Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The God Who Created the God Who Created the God

Religious philosophers tend to argue in favor of an original, intelligent cause as an answer for the question of our origins. It stands to reason, they argue, that an original cause be accepted to avoid the paradox of beginninglessness. The original cause being of course a monotheistic god, who is assumed perfect and benevolent.

From these roots come the marked difference in the linear and finite versus cyclic and infinite models of the Occident and the Orient, along with some wildly varying concepts of god or its equivalent. When it comes to god and gods, much is assumed and little is certain.

The pursuit for an original cause is much like a walk in Escher's paradox.

Original Cause as a Non-Solution

Proposing that there is an original cause is philosophically unsatisfactory, inasmuch as the original cause always remains incomprehensible to us smaller units, its originality unproven in the face of the possibility that our original cause is but the a link in a chain of causation. The concept of a greater creator merely begs the question whether there might be more creators at work somewhere up the pyramid of creations.

If there is one creator god for the existence we know, it is in fact entirely plausible that there may be any number of other, more compassive gods further up the line of creations, the extent of which we'd never be able to decipher as either infinite or finite. The seemingly definitive solution of an original cause now effectively returns to square one, once again face to face with the paradox of infinity and beginninglessness.

Brahma, the Hindu demiurge, is born from a lotus growing from Vishnu's navel.

Hierarchy of Creator Gods in Indic Lore

The Vaishnavite mythology, found throughout the Puranic lore, posits the existence of a single eternal transcendent deity, Vishnu, who dwells beyond the world of creations, and also permeates the creation as its supporting substratum. At the dawn of creation Vishnu, lying at the bottom of each of the universes he created, let a lotus sprout from his navel, atop which awoke Brahma, the creator god of the Hindu trinity, set to organize the elements of the cosmos provided by Vishnu.

This prime creator, in turn, set forth a number of Prajapatis, progenitors of mankind and diverse species, along with a number of sages to impart wisdom to the creation. In a fair number of epics the lesser gods, created by Brahma, mistake their immediate creator to be the supreme creating deity and the original cause, and in fact he is found to be so deluded on a number of occasions himself.

The god Brahma also features in early Buddhist lore as one among a number of Brahmas, each presiding over their own Brahma-worlds, fancying themselves as creator gods, frequently original causes in their own right. These Brahmas feature in a number of legends from the Buddha's cosmic adventures, and it was in fact Brahma Sahampati who urged the Buddha to go forth and preach the dharma in the wake of his enlightenment.

The theology of some Vaishnavas, most notably the Gaudiya tradition and the Hare Krishnas, further posits that Krishna is, rather than an avatar of Vishnu, in fact the original source god, of whom Vishnu is an extension for purposes of creation. Yet they are in some respects identical, one deity and one mind, and yet again different in some minute manners. Overall, I get the effect of calling to an office for the person responsible, only to be routed around in circles until the line breaks. No wonder some prefer speaking face to face, whether it's gods or service personnel.

Not surprisingly, adherents of the Shaiva school likewise claim Shiva to be the supreme god, as again the Shaktas insist that Shakti is the ultimate mother-godhead, of which Shiva, Vishnu and the rest spring forth. Faced with the immense plurality and conflicting opinions of the Indic gods, good old Christian monotheism might begin to seem like a welcome breeze of fresh air. If so, please breathe to your liking before starting the following section.

David Tarleton: The Aeon Sophia at the Birth of the Demiurge

Gnostic Demiurge and Judeo-Christian Creator God

I recall a lively conversation I once had with an elderly Jehovah's Witness. He was adamant that the mainstream Christian Church was wrong in claiming that Jesus was God, while he was in fact the first creation, as also god's instrument for the making of the creation that sprang forth — all standard Jehovah's Witness theology.

Incidentally I was also once filled in into the higher secret of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, again by an elderly gentleman somewhere in northern Finland. All was fine with my theology, but the fact that I was a monk at the time. Skipping the preliminaries, he related how we, as married couples, are to evolve and one day become creator gods and goddesses of our own universes.

To make things even more confusing on the Judeo-Christian front, we are confronted with the question of their god being perhaps a legion of gods, as the plural address Elohim and covenants to "not have any other gods" indicate. How much do the Elohim have in common with the gods of the Olympos mountain, the Egyptian Pantheon and the Hindu gods of Himalaya?

It was the Gnostic tradition that first identified the Judean God as a so-called Demiurge, an inferior and imperfect deity responsible for the creation of an imperfect world. Gnostic estimates of the lesser deity span from an embodiment of evil to merely an imperfect yet benevolent being. The Gnostics view the birth of the Demiurge as an accident that was never meant to happen, in effect describing an unplanned pregnancy leading to the birth of a defective god.

In contrast to demiurge are the eternal Pleroma, self-manifest beings transcending our dimension, ascension among whom is the final destination of the humans. As fascinating as it is, one can't help but wonder whether there might be yet another layer of causation beyond the supposedly eternal Pleroma, who as a matter of fact sound remarkably similar to the residents of the Immaterial Realms of the Buddhist cosmology, who are again superceded by the cryptic nirvana.

The Judeo-Christian God's wrath in the Genesis incident over Adam's acquisition of classified knowledge is interesting in its own right. We even find the following admission in God's own words (3.21): "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." Interestingly, the serpent was right over the fruit's effects, while God was in fact trying to prevent access with threats of death upon eating. Now that ought to get the conspiracy theorists running!

Left: Intimidating Jaffa servant of an Egyptian Goa'uld. Right: The Ori grant supernatural powers to their Priors.

Evil Gods of Science Fiction

The well-documented traits of the God Institution have also found their way into popular entertainment. For an example, the popular TV-series Stargate features two separate races of malevolent beings posing and worshiped as gods, only to be overthrown by their subjects in due course.

The Goa'uld, evil and technologically advanced power-hungry parasites, used humans for slavery for millennia in the guise of various Egyptian, Greek and Oriental gods, posing as immortal lords and the creators. The Goa'uld were snake-like creatures who bonded with human hosts, integrating themselves with the hosts' spinal cord and the brain. (Incidentally the often-controversial kundalini-energy of Hindu Tantrics literally means "female serpent" and, when activated, rises up the spinal cord and yields psychic powers.)

Again the Ori, an ascendend incorporeal species, inspired massive crusades to have everyone worship them, for they gained power through the energy sapped from lower sentient beings. For them, the religion is a conduit for transferring upwards the energy expended by the worshipers. In return for worship and absolute dedication, they offered their followers a false promise of ascension, unwilling as they were to share of their power. Really, exactly how many of the available promises of afterlife are guaranteed real deals? It's a pity religions don't come bundled with a money-back guarantee.

While there would be a number of other juicy examples to illustrate the concept, let's focus on the gist of the idea, namely the assumed integrity and benevolence of the said god or gods. There is no reason to assume that a more powerful being would have also evolved in benevolence, even if the religions of the world do tend to take the goodness of their gods for granted. Hey, the gods of the Zoroastrians being the demons of the Brahmanas and vice versa, one or other of the gods out there has got to be evil! And evil or not, faithfully worshiped by devout followers.

Something is fundamentally wrong with the above scenario.

Final Thoughts

The final day of reckoning pending and yet to be proven, there are few compelling reasons for worshiping one authoritarian god or the other. Given the insubstantiability of the said claims of absolute originality, omnipotence and omniscience, there is little reason to accept demands of allegiance. Neither claims of rightful ownership of our souls or threats of damnation or annihilation can serve as a basis for a healthy, working relationship. If there's one thing that puts me off on so many levels, it is intimidation.

If some choose to voluntarily pursue the worship of a god or several gods or goddesses, whether it be for solace, pleasure, profit or wisdom, I don't see it as objectionable as long as the relationship remains non-abusive. If a god or the gods are real, existing and sentient beings, it stands to reason that our free will ought to be respected, and all forms of life, regardless of evolutionary level, ought to have certain rights. Just like we also treat nature and animals, eh? Do unto them as he did unto us...

Coming from a god who created hell, a promise that he can save me from going to hell isn't exactly playing it fair. You cannot create a threat and then play the good guy for alleviating the threat! When a threat is produced to gain advantage from the object of threat, it is called coercion. Use of coercion with self-produced ultimatums spanning infinity cannot be the work of a a truthful, loving and benevolent being.

Not that I'm an atheist. Atheism as a concept is far too limited, as is theism along with its bretheren ideologies. Pantheism and monistic nondualism are high on my chart of working elements for a coherent overall picture of existence. No single theory in itself seems to be adequate for capturing the essence of existence, and a comprehensive Theory of Everything is yet to be written. Be that as it may, it seems evident that the era of authoritarian creator gods is nearing its inevitable end.

Further Reading

Brahma (Buddhism): A fascinating gloss on the role of the god Brahma in Buddhist lore, little known to many Hindu adherents who fancy Brahma as a Hindu deity. Ironic as it is, the god of the Brahmanas was identified as one of the Brahmas known to the Buddha long before the Puranas began to grow into their current renditions!

Brahma (Hinduism): A good overview of the Hindu lore of creation, the birth of Brahma, who was to become one of the popular Hindu trinity, and the subsequent gods he created for the sake of expanding his domain. Path to Deification: How we evolve into gods, as understood in the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Gnosticism: Pleroma and the Demiurge. Goa'uld and Ori: Two fictive races of false gods in the Stargate universe.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Experiences in Japa and Mantra-Meditation

I cannot even begin to count the time I've committed to meditation over the years. Timewise, the bulk of my experiences span from my twelve active years as a Gaudiya Vaishnava, employing the tradition's methodology, the focus of which was the unveiling of a connection with god Krishna, his companions and his spiritual domain. In the last two years, I have also experimented with a number of other similar methods of meditation, which along with the Gaudiya approach form the bulk of this article.

A holy man seated for meditation with his rosary.

In the Gaudiya tradition, mantras are twofold: One category is the public maha-mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna etc.), the other the many secret initiation mantras one receives from a guru. While the latter are almost invariably vocalized in the mind only, the former is also murmured, chanted audibly, and also sung to the accompaniment of instruments as a hymn of prayer and praise.

A japa-mala in its covering bag, underneath the maha-mantra written in Bengali script.

Symbolism of the Rosary

The japa-mala, a sacred rosary made of Tulasi-wood with 108 beads, is employed for the counting of mantras. The rosary is taken by many Gaudiya Vaishnavas to symbolize the rasa-mandala, the circular midnight dance arena of Krishna and the 108 main gopis. The rosary frequently has a string tied in after the eight largest beads, signifying the eight principal gopis.

I cannot recall anyone ever featuring the symbolism in any practical capacity, and so it remains a mystery whether you're supposed to meditate on the eight gopis every time you touch the eight beads, and whether you're supposed to mentally contemplate on the Rasa-dance pastime over and over again, or whether it's just a fancy poetic depiction without much further meaning. The only practical gopi-mandala related practice is a prayer some chant before taking up the rosary:

tri-bhaGga-bhaGgima-rUpaM veNu-randhra-karAJcitam |
gopI-maNDala-madhyasthaM zobhitaM nanda-nandanam || MBD 4.223

“In a three-fold bending form, his fingers curled on the holes of the flute, amidst a circle of gopis is the beautiful son of Nanda.”

While such symbolism can serve as useful initial inspiration, in this case I found no overall practicability to this, whether as an emotional or a visual aid. As for the string, I did find it useful in keeping mental track of even and odd rounds. As I sit for meditation, I'm disinclined from fiddling with the counter beads and breaking my solid posture and energy build-up every few minutes. Crossing the string with your fingers helps you bundle rounds into segments of two, and thence into segments of four and eight, up to where you can chant dozens of rounds and keep accurate mental track of the number without its causing a disturbance.

Author chanting japa in 2007 at Radhakund.

Experiences with Gaudiya Vaishnava Mantras

Rarely do I engage in japa these days, as I've come to find both the accessories and the verbal mantra-formulations distracting in general. Even with the maha-mantra, when I took up chanting en masse during my later days at Radhakund, it became constantly less and less a matter of the individual names in the mantra. Is one seriously supposed to do a focused back-and-forth bouncing contemplation on Radha and Krishna? If the point is to focus on them, it helps solidify your meditation if a single object remains in extended focus.

I personally found the diksha-mantras much more suited to this purpose, the Radha-mantra in particular. It consists of two bijas, the name of Radha in dative, and a closing exhortation. Dhyanachandra lists a common variant of the mantra as zrIM rAM rAdhikAyai svAhA in his manual. Combined with asanas and pranayama, the prolonged vibration of this formula led me to a substantial kundalini-experience — even if the presence and action of kundalini is largely ignored in Gaudiya circles.

The eighteen-syllable Krishna-mantra (astadasaksara-mantra or Gopala-mantra: klIM kRSNAya govindAya gopIjana-vallabhAya svAhA), on the other hand, was a bit lengthy to my liking and less useful for focused contemplation. Again, is one supposed to focus on Krishna, Govinda or Gopijanavallabha? If they are the one and the same, where is there a need for a plurality of names? And if they are different (as any pundit would explain to you), we again have the problem of having to constantly shift our focus.

I remember also growing uneasy over some of the other mantras, the tripartite gayatris in particular, that did not follow the standard meter and rhythm; a symmetric rhythm helps with maintaining focus. In particular, the accessory gayatris for the remaining members of the Panca-tattva and the accessory gayatris for the gopis were rather cumbersome formulations. (I was initiated into a total of 12 mantras and 12 gayatris at Radhakund.)

During my active chanting years, especially with the numeric strength of japa growing to two daily lakhs (128 rounds) and beyond, it was necessary to learn to relate to the ping-pong of names in the maha-mantra. Less a conscious decision and more a natural evolution, the explicit components of the mantra began to withdraw in favor of exposing a spiritual fabric rising from the vibration itself, a vibration underlying the names. It was this presence, of which it seemed a great deal could arise, that I associated with suddha-sattva, the existential fabric of the spiritual world itself. I doubt the idea would pass any orthodoxies, but such was my experience nevertheless.

Replica of Tryambakeshvar Mahadeva, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas located around India.

Experiences with Traditional Hindu Mantras

I have also done a fair amount of japa during my post-Gaudiya time, starting in the summer of 2007 with a brief and final Gaudiya revisit during the Kartika month of the same year. In exploring a future direction, I hopped on a rollercoaster of Advaitic and Buddhist studies, for those were the two traditions I found to be best matching my general spiritual orientation, matching inclinations present from before my contact with Vaishnavism, and latent throughout the years of Vaishnava practice.

In the initial period of exploration I grew quite fond of OM, the classic ultimate chant exhorted in the Upanishads. I found it much more suited for touching the tranquil existential fabric I had conjured with my earlier chantings of maha-mantra. In fact I even experimented for a week on hybrid mental japa of maha-mantra and OM — it's amazing what your mind can pull together once you put it to work. It was rather interesting, but required an excess of mental energy to contain over long term. I settled for the good old OM and was quite happy with it.

The pancaksara-mantra for Shiva (oM namaH zivAya) was a natural expansion of OM, very compact in its formula, carrying the gist of the structural power of the shorter Vaishnava-mantras I had once found useful. Moreover it carried strong Advaitic content, regardless of whether you associated it with the Upanishadic world or the approach of Kashmiri Shaivism, conveying a strong sense of non-dual divinity embodied as the Shiva-archetype. Along with the mantra of Tara, the pancaksara must be the most chanted among my post-Gaudiya mantras.

A statue of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, in Kathmandu.

Experiences with Buddhist Mantras

During my travels with the Buddhist monks and beyond, I committed a fair deal of time to some common Buddhist mantras. From the Thai monks I walked with, I learned the practice of chanting the ten ephitets of the Buddha on a rosary (iti 'pi so bhagavo arahaM samma-sambuddho...), which was more of a broad contemplation than a narrow-band mantra even if quite catchy with its irregular rhythm, and also briefly experimented with the shorter Theravadan chant (namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa).

A similar wisdom-contemplation was the great Mahayana mantra (oM gate gate para-gate para-saMgate bodhi svAhA) summarizing the heart of Madhyamika-philosophy on the nature of existence, covering the evolving perceptions of form and emptiness, and culminating into bodhi or enlightenment. While not as suited for extended repetition, I found chanting a few rounds to effect a rather refreshing flashback of the fundamentals of existence. Of course, with all mantras and particularly in this case, one must be well acquainted with the meaning of the mantra, and for fuller effect share personal experience of and insight into the said base aspects of reality.

Another genre of mantras employed in the Buddhist tradition are those associated with tantric or Tibetan Buddhism with its approach of contemplating on enlightened archetypal deities. My favorite by far was the mantra of goddess Tara (oM tAre tuttAre ture svAhA), which I practiced along with a refined visualization practice I learned from Atisha's medieval sadhana-manual in the library of the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu. I also experimented on the mantra of Padmasambhava (oM aH hUM padma-guru vajra-siddhi hUM), a powerful chant in its own right, and the classic mantra of Avalokitesvara (oM maNi padme hUM), the bodhisattva of compassion, a mantra full of soothing lucidity and peace.

The mantra oM maNi padme hUM engraved on a stone wall in Tibetan script at Bodh Gaya.

Other Methods of Meditation

It was the non-verbal methods of meditation that I was most at home with. I suppose this largely owes to my preference of conceptual thinking over verbalization, or the pazyanti (direct perceptual) level over madhyama (mental verbalization) and vaikhari (external verbalization) stages in Upanishadic terms. Mental and verbal japa still maintain a sense of distance to the object, while conceptual contemplation puts one in an immediate relationship with the object. (This is incidentally also the goal of the Gaudiya way of meditation with its specific object.)

Two old Buddhist practices aiming for samadhi (concentration) and prajna (wisdom) are the heart of all Buddhist meditation. The former, while not directly conducive to the awakening of ultimate wisdom on its own, is a powerful and systematic method for attaining increasing levels of samadhi or jhana (Sanskrit: dhyana) along with their subsequent benefits. The sophisticated jhana-theory of Theravada Buddhism serves as a highly useful reference point for other traditions of object-meditation. Perhaps the most sriking discovery for me in this was in understanding the underlying principles and the inherent similarity between supposedly unique meditative traditions.

Vipassana or insight-meditation, the second of the two divisions of Buddhist meditation, is a direct tool for attaining ultimate wisdom and enlightenment. While vipassana may employ a number of techniques in attaining deep introspective perception and clarity, essentially it's about learning to observe the inherent natures of reality, witnessing the fundamental principles of reality (anicca: temporarity; dukkha: anxiety; anatta: non-selfhood) in all phenomena. While there are methods for enhancing the experience, the core observant principle does not require technical support.

All in all, it's all but clouds at the back of the hall...

Craving, Peace and Spiritual Objectives

I have come to marginalize goal-oriented spiritual practice in my life, having observed that it often leads to results quite antithetical to the desired goal, and instead of contributing to, consumes the sense of perennial tranquility and insight from the inside out. A very elementary Buddhist teaching is that craving leads to misery. Whether one is craving for openly mundane aims, supernatural powers, imaginary liberation or the favors of a supreme god, the very fact that there is craving leads to grief. As such, while I do not systematically seek to practice the said methods (or any other methods), their gist in revealing the natural potentials of the mind seem to have been amicably absorbed.

It is my personal conclusion that the less one attempts to actively manipulate one's spiritual evolution, the more one gains in the way of peace and existential insight. By stopping you progress. By seeking progress you stop. What a beautiful paradox. Now, I could cite any number of Hindu and Buddhist teachers whose teachings ultimately reflect the same, but I don't as I'm more concerned with direct personal experience than I am with the spiritual systematizations of another, no matter how wise he may have been.

Not that one isn't to learn of the experiences of others — but neither is one to assume he can successfully lead the life and grasp the insights of another without eventually developing his own. Whatever we learn is to be personally experimented on, experienced, and incorporated into our own unique frame of reference. We are what we are, and exactly at the place we are — independent of anyone's projections of what and where we ought to be according to his system. Walk your own way, I say. Or rather, stop and be happy.