaning of ‘first-fruits‘ (of a harvest), and even giving it in this context not a temporal meaning but a qualitative and superlative one: ‘the most precious‘.
It should be noted, by the way, that these meanings meet well with the idea of ‘sacrifice’ that the Greek word arkhé in theJohannine Gospel contains, as we have just seen.
Hence the proposed translation of Gn 1.1 :
« By [or with] the Most Precious, the Gods [or God] created etc… »
Let us note finally that in this first verse of the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of ‘speaking’, or ‘saying’ any ‘Verb’ or ‘Word’.
It is only in the 3rd verse of Genesis that God (Elohim) ‘says’ (yomer) something…
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר
Va-yomer Elohim yéhi ‘or vé yéhi ‘or.
Literally: « Elohim says ‘let there be light’, and the light is [and will be]. »
Then in the 5th verse, God (Elohim) ‘calls’ (yqra), i.e. God ‘gives names’.
וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם
Va-yqra’ Elohim la-‘or yom
« And Elohim called the light ‘day’. »
The actual « word » of God will come only much later. The verb דָּבַר davar ‘to speak’ or the noun דָּבָר davar ‘word’ (as applied to YHVH) only appeared long after the ‘beginning’ had begun:
« All that YHVH has said » (Ex 24:7).
« YHVH has fulfilled his word » (1 Kings 8:20).
« For YHVH has spoken » (Is 1:2).
3. Let us now turn to the Vedic tradition, which dates (in its orally transmitted form) to one or two millennia before the Hebrew tradition.
In the Veda, in contrast to Genesis or the Gospel of John, there is not ‘one’ beginning, but several beginnings, operating at different levels, and featuring various actors …
Here are a few examples:
« O Lord of the Word (‘Bṛhaspati’)! This was the beginning of the Word. » (RV X, 71,1)
« In the beginning, this universe was neither Being nor Non-Being. In the beginning, indeed, this universe existed and did not exist: only the Spirit was there.
The Spirit was, so to speak, neither existing nor non-existent.
The Spirit, once created, desired to manifest itself.
This Spirit then created the Word. « (SB X 5, 3, 1-2)
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, because hunger is death. She became mental [she became ‘thinking’]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. »(BU 1,2,1).
Perhaps most strikingly, more than two or three millennia before the Gospel of John, the Veda already employed formulas or metaphors such as: the ‘Lord of the Word’ or ‘the beginning of the Word’.
In Sanskrit, the ‘word’ is वाच् Vāc. In the Veda it is metaphorically called ‘the Great’ (bṛhatī), but it also receives many other metaphors or divine names.
The Word of the Veda, Vāc, ‘was’ before any creation, it pre-existed before any being came to be.
The Word is begotten by and in the Absolute – it is not ‘created’.
The Absolute for its part has no name, because He is before the word. Or, because He is the Word. He is the Word itself, or ‘all the Word’.
How then could He be called by any name? A name is never but a single word: it cannot speak the‘whole Word’, – all that has been, is and will be Word.
The Absolute is not named. But one can name the Supreme Creator, the Lord of all creatures, which is one of its manifestations, – like the Word, moreover.
The Ṛg Veda gives it the name प्रजापति Prajāpati,: ‘Lord (pati) of Creation (prajā)‘. It also gives itthe name ब्र्हस्पति Bṛhaspati, which means ‘Lord of the Word‘iv,‘Lord (pati) of the Great (bṛhatī )’.
For Vāc is the ‘greatness’ of Prajāpati: « Then Agni turned to Him with open mouth; and He (Prajāpati) was afraid, and his own greatness separated from Him. Now His very greatness is His Word, and this greatness has separated from Him. »v
The Sanskrit word bṛhat, बृहत् means ‘great, high; vast, abundant; strong, powerful; principal’. Its root ब्र्ह bṛha means‘to increase, to grow; to become strong; to spread’.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad comments: « It is also Bṛhaspati: Bṛhatī [‘the great one’] is indeed the Word, and he is its Lord (pati). « vi
The Word is therefore also at the « beginning » in the Veda, but it precedes it, and makes it possible, because the Word is intimately linked to the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Ṛg Veda explains the link between the supreme Creator, the Word, the Spirit, and the Sacrifice, a link that is unraveled and loosened ‘in the beginning’:
« O Lord of the Word! This was the beginning of the Word,
– when the seers began to name everything.
Excellence, the purest, the profoundly hidden
in their hearts, they revealed it through their love.
The Seers shaped the Word by the Spirit,
passing it through a sieve, like wheat being sifted.
Friends recognized the friendship they had for each other,
and a sign of good omen sealed their word.
Through sacrifice, they followed the way of the Word,
and this Word which they found in them, among them,
– they proclaimed it and communicated it to the multitude.
In the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa which is a later scholarly commentary, the Word is presented as the divine entity that created the « Breath of Life »:
« The Word, when he was created, desired to manifest himself, and to become more explicit, more incarnated. He desired a Self. He concentrated fervently. He acquired substance. These were the 36,000 fires of his own Self, made of the Word, and emerging from the Word. (…) With the Word they sang and with the Word they recited. Whatever rite is practiced in the Sacrifice, the sacrificial rite exists by the Word alone, as the utterance of voices, as fires composed of the Word, generated by the Word (…) The Word created the Breath of Life. »viii
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad, one of the oldest upaniṣad, the Vedic Word is staged as born of death, or rather of the soul (ātman)of death.
This Word is the prayer or hymn (ṛc), or ritual recitation (arc, — of the same root as ṛc). Through the play of assonances, homophonies and metaphors, it is associated with arca, the‘fire’ and ka, the‘water’ (both essential elements of the sacrifice), and also with ka, the ‘joy’ it brings.
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, for hunger is deathix. She made herself mental [thinking]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. She engaged in a ritual recitation [bow, a prayer]. While she was in the ritual recitation the water was bornx. She thought] ‘Truly, while engaged in this ritual recitation (arc), the water [or joy] (ka) came’. This is the name and being (arkatva) of the ritual recitation [or fire] (arka). Water [or joy] (ka) really happens to the one who knows the name and being of the virtual recitation [or fire]. »xi
From these quotations, one sees clearly that, in the Vedic tradition, the Word is not « in the beginning », but he is « the beginning ». The beginning of what? — The beginning of Sacrifice.
The Word ‘begins’ to reveal, he ‘initiates’, but he also hides all that he does not reveal.
What is it that he does not reveal? – He does not reveal all the depth, the abyss of the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Word is a ‘place’ where is made possible an encounter between clarity, light, brilliance (joy) and Man. But the Word also makes heard, through his silence, all the immensity of the abyss, the depth of the darkness, the in-finite before any beginnings.
iCf. The Greek Etymological Dictionary of Chantraine
vi Cf. BU,1,3,30. This Upaniṣad further explains that the Word is embodied in the Vedas in the Vedic hymn (Ṛc), in theformula of sacrifice (yajus) and in the sacred melody (sāman). Bṛhatī is also the name given to the Vedic verse (ṛc) and the name of the Brahman (in the neutral) is given to the sacrificial formula (yajus). As for the melody (sāman) it is ‘Breath-Speech’: « That is why it is also Bṛhaspati (Ṛc). It is also Bhrahmaṇaspati. The Brahman is indeed the Word and he is the lord (pati) of the [Word]. That is why he is also Bhrahmaṇaspati (= Yajus). He is also the melody (sāman). The melody is truly the Word: ‘He is she, Sā (the Word) and he is Ama (the breath). This is for the name and nature of the melody (sāman). Or because he is equal (sama) to a gnat, equal to a mosquito, equal to an elephant, equal to the three worlds, equal to this all, for this reason he is sāman, melody. It obtains the union with the sāman , theresidence in the same world, the one that knows the sāman. »(BU 1,3,20-22)
ix A. Degrâces thus comments this sentence: « The question of cause is raised here. If nothing is perceived, nothing exists. Śaṅkara is based on the concepts of covering and being covered: ‘What is covered by the cause is the effect, and both exist before creation… But the cause, by destroying the preceding effect, does not destroy itself. And the fact that one effect occurs by destroying another is not in opposition to the fact that the cause exists before the effect that is produced….Manifestation means reaching the realm of perception… Not being perceived does not mean not existing… There are two forms of covering or occultation in relation to the effect… What is destroyed, produced, existing and non-existing depends on the relation to the manifestation or occultation… The effort consists in removing what covers… Death is the golden embryo in the condition of intelligence, hunger is the attribute of what intelligence is… ». (BAUB 1.2) Alyette Degrâces. The Upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222, note n° 974.
x Water plays an essential role in the Vedic sacrifice.
xiBU 1,2,1 (My adaptation in English from a French translation by Alyette Degrâces. The upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222)
An innate sense of ‘mystery’ has always been one of the defining features of the human condition. The appearance of this trait, a long time ago, – say a few thousand centuries ago –, coincided, one must assume, with an obscure and progressive emergence of the consciousness itself, – mixed with a certain consciousness of the presence of the unconscious, – or of what was still lying unknown, hidden behing the veil of consciousness.
These two phenomena, the intuition of the mystery and the intuition of the unconscious, also opened the way to the progressive bursting of the consciousness of the Ego itself, – and of the ‘Self’.
The appearance of consciousness itself has undoubtedly been particularly favored by the repetition (encouraged by rituals) of many individual, acute, unprecedented, ‘proto-mystical’ experiences, – some of them with literally unspeakable implications, and whose essence was to reveal unexpectedly some of the depths of the Self, to some ‘initiated’ minds.
The accumulation of these experiences, by countless successive generations, not only by individuals but also by tribal groups during collective trances, suggests that these ecstatic states of consciousness must have been described and shared according to socialized forms (proto-religions, cult rites, initiation ceremonies).
The progressive experience of self-awareness and the proto-mystical experience are in fact indissolubly linked and reinforce each other. Both must have been made possible and encouraged by clusters of favorable conditions (environment, surroundings, climate, fauna, flora).
Moreover, through the effect of epigenesis, they must have had an impact on the neuronal, synaptic, neurochemical evolution of the brain (in hominids, then in humans), producing an organic and psychic terrain more and more adapted to a continuous increase in ‘levels of consciousness’.
For innumerable generations, and during multiple trance experiences, whether deliberate or hazardous, prepared or undergone, provoked during religious rites, or melting like lightning following personal discoveries, the mental ground of Homo brains never stops sowing, then sprouting, as if under the action of a psychic yeast intimately mixed with the neuronal dough.
Powerful proto-mystical experiments accelerated the neurochemical and neuro-synaptic adaptation of the brains of Paleolithic man, and thus revealed the incalculable immensity and radical unspeakability of the underlying, immanent, deep-seated ‘mysteries’.
These mysteries manifestly dwelled not only in the brain itself, and in a human consciousness that seemed to be barely awake, but also all around, inNature, in the vast world of Cosmos, and beyond the Cosmos itself, deep in the Night of Origins.
Mysteries seemed to be hiding, not only in the ‘Self’, but also in the ‘Other’ , in the ‘Everywhere’ and in the ‘Elsewhere’.
The neuronal, synaptic and neurochemical evolution was, and still is, obviously, the essential condition for a mental, psychic and spiritual evolution.
This evolution was accelerated by increasingly powerful and complex feedback loops, intertwining the sudden physiological modifications available, and the ‘neuro-systemic’, cultural and psychic effects that they could cause in individuals, by genetic propagation within human groups, and by catalyzing the potential exploration of unfathomable, unresolved, abyssmal depths.
We can safely postulate the existence of an immanent and constantly evolving epigenetic link between the evolution of the brain’s structure, the network of its neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters, their inhibitory and agonizing factors, and its increasing capacity to support proto-mystical, spiritual and religious experiences.
What is a proto-mystical experience?
There are undoubtedly many of them… But to fix the ideas, we can evoke the experience reported by many shamans of an exit from the body (‘ecstasy’ or ESPs), followed by the perception of a great lightning bolt, then accompanied by surreal visions, coupled with an acute development of Self-consciousness, and the inner spectacle created by the simultaneous excitement of all parts of the brain.
Let us imagine a Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer in some region of Eurasia, who consumes, by chance or by tradition, such and such a mushroom, among the dozens of species possessing psychotropic properties, in his living environment. Suddenly, a ‘great flash of consciousness’ invades and stuns him, following the simultaneous stimulation of a massive quantity of neurotransmitters affecting the functioning of his neurons and his cerebral synapses. In a few moments, there is a radical difference between his usual state of ‘consciousness’ (or ‘subconsciousness’) and the suddenly occurring state of ‘over-consciousness’. The novelty and the incredible vigor of the experience will mark him for life.
He will now have the certainty of having lived a moment of double consciousness, a moment when his usual consciousness was as if transcended by an over–consciousness. In him, a true ‘dimorphism’ of consciousness has been powerfully revealed, which is not without comparison with the daily dimorphism of wakefulness and sleep, and the ontological dimorphism of life and death, two categories undoubtedly perfectly perceptible by Homo erectus’ brain.
Let us add that, since ancient times, probably dating back to the beginning of the Paleolithic, more than three million years ago, hunter-gatherers of the Homo genus must already have known the use of psycho-active plants, and consumed them regularly. Long before the appearance of Homo, many animal species (such as reindeer, monkeys, elephants, mouflons or felines…) also knew their effects themselvesi.
Their daily example was to intrigue and disturb humans living in close symbiosis with them, and, if only to increase their hunting performance, to incite them to imitate the so strange behavior of animals putting themselves in danger by indulging in the grip of psychoactive substances – otherwise (and this in itself is an additional mystery) widespread in the surrounding nature, and throughout the world …
There are still about a hundred species of psychoactive fungi in North America today, and the vast territories of Eurasia must have had at least as many in the Paleolithic, – although nowadays there are only about ten species of fungi with hallucinogenic properties.
Paleolithic Homo was thus daily confronted with the testimony of animals undergoing the effect of psychoactive substances, regularly renewing the experience of their ingestion, affecting their ‘normal’ behavior, and thus putting themselves in danger of being killed by hunters on the lookout, quick to seize their advantage.
There is no doubt that Homo has imitated these animals ‘delighted’, ‘drugged’, ‘stunned’ by powerful substances, and ‘wandering’ in their own dreams. Wanting to understand their indifference to danger, Homo ingested the same berries or mushrooms, if only to ‘feel’ in turn what these so familiar prey could ‘feel’, which, against all odds, then offered themselves easily to their flints and arrows…
Even today, in regions ranging from northern Europe to far-eastern Siberia, reindeer still consume a lot of fly-agarics during their migrations – just like the shamans who live on the same territories.
This is certainly not a coincidence.
In Siberia, the reindeer and the hunter-breeder both live, one could say, in close symbiosis with the Amanita muscaria fungus.
The same molecules of Amanita muscaria (muscimoleii, and ibotenoque acid) that affect man and beast so intensely, how can they be produced by such seemingly elementary life forms, by ‘simple’ fungi? And moreover, why do these fungi produce these molecules, for what purpose?
This is a mystery worthy of consideration, for it is a phenomenon that objectively – and mystically – links the fungus and the brain, lightning and light, animal and human, heaven and earth, by means of a few molecules, common and active, though belonging to different kingdoms?
It is a well-documented fact that in all continents of the world, in Eurasia, America, Africa, Oceania, and since time immemorial, shamans have been consuming psychoactive substances that facilitate the entry into trance, – a trance accompanied by deep psychological effects, such as the experience of ‘divine visions’.
How can we imagine that these incredible experiences can be so mysteriously ‘shared’, if only by analogy, with animals? How can it be explained that these powerful effects, so universal, are simply due to the consumption of humble mushrooms, and that the active ingredients are one or two types of molecules acting on neurotransmitters?
R. Gordon Wasson, in his book Divine Mushroom of Immortality iii, has skillfully documented the universality of these phenomena, and he did not hesitate to establish a link between these ‘original’, shamanic practices and the consumption of Vedic Soma (from the 3rd millennium BC), whose ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda accurately describe the rites, and celebrate the divine essence, – occupying the heart of the Vedic sacrifice.iv
During several thousand years, shamanism naturally continued to be part of the sacred rites and initiation ceremonies of the wandering peoples who migrated from the North of Eurasia to the « South »,
In the course of time, Amanita muscaria has probably had to be replaced by other plants, endemically available in the various geographical environments crossed, but with similar psychotropic effects.
These migrating peoples referred to themselves as āryas, a word meaning ‘nobles’ or ‘lords’. This very old Sanskrit term, used since the 3rd millennium BC, has nowadays become sulphurous, since its misuse by Nazi ideologues.
These peoples spoke Indo-European languages, and were slowly but surely moving from Northern Europe to India and Iran, but also to the Near and Middle East, via Southern Russia. Some of them passed through the Caspian and Aral Sea, through Bactria and Margiana (as the remains of the ‘Oxus civilization’ attest), through Afghanistan, and finally settled permanently in the Indus Valley or on the Iranian highlands.
Others went to the Black Sea, Thrace, Macedonia, present-day Greece and to Phrygia, Ionia (present-day Turkey) and the Near East.
Arriving in Greece, the Hellenic branch of these Indo-European peoples did not forget the ancient shamanic beliefs. The mysteries of Eleusis and the other mystery religions of ancient Greece can be interpreted as ancient Hellenized shamanic ceremonies, during which the ingestion of beverages with psychotropic propertiesv induced mystical visions.
At the time of the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, this beverage, kykeon, made from goat’s milk, mint and spices, probably also contained as active ingredient a parasitic fungus, the rye spur, or an endophytic fungus living in symbiosis with herbs such as Lolium temulentum, better known in English as ‘ryegrass’ or ‘tares’. Rye ergot naturally produces a psychoactive alkaloid, lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived.vi
Albert Hofmann, famous for synthesizing LSD, wrote in TheRoad to Eleusis that the priests of Eleusis had to treat the rye spur Claviceps purpurea by simply dissolving it in water, thus extracting the active alkaloids, ergonovine and methylergonovine. Hofmann suggested an alternative hypothesis, namely that kykeon could be prepared using another species of rye spur, Claviceps paspali, which grows on wild herbs such as Paspalum distichum, and whose ‘psychedelic’ effects are even more intense, and indeed similar to those of the Aztec ololiuhqui plant, endemic to the Western Hemisphere.
Our mind, in a state of awakening, is constantly torn between two very different (and complementary) forms of consciousness, one turned towards the external world, that of physical sensations and action, and the other turned towards the internal world, reflection and unconscious feelings.
There are, of course, varying degrees of intensity for these two types of ‘consciousness’, external and internal. Dreaming with your eyes open is not the same as ‘dreaming’ under the influence of fly agaric, peyote or any of the many hallucinogenic plants containing psilocybin.
Upon ingestion of these powerful psychoactive principles, these two forms of consciousness seem to be simultaneously excited to the last degree, and may even alternate very quickly. They ‘merge’ and enter into ‘resonance’ at the same time.
On the one hand, the sensations felt by the body are taken to extremes, because they are not relayed by the nervous system, but are produced directly in the very center of the brain.
On the other hand, mental, psychic, or intellectual effects are also extremely powerful, because countless neurons can be stimulated or inhibited simultaneously. Under the sudden effect of psychoactive molecules, the action of inhibitory neurotransmitters (such as GABA) is massively increased. The action potential of post-synaptic neurons or glial cells is just as suddenly, and sharply, diminished.
This massive inhibition of post-synaptic neurons translates, subjectively, into a kind of radical decoupling between the usual level of consciousness, that of the consciousness of the external reality, and an entirely different level of consciousness, ‘internal’, completely detached from the surrounding reality, but by this very fact, also more easily sucked into a psychic, independent universe, which C.G. Jung calls the ‘Self’, and to which innumerable traditions refer under various names.
The set of complex neurochemical processes that occur in the brain at these times can be summarized as follows.
Psychoactive molecules (such as psilocybin) are structurally very close to organic compounds (indolesvii) that occur naturally in the brain. They suddenly put the entire brain in a state of almost absolute isolation from the immediately nearby world of external sensations.
The usual consciousness is suddenly deprived of any access to its own world, and the brain is almost instantaneously plunged into a universe infinitely rich in forms, movements, and especially ‘levels of consciousness’ absolutely unequalled with those of daily consciousness.
But there is even more surprising…
According to research by Dr. Joel Elkes at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a person’s subjective awareness under the influence of psilocybin can ‘alternate’ between two states – an ‘external’ state of consciousness and an ‘internal’ state of consciousness.
The alternation of the two states of consciousness is commonly observed, and it can even be provoked simply when the subject opens and closes his or her eyes…
We can therefore hypothesize that the original emergence of consciousness, in hominids and developed even more in Paleolithic man, may have resulted from an analogous phenomenon of ‘resonance’ between these two types of consciousness, a resonance that was itself strongly accentuated when psychoactive substances were ingested.
The back and forth between an ‘external’ consciousness (based on the world of perception and action) and an ‘internal’ consciousness, ‘inhibited’ in relation to the external world, but consequently ‘uninhibited’ in relation to the ‘surreal’ or ‘meta-physical’ world, also reinforces the ‘brain-antenna’ hypothesis proposed by William James.
Psilocybin, in this case, would make the consciousness ‘blink’ between two fundamental, totally different states, and by the same token, it would make the very subject capable of these two kinds of consciousness appear as overhanging, a subject capable of navigating between several worlds, and several states of consciousness…
In the tares hides the spur of (divine) drunkenness…
« As the people slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and departed. When the grass had grown and yielded fruit, then the tares also appeared. « viii
Should it be uprooted? No. « Lest you pick up the tares and uproot the wheat with it. Let the two grow together until the harvest. And at harvest time, I will say to the reapers, ‘Gather the tares first and bind it into bundles to consume it; but the wheat will be gathered into my granary. « ix
The interpretation is rather clear, on the one hand. The tares must remain in the wheat until the ‘harvest’. It is also obscure, on the other hand, for the tares must be burned, and then it is as an image of the fire that consumes the spirit and opens a world of visions.
And there is the parable of the leaven, which is ‘hidden’ in the flour, but of which a tiny quantity ferments the whole doughx…
The leaven ferments and makes the dough ‘rise’. In the same way the rye spur, the tares, ferment the spirit, and raise it in the higher worlds…
Spirits can just burn in the way of tares.
Or they may become infinitely drunk with the divine.
They can then understand within themselves how consciousness came to be, through the humble and radiant power of plants, the potency of grass linked to the potency of cosmos, uniting the secret depths of roots and what may be beyond the heights of heavens…
iDavid Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Penguin Books, 2011
iiMuscimole is structurally close to a major neurotransmitter of the central nervous system: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), whose effects it mimics. Muscimole is a powerful agonist of GABA type A receptors. Muscimole is hallucinogenic at doses of 10 to 15 mg.
iiiRichard Gordon Wasson, Soma : Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc, 1968
ivThe article Amanite fly killers of Wikipediaquotesthat anthropologist Peter T. Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture, (1976) survey analyzed the elements that may or may not identify fly killers as Vedic Soma, and (cautiously) concluded in favor of this hypothesis.
vi In their book The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck estimate that hierophant priests used the rye ergot Claviceps purpurea, available in abundance around Eleusis.
Billions of suns shimmer in the Night, – and all the gods are silent and shine.
The Night, – the immense abyss sucks it up, breathes this dark shroud of blood, this veil of shadow.
A voice cries out in the dark: « O Abyss, you are the only God. »i
Another voice answers, in an ironic echo: « O unique God, you are Abyss! »
All the suns that I know overflow with shadows, are full of enigmas, pierce the night with irruptions, with intestinal fury, pulverize and volatilize the mysteries.
Their deliriums, their burns, their glimmers, their impulses, fill old divine voids, long already there, pierce black matter, streak with dark mists.
See the divine Athena, wise, simple, sure, solar too, – one comes from afar to pray under the radiance of her aegis, and to recollect (relegere) on the threshold of her altar, on her calm Acropolis.
But her very Soul is only shadow, even if her Intelligence is light.
It is said that the dreams of the wise, the hatreds of the people, the tears, the loves and the gods pass.
I prefer to believe that they slide eternally, into nameless oblivion, an endless drift, but no, they will not pass. On the contrary, they grow, and always multiply. Like God Himself.
This God whom, out of faith or fear, fierce monotheists say they want to « unify » (in words only). They vehemently assign to Him a single attribute, the « one », only the « one », – not the « two », or the « three », or the « π », the pleroma or the infinite.
Those who pronounce His plural, intangible name, Elohim, still read in this plural the « One », the unique, alone, singular « One ».
They also assign the defined article to His name: the Elohim. הָאֱלֹהִים. Ha-Elohimii.
« The » God. In Arabic, too : « Al » Lah. « The » Divinity.
Two grammatical temptations : to ‘unify’ God (as being ‘one’)… and to ‘define’ God (by the article)….
And death is promised, surely, to all others, to those who, they say, « multiply Him, » – in word or thought, by action or omission….
A crucified Muslim, a saint and martyr, at the beginning of the 10th century A.D., famously said:
He paid with his life for this deep and uncomfortable truth.
Is the God, immensely infinite, so much in need of this din around a ‘unity’ that is tired, but certainly threatened, atomized with clamor (of pride and conquest), crumbled with cries (of hatred and suffering), diluted with harangues (of excommunications and fatwas).
The « One », – image, or even idol, of pure abstraction, worshipping itself, in its solitude.
The. One. The One.
The definite and the indefinite, united in a common embrace, against grammar, logic and meaning, – for if He is « One », if He is only « One », how can one say « the » One, who supposes « an » Other, maybe a less or a more than « one » Other, lurking in His shadow?
Only, perhaps, is the path of negative theology worthwhile here.
Maybe, God is neither one, nor multiple, nor the One, nor the Other, nor defined, nor undefined, but all of that at once.
Only one thing seems to be sure: He is nothing of what they say He is. Nada.
How is it possible to attribute an attribute to Him, if He is unity as such? What blindness! What derision! What pride!
They don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know what they are saying. They don’t think what they think.
But if He is not the One, from a grammatical and ontological viewpoint, what sort of grammar and ontolgy can we use to say what He really is ?
The very idea of the One is not high enough, not wide enough, not deep enough, – for His Présence, His Powers, and His infinite armies (tsebaoth) of shadows, to remain included in it.
To move forward, let’s reflect on the concept of ‘reflection’.
The sun, this unique star (for us), by its infinite images, by its incessant rays, is ‘reflected’ in the slightest of the shadows. Some of these rays even dance within us, with in our souls.
The Veda tradition helps to understand the lesson, adding another perspective.
The God Surya, who is called ‘Sun’, says the Veda, has a face of extreme brilliance, – so extreme that his ‘wife’, the Goddess Saranyu, flees before him because she can no longer face his face.
To keep her escape secret, to hide her absence, she creates a shadow, – a faithful copy of herself – named Chāyā, which she leaves behind, in her place.iv
It should be noted that in Sanskrit Chāyā, छाया, indeed means ‘shadow’. The root of this word is chād, छाद्, ‘to cover, to wrap; to hide, to keep secret’.
The word chāyā is also given by Chantraine’s Dictionary of Greek Etymology as having « a definite kinship » with the Greek word σκιά skia, ‘shadow’, ‘darkness, hidden place’ and also ‘ghost’ (a qualifier designating man’s weakness). Avestic and Persian also have a very similar word, sāya, ‘shadow’. The word skia is found in the Gospel several times, for example:
« This people, sitting in darkness, saw a great light. And upon those who sat in the region and the shadow (skia) of death, the light has risen. »v
The God Surya is deceived by this faithful shadow, which seems to be (in appearance) His own shadow. He, then, unites Himself to her, to Chāyā, to this shadow that is not divine, only human. And He generates with her à son, Manu.vi
Manu, – the ancestor of mankind.
Manu, – the Adam of the Veda, therefore!
According to Genesis, a text that appeared at least a millennium after the hymns of Ṛg Veda were composed (and thus having, one can think, some distance from the most ancient Vedic intuitions), the God (named Elohim) famouslysaid:
נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ
Na’oçéh adam bi-tsalme-nou ki-dimoute-nou
« Let us make Adam in our image (bi-tsalmé-nou) and according to our likeness (ki-demouté-nou)« vii.
Then the text insists, and repeats the word ‘image’ twice more.
Vé-bara Elohim et-ha-adam bi-tsalmou, bi-tsélém Elohim bara otou.
Translated literally: « And Elohim created Adam in his image (bi-tsalmou), in the image (bi-tslem) Elohim created him. »viii
Let us note that the third time, this ‘image’ that Elohim uses to create is not the image of anyone, it is only an ‘image’ with which He creates Adam. Perhaps it is not even an image, then, but only a shadow?
This is worth thinking about.
The Hebrew word צֶלֶם tselem, ‘image’, has the primary meaning: ‘shadows, darkness’, as the verse « Yes, man walks in darkness (be-tselem) » (Ps. 39:7) testifies, and as the word צֵל tsel, meaning ‘shadow’, confirms.
The Vedic God generates « Manu », the Man, with the Shade, Chāyā.
The biblical God creates « Adam » as a « shadow ».
Was there an influence of the Vedic myth on the biblical myth of the creation of man? One cannot say. On the other hand, it is obvious that some fundamental archetypes remain, beyond time and cultures, which are properly human, undoubtedly coming from the dark depths, where many shadows indeed reign.
It is not so surprising, in fact, that one of the deepest archetypes attaches precisely the idea of shadow to the deepest nature of man.
Man, a frail shadow, – and image too, or veil, of an abyss within him, without bottom.
iErnest Renan. Memories of childhood and youth. Prayer on the Acropolis. Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1883, p.72
iiSee Gen 6.2; Ex 1, 17: Ex 20.16; 1Kings 17.18; Job 1.6 and many other examples.
iiiHallâj. The Book of the Word. Translation by Chawki Abdelamir and Philippe Delarbre. Ed. du Rocher, 1996. p.58
ivDoniger, Wendy(1998). « Saranyu/Samjna ». In John Stratton Hawley, Donna Marie Wulff (ed.). Devī: goddesses of India. Motilal Banarsidas. pp. 158-60.