Things Loosely Strung
On the island of Elephanta in the Arabian Sea not far from Mumbai, in a Shiva cave temple carved out from a rock hill, is a Shiva ling almost eighteen feet high with three faces. The right face (left to the viewer) is Aghora-Bhairav, the angry, the terrible. He is holding a serpent. The left (right to the viewer) is Vamadeva-Uma, Shiva’s female energy, beautiful and blissful. She is holding a lotus. Tatpurusha Mahadeva, the peaceful, the abiding, holds the middle.
The Portuguese used the cave for cannon practice. They targeted Shiva reliefs in mythic scenes in the cave, but they honored the trinitarian semblance and left it whole. They perhaps did not recognize that the faces emerge from a linga, Shiva’s mystical phallus.
Like the primordial Adam Qadmon of Zohar, the sculpture mirrors psychocosmic moods of rage, love and peace. Adam’s man shape, his red right hand of power, the white left of love, his green trunk of balance, pour from the creative unknowable above. Shiva’s faces display from the creative unknowable within.
Like time revolving, the faces shape the linga, the mark, the sign, the subtle trace of mystery, its hiddenness. On the back side and top are more secret faces unseen.
The poet of the Atharva Veda hymn to “Skambha,” the secret pillar, sings, Through meditation, by direct vision, I have known this: in the secret pillar lies the whole world. He describes elements, regions, energies, ages, natures, names and deities as branches on a tree.
In the Indian mythology of time, it is the Age of Kali now, the Age of Rage, the Age of Fear, the end of a cycle, a time of injustice and destruction. The mystic Adam’s red right hand of judgment is active. Shiva Bhairav’s eyes bulge with rage. Shiva Tatpurusha remains at peace. Uma remains beautiful. Adam’s left hand of love does not disappear, and Tif’eret, his balanced center, embraces Shekhinah, his immanence. In Lurianic Kabbalah, You can mend the cosmos by anything you do, even eating…Sparks of holiness intermingle with everything in the world.
Shiva is Lord of Destruction, Lord of Yoga, Lord of Dance. He destroys illusion and ignorance. In the bronzes of Tamil Nadu he dances in a ring of fire on the demon of forgetfulness. His body—left leg bent across the right, left arm curved over the bent leg, right hand gesturing the “no problem” mudra—forms the shape of OM, Tatpurusha’s mystic sound. Shiva’s drum is the sound of monsoon thunder circling the horizon, bringing fertility and destruction while his feet drum the earth. It is the sound of the pulse of life, Earth’s heart, the heart of the mother heard in the womb when one is preparing to be born into the world.
The name Shiva means “auspicious.” It is auspicious to acknowledge fear. Proverbs teaches, Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
In the Bhagavad Gita the primordial guru, the inner teacher, manifests as Krishna. It is a time of destruction, the end of a cycle. He teaches the stressed hero Arjuna the yogas of knowledge, action and devotion, connecting to what abides. Whenever dharma wanes and injustice grows, he manifests himself. He is an avatar of Vishnu, Lord of Preservation, a balance between Brahma Lord of Creation and Shiva Lord of Destruction. Practicing the yoga of action, Arjuna is to give the fruit of his deeds as a warrior to Krishna, not attach to them himself.
Abhinavagupta, a Shaivite tantric philosopher of tenth century Kashmir, comments on the Natyashastra, the classic Indian text on dance, theater and poetics. The focus is on bhavas, perennial emotional energies latent in the heart. Among these are delight, gaiety and wonder on the one hand, anger, grief, fear and disquiet on the other, and heroism and serenity. (Abhinavagupta added the ninth, serenity, to the classic eight.) Each of these latent energies manifests in a rasa, a mood or emotional coloring felt in the heart. A rasa tinges the inmost person with its color. Abhinavagupta says that our hearts, aroused through rasas portrayed in art, flash forth through these emotional colors and become sahrydaya, same-hearted, in an empathetic community of emotion that brings heightened awareness. There is a direct knowing of things as they are, not as a subject knows an object, but directly in our all-connecting hearts. The deep nature of the heart, the thread of clear light, shines through the conglomeration of loosely strung semi-transparent jewels,…the emotions that tint it with their hues.
There is, says Abhinavagupta, a perpetual scintillation that has its abode in the heart. It is covered over by the darkness of our mental and emotional conflicts. Aesthetic experience can arouse a vibration that breaks through this darkness, opening a space for peace to manifest.
Abhinavagupta’s Kashmiri school began in the ninth century when Sage Vasugupta had a dream. Shiva instructed him to go to Mahadeva Mountain and touch a certain stone. The Shiva Sutras, 79 aphorisms, manifested out of the stone. Tantric texts often appear this way, like projections of knowledge hidden in the heart of things and suddenly ready to be known. From the stirring touch of mind in the heart, there is spiritual vision…, says one of the sutras.
In Buddhist tantra, art is a practice of the perfection of generosity. Thoughts, images and feelings, in their provocative coming and going, are elusive. They emerge before words, melodies, rhythms or designs pin them down. Art manifests shared experience in oneself and others. It helps us glimpse the communality of all things. It helps us taste the “one taste,” the underlying clarity, wisdom and compassion in the spiritual heart.
According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, when our last breath leaves our body, if we have not recognized the pure luminosity of mind in the bardo of dying, we enter the bardo of luminosity. There the full spectrum of our latent mental energies manifests as a sequence of peaceful deities. If we become afraid and do not recognize them as our own projections, these energies become increasingly terrible, transforming into wrathful deities. If we recognize them as our projections, they transform into wisdom.
Dream yoga practitioners on the threshold of the dream bardo can follow vague thoughts from the bardo of this life as they continue into dream like inserting thread through the eye of a needle. They can change peaceful and wrathful appearances into each other, cultivating meditative equipoise, in clarity without grasping.
Samkhya, a theoretical counterpart to classic non-Buddhist Yoga, pictures our emotional energies, our bhavas, as dwelling in our subtle body, our linga, our subtle trace that transmigrates from life to life. The linga is the active force in the liberation of consciousness, which does not act. Each consciousness or purusha liberates separately from the undulating energy of nature, prakriti, into kaivalya, blissful awareness. Until then, the purusha identifies itself with the linga, with its emotions and its suffering. Nature and consciousness, prakriti and purusha, are not oppositional—they are in samyoga, interlinked uncreated eternal principles. Nature performs and evolves for the liberation of consciousness.
Buddhist insight argues against Samkhya’s subtle duality of nature and consciousness: both are empty of their own being, they have only relative interdependent reality, they are of the same nature, neither has ultimate reality, both are projected views. They are inseparable aspects of very subtle clear light-bearing mind, which is the morally clear basis of enlightenment and altruistic enlightened action, ordinarily clouded by our mental and emotional afflictions and distorted by our imposition of subject-object duality. Nirvana and samsara, buddha mind and ordinary mind, perceiver and perceived are not separable from one another, they are of one nature, one taste.
Sometimes I wake in the night full of fear. All the alarms of the world seem to go off in my mind—the Age of Kali rampant in the bardo of this life. I am not aware of a particular triggering event or dream. The fear feels existential, the details fed by politics and the troubles of those dear to me. I cling to the fear, and the fear clings to me. Then at some point I awake into first light and the bardo of this life. I wash, light a candle, offer incense, ring a bell and enter the bardo of meditation. All these layers of study and thought, like the fears that awoke me, like the loves that sustain me, are inseparable from quietude.