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.
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
Languages offer many surprises. Their words, their origins and their derivations, as long as one undertakes to follow them in their genesis, show the way to Heaven, – or to Hell.
In Hebrew, the word meaning ‘Arab’ ערב (‘RB) is the exact anagram of the word meaning ‘Hebrew’ עבר (‘BR). But this word, ערב , which denotes ‘Arab’ in Hebrew, actually has a rich range of meanings that go far beyond this single ethnic designation. Pulling the thread of the ball of yarn, a whole ancient world emerges, covering a very vast territory, both geographical and semantic, from Europe to India via Akkad and Mesopotamia, and simmering a magic of subtle, brilliant and dark relationships.
The word עָרַב (‘arab) is also a verb that basically means ‘to set’ (referring to the sun or moon)i. This Hebrew word is etymologically related to the ancient Akkadian erēbu, ‘to enter, to descend’, as in the expression erēb shamshi, the ‘sunset’ii. Ernest Klein’s great etymological dictionary notes the kinship of the Hebrew word עָרַב (‘arab) with the Arabic gharb, غرب (‘west, the place of sunset’), with the Ethiopian ‘areba (‘he descended’), and also notes that the Greek word ‘Europe’ derives from this same etymological basis. The Greek word ‘Ἔρεβος, Érebos , which personifies Hell in mythology, also comes from the same base. So we have the following etymological equation: Erebos=Arab=Europe
Erebos is certainly a very old word, and its deep origin reveals other surprises, as we shall see. The god Erebos (Ἔρεϐοϛ) was born from the primordial Chaos, he is the brother and husband of Nyx, the Night, with whom he begat Ether (Heaven) and Hemera (Day), but also Eleos (Pity), Epiphron (Prudence) and Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld. Hesiod tells us: « Then from the void were born Erebus and the black Night. From the Night came the Aether and the Day, two brothers and sisters whom she had conceived by uniting with Erebus »iii. Homer tells of Odysseus’ descent into the Underworld and his encounter with the shadows: « After addressing my prayers and wishes to the crowd of the dead, I take the victims, slit their throats in the pit, where black blood flows; suddenly the souls of the males escape from Erebus ».iv
Odysseus carefully observed the souls of the dead in Erebus: « I spoke in this way; but Ajax did not answer me and fled into Erebus with the crowd of shadows. There, no doubt, in spite of his anger, he would have spoken to me if I had pressed him; but all my desire then was to observe the souls of the other deadv « . A good connoisseur of Greek myths, Moreau de Jonnès explains: « The third region of the Underworld was Erebus. This term has the meaning of « setting » in Genesis as well as in Homer and must have applied to the whole of the infernal region located in the west of Asia. According to Greek mythology, the part of Hades closest to the world of the living was so called. It is there that the spirits waited for their turn to appear before the court. Erebus, close to the Caucasus, was probably the island of Temruk, where the coffins containing the embalmed dead were first deposited. « vi
The old Greek word erebos (Ἔρεϐοϛ) refers to ‘darkness’, ‘the darkness of the underworld’ according to Pierre Chantraine’s etymological dictionaryvii, which observes that this word was also preserved in Sanskrit, Armenian and Germanic. The equivalent of erebos in Sanskrit is रजस्, rájas, ‘dark region of the air, vapor, dust’. In Armenian it is erek, ‘evening’, in Gotic, riquiz and in Norse rekkr, ‘darkness, twilight’. Sanskrit dictionaries give the range of meanings of rájas: ‘atmosphere, cloud’ but also ‘passion, instinct, desire’, and this word allows to denote the abstraction of ‘Passion’, of the active essence of power and desire. If we dig even deeper into the origin of the word , we find that it comes from the word rajanī, which literally means ‘the colored one’, from the verb rañj रञ्ज् ‘to be colored, to become colored’. The word rajanī denotes the color indigo, a powerful dark blue. But the root verb rañj also means ‘to blush, to flame’, like the setting sun, or like the blood of sacrifice, which incidentally is found in the ancient Greek words ῥῆγοϛ and ῥἐζω, carrying the idea of ‘to make a sacrifice’ and ‘to dye’.
Thus we see that the Hebrew word ‘arab actually comes from an ancient Sanskrit word via Akkadian, and has some connection to the blue of the night (which deepens) and the red of the sacrifice, which is ritually performed at sunset, – what the Hebrews actually called ‘the evening burnt offering’. Indeed, the Hebrew word ערב vocalized עֶרֶב, ‘érèb, means ‘evening’ as in the verse ‘from morning until evening’ (Ex 18:14). It is also the word ‘evening’ in the famous verse ‘There was evening, there was morning’ (Gen 1:5).
Idiomatically used in the duel, it means ‘between the two evenings’, that is to say, between the day that ends and the evening that begins, in that very particular time of the day when one no longer distinguishes the limits, in that in-between time when one offers the evening sacrifice.viii But this word also has, perhaps by a kind of metaphor based on the indistinction of twilight and evening, the meanings of ‘mixture’, ‘association’ and ‘alliance’. Hence the expression in the first Book of Kings, kol-malkhei ha-‘erebix, which can be translated word for word as ‘all the allied kings’, or ‘all the kings of Arabia’, or ‘all the kings of the West’, – since the word ‘ereb‘ is so ambiguous.
The Hebrew verb עָרַב (‘arab) has, moreover, a series of meanings, some related to the ideas of mixing or association, others related to the falling of the day, to darkening. Either: ‘to exchange goods, to deal; to be a guarantor; to be gentle, pleasant, good company; to mingle with’ but also ‘to make evening, to make dark’, as in ‘The day fades and the evening approaches’ (Jdg 19:9). This last meaning can have a moral sense: « All joy has faded away » (Is 24:11).
The idea of ‘mixture’, which has been assumed to derive its original intuition from the meeting of day and night, is found in other words attached to the same root עָרַב (‘arab), such as עָרֹב , ‘arob: ‘mixture of evil insects; species of flies’ word used to refer to the fourth plague of Egypt, עֵרֶב , ‘érèb: ‘links of the weft and warp of a cloth; mixture of people of all kinds, association of strangers’, as in the verse that contrasts the ‘mixed’ people and the Israelites: ‘they eliminated from Israel all the mixed ones’, kol-‘erèbx…
In the vocalization עֹרֵב, ‘oreb, the same root gives the word ‘raven’, that black, ominous bird that flies away at dusk, or the name of Oreb, a prince of Midian executed on the bank of the Jordan by the people of Ephraimxi. Feminized into עֲרָבָה, ‘arabah, the word means ‘desert, arid place’, ‘wilderness’, but in the plural (‘arabot) it means the heavens. Masculinized into עֲרָבִי, ‘arabi, it means ‘arab’…
The word ereb, which is thus found in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and many other languages, originally comes from Sanskrit. Originally, it carries the essential idea of ‘mixture’, and more particularly of the symbolic mixture of two ‘colors’ (night blue and blood red). From this original intuition it radiates, in Hebrew and Arabic, a whole set of semes, combining the ideas of evening, West, desert, heaven and Hell. By extension, in Hebrew, it is used to denote the Arab, the fabric, the trade, the pests or the bird of misfortune, — the crow.
Let us add that in Arabic, curiously enough, the spelling of the word عرب, transcribed ‘arab, is very close visually to that of the word غرب, transcribed gharb or ġarb, depending on the dictionaries, as in maghreb or maġreb. The former has the sound laryngeal fricative ع (‘aïn) as its initial and the latter has the sound velar fricative غ (ġaïn) as its initial. The two letters are almost visually identical, and the semantic clouds of the words عرب and غرب may have undergone reciprocal contamination, or at least promoted metaphorical or metonymic shifts.
The word عرب means ‘Arabic‘, but etymologically the root verb عَرَب, ‘araba, has the meaning ‘to eat’, which seems to have no obvious connection with Arabness. In another vocalization عَرِب, ‘ariba, the word means ‘to be cheerful, lively, agile’. In yet another vocalization, عَرُب,’arouba, we have the meaning ‘to be essentially Arab, to be a good-natured Arab, to assimilate to the Arabs of the desert, to go and live in the desert’xii. Finally, in a vocalization enriched with some supplementary letters (عُرُوباءَ, ‘ouroûbâ’a) the word means ‘the 7th heaven’.
The spelling غرب is so close to عرب, that biblical Hebrew seems to confuse them both phonetically, when it transcribes or adapts these two Arabic words into Hebrew. From the semantic point of view, it is the second spelling that carries the basic meaning already found in the Hebrew ‘arab, and which is associated with the ideas of ‘setting’ and ‘evening’. The verb غرب means ‘to go away, to leave, to move away; to set (sun, moon)’ but also ‘to arrive from abroad’ or ‘to go to the west’. It is with this verb that the name of Morocco is formed, ma-ghrib, literally ‘the place of the sunset’. A whole series of verbs and words based on this root denote the ideas of setting, darkness, west, western, occident, travel, foreign, strange, extraordinary, emigration, end, point, end.
For the Hebrews, ‘arab is the « foreign », the « mixed ». For the Arabs, their own name etymologically assimilates them to the ‘pure Arabic language’. The name ‘Arab’ therefore essentially means in Arabic, either the man of the desert, or (rather tautologically) ‘the one who knows how to handle the Arabic language perfectly’. But with a slight variation, by the passage from عرب to غرب, the same slightly modified word means no longer ‘Arab’, but ‘foreigner’, or even ‘Westerner’. This invites meditation.
From all this, it emerges as has already been said that Ereb, Europe, Arab are of the same origin. Hell, and the West too. This ‘same origin’, this deeper root, the one that makes all these meanings possible, is still found in Sanskrit, in the word rañj रञ्ज्, which means the ‘mixing’ or ‘blending’ of colors, the blending of night and day, of shadow and light, of indigo and purple.
This fundamental idea of ‘blending’ is transcended, and celebrated, both in the Vedic religion and in the ancient Hebrew religion, by the ‘evening sacrifice’.
The sacrifice is to be made at the time of the ‘blending’ of light and shadow, and perhaps, of the human and the divine.
iErnest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. The University of Haifa. 1987
iiErnest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. The University of Haifa. 1987
iiiHesiod. Theogony. 123-125. Translation by Ph. Brunet, Le Livre de poche, 1999.
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’.
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.
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.
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. »
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. »
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.
In a previous article, The Dreamers’ Paradise, we invited you to meditate on the double nature of the plant, which is rooted below, or in the stomach, for the materialists, or on the contrary above, in the philosophy of the Veda. In both cases, the plant and its roots sum up their respective visions of the world.
Hylozoismi, which is not very Vedic but intrinsically modern, sees life as « springing » from matter itself, which is still a metaphor. The « source » can be seen to be, in a way, analogous to the « root ». In everything, always and everywhere, life supposes the immanent presence of the same internal and autonomous principle of generation, source or root, which animates all things.
No less modern, and rather more so, materialism, is by definition eminently immanent. It denies a priori any idea of soul in life, and it kills (in the bud) any idea of spirit within matter. Its aim is to assimilate, to digest in the material stomach any idea of the spirit, or of its essence, which amounts to the same thing.
Kant, on the other hand, is not at all modern. He asserts that an immaterial world exists. This immensely vast world includes all created intelligences, reasonable beings, but also the sentient consciousnesses (of all animals), and finally all the principles of life, whatever they may be, and which are found everywhere in nature, for example in plants.
Among the « created intelligences » some are related to matter. We know this, because we experience it in ourselves, and it is they who, through this special alliance, form « persons ».
Other « created intelligences » are not bound to matter. They may remain isolated, or they may be linked to other spirits, or they may be more or less closely associated with other entities, having an intermediate status between matter and spirit.
All these immaterial natures (the intelligences, the consciousnesses, the principles) exert their (immaterial) influence in the corporeal world, according to ways and means which remain incomprehensible.
Among them, there are all the so-called « reasonable » beings, whether they are present on earth or lying, presumably, elsewhere in the universe. Because of the use of their reason, whose end it is, they are not destined to remain separate (from matter). Reason is another name for an immanent, ordering and regulating principle, which reasonable beings (i.e. beings in which reason is immanent) use to animate the (irrational) fabric of matter, and constitute it as a « living » entity.
We can suppose that the so-called reasonable beings maintain with the other created intelligences various exchanges or communications, in accordance with their respective natures.
These communications are then not limited by bodies, nor by the usual constraints of material life. They transcend them. Nor do they weaken with distance in space or time, nor do they disappear when death occurs.
According to these general views, the human soul, which is a particular case of these immaterial and reasonable natures, should therefore be regarded as already linked, in the present life, to both worlds, the immaterial and the corporeal.
The singular soul is bound to a particular body, which makes it an absolutely unique person. It clearly perceives the material influence of the corporeal world. As it is also part of the spirit world, it also feels the influences of the immaterial natures, and can perceive, in certain cases, their immaterial effluvia.
At death, as soon as the bodily connection has ceased, the soul continues to be in impalpable community with the spiritual natures.
Undoubtedly, it should then, being at last separated from the body, be better able to form a clearer intuition of its own nature, and to reveal it, in an appropriate manner, to its inner consciousness.ii
On the other hand, it is probable that the other spiritual natures, those which are not « incarnate », cannot be immediately conscious of any sensible impression of the bodily world, because they are not bound in any way to matter.
Not having a body of their own, they cannot be conscious of the material universe or perceive it, lacking the necessary organs. But they can exert a subtle influence on the souls of men, because they have a nature similar to their own.
The two can even maintain a reciprocal and real trade, capable of progress and enrichment.
However, the images and representations formed by spirits that still depend on the corporeal world cannot be communicated to beings that are purely spiritual.
Conversely, the conceptions and notions of the latter, which are intuitive representations corresponding to the immaterial universe, cannot pass as such into the clear consciousness of man.
Let us add that the ideas and representations of purely spiritual beings and of human spirits are undoubtedly not of the same kind, and are therefore very difficult to transmit and to share as such, without having been digested first.iii
Among the ideas or representations which can set the human mind radically in motion, stimulate in it an acute desire for metamorphosis, and begin its transformation into a « new man », the most powerful ones can appear to it quite unheard of, inexplicable, perfectly capable even of « submerging » or « drowning » it.
Where do they come from?
From an immaterial world, that of the Muses, these inspirers reputed to come to the rescue of creators and disarmed spirits?
As phenomena, they also seem to be able to emerge spontaneously from the deepest interior of man himself.
The most elevated of them have a priori no connection with the personal utility or with the immediate, practical, individual needs of the men who receive them.
But perhaps they have some use for distant, theoretical, universal needs, which concern the whole universe?
They are moreover capable of transporting themselves again, leaving the sphere of consciousness assigned to a particular person, by a kind of contagion, of contamination, extending outwards, far beyond what one can imagine.
They go far, touching in the passage of their noumenal and numinous power other reasonable beings that they affect in their turn.
There are thus two types of spiritual forces, some centripetal, where self-interest absolutely dominates, and others, centrifugal, which reveal themselves when the soul is somehow pushed out of itself and attracted to others.iv
The lines of force and influence that our minds are capable of receiving or conceiving do not, therefore, simply converge in each of us, to be confined to them.
There are also forces that can move powerfully outside of us, outside of our own intimate space, and sometimes in spite of us, – to reach other people, other minds.
And even caress the confines.
From this, we deduce that irresistible impulses can carry the strong man away from self-interest, even to the ultimate sacrifice.
The strong law of justice, and the somewhat less imperious law of generosity and benevolence, which do not fail to show themselves universally in human nature, can carry one or the other, according to the circumstances, and according to the specific tessitura of such or such spirits, conditioned by their deep aspirations, suddenly revealed.
It is thus that in the apparently most intimate motives, we find ourselves depending in fact on universal laws, of which we are not even a little conscious.
But the result is also, in the world of all thinking natures, the possibility of a general unity and communion obeying all spiritual laws, and by this effect, preparing new degrees of metamorphosis.
Newton called ‘gravitation’ the tendency of all material bodies to come together. He treated this gravitation as a real effect of a universal activity of matter, to which he gave the name of « attraction ».
In a similar way, one could imagine the phenomenon of thoughts and ideas getting into thinking natures, then revealing themselves to be sharable, communicable, as the consequence of a universal force, a form of « attraction » by which spiritual natures influence each other.
We could name this power, the « law of the universal attraction of the consciousnesses ».
Pushing the metaphor, the force of moral feeling could well be then only the dependence felt by the individual will towards the general will, and the consequence of the exchanges of universal actions and reactions, which the immaterial world uses to tend in its way to unity.v
The human soul, in this life, occupies its full place among the spiritual substances of the universe, just as, according to the laws of universal attraction, matter spread over the immensity of space never ceases to be bound by bonds of mutual attraction, and the elementary particles themselves, far from remaining confined to a narrow granularity, fill the whole universe with their quantum potentials of field.
When the links between the soul and the corporeal world are broken by death, it can be assumed that another life in another (spiritual) world would be the natural consequence of the countless links already maintained in this life.
The present and the future would thus be formed as of one piece, and would compose a continuous whole, both in the order of nature and in the order of the spirit.vi
If this is the case with the spiritual world and the role that our spirit plays in it, it is no longer surprising that the universal communion of spirits is an ordinary phenomenon, and far more widespread than is generally admitted.
The extraordinary, in fact, lies much more in the absolute singularity of psychic phenomena affecting such and such a singular, individual person, than in their very existence, which seems to be widespread throughout the universe.
i Philosophical doctrine which maintains that matter is endowed with life by itself.
iiCf. Kant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Translated by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.21
The kingdom of shadows is the paradise of dreamers. Here they find an unlimited land, where they can establish dwellings at will. Hypochondriac vapors, children’s stories, and monastic miracles provide them with abundant material.’i
The shadow is not modern. The brilliance of the Enlightenment cannot stand the competition of darkness. Luminosity is now required more and more, in all domains, arts and sciences, and those linked to peat, mire and night.
Should we decide, with disdain, to abandon the night dreamers to their idle dreams, to their vain researches, and devote our days to the light and the useful?
To this ancient question, Kant answered with a curious pamphlet, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics.ii
Is a text with such a title even readable today?
A « man who dreams », that is all right. But a « man who sees spirits »!
And « metaphysics »!
Moderns, as we know, do not believe in « spirits », nor in « vision », nor in « metaphysics ».
Most of them are pragmatic, and of an unmoderated materialism.
But some, even among the most realistic, still agree, in front of the factual evidence, to concede the existence of « immaterial » phenomena, and attributable, at the very least, to what can be called « spirit », by some cultural training, due to tradition.
The spirit being only an emanation of the matter, its « essence » is not at all « spiritual ». It presents only a specific phenomenology, that the psychology of the cognition takes care to enlighten, and whose cerebral imageries begin to map the elementary forms.
The modern mind has no essence, nor soul of course, and is only an epiphenomenon, a kind of neuro-synaptic exudation, a material vapor.
And what do we find in this epiphenomenon, this exudation, this vapor?
Memory, will, and reason.
« A mind, [say modern sages], is a being endowed with reason. It is not surprising, then, if one sees spirits; whoever sees a man sees a being endowed with reason. « iii
The modern sees in the spirit nothing less than the soul, certainly, – but nothing less than reason…
When the modern wise man « sees men », then he « sees minds », since he « sees reasonable beings », according to Kant’s acid remark, not without a certain metaphysical irony.
The modern wise man has a good sight, it must be admitted, and much better than that of Kant, who, for his part, makes a sincere admission of his real ignorance in the matter:
« I do not know whether there are spirits; much more, I do not even know what the word spirit means. However, as I have often used it myself, or as I have heard others use it, it is necessary that some meaning be attached to it, whether what is meant by it is a chimera or a reality.
Is the spirit a material phenomenon, an abstruse chimera or an immaterial reality? Or does this word have another meaning?
At least, the spirit has a material place, to organize its appearance, and its action, – the brain, where it sits, like a spider.
« The soul of man has its seat in the brain; it has its seat in an imperceptible place. It feels there like the spider in the center of its web. (…) I confess that I am very inclined to affirm the existence of immaterial natures in the world, and to place my own soul among these beings. But then what a mystery is the union of soul and body? »iv
The mystery is less in the immaterial soul as such than in what one must resign oneself to calling the « union » of the immaterial and the corporeal, a union of which no one, even today, conceives how it takes place, nor how it is even simply possible.
And yet it is possible, since it is enough to observe one’s own consciousness to have confirmation of the phenomenon.
Such a « union » seems to deny the respective essence of the « material » and the « immaterial » and to cancel the necessary distance in which they are confined, by definition, one with respect to the other. This poses a « difficult » problem, unresolved to this day.
And yet, even if we do not see the spirit, we see well that the spirit moves what lacks spirit, precisely. It moves it, but how? And at what precise point does the lever of the spirit start to lift the immense inertia of matter?
Kant proposes an explanation, by plunging the glance of his own spirit in the deepest of the intimate of the matter:
« It seems that a spiritual being is intimately present to the matter with which it is united, and that it acts not on the forces of the elements with which these elements are related to each other, but on the internal principle of their state; for every substance, and even a simple element of matter, must nevertheless have some internal activity as the principle of external action, though I cannot say in what this activity consists. « v
Kant’s idea is that the (immaterial) mind acts on a certain (also immaterial) « internal principle », which governs not matter itself or its elements, but its deepest state, where an « internal activity » is revealed, – and where its undetectable essence lies.
This « inner principle », in so far as it is a « principle », cannot be material.
If it were, it would no longer be a « principle ». And if matter were « without principle », it would be pure chaos, without order or reason.
Materialists will of course retort that matter does not need an « immaterial principle », since it is there, in evidence, in its immanent reality, and that it has done very well without any principle to « exist », simply as such, eternally, for a respectable number of billions of years.
One may retort that matter was not doing much, just before the Big Bang, not knowing then if it was going to be reduced to nothing as soon as it was born, because of the very restrictive conditions set for its real appearance, precisely by virtue of some considerations of « principle », the reason for which the most modern physics still struggles to explain, but of which it enumerates with astonishment the precision of the prerequisites, of which the « universal constants » give some idea.
But what makes these constants exist? What is their essence?
To advance, and to go beyond these quarrels between materialists and idealists, which are too caricatural, and which lead nowhere, it would be necessary to test some other way, more in overhang.
We could suppose the existence of other ways, which would lead, as for them, somewhere… even if it was necessary for that to face the « shadows », the « emptiness » and the « non-existence », – like Aeneas looking for Anchises in the Underworld, with the Sibyl.
(They went, obscure, in the solitary night, through the shadows,
the empty dwellings of the Richvii and the kingdoms without existence).
The ancients, who were not modern, cultivated this ‘secret philosophy’ which opens ways and paths.
The immaterial world of spirits and souls was considered a coherent realm, subsisting by itself, although not existing according to the criteria of the material world, including those of tangible or visible appearance.
All its parts were united by close, reciprocal connections and constant exchanges, without the need for bodies or materials to support them.
Plato explained that at conception, specific spirits descended into this world by adventure, and began to maintain a close commerce with particular bodies, allocated to them according to procedures, some chosen, others ignoredviii.
During the time of life, this time of the ad hoc linking of spirits and bodies, incarnated spirits may have, moreover, other direct, immaterial relations with other spirits (incarnated or not).
This is a conjecture, but it is compatible with the intrinsic logic of the immaterial.
That immaterial spirits have the desire and the possibility to maintain relations with other immaterial spirits – in a way and for reasons that naturally escape both bodily perception and human intelligence, can be explained precisely by their immaterial nature, freed from all the constraints of matter, and possessing its own ends.
In a kind of ideal dream, of which Kant was one of the promoters, one could imagine that all the beings belonging to the immaterial world, all the members of the infinite, unknowable series of the psychic natures, contribute more or less effectively to the great Whole of the Immaterial, this immense society of the spirits, closely united, constantly active, in the heat and the ardor of their bubbling communions, pursuing their own logics, towards ends of which one ignores all, except their putative reality.
Some sparing and much less burning flames, here and there escaped from this great Whole, could, twirling, fleeting, fly away and come down, as if on a commanded mission, in addition to their first destiny, to come and animate and vivify some precise bodies, chosen in the bosom of the matter (matter without that inert, infertile and inanimate).
It is conceivable that life, both material and immaterial, extending from kingdom to kingdom, flexibly changing worlds, inclining from the heights of the spirit to the depths of matter, or conversely, springing from the abyss to the heights, perpetuates and differentiates itself ceaselessly, by the dualism and the conjugation that the existence of two principles allows and favors, a principle of the ‘material’ and a principle of the ‘immaterial’.
It remains to be asked to what extremes this life, with its double principle, can descend or ascend, in order, in both cases, to continue its continuous work of metamorphosis.
To what ends of nature does life extend? When does the cold world of true non-life begin? And what burning, ultra-seraphic plasmas can spirits face?
These are points that may never be elucidated with certainty.
But some have thought they could identify this mythical frontier, at least the one that looms below.
Hermann Boerhaave famously said that « the animal is a plant that has its roots in the stomach »ix.
It is in this organ, certainly essential, that the lines of the great division would be drawn, between the plant and the animal on the one hand, – and the spiritual, on the other hand, which would be only the flower, or the aroma…
There is no clearer example of the contrast with the vision of the Bhagavad Gita. The latter also uses the plant metaphor, but changes its meaning completely.
« Roots above and branches below,
imperishable, the Azvattha [the Fig Tree] is said to be.
The meters [of the Veda] are its leaves,
and he who knows it knows Knowledge [the Veda]. « x
What is this Azvattha, this « fig tree »? What are these roots-up?
The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad takes up the image, unveiling its metaphysics:
« The roots are the supreme abode of Viṣṇu. The tree, roots-up, of the empirical world has the unmanifested as its beginning and the inanimate as its end. It is called ‘tree’ (vṛkṣa) because of the act of cutting (vraścana). He is made of many uninterrupted evils, like birth, old age, death and sorrow, at every moment he is different. As soon as its true nature is in sight, it is destroyed like magic, like water in a mirage, an imaginary city in the sky… Its true reality is determined by those who desire to discern reality: its essence is in the roots, it is the supreme brahman. « xii
Through its etymological ‘root’, the figure of the tree embodies the idea of severance. Moreover, the tree never ceases to branch out, both in its roots and in its branches, which represent so many cuts in the continuity of its growth, both above and below.
Likewise, the world never ceases to branch its possibilities, and to grow from above and below.
Śaṅkara’s commentary adds another idea. Truth cannot be approached without generating even more illusions. The more one tries to dispel the shadows that surround it, the illusions that veil it, the more the truth slips away.
However, there is a way for those who wish to go further, deeper, to try to determine this elusive truth. It consists in following the roots of the tree to their very origin. But by following the root bush, one is quickly overwhelmed by the multiplication of the rootlets, and their bifurcations. And all of them, at the end of their myriads of hyphae, point to the void and the shadow… where the supreme brahman stands in its place.
iKant. « A Preface which promises very little for discussion. » In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics. Ed. Swan Sonnenschein. London, 1900, p.37
iiKant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.6
viiPluto, god of the Underworld, also bears the Latin name of Dis, a contraction of ditis, « rich ». Pluto, god of the dead, is the richest of all the gods because the number of his subjects is constantly increasing. It is to evoke the same symbol that the Greeks called Pluto the god of the dead (Ploutos, wealth).
viiiCf. the myth of Er. Plato, The Republic, Book X (614 b – 621 d)
ixQuoted by Kant in Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863,
In matters of religion, one of the common errors is to want to choose with whom one can talk, and to exclude from one’s field of vision extreme ideologues, stubborn minds, closed mentalities. This is human.
It is incomparably easier to begin detailed debates or circumstantial glosses if there is already an a priori agreement on the substance. This avoids infinite misunderstandings and deadlocked dead ends. Who thinks it possible, indeed, to ever agree, on any point whatsoever, with such and such an ultra tendency of such and such a monotheistic religion?
It’s human, and it’s easier, but, on the other hand, the ultras of all acabits, irreconcilably ‘other’, absolutely ‘foreign’ to any dialectic, remain in the landscape. They continue, and for a long time, to be part of the problem to be solved, even if they don’t seem to be part of the solution. Precisely because they have nothing in common with the proponents of the very idea of ‘dialogue’, they can be interesting to observe, and must be, in every respect, if one considers the long-term destiny of a small Humankind, standing on its dewclaws, on the surface of a drop of mud, lost in the cosmic night.
Nevertheless, it is infinitely easier to speak to ‘open’ minds when trying to cross cultural, traditional or religious barriers.
« The conditions of the Christian-Islamic dialogue change completely if the interlocutor is not legal Islam but spiritual Islam, whether it is Sufism or Shî’ite Gnosis. » i
Henry Corbin was an exceptional personality. But he admitted that he did not want to waste his time with the ‘legitarians’. This is understandable. And yet, they are basically the key lock. If world peace and universal understanding are to be achieved, ‘spiritualists’ and ‘legitarians’ must find, whatever the difficulties to be overcome, a common ground…
Dialogue with the ‘other’ begins with mastering the other’s language.
In theory, we should be able to understand all of them, or at least decipher them, particularly these chosen languages, chosen for conveying this or that sacred message.
Sanskrit, for example, should be part of the minimal baggage of any researcher interested in a comparative anthropology of the religious fact through time. It is the oldest and most complex language, which still testifies to the wonders of the human spirit, trying to approach mysteries that are seemingly beyond its reach.
I hasten to add (biblical) Hebrew, which is much simpler, grammatically speaking, but full of a subtle delicacy that can be seen in the play on words, the etymological shifts, the radical drifts, the subliminal evocations, and the breadth of the semantic fields, allowing for the most daring and creative interpretations.
Koranic Arabic is also a necessary acquisition. The Koran is a book with a very ‘literary’ and sophisticated writing that no translation can really render, as it requires immersion in the musicality of classical Arabic, now a dead language. Puns and alliterations abound, as in Hebrew, another Semitic language.
The famous Louis Massignon sought in good faith « how to bring back to a common base the textual study of the two cultures, Arabic and Greco-Latin »ii.
For our part, we would also like to be able to bring the study of Vedic, Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Zoroastrian and Avestic cultures, at least in theory if not in practice, to a « common base ».
And, still in theory, one should particularly have solid notions of Ancient Egyptian (very useful if one wants to understand the distant foundations of the ancient ‘mosaic’ religion), and Avesta (indispensable to get an idea of the progressive, ‘harmonic’, transitioniii in ancient Iran from Zoroastrianism and Mazdeism to Muslim Shî’ism).
In the absence of these indispensable add-ons, one can minimally rely on a few genius smugglers. Henry Corbin is an incomparable pedagogue of Shî’ite Islam. Who else but him could have allowed the discovery of a concept like the one of Ḥûrqalyâ?
Ḥûrqalyâ is the land of visions, the place where mind and body become one, explains Henry Corbin. « Each one of us, volens nolens, is the author of events in ‘Ḥûrqalyâ‘, whether they abort or bear fruit in its paradise or its hell. We believe we are contemplating the past and the unchanging, as we consume our own future. » iv
His explanation of Ḥûrqalyâ is rather short and somewhat obscure. We would like to know more.
Looking in the famous Kazimirsky dictionaryv, I discovered the meaning of the verbal root حرق (ḥaraqa): « To be burned, to burn. To set on fire, to ignite; to burn with great fire. To burn each other (or to sleep with a woman). To reduce to ashes. »
It is also the word used to designate migrants who ‘burn’ their identity papers.
With different vocalizations of the same verbal root, the semantic spectrum of the resulting nouns widens considerably:
ḥirq « the tallest branch of the male palm tree, which fertilizes the flowers of a female palm tree »;
ḥourq « avarice »;
ḥaraq « fire, flame, burn »;
ḥariq « which loses its hair; which produces violent lightning (cloud); « fire;
ḥourqa « burning heat in the intestines »;
al- ḥâriq « the tooth (of a ferocious beast) »;
ḥâriqa « burning (said to be a very sensual woman in the carnal trade) »;
ḥâroûqa « very sensual woman », or in the plural: »who cuts (swords) »;
ḥirâq « whodestroys, who consumes »; « who burns the path, who runs very fast (horse) »;
ḥourrâq « burning firebrand »;
ḥârraqa « vessel to be set on fire ».
You get the idea…
But in the context that interests us here, it is the noun حَرْقً (ḥarq), used by mystics, that we must highlight. It means « the state of burning », that is, an intermediate state between برق (barq), which is only the « lightning of the manifestations of God », and الطمس فى الذات, al-tams fi-l-dhat, « annihilation in the ‘that’, in the divine essence »vi.
The etymology of the word ḥûrqalyâ, shows that it means a state that lies between the lightning flash and the ash or annihilation .
Let us return to the glossary proposed by Corbin.
« A whole region of Hûrqalyâ is populated, post mortem, byour imperatives and our vows, that is to say, by what makes the very meaning of our acts of understanding as well as our behaviors. As well as all the underlying metaphysics is that of an incessant recurrence of Creation (tajaddod), it is not a metaphysics of the Ens or the Esse, but of the Estovii, of ‘be !’ in the imperative. But the event is put to the imperative only because it is itself the iterative form of the being for which it is promoted to the reality of event. » viii
We learn here that Creation is a continuous act, a continuous iteration, an imperative to be, a ‘be!’ infinitely repeated, implying a ‘become!’ no less perpetual.
Esto! Or the unceasing burning of the moment, that is to say of the presence (to oneself, or in oneself ?).
Perhaps we can read in these ever-changing, ever-challenging moments « the mystery of the primordial Theophany, of the revelation of the divine Being, who can only reveal himself to himself in another self, but can only recognize himself as other, and recognize this other as himself only because he is God in himself. » ix
Another image, often used in the Psalms, is that of clothing. It is necessary to reach this state where the body is no more than a ‘garment’ that one can freely undress or put on, because it is really the other in oneself that is the true garment of oneself.
iHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.12
ii Louis Massignon. Lettres d’humanité tome II, 1943, p.137
iiiAccording to the expression of H. Corbin. op.cit. p. 111
ivHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.13
vA. de Biberstein Kazimirski. Arab-French dictionary. Volume I. Ed Al Bouraq. Beirut. 2004, pp. 411-412.
vi The mystical meaning of the word tams is precisely the annihilation of the individuality of man’s attributes in the attributes of God. The word dhat means « that » and, in context, the very essence of God.
viiIn Latin: ens = « being », esse = « to be », esto = « Be! »
viiiHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.16
ixHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.111
Franz Rosenzweig is a prophet of the 20th century (there are not so many), whose name means ‘branch of roses’. Zebrased with inchoate intuitions, and seraphic brilliance, a short text of him astonishes me by its searing audacity:
« Redemption delivers God, the world and man from the forms and morphisms that Creation has imposed on them. Before and after, there is only the « beyond ». But the in-between, Revelation, is at the same time entirely beyond, for (thanks to it) I am myself, God is God, and the world is world, and absolutely beyond, for I am with God, God is with me, and where is the world? (« I do not desire the earth »). Revelation overcomes death, creates and institutes in its place the redeeming death. He who loves no longer believes in death and believes only in death.» i
The ambiguity of Revelation in relation to the Redemption, but also its invitations to openness, to invention, are staged here.
On the one hand, Revelation is addressed to the man of the earth, to the children of the clay, immersed in worldly immanence, immersed in the closed orbs of their minds.
On the other hand, it affirms the absolute transcendence of the Creator, opening worlds, flaring very backwards towards unheard-of beginnings, and accelerating very forwards towards an unthinkable afterlife.
Can we connect these two poles, seemingly opposite?
For Rosenzweig, Revelation is situated in time, that time which is the proper time of the world, between Creation and Redemption – the two figures, original and eschatological, the two ‘moments’ of the ‘beyond’ of time.
The unique role of Creation is inexplicable if we consider it only as a divine fiat. Why inexplicable? Because such a fiat displays neither its reason nor its why. It is more consistent with the anthropological structure of human experience (and probably with the very structure of the brain) to consider that even God does nothing for nothing.
An ancient answer to this riddle may be found in the Vedic idea of Creation.
In the Veda, Creation is thought as being a sacrifice of God.
Two thousand years later, this sacrifice will be called kenosis by Christians, and even later (in the Kabbalah of the Middle Age) Jews will call it tsimtsum.
The Vedic idea of God’s sacrifice – is incarnated in the sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds, at the price of His own substance.
It is certainly difficult to conceive of God’s holocaust by (and for) Himself, willingly sacrificing His own glory, His power and His transcendence, – in order to transcend Himself in this very sacrifice.
How can a human brain understand God transcending Himself!
It is difficult, of course, but less difficult than understanding a Creation without origin and without reason, which refers by construction to the absolute impotence of all reason, and to its own absurdity.
With or without reason, with or without sacrifice, Creation obviously represents a ‘beyond’ of our capacity to understand.
But reason wants to reason and tries to understand.
In the hypothesis of God’s sacrifice, what would be the role of Creation in this divine surpassing?
Would God make a covenant with His Creation, ‘giving’ it, by this means, His breath, His life, His freedom, His spirit?
Would God give the responsibility for the World and Mankind to multiply and make this Breath, this Life, this Freedom, this Spirit bear fruit throughout time?
At least there is in this view a kind of logic, though opaque and dense.
The other pole of the cosmic drama – Redemption – is even more ‘beyond’ human intelligence. But let us have a try to understand it.
Redemption « frees God, the world and man from the forms imposed on them by Creation, » Rosenzweig suggests.
Does Redemption deliver God from God Himself? Does it deliver Him from His infinity, if not from His limit? from His transcendence, if not from His immanence? from His righteousness, if not from His goodness?
It is more intuitive to understand that it also liberates the world (i.e. the total universe, the integral Cosmos) from its own limits – its height, width and depth. But does it free it from its immanence?
It frees man, at last.
Does that mean Redemption frees man from his dust and clay?
And from his breath (nechma), which binds him to himself?
And from his shadow (tsel) and his ‘image’ (tselem), which binds him to the light?
And from his blood (dam) and his ‘likeness’ (demout), which structure and bind him (in his DNA itself)?
What does Rosenzweig mean when he says: « Redemption delivers God (…) from the forms that Creation has imposed »?
It is the role of Revelation to teach us that Creation has necessarily imposed certain structures. For example, it imposes the idea that the ‘heavens’ (chammayim) are in essence made of ‘astonishment’, and perhaps even ‘destruction’ (chamam).
But the truth is that we don’t know what ‘to redeem’ means, – apart from showing the existence of a link between Death, the Exodus from the world, and man.
We must try to hear and understand the voice of this new prophet, Rosenzweig.
He says that to believe in Redemption is to believe only in love, that is, to believe « only in death ».
For it has been said that « strong as death is love » (ki-‘azzah kham-mavêt ahabah), as the Song saysii.
Revelation is unique in that it is ‘one’ between two ‘moments’, two ‘beyond’.
It is unique, being ‘below’ between two ‘beyond’.
Being ‘below’ it is not inexpressible, – and being ‘revealed’ it is not as inexpressible as the ‘beyond’ of Creation and Redemption, which can only be grasped through what Revelation wants to say about it.
The Revelation is told, but not by a single oracular jet.
She is not given just at once. She is continuous. She spreads out in time. She is far from being closed, no doubt. No seal has been placed on her moving lips. No prophet can reasonably claim to have sealed her endless source foreveriii.
Time, time itself, constitutes all the space of Revelation, which we know has once begun. But we don’t know when Revelation will end. For now, Revelation is only ‘below’, and will always remain so, – as a voice preparing the way for a ‘beyond’ yet to come.
And besides, what is really known about what has already been ‘revealed’?
Can we be sure at what rate the Revelation is being revealed?
Can we read her deep lines, hear her hidden melodies?
Does she appear in the world only in one go or sporadically, intermittently? With or without breathing pauses?
Won’t her cannon thunder again?
And even if she were « sealed », aren’t the interpretations, the glosses, part of her open breath?
And what about tomorrow?
What will Revelation have to say in six hundred thousand years from now?
Or in six hundred million years?
Will not then a cosmic Moses, a total Abraham, a universal Elijah, chosen from the stars, come in their turn to bring some needed Good News?
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Man and His Work. Collected writings 1. letters and diaries, 2 vol. 1918-1929. The Hague. M.Nijhoft, 1979, p.778, quoted by S. Mosès. Franz Rosenzweig. Sous l’étoile. Ed. Hermann. 2009, p. 91.
iiiThe Torah itself, who can claim to have really read it?
« Although Thorah was quite widespread, the absence of vowel points made it a sealed book. To understand it, one had to follow certain mystical rules. One had to read a lot of words differently than they were written in the text; to attach a particular meaning to certain letters and words, depending on whether one raised or lowered one’s voice; to pause from time to time or link words together precisely where the outward meaning seemed to demand the opposite (…) What was especially difficult in the solemn reading of the Thorah was the form of recitative to be given to the biblical text, according to the modulation proper to each verse. The recitative, with this series of tones that rise and fall in turn, is the expression of the primitive word, full of emphasis and enthusiasm; it is the music of poetry, of that poetry that the ancients called an attribute of the divinity, and which consists in the intuition of the idea under its hypostatic envelope. Such was the native or paradisiacal state, of which only a few dark and momentary glimmers remain today. « J.-F. Molitor. Philosophy of tradition. Trad Xavier Duris. Ed. Debécourt. Paris, 1837. p.10-11
The theurgic, creative power of men has always manifested itself through the ages.
Religious anthropology bears witness to this.
« No doubt, without the Gods, men could not live. But on the other hand, the Gods would die if they were not worshipped (…) What the worshipper really gives to his God is not the food he puts on the altar, nor the blood that flows from his veins: that is his thought. Between the deity and his worshippers there is an exchange of good offices which condition each other. »i
The Vedic sacrifice is one of the most ancient human rite from which derives the essence of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds.
« There are rites without gods, and there are rites from which gods derive ».ii
Unexpectingly, Charles Mopsik, in his study of the Jewish kabbalah, subtitled TheRites that Make God, affirms the « flagrant similarity » of these ancient theurgical beliefs with the Jewish motif of the creative power of the rite.
Mopsik readily admits that « the existence of a theme in Judaism, according to which man must ‘make God’, may seem incredible.»iii
Examples of Jewish kabbalistic theurgy abound, involving, for example, man’s ‘shaping’ of God, or his participation in the ‘creation’ of the Name or the Shabbath. Mopsik evokes a midrash quoted by R. Bahya ben Acher, according to which « the man who keeps the Shabbath from below, ‘it is as if he were doing it from above’, in other words ‘gave existence’, ‘fashioned the Sabbath from above. »iv
The expression ‘to make God’, which Charles Mopsik uses in the subtitle of his book, can be compared to the expression ‘to make the Shabbath’ (in the sense of ‘to create the Shabbath’) as it is curiously expressed in the Torah (« The sons of Israel will keep the Shabbath to make the Shabbath » (Ex 31,16)), as well as in the Clementine Homilies, aJudeo-Christian text that presents God as the Shabbath par excellencev, which implies that ‘to make the Shabbath’ is ‘to make God’…
Since its very ancient ‘magical’ origins, theurgy implies a direct relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ or ‘making’. The Kabbalah takes up this idea, and develops it:
« You must know that the commandment is a light, and he who does it below affirms (ma’amid) and does (‘osseh) that which isabove. Therefore, when man practices a commandment, that commandment is light.»vi
In this quotation, the word ‘light’ is to be understood as an allusive way of saying ‘God’, comments Mopsik, who adds: « Observances have a sui generis efficacy and shape the God of the man who puts them into practice.»
Many other rabbis, such as Moses de Leon (the author of the Zohar), Joseph Gikatila, Joseph of Hamadan, Méir ibn Gabbay, or Joseph Caro, affirm the power of « the theurgic instituting action » or « theo-poietic ».
The Zohar explains :
« ‘If you follow my ordinances, if you keep my commandments, when you do them, etc.' ». (Lev 26:3) What does ‘When you do them’ mean? Since the text already says, « If you follow and keep, » what is the meaning of « When you do them »? Verily, whoever does the commandments of the Torah and walks in its ways, so to speak, it is as if he makes Him on high (‘avyd leyh le’ila), the Holy One blessed be He who says, ‘It is as if he makes Me’ (‘assa-ny). In this connection Rabbi Simeon said, ‘David made the Name’. » vii
« David made the Name » ! This is yet another theurgical expression, and not the least, since the Name, the Holy Name, is in reality God Himself !
‘Making God’, ‘Making the Shabbath’, ‘Making the Name’, all these theurgic expressions are equivalent, and the authors of the Kabbalah adopt them alternately.
From a critical point of view, it remains to be seen whether the kabbalistic interpretations of these theurgies are in any case semantically and grammatically acceptable. It also remains to be ascertained whether they are not rather the result of deliberately tendentious readings, purposefully diverting the obvious meaning of the Texts. But even if this were precisely the case, there would still remain the stubborn, inescapable fact that the Jewish Kabbalists wanted to find the theurgic idea in the Torah .
Given the importance of what is at stake, it is worth delving deeper into the meaning of the expression « Making the Name », and the way in which the Kabbalists understood it, – and then commented on it again and again over the centuries …
The original occurrence of this particular expression is found in the second book of Samuel (II Sam 8,13). It is a particularly warlike verse, whose usual translation gives a factual, neutral interpretation, very far in truth from the theurgic interpretation:
« When he returned from defeating Syria, David again made a name for himself by defeating eighteen thousand men in the Valley of Salt. »
David « made a name for himself », i.e. a « reputation », a « glory », in the usual sense of the word שֵׁם, chem.
The massoretic text of this verse gives :
וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד, שֵׁם
Va ya’ass Daoud shem
« To make a name for oneself, a reputation » seems to be the correct translation, in the context of a warlord’s glorious victory. Biblical Hebrew dictionaries confirm that this meaning is widespread.
Yet this was not the interpretation chosen by the Kabbalists.
They prefer to read: « David made the Name« , i.e. « made God« , as Rabbi Simeon says, quoted by the Zohar.
In this context, Charles Mopsik proposes a perfectly extraordinary interpretation of the expression « making God ». This interpretation (taken from the Zohar) is that « to make God » is equivalent to the fact that God constitutes His divine fullness by conjugating (in the original sense of the word!) « His masculine and feminine dimensions ».
If we follow Mopsik, « making God » for the Zohar would be the equivalent of « making love » for both male and female parts of God?
More precisely, as we will see, it would be the idea of YHVH’s loving encounter with His alter ego, Adonaï?
A brilliant idea, – or an absolute scandal (from the point of view of Jewish ‘monotheism’)?
Here’s how Charles Mopsik puts it:
« The ‘Holy Name’ is defined as the close union of the two polar powers of the divine pleroma, masculine and feminine: the sefira Tiferet (Beauty) and the sefira Malkhut (Royalty), to which the words Law and Right refer (…) The theo-poietic action is accomplished through the unifying action of the practice of the commandments that cause the junction of the sefirot Tiferet and Malkhut, the Male and Female from Above. These are thus united ‘one to the other’, the ‘Holy Name’ which represents the integrity of the divine pleroma in its two great poles YHVH (the sefira Tiferet) and Adonay (the sefira Malkhut). For the Zohar, ‘To make God’ therefore means to constitute the divine fullness [or pleroma] by uniting its masculine and feminine dimensions. » viii
In another passage of the Zohar, it is the (loving) conjunction of God with the Shekhina, which is proposed as an equivalence or ‘explanation’ of the expressions « making God » or « making the Name »:
« Rabbi Judah reports a verse: ‘It is time to act for YHVH, they have violated the Torah’ (Ps.119,126). What does ‘the time to act for YHVH’ mean? (…) ‘Time’ refers to the Community of Israel (the Shekhinah), as it is said: ‘He does not enter the sanctuary at all times’ (Lev 16:2). Why [is it called] ‘time’? Because there is a ‘time’ and a moment for all things, to draw near, to be enlightened, to unite as it should be, as it is written: ‘And I pray to you, YHVH, the favourable time’ (Ps 69:14), ‘to act for YHVH’ [‘to make YHVH’] as it is written: ‘David made the Name’ (II Sam 8:13), for whoever devotes himself to the Torah, it is as if he were making and repairing the ‘Time’ [the Shekhinah], to join him to the Holy One blessed be He. » ix
After « making God », « making YHVH », « making the Name », here is another theurgical form: « making Time », that is to say « bringing together » the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhina…
A midrach quoted by R. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira teaches this word attributed to God Himself: « Whoever fulfills My commandments, I count him as if they had made Me. » x
Mopsik notes here that the meaning of the word ‘theurgy’ as ‘production of the divine’, as given for example in the Liturgy, may therefore mean ‘procreation’, as a model for all the works that are supposed to ‘make God’. xi
This idea is confirmed by the famous Rabbi Menahem Recanati: « The Name has commanded each one of us to write a book of the Torah for himself; the hidden secret is this: it is as if he is making the Name, blessed be He, and all the Torah is the names of the Saint, blessed be He. » xii
In another text, Rabbi Recanati brings together the two formulations ‘to make YHVH’ and ‘to make Me’: « Our masters have said, ‘Whoever does My commandments, I will count him worthy as if he were making Me,’ as it is written, ‘It is time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126)xiii.
One can see it, tirelessly, century after century, the rabbis report and repeat the same verse of the psalms, interpreted in a very specific way, relying blindly on its ‘authority’ to dare to formulate dizzying speculations… like the idea of the ‘procreation’ of the divinity, or of its ‘begetting’, in itself and by itself….
The kabbalistic image of ‘procreation’ is actually used by the Zohar to translate the relationship of the Shekhina with the divine pleroma:
« ‘Noah built an altar’ (Gen 8:20). What does ‘Noah built’ mean? In truth, Noah is the righteous man. He ‘built an altar’, that is the Shekhina. His edification (binyam) is a son (ben) who is the Central Column. » xiv
Mopsik specifies that the ‘righteous’ is « the equivalent of the sefira Yessod (the Foundation) represented by the male sexual organ. Acting as ‘righteous’, the man assumes a function in sympathy with that of this divine emanation, which connects the male and female dimensions of the sefirot, allowing him to ‘build’ the Shekhina identified at the altar. » xv
In this Genesis verse, we see that the Zohar reads the presence of the Shekhina, represented by the altar of sacrifice, and embodying the feminine part of the divine, and we see that the Zohar also reads the act of « edifying » her, symbolized by the Central Column, that is to say by the ‘Foundation’, or the Yessod, which in the Kabbalah has as its image the male sexual organ, and which thus incarnates the male part of the divine, and bears the name of ‘son’ [of God]…
How can we understand these allusive images? To say it without a veil, the kabbalah does not hesitate to represent here (in a cryptic way) a quasi-marital scene where God ‘gets closer’ to His Queen to love her…
And it is up to ‘Israel’ to ensure the smooth running of this loving encounter, as the following passage indicates:
» ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’ (Ex 25:8) (…) The Holy One blessed be He asked Israel to bring the Queen called ‘Sanctuary’ to Him (…) For it is written: ‘You shall bring a fire (ichêh, a fire = ichah, a woman) to YHVH’ (Lev 23:8). Therefore it is written, ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’. » xvi
Let’s take an interested look at the verse: « You will approach a fire from YHVH » (Lev 33:8).
The Hebrew text gives :
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה
Ve-hiqravttêm ichêh la-YHVH
The word אִשֶּׁה , ichêh, means ‘fire’, but in a very slightly different vocalization, ichah, this same word means ‘woman’. As for the verb ‘to approach’, its root is קרב, qaraba, « to be near, to approach, to move towards » and in the hiphilform, « to present, to offer, to sacrifice ». Interestingly, and even disturbingly, the noun qorban, ‘sacrifice, oblation, gift’ that derives from it, is almost identical to the noun qerben which means ‘womb, entrails, breast’ (of the woman).
One could propose the following equations (or analogies), which the Hebrew language either shows or implies allusively:
Fire = Woman
Approaching = Sacrifice = Entrails (of the woman)
‘Approaching the altar’ = ‘Approaching a woman’ (Do we need to recall here that, in the Hebrew Bible, « to approach a woman » is a euphemism for « making love »?)
The imagination of the Kabbalists does not hesitate to evoke together (in an almost subliminal way) the ‘sacrifice’, the ‘entrails’, the ‘fire’ and the ‘woman’ and to bring them formally ‘closer’ to the Most Holy Name: YHVH.
It should be noted, however, that the Kabbalists’ audacity is only relative here, since the Song of Songs had, long before the Kabbalah, dared to take on even more burning images.
In the thinking of the Kabbalists, the expression « to make God » is understood as the result of a « union » of the masculine and feminine dimensions of the divine.
In this allegory, the sefira Yessod connects God and the Community of believers just as the male organ connects the male body to the female body. xvii
« ‘Time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126). Explanation: The Shekhinah called ‘Time’ is to be made by joining her to YHVH after she has been separated from Him because one has broken the rules and transgressed the Law. » xviii
For his part, Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) understood the same verse as follows: « To join the upper pleroma, masculine and divine, with the lower pleroma, feminine and archangelical, must be the aim of those who practice the commandments (…) The lower pleroma is the Shekhinah, also called the Community of Israel ». xix
It is a question of magnifying the role of the Community of Israel, or that of each individual believer, in the ‘divine work’, in its ‘reparation’, in its increase in ‘power’ or even in its ‘begetting’….
Rabbi Hayim Vital, a contemporary of Joseph Caro, comments on a verse from Isaiah and relates it to another verse from the Psalms in a way that has been judged « extravagant » by literalist exegetesxx.
Isaiah’s verse (Is 49:4) reads, according to R. Hayim Vital: « My work is my God », and he compares it with Psalm 68: « Give power to God » (Ps 68:35), of which he gives the following comment: « My work was my God Himself, God whom I worked, whom I made, whom I repaired ».
Note that this verse (Is 49:4) is usually translated as follows: « My reward is with my God » (ou-féoulati êt Adonaï).
Mopsik comments: « It is not ‘God’ who is the object of the believer’s work, or action, but ‘my God’, that God who is ‘mine’, with whom I have a personal relationship, and in whom I have faith, and who is ‘my’ work. »
And he concludes that this ‘God who is made’, who is ‘worked’, is in reality ‘the feminine aspect of the divinity’.
The Gaon Elijah of Vilna proposed yet another way of understanding and designating the two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects of the Deity, calling them respectively ‘expansive aspect’ and ‘receiving aspect’:
« The expansive aspect is called havayah (being) [i.e. HVYH, anagram of YHVH…], the receiving aspect of the glorification coming from us is called ‘His Name’. In the measure of Israel’s attachment to God, praising and glorifying Him, the Shekhinah receives the Good of the expanding aspect. (…) The Totality of the offices, praise and glorification, that is called Shekhinah, which is His Name. Indeed, ‘name’ means ‘public renown’ and ‘celebration’ of His Glory, the perception of His Greatness. (…) This is the secret of ‘YHVH is one, and His Name is one’ (Zac 14:9). YHVH is one’ refers to the expansion of His will. ‘His Name is one’ designates the receiving aspect of His praise and attachment. This is the unification of the recitation of the Shema.» xxi
According to the Gaon of Vilna, the feminine dimension of God, the Shekhina, is the passive dimension of the manifested God, a dimension that is nourished by the Totality of the praises and glorifications of the believers. The masculine dimension of God is Havayah, the Being.
Charles Mopsik’s presentation on the theurgical interpretations of the Jewish Kabbalah (‘Making God’) does not neglect to recognize that these interpretations are in fact part of a universal history of the religious fact, particularly rich in comparable experiences, especially in the diverse world of ‘paganism’. It is thus necessary to recognize the existence of « homologies that are difficult to dispute between the theurgic conceptions of Hellenized Egyptian hermeticism, late Greco-Roman Neoplatonism, Sufi theology, Neoplatonism and Jewish mystagogy. » xxii
Said in direct terms, this amounts to noting that since the dawn of time, there has been among all ‘pagan’ people this idea that the existence of God depends on men, at least to a certain degree.
It is also striking that ideas seemingly quite foreign to the Jewish religion, such as the idea of a Trinitarian conception of God (notoriously associated with Christianity) has in fact been enunciated in a similar way by some high-flying cabbalists.
Thus the famous Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto had this formula surprisingly comparable (or if one prefers: ‘isomorphic’) to the Trinitarian formula:
« The Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one. »
But it should also be recalled that this kind of « kabbalistic » conception has attracted virulent criticism within conservative Judaism, criticism which extends to the entire Jewish Kabbalah. Mopsik cites in this connection the outraged reactions of such personalities as Rabbi Elie del Medigo (c. 1460- 1493) or Rabbi Judah Arie of Modena (17th century), and those of equally critical contemporaries such as Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber…
We will not enter into this debate. We prefer here to try to perceive in the theurgic conceptions we have just outlined the clue of an anthropological constant, an archetype, a kind of universal intuition proper to the profound nature of the human spirit.
It is necessary to pay tribute to the revolutionary effort of the Kabbalists, who have shaken with all their might the narrow frames of old and fixed conceptions, in an attempt to answer ever-renewed questions about the essence of the relationship between divinity, the world and humanity, the theos, the cosmos and the anthropos.
This titanic intellectual effort of the Jewish Kabbalah is, moreover, comparable in intensity, it seems to me, to similar efforts made in other religions (such as those of a Thomas Aquinas within the framework of Christianity, around the same period, or those of the great Vedic thinkers, as witnessed by the profound Brahmanas, two millennia before our era).
From the powerful effort of the Kabbalah emerges a specifically Jewish idea of universal value:
« The revealed God is the result of the Law, rather than the origin of the Law. This God is not posed at the Beginning, but proceeds from an interaction between the superabundant flow emanating from the Infinite and the active presence of Man. » xxiii
In a very concise and perhaps more relevant way: « You can’t really know God without acting on Him, » also says Mopsik.
Unlike Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber, who have classified the Kabbalah as « magic » in order to disdain it at its core, Charles Mopsik clearly perceives that it is one of the signs of the infinite richness of human potential in its relationship with the divine. We must pay homage to him for his very broad anthropological vision of the phenomena linked to divine revelation, in all eras and throughout the world.
The spirit blows where it wants. Since the dawn of time, i.e. for tens of thousands of years (the caves of Lascaux or Chauvet bear witness to this), many human minds have tried to explore the unspeakable, without preconceived ideas, and against all a priori constraints.
Closer to us, in the 9th century AD, in Ireland, John Scot Erigenes wrote:
« Because in all that is, the divine nature appears, while by itself it is invisible, it is not incongruous to say that it is made. » xxiv
Two centuries later, the Sufi Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia, died in Damascus, cried out: « If He gave us life and existence through His being, I also give Him life, knowing Him in my heart.» xxv
Theurgy is a timeless idea, with unimaginable implications, and today, unfortunately, this profound idea seems almost incomprehensible in our almost completely de-divinized world.
iE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p.494-495
iiE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p. 49
iiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.551
viiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.561-563.
ixZohar, I, 116b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.568
xR. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira. Sefer Yessod ‘Olam. Ms Moscow-Günzburg 607 Fol 69b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.589
xiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiR. Menahem Recanati. Perouch ‘al ha-Torah. Jerusalem, 1971, fol 23b-c, quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiiR. Menahem Recanati. Sefer Ta’amé ha-Mitsvot. London 1962 p.47, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xivZohar Hadach, Tiqounim Hadachim. Ed. Margaliot. Jerusalem, 1978, fol 117c quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xvCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviR. Joseph de Hamadan. Sefer Tashak. Ed J. Zwelling U.M.I. 1975, p.454-455, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xviiiR. Matthias Délacroute. Commentary on the Cha’aré Orah. Fol 19b note 3. Quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xixCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xxiGaon Elijah of Vilna. Liqouté ha-Gra. Tefilat Chaharit, Sidour ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1971 p.89, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 610
xxiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 630
xxiiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 639
xxivJean Scot Erigène. De Divisione Naturae. I,453-454B, quoted by Ch. Mopsik, Ibid. p.627
I’d like to compare here the use of various « grammatical » names of God, in the Veda and in the Zohar.
The idea of a « One » God is extremely old. More than four thousand years ago, long before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, the One God was already celebrated by nomadic peoples transhumant in Transoxiana to settle in the Indus basin, as attested by the Veda, and then, a few centuries later, by the peoples of ancient Iran, as reported by the sacred texts of the Avesta.
But the strangest thing is that these very diverse peoples, belonging to cultures thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, have called God by the interrogative pronoun. They named God by the name « Who ?» and other grammatical variations.
Even more surprisingly, some three thousand five hundred years after this innovation appeared, the Jewish Kabbalah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, took up this same idea of using the interrogative pronoun as a Name of God, developed it and commented on it in detail in the Zohar.
It seems that there is rich material for a comparative anthropological approach to various religions celebrating the God named « Who? »
The Vedic priests prayed to the one and supreme God, creator of the worlds, Prajāpati, – the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) ». In the Rig Veda, Prajāpati is referred to as क (Ka, « who »), in hymn 121 of the 10th Mandala.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
Only He was the born sovereign of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He who gives life and strength,
He whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only His shadow!
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
Max Müller asserts the pre-eminence of the Veda in the invention of the pronoun « Who » as a name of God: « The Brâhmans did indeed invent the name Ka ofGod. The authors of Brahmaṇas have broken so completely with the past that, forgetting the poetic character of the hymns and the poets’ desire for the unknown God, they have promoted an interrogative pronoun to the rank of deityii.
In the Taittirîya-samhitâiii, the Kaushîtaki-brâhmaṇaiv, the Tâṇdya-brâhmaṇavand the Satapatha-brâhmaṇavi , whenever a verse is presented in interrogative form, the authors say that the pronoun Ka which carries the interrogation designates Prajāpati. All hymns in which the interrogative pronoun Ka was found were called Kadvat, i.e., ‘possessing the kad‘, – or ‘possessing the who?
The Brahmans even formed a new adjective for everything associated with the word Ka. Not only the hymns but also the sacrifices offered to the God Ka were referred to as « Kâya »’vii.
The use of the interrogative pronoun Ka to designate God, far from being a kind of limited rhetorical artifice, had become the equivalent of a theological tradition.
Another question arises. If we know that Ka actually refers to Prajāpati, why use (with its burden of uncertainty) an interrogative pronoun, which seems to indicate that one cannot be satisfied with the expected and known answer?
Further west to the highlands of Iran, and half a millennium before the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the Yashts, among the oldest hymns of the Avesta, also proclaim this affirmation of the One God about himself: « Ahmi yat ahmi » (« I am who I am »)viii.
God is named this way in Avestic language through the relative pronoun yat, « who », which is another way of grammatically dealing with the uncertainty of God’s real name.
A millennium before Moses, Zarathushtra asked the one God: « Reveal to me Your Name, O Ahura Mazda, Your highest, best, most just, most powerful Name ».
Then Ahura Mazda answered: « My Name is the One, – and it is in ‘question’, O holy Zarathushtra! « »ix .
The Avestic text literally says: « Frakhshtya nâma ahmi« , which can be translated word for word: « He who is in question (Frakhshtya), as for the name (nâma), I am (ahmi)« . x
Curiously enough, long after the Veda and the Avesta, the Hebrew Bible also gives the One God these same « grammatical » names, « Who » or « He Who ».
We find this use of the interrogative pronoun who (מִי , mi ) in the verse from Isaiahxi: מִי-בָרָא אֵלֶּה (mi bara éleh), « Who created that? ».
As for the relative pronoun « who, whom » (אֲשֶׁר , asher), it is staged in a famous passage from Exodusxii: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), « I am who I am », or more acurately, « I will be who I will be », taking into account the imperfect tense of ‘ehyeh’.
The latter option leaves open the possibility of a future revelation, of another Name yet, or of a divine essence whose essence would have no grammatically formulable essence, but could be rendered only approximately, for example by means of a relative pronoun and a verbal form in the future .
Two millennia after Isaiah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, the famous book of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Zohar, attributed to Moses de Leon, focused on a detailed study of the name Mi (« Who? ») of God.
One of the tracks that emerges from this interrogation is the intrinsically divine relationship of Mi (Who) to Mâ(What) and to Eleh (That).
« It is written: « In the beginning ». Rabbi Eleazar opened one of his lectures with the following exordium: « Lift up your eyes (Is 40:28) and consider who created this ». « Lift up your eyes up, » to what place? To the place where all eyes are turned. And what is that place? It is the « opening of the eyes ». There you will learn that the mysterious Elder, the eternal object of research, created this. And who is He? – Mi » (= Who). He is the one who is called the « Extremity of Heaven », above, for everything is in his power. And it is because he is the eternal object of research, because he is in a mysterious way and because he does not reveal himself that he is called « Mi » (= Who); and beyond that we must not go deeper. This upper end of the Heaven is called « Mi » (= Who). But there is another end at the bottom, called « Mâ » (= What). What is the difference between the two? The first, mysterious one, called « Mi », is the eternal object of search; and, after man has searched, after he has tried to meditate and to go up from step to step until he reaches the last one, he finally arrives at « Mâ » (= What). What did you learn? What did you understand? What did you look for? Because everything is as mysterious as before. This mystery is alluded to in the words of Scripture: ‘Mâ (= What), I will take you as a witness, Mâ (= What), I will be like you' ». xiii
What are we learning, indeed? What have we understood?
Mi is a Name of God. It is an eternal object of research.
Can it be reached? No.
One can only reach this other noun, which is still only a pronoun, Mâ (= What).
You look for « Who » and you reach « What ».
This Mâis not the sought-after Mi, but of Mâ we can say, as Scripture testifies: « Mâ, I will take you as a witness, Mâ, I will be like you. » xiv
The Zohar indicates indeed:
« When the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, a heavenly voice came and said, « Mâ (= What) will give you a testimony, » for I have testified every day from the first days of creation, as it is written, « I take heaven and earth as my witness this day. « And I said, « Mâ will be like you, » that is, He will give you sacred crowns, very much like His own, and make you ruler over the world. » xv
The God whose Name is Mi is not the God whose Name is Mâ, and yet they are one.
And above all, under the Name of Mâ, He will one day be the ‘equal’ of anyone who seeks Him in all things, at least according to the Zohar:
« Just as the sacred people no longer enter the holy walls today, so I promise you that I will not enter my dwelling place above until all the troops have entered your walls below. May this be your consolation, for in this form of « What » (Mâ) I will be your equal in all things. » xvi
The man who ‘seeks’ God is placed between Mi and Mâ, in an intermediate position, just as Jacob was once.
« For Mi, the one who is the upper echelon of the mystery and on whom all depends, will heal you and restore you; Mi, the end of heaven from above, and Mâ, the end of heaven from below. And this is Jacob’s inheritance that forms the link between the upper end Mi and the lower end Mâ, for he stands in the midst of them. This is the meaning of the verse: « Mi (= Who) created that » (Is 40:26). » xvii
But that’s not all. Isaiah’s verse has not yet delivered its full weight of meaning. What does « that » mean?
« Rabbi Simeon says, « Eleazar, what does the word ‘Eleh‘ (= That) mean? It cannot refer to the stars and other heavenly bodies, since they are always seen and since the heavenly bodies are created by « Mâ« , as it is written (Ps 33:6): « By the Word of God the heavens were created. » Neither can it refer to secret objects, since the word « Eleh » can only refer to visible things. This mystery had not yet been revealed to me until the day when, as I stood by the sea, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. He said to me, « Rabbi, do you know the meaning of the words, ‘Who (Mi) created that (Eleh)? «
I answered him, « The word ‘Eleh‘ means the Heavens and the heavenly bodies, and Scripture commands man to contemplate the works of the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is written (Ps 8:4): « When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, etc ». and a little further on (Ibid., 10): « God, our master, how wonderful is your name on all the earth. «
Elijah replied: Rabbi, this word containing a secret was spoken before the Holy One, blessed be He, and its meaning was revealed in the Heavenly School, here it is: When the Mystery of all Mysteries wished to manifest itself, He first created a point, which became the Divine Thought; then He drew all kinds of images on it, engraved all kinds of figures on it, and finally engraved on it the sacred and mysterious lamp, an image representing the most sacred mystery, a profound work coming out of the Divine Thought. But this was only the beginning of the edifice, existing but not yet existing, hidden in the Name, and at that time called itself only « Mi« . Then, wanting to manifest Himself and be called by His Name, God put on a precious and shining garment and created « Eleh » (That), which was added to His Name.
« Eleh« , added to inverted « mi » [i.e. ‘im’], formed « Elohim« . Thus the word « Elohim » did not exist before « Eleh » was created. It is to this mystery that the culprits who worshipped the golden calf alluded when they cried out (Ex 32:4): « Eleh » is your God, O Israel. » xviii
We learn in this passage from the Zohar that the true essence of the golden calf was neither to be a calf nor to be made of gold. The golden calf was only a pretext to designate « that ».
It was only there to designate the essence of « Eleh » (That), the third instanciation of the divine essence, after that of « Mi » and that of « Mâ » …
As the Zohar indicates, this can be deduced by associating the Name « Mi » (Who?) with the Name « Eleh » (That), which allows us to obtain the Name « Elohim » (God), after inverting mi into im, ...
The Name Mi, the Name Mâ and the Name Eleh were not primarily divine nouns, but only pronouns (interrogative, relative, demonstrative).
These divine pronouns, in which lies a powerful part of mystery because of their grammatical nature, also interact between themselves. They refer to each other a part of their deeper meaning. The « Who » calls the « What », and they both also refer to a grammatically immanent « That ».
The grammatical plane of interpretation is rich. But can a more theological reading be attempted? I think so.
These three Divine Names, « Who », « What » and « That », form a kind of proto-trinity, I’d like to suggest.
This proto-trinity evokes three attributes of God:
He is a personal God, since we can ask the question « Who? » about Him.
He is a God who may enter in relation, since relative pronouns (« Whom », « What ») can designate Him.
Finally He is an immanent God, since a demonstrative pronoun (« That ») can evoke Him.
Even if Judaism claims an absolute « unity » of the divine, it cannot help but hatch within itself Trinitarian formulations – here, in grammatical form.
This Trinitarian phenomenology of the divine in Judaism, in the grammatical form it borrows, does not make it any less profound or any less eternally perennial. For if there is indeed an ever-present symbol, always at work, of the original wiring of the human mind, it is grammar…
In a million years, or even in seven hundred million years from now, and whatever idea of the divine will reign then, I guess that there will still be a transhuman or posthuman grammar to evoke the categories of the Who, the What, and the That, and to make them look as aspects or ‘faces’ of the Divine.
Classical Sanskrit is a language which allows a lot of verbal games (śleṣa), and double entendres. This semantic duplicity is not simply linguistic. It has its source in the Veda itself, which gives it a much deeper meaning.
« The ‘double meaning’ is the most remarkable process of the Vedic style (…) The objective is to veil the expression, to attenuate direct intelligibility, in short to create ambiguity. This is what the presence of so many obscure words contributes to, so many others that are likely to have (sometimes, simultaneously) a friendly side, a hostile side. » i
The vocabulary of Ṛg Veda is full of ambiguous words and puns.
For example, the word arí means « friend; faithful, zealous, pious » but also « greedy, envious; hostile, enemy ». The word jána refers to the men of the tribe or clan, but the derived word jánya means « stranger ».
On the puns side, let us quote śáva which means both « force » and « corpse », and the phonetic proximity invites us to attribute it to God Śiva, giving it these two meanings. A representation of Śiva at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin shows him lying on his back, blue and dead, and a goddess with a fierce appearance, multiple arms, a ravenous mouth, ecstatic eyes, makes love to him, to gather the divine seed.
Particularly rich in contrary meanings are the words that apply to the sphere of the sacred.
Thus the root vṛj- has two opposite senses. On the one hand, it means « to overthrow » (the wicked), on the other hand « to attract to oneself » (the Divinity) as Louis Renouii notes. Huet’s Sanskrit dictionary proposes two pallets of meanings for this root: « to bend, to twist; to tear out, to pick, to take away, to exclude, to alienate » and « to choose, to select; to reserve for oneself », which we can see that they can be applied in two antagonistic intentions: rejection or appropriation.
The keyword devá plays a central role, but its meaning is particularly ambiguous. Its primary meaning is « brilliant », « being of light », « divine ». But in RV I,32,12, devá designates Vṛta, the « hidden », the god Agni hid himself as « the one who took human form »iii. And in later texts the word devá is clearly used to refer to ‘demons’iv.
This ambiguity is accentuated when it is prefixed like in ādeva or ádeva: « The word ādeva is different: sometimes it is a doublet of ádeva – ‘impious’ – which is even juxtaposed with in RV VI 49:15; sometimes the word means ‘turned towards the gods’. It is significant that two terms of almost opposite meanings have merged into one and the same form. » v
This phonetic ambiguity of the word is not only ‘significant’, but it seems to me that it allows to detect a crypto-theology of the negative God, of the God « hidden » in his own negation…
The ambiguity installed at this level indicates the Vedic propensity to reduce (by phonetic shifts and approximations) the a priori radical gap between God and Non-God.
The closeness and ambiguity of the meanings makes it possible to link, by metonymy, the clear negation of God (ádeva) and what could be described as God’s ‘procession’ towards Himself (ādeva).
The Sanskrit language thus more or less consciously stages the potential reversibility or dialectical equivalence between the word ádeva (« without God » or « Non-God ») and the word ādeva which, on the contrary, underlines the idea of a momentum or movement of God « towards » God, as in this formula of a hymn addressed to Agni: ā devam ādevaṃ, « God turned towards God », or « God devoted to God » (RV VI, 4,1) .
This analysis is confirmed by the very clear case of the notion of Asura, which combines in a single word two extreme opposite meanings, that of « supreme deity » and that of « enemy of the deva« vi.
The ambiguity of the words reflects on the Gods by name. Agni is the very type of the beneficent deity, but he is also evoked as durmati (foolish) in a passage from RV VII, 1,22. Elsewhere he is accused of constant deceit (RV V,19,4). The God Soma plays a prominent role in all Vedic rites of sacrifice, but he is also described as deceitful (RV IX 61,30), and there are several instances of a demonized Soma identified at Vṛtra. vii
What interpretation should be given to these opposing and concurrent meanings?
Louis Renou opts for the magic idea. « The reversibility of acts as well as formulas is a feature of magical thinking. One puts deities into action against deities, a sacrifice against one’s sacrifice, a word against one’s word ». (MS II, 1,7) »viii.
Anything that touches the sacred can be turned upside down, or overturned.
The sacred is at the same time the source of the greatest goods but also of panic terror, by all that it keeps of mortal dread.
If we turn to the specialist in comparative myth analysis that was C. G. Jung, another interpretation emerges, that of the « conjunction of opposites », which is « synonymous with unconsciousness ».
« The conjuctio oppositorum occupied the speculation of the alchemists in the form of the chymic marriage, and also that of the Kabbalists in the image of Tipheret and Malchut, of God and the Shekinah, not to mention the marriage of the Lamb. » ix
Jung also makes the link with the Gnostic conception of a God ‘devoid of consciousness’ (anennoetos theos). The idea of the agnosia of God psychologically means that God is assimilated to the ‘numinosity of the unconscious’, which is reflected in the Vedic philosophy of Ātman and Puruṣa in the East as well as in that of Master Eckhart in the West.
« The idea that the creator god is not conscious, but that perhaps he is dreaming is also found in the literature of India:
Who could probe it, who will say
Where was he born and where did he come from?
The gods came out of him here.
Who says where they come from?
He who produced the creation
Who contemplates it in the very high light of the sky,
Similarly, Master Eckhart’s theology implies « a ‘divinity’ of which no property can be asserted except that of unity and being, it ‘becomes’, it is not yet Lord of oneself, and it represents an absolute coincidence of opposites. But its simple nature is formless of forms, without becoming of becoming, without being of beings. A conjunction of opposites is synonymous with unconsciousness, because consciousness supposes a discrimination as well as a relation between subject and object. The possibility of consciousness ceases where there is not yet ‘another’. » xi
Can we be satisfied with the Gnostic (or Jungian) idea of the unconscious God? Isn’t it a contradiction for Gnosis (which wants to be supremely ‘knowledge’) to take for God an unconscious God?
Jung’s allusion to the Jewish Kabbalah allows me to return to the ambiguities in biblical Hebrew. This ambiguity is particularly evident in the ‘names of God’. God is supposed to be the One par excellence, but in the Torah there are formally ten names of God: Ehyeh, Yah, Eloha, YHVH, El, Elohim, Elohe Israel, Zevahot, Adonai, Chaddai. xii
This multiplicity of names hides in it an additional profusion of meanings deeply hidden in each of them. Moses de Leon, thus comments on the first name mentioned, Ehyeh:
« The first name: Ehyeh(‘I will be’). It is the secret of the proper Name and it is the name of unity, unique among all His names. The secret of this name is that it is the first of the names of the Holy One blessed be He. And in truth, the secret of the first name is hidden and concealed without any unveiling; therefore, it is the secret of ‘I will be’ because it persists in its being in the secret of mysterious depth until the Secret of Wisdom arises, from which there is unfolding of everything. » xiii
A beginning of explanation is perhaps given by the comment of Moses de Leon about the second name :
« The secret of the second name is Yah. A great principle is that Wisdom is the beginning of the name emerging from the secret of Clear Air, and it is he, yes he, who is destined to be revealed according to the secret of ‘For I will be’. They said: » ‘I will be’ is a name that is not known and revealed, ‘For I will be’. « Although the secret of Yah [YH] is that it is half of the name [the name YHVH], nevertheless it is the fullness of all, in that it is the principle of all existence, the principle of all essences. » xiv
Judaism uncompromisingly affirms the absolute unity of God and ridicules the Christian idea of the ‘divine Trinity’, but it does not, however, refrain from some incursions into this very territory:
« Why should the Sefirot be ten and not three, in accordance with the secret of Unity that lies in three? You have already treated and discussed the secret of Unity and dissected the secret of : YHVH, our God, YHVH’ (Deut 6:4). You have dealt with the secret of His unity, blessed be His name, concerning these three names, as well as the secret of His Holiness according to the riddle of the three holinesses: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (Is 6:3).
(…) You need to know in the secret of the depths of the question you asked that ‘YHVH, our God, YHVH’ is the secret of three things and how they are one. (…) You will discover it in the secret: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ (Is 6:3) which Jonathan ben Myiel said and translated into Aramaic in this way: ‘Holy in the heavens above, dwelling place of His presence, Holy on earth where He performs His deeds, Holy forever and for all eternity of eternities’. In fact, the procession of holiness takes place in all the worlds according to their descent and their hierarchical position, and yet holiness is one. » xv
The idea of the ‘procession of the three Holies’ is found almost word for word in the pages of the book On the Trinity written by St. Augustine, almost a thousand years before the Sheqel ha-Qodeshof Moses de Leon… But what does it matter! It seems that our time prefers to privilege sharp and radical oppositions rather than to encourage the observation of convergences and similarities.
Let us conclude. The Veda, by its words, shows that the name devá of God can play with its own negation (ádeva), to evoke the « procession » of God « towards God » (ādeva).
A thousand years later, God revealed to Moses His triple name ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh‘. Then, three thousand years after the Ṛg Veda, the Jewish Kabbalah interpreted the mystery of the name Ehyeh, as an ‘I will be’ yet to come – ‘For I will be’. A pungent paradox for radical monotheism, it also affirms the idea of a « procession » of the three « Holinesses » of the One God.
Language, be it Vedic or biblical, far from being a museum of dead words and frozen concepts, has throughout the ages constantly presented the breadth, depth and width of its scope. It charges each word with meanings, sometimes necessarily contrary or contradictory, and then nurtures them with all the power of intention, which is revealed through interpretation.
Words hold in reserve all the energy, wisdom and intelligence of those who relentlessly think of them as being the intermediaries of the absolute unthinkable and unspeakable.
iLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p.36-37
iiLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §16. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p. 58
For more than two centuries, the West has produced a small but highly committed phalanx of Indianists, Sanskritists and Veda specialists. Their translations, commentaries, reviews, and scholarly theses are generally of good quality and show a high level of scholarship. The specialized departments of some Western universities have been able to promote, year after year, excellent contributions to the knowledge of the enormous mass of documents and texts, Vedic and post-Vedic, belonging to a tradition whose origins go back more than four thousand years.
One is quickly struck, however, by the dazzling diversity of the points of view expressed by these specialists on the deep meaning and the very nature of the Veda. One is surprised by the remarkable differences in the interpretations provided, and in the end, in spite of a smooth harmony of facade, by their incompatibility and their irreconcilable cacophony.
To give a quick idea of the spectrum of opinions, I would like to briefly quote some of the best experts on Vedic India.
Of course, if one wanted to be complete, one would have to make a systematic review of all the research in indology since the beginning of the 19th century, to determine the structural biases, the interpretative flaws, the blindness and the cultural deafness…
I will limit myself to just touching on the issue by evoking a few significant works by well-known specialists: Émile Burnouf, Sylvain Lévi, Henri Hubert, Marcel Mauss, Louis Renou, Frits Staal, Charles Malamoud, Raimon Panikkar.
The following ideas will be found there in a jumble, – surprisingly eclectic and contradictory:
– Vāk is the Logos. Or: The Vedic Word (Vāk) is equivalent to the Greek Logos and the Johannine Word.
-The Veda (a.k.a. the « Aryan Bible ») is « coarse » and comes from « semi-savage » people.
-God’s sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
-The Veda got lost in India quite early on.
-The rites (and especially Vedic rites) have no meaning.
-The sacrifice represents the union of the Male and Female.
Active in the second half of the 19th century, Émile Burnouf asserted that the Vedic Aryâs had a very clear awareness of the value of their cult, and of their role in this respect. « Vedic poets state that they themselves created the gods: ‘The ancestors shaped the forms of the gods, as the worker shapes iron’ (Vāmadéva II,108), and that without the Hymn, the deities of heaven and earth would not be. » ii
The Vedic Hymn « increases the power of the gods, enlarges their domain and makes them reign. » iii
But the Hymn is also, par excellence, the Word (Vāk).
In the Ṛg-Veda, a famous hymniv is called « Word ».
Here are some excerpts, translated by Burnouf :
« I am wise; I am the first of those honoured by the Sacrifice.
The one I love, I make him terrible, pious, wise, enlightened.
I give birth to the Father. My dwelling is on his very head, in the midst of the waves (…)
I exist in all the worlds and I extend to the heaven.
Like the wind, I breathe in all worlds. My greatness rises above this earth, above the very heaven. »
Emile Burnouf comments and concludes:
« This is not yet the theory of the Logos, but this hymn and those that resemble it can be considered as the starting point of the theory of the Logos. » v
From Vāk to Logos! From the Veda to the Word of theGospel of John!
Remember that Vāk appeared at least one thousand years before the Platonic Logos and at least one thousand five hundred years before John the Evangelist used the Logos as a metaphor for the Divine Word.
Does Burnouf force the line beyond all measure?
Is this not an anachronism, or worse, a fundamental bias of an ideological nature, unduly bringing religious traditions closer together without any connection between them?
Or is it not rather a great intuition on his part?
Curious figure that that of Sylvain Lévi, famous indologist, pupil of the Indianist Abel Bergaigne. On the one hand, he seems cheerfully to despise the Brāhmaṇas, which were nevertheless the object of his long, learned and thorough studies. On the other hand, he acknowledges a certain relative value with his lips.
« Morality has found no place in this system [of Brāhmaṇas]: the sacrifice that regulates man’s relationship with the deities is a mechanical operation that acts through its intimate energy; hidden within nature, it is only released from it through the magical action of the priest. The worried and malevolent gods are forced to surrender, defeated and subdued by the very force that gave them greatness. In spite of them, the sacrificer rises to the heavenly world and ensures himself a definitive place in it for the future: man becomes superhuman. » vii
We could ask ourselves why eminent specialists like Sylvain Lévi spend so much time and energy on a subject they denigrate, deep down inside?
Sylvain Lévi’s analysis is indeed surprising by the vigor of the attack, the vitriol of certain epithets (« coarse religion », « people of half savages »), mixed, it is true, with some more positive views:
« Sacrifice is a magical operation; the regenerating initiation is a faithful reproduction of conception, gestation and childbirth; faith is only confidence in the virtue of the rites; the passage to heaven is a step-by-step ascent; the good is ritual accuracy. Such a coarse religion supposes a people of half-wild people; but the sorcerers, the wizards or the shamans of these tribes knew how to analyze their system, to dismantle its parts, to fix its laws; they are the true fathers of the Hindu philosophy. » viii
The contempt for the « half-wild ones » is coupled with a kind of more targeted disdain for what Levi calls, with some sharp irony, the « Aryan Bible » of the Vedic religion (reminder: Levi’s text dates from 1898):
« The defenders of the Aryan Bible, who have the happy privilege of tasting the freshness and naivety of the hymns, are free to imagine a long and profound decadence of religious feeling among the poets and doctors of the Vedic religion; others will refuse to admit such a surprising evolution of beliefs and doctrines, which makes a stage of gross barbarity follow a period of exquisite delicacy. In fact it is difficult to conceive of anything more brutal and material than the theology of Brāhmaṇas; the notions that usage has slowly refined and taken on a moral aspect, surprise by their wild realism. » ix
Sylvain Levi condescends, however, to give a more positive assessment when he points out that Vedic priests also seem to recognize the existence of a « unique » divinity:
« Speculations about sacrifice not only led the Hindu genius to recognize as a fundamental dogma the existence of a unique being; they may have initiated him into the idea of transmigrations ». x
Curious word that that of transmigration, clearly anachronistic in a Vedic context… Everything happens as if the Veda (which never uses this very Buddhist word of transmigration…) had in the eyes of Levi for only true interest, for lack of intrinsic value, the fact of carrying in him the scattered germs of a Buddhism which still remained to come, more than one millennium later….
« The Brāhmaṇas ignore the multiplicity of man’s successive existences; the idea of repeated death only appears there to form a contrast with the infinite life of the inhabitants of the heaven. But the eternity of the Sacrifice is divided into infinitely numerous periods; whoever offers it kills him and each death resurrects him. The supreme Male, the Man par excellence (a.k.a. Puruṣa) dies and is reborn again and again (…) The destiny of the Male was to easily end up being the ideal type of human existence. The sacrifice made man in his own image. The « seer » who discovers by the sole force of his intelligence, without the help of the gods and often against their will, the rite or formula that ensures success, is the immediate precursor of the Buddhas and Jinas who discover, by direct intuition and spontaneous illumination, the way to salvation. » xi
The Veda, one sees it, would be hardly that one way towards the Buddha, according to Levi.
Henri Hubert and Marcel Maussxii: The divine sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
In their famous Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice (1899), Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss undertook the ambitious and perilous task of comparing various forms of sacrifice, as revealed by historical, religious, anthropological and sociological studies, affecting the whole of humanity.
Convinced that they had succeeded in formulating a « general explanation, » they thought they could affirm the « unity of the sacrificial system » across all cultures and all eras.
« It is that, in the end, under the diversity of the forms that it takes, [the sacrifice] is always made by the same process that can be used for the most different purposes. This process consists in establishing communication between the sacred and profane worlds through a victim, that is, something destroyed in the course of the ceremony. » xiii
The unity of the « sacrificial system » is revealed mainly as a « social fact », through the « sacralization of the victim » which becomes a « social thing »: « Religious notions, because they are believed, are; they exist objectively, as social facts. Sacred things, in relation to which the sacrifice functions, are social things, and that is enough to explain the sacrifice. » xiv
The study by Hubert and Mauss is based in particular on the comparative analysis of Vedic sacrifices and sacrifices among the ancient Hebrews.
These authors attempt to determine a common principle, unifying extremely diverse types of sacrifice. « In the course of religious evolution, the notion of sacrifice has joined the notions concerning the immortality of the soul. We have nothing to add on this point to the theories of Rohde, Jevons and Nutt on the Greek mysteries, whose facts quoted by M. S. Levi, borrowed from the doctrines of the Brahmanasxv and those that Bergaigne and Darmesteter had already extracted from vedicxvi and avesticxvii texts, must be compared. Let us also mention the relationship that unites Christian communion to eternal salvationxviii. (…) The characteristic feature of objective sacrifices is that the main effect of the rite is, by definition, on an object other than the sacrificer. Indeed, the sacrifice does not return to its point of departure; the things it is intended to modify are outside the sacrificer. The effect produced on the latter is thus secondary. It is the central phase, the sacrifice, which tends to take up the most space. It is above all a question of creating spirit. » xix
This principle of unity takes all its resonance with the sacrifice of the god.
« The types of sacrifice of the god that we have just reviewed are realized in concreto and gathered together in one and the same Hindu rite: the sacrifice of soma. We can see first of all what a true sacrifice of the god is in the ritual. We cannot expose here how Soma god is confused with the soma plant, how he is really present there, nor can we describe the ceremonies in the middle of which he is brought and received at the place of the sacrifice. One carries him on a bulwark, worships him, then presses him and kills him. » xx
The « sacrifice of the god », whatever its possible metaphysical scope, which is absolutely out of the question here, is never really a « social fact » …
Louis Renouxxi: The Veda was lost in India early on.
Louis Renou emphasizes in his Vedic Studies what he considers to be a « striking paradox » about the Veda.
« On the one hand, we revere him, we recognize in him an omniscient, infallible, eternal principle – something like God in the form of « Knowledge », a God made Book (Bible), an Indian Logos – one refers to him as the very source of Dharma, theauthority from which all Brahmanic disciplines are derived. And on the other hand, the traditions, let us say philological traditions, relating to the Veda, the very substance of the texts that compose it, all this has been weakened early on, if not altered or lost. » xxii
In fact, Renou shows that the sharpest enemies of the Veda proliferated very early on in India itself. For example, he lists the « anti-Vedic attitudes » of the Jainas, the Ājīvika and the Buddhists, the « semi-Vedic tendencies » of the Viṣṇuïtes and the Śivaïtes, or the « a-Vedic » positions of the Śākta and the Tāntrika. Renou reminds us that Rāmakrisna has taught: « Truth is not in the Vedas; one must act according to the Tantras, not according to the Vedas; the latter are impure by the very fact that they are pronounced, etc…. « xxiiiand that Tukārām said: « Pride is born from the repetition of the syllables of the Vedaxxiv.
It was with the appearance of the Tantras that the Vedic period came to an end, » explains Renou. It accelerated with a general reaction of Indian society against the ancient Vedic culture, and with the development of popular religiosity that had been bullied by the Vedic cults, as well as with the appearance of Viṣṇuïsme and Śivaïsme and the development of anti-ritualistic and ascetic practices.
The end of the Veda seems to be explained by root causes. From time immemorial it was entrusted to the oral memory of Brahmins, apparently more expert at memorizing its pronunciation and rhythm of cantillation as faithfully as possible than at knowing its meaning or perfecting its interpretations.
Hence this final judgment, in the form of a condemnation: « The Vedic representations ceased early on to be a ferment of Indian religiosity, it no longer recognized itself there where it remained faithful to them. » xxv
From then on, the Vedic world is nothing more than a « distant object, delivered to the vagaries of an adoration deprived of its textual substance. »
And Renou concludes with a touch of fatalism:
« This is a fairly common fate for the great sacred texts that are the foundations of religions. » xxvi
Frits Staal has a simple and devastating theory: the rite makes no sense. It is meaningless.
What is important in the ritual is what one does, – not what one thinks, believes or says. Ritual has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or finality. It is its own purpose. « In ritual activity, the rules count, but not the result. In ordinary activity, it is the opposite. » xxviii
Staal gives the example of the Jewish ritual of the « red cow »xxix, which surprised Solomon himself, and which was considered the classic example of a divine commandment for which no rational explanation could be given.
Animals also have ‘rituals’, such as ‘aspersion’, and yet they don’t have a language, » explains Staal.
The rites, however, are charged with a language of their own, but it is a language that does not strictly speaking convey any meaning, it is only a « structure » allowing the ritual actions to be memorized and linked together.
The existence of rituals goes back to the dawn of time, long before the creation of structured languages, syntax and grammar. Hence the idea that the very existence of syntax could come from ritual.
The absence of meaning of the rite sees its corollary in the absence of meaning (or the radical contingency) of the syntax.
Frits Staal applies this general intuition to the rites of the Veda. He notes the extreme ritualization of Yajurveda and Samaveda. In the chants of Samaveda, there is a great variety of seemingly meaningless sounds, extended series of O’s, sometimes ending in M’s, which evoke the mantra OM.
Staal then opens up another avenue for reflection. He notes that the effect of certain psychoactive powers, such as those associated with the ritual consumption of soma, is somewhat analogous to the effects of singing, recitation and psalmody, which involve rigorous breath control. This type of effect that can rightly be called psychosomatic even extends to silent meditation, as recommended by Upaniṣad and Buddhism.
For example, controlled inhalation and exhalation practices in highly ritualized breathing exercises can help explain how the ingestion of a psychoactive substance can also become a ritual.
In a previous article I mentioned the fact that many animals enjoy consuming psychoactive plants. Similarly, it can be noted that in many animal species we find some kind of ritualized practices.
There would thus be a possible link to underline between these animal practices, which apparently have no « meaning », and highly ritualized human practices such as those observed in the great sacrificial rites of the Veda.
Hence this hypothesis, which I will try to explore in a future article : the ingestion of certain plants, the obsessive observation of rites and the penetration of religious beliefs have a common point, that of being able to generate psychoactive effects.
However, animals are also capable of experiencing some similar effects.
There is here an avenue for a more fundamental reflection on the very structure of the universe, its intimate harmony and its capacity to produce resonances, especially with the living world. The existence of these resonances is particularly salient in the animal world.
Without doubt, it is also these resonances that are at theorigin of the phenomenon (certainly not reserved to Man) of « consciousness ».
Apparently « meaningless » rites have at least this immense advantage that they are able to generate more « consciousness » .
I would like to add that this line of research opens up unimaginable perspectives, by the amplitude and universality of its implications, at various levels of « life », and from cosmology to anthropology…
Charles Malamoudxxx : Sacrifice is the union of Male and Female.
By a marked and even radical contrast with the already exposed positions of Sylvain Lévi, Charles Malamoud places the Veda at the pinnacle. The Veda is no longer a « grossly barbaric » or « half-wild » paganism, it is in his eyes a « monotheism », not only « authentic », but the « most authentic » monotheism that is, far above Judaism or Christianity !
« The Veda is not polytheism, or even ‘henotheism’, as Max Müller thought. It is the most authentic of monotheisms. And it is infinitely older than the monotheisms taught by the religions of the Book. » xxxi
Once this overall compliment has been made, Charles Malamoud in turn tackles the crux of the matter, the question of Vedic sacrifice, its meaning and nature.
On the one hand, « the rite is routine, and repetition, and it is perhaps a prison for the mind »xxxii. On the other hand, « the rite is to itself its own transcendence »xxxiii. This is tantamount to saying that it is the rite alone that really matters, despite appearances, and not the belief or mythology it is supposed to embody….
« The rites become gods, the mythological god is threatened to be erased and only remains if he manages to be recreated by the rite. Rites can do without gods, gods are nothing without rites. » xxxiv
This position corresponds indeed to the fundamental (and founding) thesis of the Veda, according to which the Sacrifice is the supreme God himself (Prajāpati), and conversely, God is the Sacrifice.
But Charles Malamoud is not primarily interested in the profound metaphysical implications of this double identification of Prajāpati with the Sacrifice.
The question that interests him, more prosaically, is of a completely different nature: « What is the sex of the Sacrifice? » xxxv, he asks …
And the answer comes, perfectly clear:
« The Vedic sacrifice, when assimilated to a body, is unquestionably and superlatively a male. » xxxvi
This is evidenced by the fact, according to Malamoud, that the sequences of the « accompanying offerings », which are in a way « appendages » of the main offering, called anuyajā, are compared to penises (śiśna). The texts even glorify the fact that the Sacrifice has three penises, while the man has only one. xxxvii
Of the « male » body of the sacrifice, the « female » partner is the Word.
Malamoud cites a significant passage from Brāhmaṇas.
« The Sacrifice was taken from desire for the Word. He thought, ‘Ah, how I would like to make love with her! and he joined with her. Indra thought, ‘Surely a prodigious being will be born from this union between the Sacrifice and the Word, and that being will be stronger than I am! Indra became an embryo and slipped into the embrace of the Sacrifice and the Word (…) He grasped the womb of the Word, squeezed it tightly, tore it up and placed it on the head of the Sacrifice. » xxxviii
Malamoud qualifies this very strange scene as « anticipated incest » on the part of Indra, apparently wishing to make the Sacrifice and the Word her surrogate parents…
For us » westerners « , we seem to be confronted here with a real « primitive scene », in the manner of Freud… All that is missing is the murder…
And yet, murder is not far away.
Crushing soma stems with stones is explicitly considered in Vedic texts as « murder, » Malamoud insists.
« Killing » soma stems may seem like an elaborate metaphor.
It is however the Vedic metaphor par excellence, that of the « sacrifice of God », in this case the sacrifice of the God Soma. The divinized Soma is seen as a victim who is immolated, who is put to death by crushing with stones, which implies a « fragmentation » of his « body », and the flow of his substance, then collected to form the essential basis of the oblation?
This idea of sacrificial « murder » is not limited to soma. It also applies to the sacrifice itself, taken as a whole.
Sacrifice is seen as a « body », subject to fragmentation, dilaceration, dismemberment?
« The Vedic texts say that one kills the sacrifice itself as soon as one deploys it. That is to say, when we move from the sacrificial project, which as a project forms a whole, to its enactment, we fragment it into distinct temporal sequences and kill it. The pebbles praised in this hymn Ṛg-Veda X 94 are the instruments of this murder. » xxxix
If the Word makes a couple with the Sacrifice, it can also make a couple with the Silence, as Malamoud explains: « there is an affinity between silence and sperm: the emission of sperm (netasaḥ siktiḥ) is done silently. » xl
A lesson is drawn from this observation for the manner of performing the rite, – with a mixture of words, murmurs and silences :
« Such a soma extraction must be performed with inaudible recitation of the formula, because it symbolizes the sperm that spreads in a womb »xli.
The metaphor is explicit: it is a question of « pouring the Breath-Sperm into the Word-Matrix ». Malamoud specifies: « In practice, to fecundate the Word by the Breath-Sperm-Silence, this means dividing the same rite into two successive phases: one involving recitation of texts aloud, the other inaudible recitation. » xlii
All this is generalizable. The metaphor of the male/female distinction applies to the gods themselves.
« Agni himself is feminine, he is properly a womb when, at the time of the sacrifice, one pours into the oblatory fire, this sperm to which the soma liquor is assimilated. » xliii
Permanence and universality of the metaphor of copulation, in the Veda… according to Malamoud.
Raimon Panikkarxliv : Sacrifice is the navel of the universe
Panikkar says that only one word expresses the quintessence of Vedic revelation: yajña, sacrifice.
Sacrifice is the primordial act, the Act which makes beings be, and which is therefore responsible for their becoming, without the need to invoke the hypothesis of a previous Being from which they would come. In the beginning, « was » the Sacrifice. The beginning, therefore, was neither the Being nor the Non-Being, neither the Full nor the Empty.
The Sacrifice not only gives its Being to the world, but also sustains it. The Sacrifice is what sustains the universe in its Being, what gives life and hope to life. « Sacrifice is the internal dynamism of the Universe.» xlv
From this idea another, even more fundamental, follows: that the Creator God depends in reality on his own Creation.
« The supreme being is not God by himself, but by creatures. In reality he is never alone. He is a relation and belongs to reality. »xlvi
« The Gods do not exist autonomously; they exist in, with, above, and also through men. Their supreme sacrifice is man, the primordial man. (…) Man is the priest but also the sacrificed; the Gods, in their role as primary agents of sacrifice, offer their oblation with man. Man is not only the cosmic priest; he is also the cosmic victim. »xlvii
The Veda describes Creation as resulting from the Sacrifice of God (devayajña), and the self-immolation of the Creator. It is only because Prajāpati totally sacrifices itself that it can give Creation its own Self.
In doing so, the Divine Sacrifice becomes the central paradigm (or « navel ») of the universe:
« This sacred enclosure is the beginning of the earth; this sacrifice is the center of the world. This soma isthe seed of the fertile horse. This priest is the first patron of the word. » xlviii
The commentator writes:
« Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the sacrifice. » xlix
« Truly, both Gods and men and Fathers drink together, and this is their banquet. Once they drank openly, but now they drink hidden.»
The competence of the Indian and Sanskritist scholars cited here is not in question.
The display of their divergences, far from diminishing them, increases in my eyes especially the high idea I have of their analytical and interpretative capacities.
But no doubt the reader will not have escaped the kind of dull irony I have tried to instil through the choice of accumulated quotations.
It seemed to me that the West still has a long way to go to begin to « understand » the East (– here the Vedic Orient).
It so happens that sometimes, in reading some Vedic texts (for example the hymns of the 10th Mandala of Ṛg Veda, and some Upaniṣad), I feel some sort of deep resonances with thinkers and poets who lived several thousands of years ago.
iEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863.
iiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.113
iiiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.112
vEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.115
viSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.
viiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
viiiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 10
ixSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
xSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.10-11
xiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.11
xiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Mixed history of religions. From some results of religious sociology; Sacrifice; The origin of magical powers; The representation of time. Collection: Works of the Sociological Year. Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1929, 2nd edition, 236 pages.
xiiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.76
xivHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.78
xvDoctr, pp. 93-95. We absolutely agree with the rapprochement proposed by M. L., between the Brahmanic theory of escape from death by sacrifice and the Buddhist theory of moksà, of deliverance. Cf. Oldenberg, The Buddha, p. 40.
xviVoir Bergaigne, Rel. Véd., sur l’amrtam « essence immortelle » que confère le scma (I, p. 254 suiv., etc.). Mais là, comme dans le livre de M. Hillebr. Ved. Myth., I, p. 289 et sqq. passim, les interprétations de mythologie pure ont un peu envahi les explications des textes. V. Kuhn, Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks. Cf. Roscher, Nektar und Ambrosia.
xviiCf. Darmesteter, Haurvetât et Amretât, p. 16, p. 41.
xviiiBoth in dogma (e.g. Irenaeus Ad Haer. IV, 4, 8, 5) and in the most well-known rites; thus the consecration of the host is done by a formula in which the effect of the sacrifice on salvation is mentioned, V. Magani l’Antica Liturgia Romana II, p. 268, etc., etc. – One could also relate to these facts the Talmudic Aggada according to which the tribes who have disappeared in the desert and who have not sacrificed will not have a share in eternal life (Gem. to Sanhedrin, X, 4, 5 and 6 in. Talm. J.), nor the people of a city which has become forbidden for having indulged in idolatry, nor Cora the ungodly. This talmudic passage is based on the verse Ps. L, 5: « Bring me together my righteous who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. »
xixHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.55-56.
xxHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.72-73
xxiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960
xxiiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.1
xxiiiThe teaching of Ramakrisna. p. 467, cited in Louis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Tome 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p4.
xxivTrad. of the Pilgrim’s Psalms by G.-A. Deleury p.17
xxvLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.77
Marcel Conche writes somewhere, with a kind of cheerful irony: « I like medlar very much. There is nothing to eat. It is the most metaphysical fruit. For metaphysics comes down to the fact that, in any case, we know nothing about anything. » i
For my part I prefer peach, as a fruit. It is very juicy, with tender and tasty flesh. Some have smooth skin, others are fluffy, but all of them have an inviting slit, and a hard core, mobile or adherent. It is, in my humble opinion, a much more metaphysical fruit than the medlar: at the end of the endings, we know that we are going to take some more without getting tired of it, so much the flavor is not forgotten, and so much the mystery of this closed slit and this hard core can only mystify the spirits less able to grasp the immanent transcendence of the peach tree, from its flower to its fruit…
It really is a great mystery that human brains, at least some of them, can open up to metaphysics, that of medlar, or that that flies over the worlds, and reflects on what was before nothing was …
One of the oldest myths in the world dates back at least six thousand years, four thousand years before our era, and three thousand years before Moses. It is the Vedic myth of Prajāpati, a name that means « Father, or Lord of creatures ». Prajāpati was then thought as the supreme God, the One who created the world. But, unlike the biblical God, the creation of the Universe and all creatures, according to the Veda, could only be done through the sacrifice of Prajāpati.
In the beginning, having nothing from which to create the world, since everything was nothingness, Prajāpati had to resort to Himself, dismembering, offering Himself as a sacrifice, and dividing Himself so that from Him could flow the Universe and Life.
The Veda explains the creation of the universe as the Creator’s self-immolation, and designates this sacrifice as « the navel of the Universeii.
« Now the Lord of creatures, after having begotten the living creatures, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance. « iii
The supreme God gives Himself completely, and He suffers the torments of death: « After He begat all that exists, He felt emptied and was afraid of death. » iv
Why this Sacrifice of the Supreme God?
Perhaps because a « greater good » can be expected from it?
Does God (Theos) sacrifice Himself to make possible not only the existence of the Cosmos and Anthropos but also their future « divinization »?
TheTheos sacrifices Himself to extend modes of divinization to other beings than Himself. Thus one sees that the essence of the Sacrifice is entirely in the general becoming. The God sacrifices Himself so that the future can come to be. The God sacrifices Himself entirely, He takes this supreme risk, so that the « Future » and the « Other » can also be?
But then, does that mean that God is not eternal?
He sacrifices His solitary eternity so that He can become a shared, common « becoming ». To eternity, of which He was the sole custodian, He adds Time, the Future, the Process… and therefore Freedom.
He transforms His stable, immobile essence from a being a « First Engine » into a risky, unstable, uncertain process. He voluntarily gives a freedom proper to the Cosmos, as well as to the Anthropos.
God creates the universe with great precision (cf. the incredible finesse with which the « constants » of the Universe have been shaped). However, the universe is not a deterministic mechanics. There is « chance » in it. Let us simply say that there is « freedom ». God threw, whether Einstein likes it or not, an anthropo-cosmic die…
Hence this special mystery, unique to the human brain: how can we presume to know what Prajāpati has concocted before the dawn of time? How do we know that He sacrificed Himself, that He felt emptied, that He was afraid of death? How could the brains of the Veda visionaries conceive of this divine sacrifice and appreciate all its consequences?
There are two possible answers.
Either the Theos allowed this mystery to be « revealed » directly to the souls of certain representatives of Anthropos (such as biblical prophets).
Either there is, more immanently, and more anthropologically, a congruence, a sympathy, an obviousness, which seems to imbue the human brain.
The brains of the Vedic prophets felt internally, intuitively, through a kind of analogy and anagogy, the divine drama at stake. This intuition was undoubtedly based on the observation of phenomena that appeared in the human environment, and which are among the noblest, most striking, most counter-intuitive that can be conceived: sacrifice for love, the gift of one’s life for the survival of those one loves…
In any case, let us conclude that the human brain, through its antennas, its pistils, its « oospheres », is capable of navigating freely in the eternal « noosphere », and that it is given, sometimes, to penetrate its essence…
According to Gershom Scholem: « Hebrew is the original language »i. For the sake of a sound debate, one could perhaps argue that Sanskrit, the « perfect » language (according to the Veda), was formed several millennia before Hebrew began to incarnate the word of God. However, such historical and linguistic arguments may have no bearing on the zealots of the « sacred language », the language that God Himself is supposed to have spoken, with His own words, even before the creation of the world.
Where does this supposedly unique status of the Hebrew language come from?
A first explanation can be found in the relationship between the Torah and the name of God. The Torah is, literally, the name of God. Scholem explains: « The Torah is not only made up of the names of God, but forms in its entirety the one great name of God. » In support of this thesis, the opinion of the Kabbalistic cenacle of Gerona is quoted: « The five books of the Torah are the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.» ii
How can this be? Here and there in the Torah, we find various names of God, such as the name Yahveh (YHVH) or the name Ehyeh (« I shall be »). But there are also many other (non divine) names, and many other words, that are perfectly profane in the Torah. The four letters aleph, he, waw and yod (אהוי), which are present in Yahveh (יהוה) and Ehyeh ( אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) are also the letters that serve in Hebrew as matres lectionis (the « mothers of reading »), and as such, they are spread throughout the text, they structure it, and make it intelligible.
From that consideration, some Kabbalists, such as Abraham Aboulafia, draw the conclusion that the true name of God is neither Yahveh nor Ehyeh. Aboulafia goes so far as to say that the true original name of God is EHWY (אהוי), that is, a name composed of the four fundamental letters, without repetition. « The tetragrammaton of the Torah is thus only an expedient, behind which the true original name is hidden. In each of two four-letter names there are only three of the consonants that make up the original name, the fourth being only a repetition of one of them, namely, he (ה). » iii
It was, without a doubt, a thesis of « unheard-of radicality » to affirm that the name of God does not even appear in the Torah, but only some of his pseudonyms… Moses Cordovero of Safed rose with indignation against this maximalist thesis. Yet a similar idea resurfaces elsewhere, in the Kabbalistic work entitled Temunah. It evokes « the conception of a divine name containing, in a different order these four letters, yod, he, waw, aleph, and which would constitute the true name of God before the creation of the world, for which the usual tetragram was substituted only for the creation of this world.» iv
Not surprisingly, there are many more other ideas on the matter. There is, for example, the idea of the existence of seventy-two divine names formed from the seventy-two consonants contained in each of the three verses of Exodus 14:19-21. « Know that the seventy-two sacred names serve the Merkavah and are united with the essence of the Merkavah. They are like columns of shining light, called in the Bible bne elohim, and all the heavenly host pays homage to them. (…) The divine names are the essence itself, they are the powers of the divinity, and their substance is the substance of the light of life.» v
There are also technical methods « to expand the tetragram, writing the name of each of the consonants that make up the tetragram in full letters so as to obtain four names with numerical values of 45, 52, 63 and 72, respectively ».vi Far from being a simple set of letters and numbers, this is a mechanism that is at the foundation of the worlds. « The Torah is formed in the supreme world, as in this original garment, only from a series of combinations, each of which unites two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is only in the second world that the Torah manifests itself as a series of mystical divine names formed from new combinations of the first elements. It has the same letters, but in a different order than the Torah we know. In the third world the letters appear as angelic beings whose names, or at least their initials, are suggested. It is only in the ultimate world that the Torah becomes visible in the form in which it is transmitted to us.» vii
From all of this, one may be tempted to draw the fundamental idea that Hebrew is indeed the original language, the divine language. « Hence the conventional character of secular languages as opposed to the sacred character of Hebrew. »viii
However, there was the catastrophic episode of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, which spared none of them – including Hebrew! « But to the sacred language itself have since then mingled profane elements, just as profane languages still contain here and there elements or remnants of the sacred language.» ix
One is always happy to learn, when one has a somewhat universalist sensibility, that « remnants » of the sacred still exist, « here and there », in other languages. To lovers of languages and dictionaries then comes the thankless but promising task of discovering these sacred snags, which are perhaps still hidden in Greek or Arabic, Avestic or Sanskrit, or even Fulani, Wolof and Chinese, who knows?
From a perhaps more polemical point of view, one may wonder whether this is not a kind of idolatry of the letter, — an « idolettry » , then, or a « grapho-latry »…
We may need to go up to a higher level of understanding, to see things from a higher perspective. « Wisdom is contained and gathered in letters, in sefirot and in names, all of which are mutually composed from each other.» x
We need to broaden the vision. These tiny sacred traces present in the languages of the world are like living germs. « All languages derive their origin by corruption from the original sacred language, in which the world of names immediately unfolds, and they all relate to it in a mediated way. As every language has its home in the divine name, it can be brought back to this center.» xi
All languages then have a vocation to return to the divine « center ». Every word and every letter contain, perhaps, by extension, a tiny bit of sacredness…
« Each singular letter of the Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself » xii, Gershom Scholem adds in a note that in the Zohar (1:4b) it is said that every new and authentic word that man utters in the Torah stands before God, who embraces it and sets it with seventy mystical crowns. And this word then expands in its own motion to form a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.
Let’s be a little more generous, and give the goyim a chance. When the poet says, for example, « O million golden birds, O future vigor! » , is there any chance that these inspired words, though not present in the Torah, will one day appear trembling before God, and that God will deign to grant them one or two mystical crowns? I do not know. But maybe so. In the eyes of Aboulafia himself, « the knowledge that can be attained by following the path of the mysticism of language prevails over that which follows the path of the ten sefirot. xiii
So let’s make a wager that all languages have their own « mystical » way, certainly well hidden.
Scholem concludes: « What will be the dignity of a language from which God has withdrawn? This is the question that must be asked by those who still believe that they perceive, in the immanence of the world, the echo of the creative word that has now disappeared. It is a question that, in our time, can only be answered by poets, who do not share the despair of most mystics with regard to language. One thing connects them to the masters of Kabbalah, even though they reject its theological formulation, which is still too explicit: the belief in language thought as an absolute, however dialectically torn, – the belief in the secret that has become audible in language. » xiv
For my part, I believe that no human language is totally deserted of all creative speech, of all sacred flavor. I believe that poets all over the world may hear the disturbing echoes, may perceive infinitesimal vibrations, guess the celestial chords present in their languages.
Whether they are whispered, spoken, dreamed, revealed, words from all origins only approach the mystery. It is already a lot, but it is still very little.
There is much more to be said about silence than about words.
« It is indeed quite striking in view of the sacramental meaning that speech had in a decisive manner in contemporary paganism, that it does not play any role in the Israelite religion, nor especially in its rite. This silence is so complete that it can only be interpreted as intentional silence. The Israelite priest fulfills all his offices entirely without any words, with the exception of the blessing which he must pronounce aloud [Numbers 6:24]. In none of his ceremonial acts is he prescribed a word that he must pronounce. He makes all sacrifices and performs his duties without uttering a single word »xv.
The opposition thus made by Benno Jacob between « Israelite worship » and « paganism » may be be easily contradicted, for that matter. During the Vedic sacrifice of the soma, the high priest also remains absolutely silent throughout the ceremony, while his acolytes chant, sing, or recite the hymns.
It is true, however, that the Veda is certainly not a « pagan » religion, since more than a millennium before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, Veda was already celebrating the unspeakable unity of the Divine.
iGershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 100.
In the Rig-Veda, the name Bhārata ( भारत ) designates the God Agni, and the sacred fire. It is a Sanskrit word of Vedic origin. Its root is bhar, « to carry ». Bhārata etymologically means the « carrier ».
Why is this? Because the fire of the sacrifice « carries » the offerings.
Bhārata is also the name of India in Sanskrit, the name of an emperor and that of the mythical author of famous treatises of the Theater, the Nâtya-shâstra and the Gītālamkāra .
René Daumal, who learned Sanskrit, made a remarkable effort to translate into French the texts of Bhārata, the playwright, using a beautiful and poetic language.
Bhārata tells the story of the birth of Knowledge and the origin of Flavor.
Kings, peoples, prophets, and even the Gods themselves, generally ignore what this Knowledge is all about, and they ignore this Flavor.
They all climb one after the other on the great stage of the world theater to utter some lines of relative brillance. But they speak without this Knowledge, without this Flavor.
The innate art of language is not natural to them. They certainly do not excel at it. They know nothing of the only true poetry.
Where is the essence of true poetry? In the Flavor of Life. In the Sapience of Taste.
Shortly before his death, Daumal gave the Cahiers du Sud a few poems with a Vedic touch:
Neither breath, nor sight, nor hearing, nor thought are here of any help. We must get rid of them. We need to reach back to the ancient, to the original. To rise higher, to dive deep to the sources, to look for the Breath of the breath, the Sight of the sight, the Hearing of the hearing, the Thought of the thought.
The wise man will recognize what is meant here. Words are no longer in use. They make speech look weak.
Daumal, however, tried to reach out to us, beyond the lines, with words.
« We say that Knowledge is power and foresight. For the Hindu, it is ‘to become’, and to ‘be transformed’. » ii
Words, he taught, have a literal meaning, derived meanings, and more importantly, suggested meanings. It is the immense, loose and delicate universe of verbal « resonances » (dhvani), « suggestions » (vyanjanâ) and « tastes » (rasanâ).
The Flavor is a « conscious joy », even in pain, it is a knowledge that shines forth from its obviousness, it is the sister of the sacred.
Daumal asserts that « he who is capable of perceiving it, ‘tastes’ it, not as a separate thing, but as his own essence. » iii
Thus the poem becomes analogous to oneself. Its flavor is its own « self », its « essence », its « soul ».
Flavor has three functions: sweetness, which « liquefies the spirit »; ardor, which « sets it ablaze » and exalts it; and evidence, which « illuminates » it.
Daumal even asserts: « All the poems recited and all the songs, without exception, are portions of Vishnu, the Great Being, clothed in sound form »iv.
The poem is nothing but wind, if it does not set the whole world and the soul in motion, by sounds, senses, resonances, gait and loves.
Nothing Greek in this. No quiet light. No sea in the sun, no complicit nature. India is already far away, beyond all nature. In freedom, one might say, at last.
« I have settled in the heart of each being.
By Me, come and go memories and knowledge.
The purpose of all knowledge is I alone who am to know.
Etymology goes back further to the dawn of thought, much further than archaeology or paleography.
The root of the oldest words is all that remains of time that no memory can imagine. These roots are the minute, ineffaceable traces of what was once pure intuition, radiant knowledge, sudden revelation, for singular men and moving crowds.
The ancient roots, still alive, like verbal souls, speak to us of a vanished world.
Among the most powerful roots are those that inform the names of the Gods.
In the Veda, Agni is said to be « Fire ».
But the truly original, etymological meaning of the word « agni » is not « fire », it is « alive », and « agile ».
The idea of « fire » is only a derivation from this primeval sense. The oldest intuitions associated with the word « agni » then are « life » and « movement », as opposed to « rest » and « death ».
The divine Agni, had indeed many other names, to tell of his other qualities: Atithi, Anala, Dahana, Vasu, Bharata, Mātariśvā, Vaiśvānara, Śoṣaṇa, Havyavah, Hutabhuk…
Agni’s names all have a distinct, specific meaning. Atithi is « Host », Anala is « Longevity », Dahana is « Burning », Tanūnapāt : « Self-Generated », Apāṃnapāt : « from the waters ».
So many attributes for such a hidden God!
« Two mothers of a different color and walking quickly, each giving birth to an infant. From the breast of one is born Hari [yet another name of Agni], honored by libations; from the breast of the other is born Soucra (the Sun), with a bright flame ». i
Agni is indeed « visible », He was born as a child, – but very clever, very wise is whoever can really « see » Him !
« Which of you has seen Him, when He is hiding? As an infant just now, there He is who, by the virtue of sacrifice, now gives birth to His own mothers. Thus Agni, great and wise, honored by our libations, generates the rain of the cloud, and is reborn in the bosom of deeds.» ii
Agni is everywhere. Agni is not only « alive », « agile », He is not only « Fire », not only « God ».
He is also the flickering glow, the sparkling lightning, the blazing forest, the fatal lightning, the evening sun, the pink dawn, the inflexible flint, the warmth of the body, the embers of love…
To understand the Veda, it helps to be a poet, to expand one´s mind to the universe, and even farther away.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
In Platonic philosophy, the God Eros (Love) is always in search of fulfillment, always moving, eager to fill His own lack of being.
But how could a God lack of being? How could he fail to be ?
If Love signals a lack, as Plato says, how could Love be a God, whose essence is to be?
A God ‘Love’, in Plato’s way, is fully ‘God’ only through His loving relationship with what He loves. This relationship implies a ‘movement’ and a ‘dependence’ of the divine nature around the object of His ‘Love’.
How to understand such a ‘movement’ and such a ‘dependence’ in a transcendent God, a God whose essence is to ‘be’, and whose Being is a priori beyond any lack of being?
This is the reason why Aristotle harshly criticizes Plato. For Aristotle, Love is not an essence, but only a means. If God defines Himself as the Being par excellence, He is also ‘immobile’, says Aristotle. As the first immobile Motor, He only gives His movement to all creation.
« The Principle, the First of the beings is motionless: He is motionless by essence and by accident, and He imprints the first, eternal and one movement.”i
God, ‘immobile’, sets the world and all the beings it contains in motion, breathing love into them, and a desire for their ‘end’ (their goal). The world is set in motion because it desires this very ‘end’. The end of the world is in the love of the ‘end’, in the desire to reach the ultimate ‘end’ for which the world was set in motion.
« The final cause, in fact, is the Being for whom it is an end, and it is also the end itself. In the latter sense, the end can exist among immobile beings.”ii
For Aristotle, then, God cannot be ‘Love’, or Eros. The Platonic Eros is only an ‘intermediate’ god. It is through Eros that God sets all beings in motion. God sets the world in motion through the love He inspires. But He is not Love. Love is the intermediary through which He aims at the ‘final cause’, His ‘aim’.
« The final cause moves as the object of love.”iii.
Here we see that Aristotle’s conception of the God differs radically from the Christian conception of a God who is essentially “love”. « God so loved the world » (John 3:16).
Christ overturned the tables of Aristotelian law, that of a ‘still’ God, a God for whom love is only a means to an end, abstractly called the ‘final cause’.
The God of Christ is not ‘immobile’. Paradoxically, not withstanding all His putative power, He places Himself at the mercy of the love (or indifference, or ignorance) of His own creation.
For Aristotle, the divine immobile is always at work, everywhere, in all things, as the ‘First Motor’. The divine state represents the maximum possible being, the very Being. All other beings lackbeing. The lowest level in Jacob’s ladder of the aeons is that of being only in power to be, a pure potency, a purely virtual being.
The God of Christ, on the other hand, is not always ‘present’, He may be ’empty’, He may be ‘mocked’, ‘railed », ‘humiliated’. And He may ‘die’, and He may remain ‘absent’.
In a way, the Christian conception of divine kenosis is closer to the Platonic conception of a God-Love who suffers from a fundamental ‘lack’, than to the Aristotelian conception of God as ‘First Mover’ and ‘final cause’.
There is a real philosophical paradox in considering that the essence of God reveals in a lack or an ‘emptiness‘ in the heart of Being.
In this hypothesis, love would not only be a ‘lack’ of being, as Plato thinks, but would be part of the divine essence itself. This divine Lack would actually be the highest form of being.
What is the essence of a God whose lack is at its heart?
There is a name for it – a very old name, which gives a rough idea of it: ‘Sacrifice’.
This profoundly anti-intuitive idea appeared four thousand years before Christ. The Veda forged a name to describe it: Devayajña, the ‘Sacrifice of God’. A famous Vedic hymn describes Creation as the self-immolation of the Creator.iv Prajāpati totally sacrifices Himself, and in doing so He can give His Self entirely to the creation. He sacrifices himself but lives by this very sacrifice. He remains alive because the sacrifice gives Him a new Breath, a new Spirit.
« The supreme Lord said to His father, the Lord of all creatures: ‘I have found the sacrifice that fulfills desires: let me perform it for You’ – ‘So be it’, He replied. Then He fulfills it for Him. After the sacrifice, He wished, ‘May I be all here!’ He became Breath, and now Breath is everywhere here.”v
The analogy between the Veda and Christianity is deep. It includes the same, divine ’emptiness’.
« The Lord of creatures [Prajāpati], after having begotten living beings, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance.”vi
« After having generated everything that exists, He felt as if He was emptied and was afraid of death.”vii
The ’emptiness’ of the Lord of creatures is formally analogous to the ‘kenosis‘ of Christ (this word comes from the Greek kenosis and the verb kenoein, ‘to empty’).
There is also the Vedic metaphor of ‘dismemberment’, which anticipates the dismemberment of Osiris, Dionysus and Orpheus.
« When He had produced all the creatures, Prajāpati fell apart. His breath went away. When His breath was no longer active, the Gods abandoned Him”viii.
« Reduced to His heart, He cried out, ‘Alas, my life!’ The waters came to His aid and through the sacrifice of the Firstborn, He established His sovereignty.”ix
The Veda saw it. The Sacrifice of the Lord of Creation was at the origin of the universe. That is why, it is written: « the sacrifice is the navel of the universe »x.
Perhaps the most interesting thing, if we can get this far, is to allow to conclude that: « Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the Sacrifice » xi.
In ancient Greek dictionaries, just right after the name Orpheus, one may find the word orphne (ὄρφνη), « darkness ». From a semantic point of view, orphne can be applied to the underworld, the « dark » world. Orpheus, also descended into the Underworld, and was plunged into orphne.
Orpheus was « orphic » par excellence. He sought revelation. He ventured without hesitation into the lair of death, and he came out of it alive – not without the fundamental failure that we know well. But later, the shadows caught up with him. A screaming pack of Thracian women tore him apart, member to member.
Only his severed head escaped the furious melee, rolled ashore. The waves swept him across the sea, and Orpheus‘ head was still singing.
He had defeated death, and passed over the sea.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes the search for the true Life, the one that lies beyond the realm of Death.
The philosopher Empedocles testifies to the same dream: « For I was once a boy and a girl, and a plant and a bird and a fish that found its way out of the sea.”1
In tablets dating from the 6th century BC, found in Olbia, north of the Black Sea, several characteristic expressions of Orphism, such as bios-thanatos-bios, have been deciphered. This triad, bios-thanatos-bios, « life-death-life », is at the center of orphism.
Orpheus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, chose, contrary to the latter, to live outside of « politics ». He refused the « city » and its system of values. He turned towards the elsewhere, the beyond. « The Orphics are marginal, wanderers and especially ‘renouncers‘ », explains Marcel Detiennei.
Aristophanes stated that the teaching of Orpheus rested on two points: not making blood flow, and discovering »initiation ».
The Greek word for initiation to the Mysteries is teletè (τελετή). This word is related to telos, « completion, term, realization ». But teletè has a very precise meaning in the context of Orphism. Among the Orphic mysteries, perhaps the most important is that of the killing of the god-child, Dionysus, devoured by the Titans, – except for his heart, swallowed by Zeus, becoming the germ of his rebirth within the divine body.
Several interpretations circulate. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus entrusted Apollo with the task of collecting and burying the scattered pieces of Dionysus’ corpse on Mount Parnassus.
According to the neo-Platonic gnosis, the Mysteries refer to the recomposition, the reunification of the dismembered body of God.
The death of Orpheus is mysteriously analogous to the more original death of the god Dionysus, which probably derives from much older traditions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped Osiris, who was also torn to pieces, scattered throughout Egypt, and finally resurrected.
For the comparatist, it is difficult to resist yet another analogy, that of the sharing of Christ’s « body » and « blood, » which his disciples « ate » and « drank » at the Last Supper just before his death. A scene that has been repeated in every Mass since then, at the time of « communion ».
There is a significant difference, however, between the death of Christ and that of Osiris, Dionysus or Orpheus. Contrary to the custom that governed the fate of those condemned to death, the body of Christ on the cross was not « broken » or « dismembered, » but only pierced with a spear. The preservation of the unity of his body had been foretold by the Scriptures (« He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken », Psalm 34:20).
No physical dispersion of the body of Christ at his death, but a symbolic sharing at Communion, like that of the bread and wine, metaphors of flesh and blood, presented at the Last Supper, symbols of a unity, essentially indivisible, universally shareable.
This makes all the more salient the search for the divine unity apparently lost by Osiris or Dionysus, but found again thanks to the analogous care of Isis, Zeus, or Apollo.
Beyond the incommensurable divergences, a paradigm common to the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece and to Christianity emerges.
The God, one in essence, is dismembered, dispersed, really or symbolically, and then, by one means or another, finds Himself unified again.
One, divided, multiplied, dispersed, and again One.
Again One, after having been scattered throughout the worlds.
So many worlds: so many infinitesimal shards within the divine unity.
In India at the end of the 19th century, some Indian intellectuals wanted to better understand the culture of England, the country that had colonized them. For instance, D.K. Gokhale took it as a duty to memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walter Scott’s Rokeby, and the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright.
However, he was quite surprised by the spiritual emptiness of these texts, seemingly representative of the « culture » of the occupying power.
Perhaps he should have read Dante, Master Eckhart, Juan de la Cruz, or Pascal instead, to get a broader view of Europe’s capabilities in matters of spirituality?
In any case, Gokhale, tired of so much superficiality, decided to return to his Vedic roots. Striving to show the world what India had to offer, he translated Taittirīya-Upaniṣad into English with the famous commentary from Śaṃkara.
At the time of Śaṃkara, in the 8th century AD, the Veda was not yet preserved in written form. But for five thousand years already, it had been transmitted orally through the Indian souls, from age to age, with extraordinary fidelity.i
The Veda heritage had lived on in the brains of priests, during five millenia, generation after generation. Yet it was never communicated in public, except very partially, selectively, in the form of short fragments recited during sacrifices. The integral Veda existed only in oral form, kept in private memories.
Never before the (rather late) time of Śaṃkara had the Veda been presented in writing, and as a whole, in its entirety.
During the millenia when the Veda was only conserved orally, it would have been necessary to assemble many priests, of various origins, just to recite a complete version of it, because the whole Veda was divided into distinct parts, of which various families of Brahmins had the exclusive responsibility.
The complete recitation of the hymns would have taken days and days. Even then, their chanting would not have allowed a synoptic representation of the Veda.
Certainly, the Veda was not a « Book ». It was a living assembly of words.
At the time the Taittirīya-Upaniṣad was composed, the Indo-Gangetic region had cultural areas with a different approach to the sacred « word » of Veda.
In the Indus basin, the Vedic religion has always affirmed itself as a religion of the « Word ». Vāc (the Sanskrit word for « Word ») is a vedic Divinity. Vāc breathes its Breath into the Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is entirely, essentially, Vāc, — « Word ».
But in the eastern region, in Magadha and Bihar, south of the Ganges, the Deity remains ‘silent’.
Moreover, in northeast India, Buddhism, born in the 6th century B.C., is concerned only with meaning, and feels no need to divinize the « Word ».
These very different attitudes can be compared, it seems to me, to the way in which the so-called « religions of the Book » also deal with the « Word ».
The « word » of the Torah is swarming, bushy, contradictory. It requires, as history has shown, generations of rabbis, commentators and Talmudists to search for all its possible meanings, in the permanent feeling of the incompleteness of its ultimate understanding. Interpretation has no end, and cannot have an end.
The Christian Gospels also have their variations and their obscurities. They were composed some time after the events they recount, by four very different men, of different culture and origin: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As human works, the Gospels have not been « revealed » by God, but only « written » by men, who were also witnesses. In contrast, at least if we follow the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been (supposedly) directly revealed to Moses by God Himself.
For Christianity, the « Word » is then not « incarnated » in a « Book » (the Gospels). The « Word » is incarnated in Jesus.
Islam respects the very letter of the Qur’an, « uncreated », fully « descended » into the ear of the Prophet. Illiterate, Muhammad, however, was its faithful mediator, transmitting the words of the angel of God, spoken in Arabic, to those of his disciples who were able to note them down.
Let us summarize. For some, the « Word » is Silence, or Breath, or Sacrifice. For others, the « Word » is Law. For others, the « Word » is Christ. For others, the « Word » is a ‘Descent‘.
How can such variations be explained? National « Genius »? Historical and cultural circumstances? Chances of the times?
Perhaps one day, in a world where culture and « religion » will have become truly global, and where the mind will have reached a very high level of consciousness, in the majority of humans, the « Word » will present itself in still other forms, in still other appearances?
For the moment, let us jealously preserve the magic and power of the vast, rich and diverse religious heritage, coming from East and West.
Let us consider its fundamental elevation, its common aspiration, and let us really begin its churning.
i Cf. Lokamanya Bâl Gangâdhar Tilak, Orion ou Recherche sur l’antiquité des Védas, French translation by Claire et Jean Rémy, éditions Edidit & Archè, Milan et Paris, 1989