Esoterism contra Exoteric Universalism

Quite often, when an esoteric view is expressed, the listener hears a universalist statement. We must define our terms carefully in order to clarify the point.

Universalism is the view that all religious and spiritual modalities wind up at the same salvation in the end, regardless of differences and distinctions in character or application. This is popularly expressed as “all religions are basically the same” or, with somewhat more sophistication, “all paths lead to the same goal.”

Esoterism is a focus on the way in which any given religion or spiritual modality may be turned inward upon itself so that the individual practitioner may also turn inward upon himself. Esoterism is the sum of mysticism, gnosis, and magic—what the author of Meditations on the Tarot refers to as Hermetic philosophy or what Schuon calls Perennial Philosophy or Traditional Metaphysics.

Esoterism states that the possibility of inwardness exists in principle in any authentic religious or spiritual tradition while acknowledging that it is more difficult to access in some than in others, sometimes considerably so to the point of practical impossibility. A religion may be called spiritually alive insofar as this possibility is actualized in the persons of living representatives of that tradition.

An esoterist will certainly focus on the practice of a particular tradition but, unlike the purely exoteric (outward) religionist, will not be uncomfortable with taking lessons from or even engaging in the practices of a genuinely living religion or spiritual tradition. What works, works. To put it more concretely: A Yogi who has, even for the briefest moment, touched the feet of God will feel no discomfort in the magical application of the Psalms. Game recognize game.

On Idolatry

As my friendships fan-out into more and varied religious and spiritual communities, I find myself running up against attitudes and beliefs which I had previously only known in the theory. In a conversation between two Jewish friends, I heard the most overt criticism of idolatry which I’ve ever encountered in person. In a later talk with one of them, I had described to me the experience of feeling “chilled” at seeing Buddhists bowing to statues of the Buddha. By the standards of my Jewish friends, then, I am an idolater.

Idolatry is of course condemned implicitly and explicitly throughout the rest of the Bible (Jewish and Christian inclusive), not to mention the Quran. I can even see where such a prohibition might come from: There is no doubt a great danger in reifying human ideas and ideals into absolutes to be worshiped apart from divine revelation. We bear witness today to the results of doing so in the most circular fashion: deifying human reason. But are all venerated images “idols” in this sense?

Assuming that the biblical law in question was genuinely revealed through prophecy, I think it vitally important to remember to whom a revelation is directed. In short, God knows His audience. If we look to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world of the day these laws were handed down, the situation was one of rampant idolatry not merely in the sense of using statues in religious worship, but one of deep ambiguity concerning humanity’s obligations to both man and divinity, the overvaluing of institutions, and the undervaluing of human life. It makes sense, under these conditions, to cut out as much gray area as possible. But this is bordering on attributing human motives to the Divinity, so I won’t travel any further in this direction.

But what of the more literal idolatry of religious images and statues? I find the accusation of idolatry to be contextual, and usually arbitrary. A Christian does not think that the sign of the cross hanging over the altar is an idol, nor will Catholic and Orthodox practitioners admit of the images of saints being called “idols”, when “icon” sounds so much nicer.

We can take this further. Is the Ka’ba an idol to which Muslims prostrate? It strikes me that a lump of meteoric rock inside a small cubic building is no less an idol than a Śivalingam in a cave, and may well be more so because its “idolatrous” nature goes ignored, unacknowledged, or denied, even by non-Muslims. The Ark of the Covenant is certainly an idol, for it was reverenced as having been inhered by the very Presence of Hashem.

I can predict the Abrahamic objection that the Ark cannot be an idol because, though built by human hands, it was built according to specifications revealed by God, so has divine imprimatur. But the images of Śiva, Ganeśa, and Vishnu — let alone Thoth, Hermes, Zeus, Odin, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, and any number of other deities — are also revealed by those deities for the purpose of granting their worshipers some insight into their natures and how best to draw close to them. To claim that only my god’s revealed image, word, and aesthetic preference are valid religious expressions is merely to beg the questionn.

The monotheisms who condemn idolatry — while, as observed, practicing it themselves — usually claim the distinction of worshiping God directly, while idolaters worship the images. This is either ignorance, or deliberate obscurantism, depending upon the representative in the discussion. The uneducated individual has the defense of having read or heard the reality: that no worshiper of Vishnu, say, thinks himself to worship a mere image, but the Person who reveals himself through the image. Both the ignorant and the obscurantist may rejoin that the real difference, then, is the reality or supremacy of the god in question. But this is rhetoric, nothing more. Again, it begs the question it proposes to settle.

It is a truth unsettling to monotheists that monotheism is, strictly, not represented in the Abrahamic traditions as generally understood. All kinds of circumlocutions are invented to deal with the awkward facts of the angels, demons, hypostases, and mentions of other gods in their scriptures. These attempts not only tend to contradict the witness of the selfsame scriptures, they also unreasonably dismiss the experiences of worshipers in every other religious tradition in the world. I say “unreasonably” because the best they can ever do by way of justification is to cite their own claims in circular fashion; this is hardly satisfactory.

A separate but related truth is that religion can not exist without some form of idolatry — assuming, as we have this whole discussion through, that the biblical notion of idolatry can even be meaningfully applied. Moving forward, I propose some alternatives.

The word “monolatry” is already current; from here on, we may prefer it to “monotheism”, even if monolaters object. More, many of the religions condemned or dismissed as “idolatrous” do not actually worship idols. We might consider co-opting Christianity’s sanitized term “icon”, though we still don’t worship icons. Provisionally, I suggest “mesoeikonism” from the Greek words for “through” and “image”.

If the non-Abrahamic traditions, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Pagan revivals and First Nations/aboriginal traditions, are to be included in the global dialog, we must establish philosophical categories for the Abrahamic faiths just as their theologians (and the atheist philosophers who use their categories to this day) which adequately refocus the discussion, rather than confining ourselves to the categories handed to us by those who have spent centuries claiming a monopoly on philosophical adequacy. The beginning of this process has to be an aggressive correction of accidental misapprehensions and intentional misrepresentations.

Non-Dual Trinitarian: The Nature of Unity in Saivism

In Saiva Siddhanta, we speak of the three fundamental “substances”: God, Nature, and souls (the collective of all individuals). In this way, both dvaitins (dualists) and advaitins (non-dualists) see Siddhanta as false.  Samkhya sees at the base of all things the two: Nature and souls. Advaita Vedanta bristles at this dualism, and finds its resolution in the dependent natures of both, thus declaring them to be “illusory” — because not self-sufficient — and asserting that God is the only real entity.

But Siddhantins recognize the metaphysical problems with these two alternatives. Samkhya’s aim is not to explain or resolve, but to observe, and the mere observation of multiplicity and duality undermine any conception of undifferentiated unity. Advaita tries to resolve these observations by the brutal act of denying them. In the first instance, dualism points to an unresolved conflict, which everyone from Zoroastrians to Manicheanas to Cathars to Protestants eventually insisted on moralizing, with “spirit” standing in for good, and “matter” for evil (with modern satanism merely reversing the polarity). In the second case, the conflict is not resolved but merely ignored, returning to a static, womb-like unity wherein All-Possibility is denied in favor of Being. The Siddhantin sees God not only in still mountaintop meditation; God is also the Lord of Dancers, master of both movement and rest.

One of the greatest metaphysical difficulties for the advaitin is the simple question: Why did God create anything at all? In more philosophical terms, if the One is self-sufficient, what was the point of any sort of duality or pluralism?

The Christian and the Hermetist can well anticipate the solution. If one is static, and two is strife, three is the end of division and the establishment of a dynamic unity. A modern Hermetic illustration of this idea is that of the pendulum. True, the bob swings back and forth between two extremes, but it is anchored to a fixed point; by gradually tracing attention up the string, our eyes travel shorter and shorter intervals as we watch the swing, until fully coming to rest at the anchor point.

The non-dualist will see this as pluralism, and so reject it. But the esoteric eye sees that unity was never disrupted, and could not be in any case. The three — God, Nature, and souls — represent the three ontological hypostases of the Absolute. God alone is ontologically necessary, though we refer to the other two as fundamental substances and co-eternals insofar as everything persists in seed within its substrate between manifestations. The fact that Nature and souls must eventually go to seed does not make them illusory. As we are discussing a realm beyond time and temporal causation, we may thus say that God is ontologically prior to Nature and souls, but not chronologically prior, because chronological priority is meaningless at this level.

God’s Sakti — His Grace — acts upon Nature according to another threefold division, less fundamental but which corresponds to the three entities under discussion. The creative act corresponds to the souls, whose nature it is to imagine and to will; the preservative or upholding act corresponds to Nature, because of her characteristic persistence through constant change; the act of destruction is God’s alone, as He is the ground to which both souls and Nature go to seed. All these three graces — creation, preservation, and destruction — encompass divine activity in and through Nature herself.

There are, however, two remaining graces left entirely for God to act upon souls alone. The three dynamic graces are used upon Nature in service to these two intellectual graces: concealment and revelation. The duality of these graces is the metaphysical cause of humanity’s tendency to get bogged-down in binary thinking, but its also the cause of our occasional intuitive leaps of brilliance. As the souls stand metaphysically between God and Nature, it makes sense that we should be the way by which “two” makes itself known. God is One Consciousness; we are the division of consciousness into awareness of “self” and “not self”; Nature is the field of dynamic activity: 1 – 2 – 3.

123 pyramid

In Pythagorean fashion, if we add up the resulting pyramid, we get 1 + 2 + 3 = 6, which alchemists know as the hexagram representing God as found in the Height and the Depth. Add the graces, and we get 2 + 3 = 5, the pentagram of humanity’s capacity to master Nature through self-knowledge. Of course, the points of the pentagram each refer to one of the elements, and we may see in each grace the metaphysical root of an element, though I will not say more on that here, as it makes a very valuable meditation.

The purpose of this rudimentary numerology is not the common naive attempt at a “proof”. In the Inner sciences, no such thing could be provided, nor would it be desirable to do so. All models are tools, not the goal itself. And that’s just how Saivas view both Advaita and Samkhya: the non-dual realization is a goal for which we cannot skip over the intervening territory, while Samkhya gives us much of the map of that territory. Siddhanta is the Yoga of these facets as a single gem. There is herein no denial either of the fundamental unity of all things, nor of the variety of manifestation. Drawing all things to One (to paraphrase from The Imitation of Christ) is not a denial of “all things” any more than the fact of “things” is a denial of One.

Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra Addendum: Lucifer and Dark Gnosis

Anointed am I
Exalted on a course to man averse
Cloven-hooved my footsteps be
The self withdrawn
Expanding as the rays of death illuminate
The bridge and the path to the waters of Ain

~ “Waters of Ain” by Watain

It must be said that there are indeed those who use satanic imagery and terminology to point to something far deeper and, it may be said, far higher. It is fairly well known at this point that “Lucifer” means “Light-bringer”, a symbolic title which has been applied to nearly every savior-figure, at one time or another. There are even “Christian Luciferians” who apply the title to Jesus. This is done, of course, not in a sense of irony, but from a Gnostic standpoint; if the Prince of Darkness holds sway in this world — functioning as the “god of this world” — the being of Light who came within the cosmic system to show us the way out is surely the Lucifer, by whatever other name we choose to call him. The satanists who take this tack rarely use such Christian imagery, however, but instead draw from Kabbalah, Tantra, Voudou, Quimbanda, and other non-Christian modes.

These satanists may more accurately be called Chaoists — not in the sense of the popular “chaos magic”, but in that they hold Chaos to be higher or more essential than Cosmos. Very often, this is an overly literal understanding of the aforementioned systems of inspiration. In Kabbalah, our cosmic system does indeed emanate from Chaos, but Chaos is not therefore anti-cosmic. Tantra equates Chaos with Nature, the primordial matter and energy of which all universes derive their substance. In both cases, Chaos is not “supreme”. It is a material from which something may be shaped in order that it might perform a function. The “consciousness of Chaos”, whom in Tantra we call Sakti, Kali, Durga, in general ” the Goddess”, is co-eternal with the One Being, Siva, and exists in non-dual relation with Him.

When we speak of Sakti destroying the universe, or else of Siva dissolving the universe, this is not because we find the universe to be of zero value. This is where overly literal thinking causes trouble. There is certainly an inherent tension between Cosmos and Chaos, but only for so long as they remain conceptually separated. This tension is a dynamic one; it is what allows for anything to exist at all. But that existence is contingent. Kabbalists and Tantrikas do not pretend that it is essential rather than apparent.

To say that the act of creation was a mistake may be a helpful metaphor, but it is not (and cannot be) literally true. It only points to the deeper truth that our entrapment within that creation is the result of an error which clings to us. In Saivism, we call this error anavamala, or “the bondage of atomism”. It is the error which arises by the soul’s assumption that it is distinct from other souls and from the Primal Soul whom we call God. It is true, in a sense, that the soul has its own identity, but it has its identity only and ultimately in relation to God. So, the creation of a world in which we are forced into relationships with other souls and “inanimate” matter is hardly a mistake, but it is made necessary by a mistake. The universe is the grit-filled tumbler which polishes us clean of the patina of “separateness”.

The use of satanic imagery may be a useful tool for shocking oneself awake, but only if that person is already on the verge of waking up. Otherwise, it tends only to bolster a sense of division by making the individual feel justified in combativeness, or else plunged into depression over a sense of “entrapment”. These images are not native to Tantra, and the methods which often accompany them are generally not compatible with it. That said, such adaptations have been made, but they are, for the reasons explored in Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra, very rarely useful in the actual process of becoming free.

Satanism & Left-Hand Tantra

The leading misconception about Tantra among non-occultists is that it is all about having explosive sex. But that’s not what I’m writing about, today. The leading misconception about Tantra among occultists is that it is “Left-Hand” means the same thing among Eastern practices as Western. In other words, Tantric practices among Saivas and Saktas are often equated with satanism. There are a lot of problems with this interpretation, almost entirely based in the very different approaches to the broad notion of religion.

At its worst, satanism is a sincere worship or veneration of some notion of embodied evil. I shouldn’t have to go into much detail concerning how silly this is, but it may at least be helpful to point out the fact that Dharmic traditions do not generally even consider evil to be an absolute or archetype. To worship it, then, would not occur to them in the first place. Asuras and other “demonic” entities do make appearances in Dharma, but they’re nothing more than souls living out very different sorts of lives than ourselves. If they are evil, they are evil because of their thoughts and actions, not because of some immutable moral essence.

At best, satanism is an intentional mythologizing of selfish instinctual urges. These satanists — often, though not always, associated with or inspired by Anton LaVey’s “Church of Satan” — interpret Satan and the various other devils and demons of Abrahamic mythology to be personified symbols of their own egos and desires, the various rituals and ceremonies built up around them merely costumed metaphors. A friend of mine once described this form of satanism as “Ayn Rand in a robe” and, as far as sharp summations go, I could do no better.

Both of these “satanisms”, and the gradients between them, are basically nothing more than adolescent rebellions against the norms of the prevailing societies in which they occur. When a person’s notions of religion are based more or less in the Abrahamic traditions, and that person feels constrained and in need of a thorough break from those traditions, their options tend to be just as limited by the surrounding religious environment. Rebellion against the Judeo-Christian God is as simple as inverting the Judeo-Christian script, but that script is still binding!

Those tantriks who take to the especial worship of Kali — by no means the only option, but certainly the one best known of in the West — are not worshiping a demon, do they see themselves as making a pact with the devil, nor as merely turning Vedic Brahmanism on its head. They are practicing a tradition sufficient to itself, without needing reference to an adversary. More, they don’t necessarily believe themselves to be opposed to other sects and approaches. There is no denial of a God of Light; in fact, Saktas tend to see themselves as taking the most congenial route to the Light by way of the comfortable darkness of the merciful and loving Divine Mother. While many “orthodox” Christians might call this satanic, that only points to the paucity of interpretive frameworks they have to draw from and not to any accuracy in the judgment.

Another Tantric tradition often equated with satanism, usually by occultists who think this isn’t a bad thing to be equated to, are the Aghoris. These are a sect of wandering Saiva ascetics who, in an effort to become supremely detached to the ephemera of this world, occasionally perform such acts as meditation atop the greasy ashes left after funeral pyres, using human skulls as begging bowls or even objects of worship, seemingly severe acts of self-abnegation, and so forth. The apparently dark and unkempt visages of the Aghoris and their macabre ritual tools seem to be sufficient for most occultists to brand them as Left-Hand in a similar vein as satanism.

This brings us to the central problem: semantics. Both Dharmic and Western traditions make use of the terms “Right-Hand” and “Left-Hand”, more or less. (The Sanskrit term vama, sometimes used similarly to our “sinister” to mean both left-handed and untrustworthy or wicked, can also mean beautiful, agreeable, refractory, and a number of other nuanced meanings, so using it interchangeably is not always the wisest translation.) The Western traditions, however, do not seem to have a clear or consistent definition of the terms. I have seen the dichotomy put in any number of ways, from the relative position of their focus on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, to the simple “good versus evil”, to the partisan claims that one side is more “free” or more “legalistic” than the other. In Dharma, the definitions are much more, frankly, defined and technical.

In the first place, Tantra itself is not all “Left-Hand”; there are Right-Hand forms of Tantra, and it might sound odd to say so, but some of the most extreme forms of Saiva Tantra which look so sinister to Western eyes, with naked wandering ascetics covered in funereal ash and carrying tridents, lean more toward Right-Hand practice than Left-Hand. The big difference between the two is how they put “the five Ms” into practice. The five Ms are: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithuna (sex). These are all strictly limited or entirely forbidden to Hindus of the Brahmin varna and, thus, to temple priests and monks; they take on special significance in Tantra not because Tantra seeks merely to annoy and undermine Brahmins, but because Tantra practitioners seek to transcend the categories of “clean” and “unclean”. “Aghori”, the sect mentioned previously, takes its name from “aghora”, meaning “not terrible” or “not repulsive”. An Aghori, then, is “one who is not repulsed” by anything.

Among Tantrics, these five substances have become symbolic of various processes of Yoga, thus:

  • wine becomes intoxicating knowledge;
  • meat becomes the control of speech (and, by extension, thought);
  • fish becomes the pranic channels of Ida and Pingala;
  • parched grain becomes concentration and meditation;
  • and sex becomes samadhi, or total absorption.

The major distinction, then, between the Right-Hand and Left-Hand forms of Tantra is precisely how these symbols are enacted. In Right-Hand Tantra, they are purely symbolic, with the terms used almost as poetic glosses in descriptions of practical methods of Yoga, while in Left-Hand Tantra, they are used quite literally, albeit as ritual sacraments. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong; they are just different modes of accessing the same states. In neither case are they mere excuses for license, as is generally found among Western “Left-Hand” groups. And, to add to the subtlety of Dharmic understanding, it is somewhat rare for an individual practitioner to take an all-or-nothing approach to the five Ms; instead, any given practitioner might, for instance, abstain from the literal consumption of intoxicants and red meat, but may eat fish, parched grains, and forgo celibacy. The practitioner’s lineage of initiation is a factor, here, as is that practitioner’s own practice and sense of right action.

That last concept of “right action” cannot be left dangling. Some modern practitioners of Tantra have adopted something like the Rabelaisian “Do what thou wilt” as their prime ethical dictum, just as have Western followers of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema, who are also often called “Left-Hand”. In genuine Tantra, however, the “thou” is interpreted more as “Thou”; so “Do what Thou wilt” becomes more an invocation than a dispensation for license. Perhaps if Crowley had understood it thus, he would not have beaten every wife and lover he had and died a penniless heroin addict.

So in Tantra, unlike in satanism and Western Left-Hand occultism, morality grows from devotion rather than rationalizing what we already want to do, which brings Tantra — of either dextral orientation — into a stronger resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ than of Crowley or LaVey. Those who wish to claim that “all paths lead to the same destination” are ignoring, intentionally or not, the fact that not all tools are equally efficient, and not all “solutions” are intended to address the same “problems”. Equally, similar terms from different contexts are not necessarily cognate.

The Meaning of The Devil

The finest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” ~ Charles Baudelaire, “Le Joueur généreux”

Demons abound in the world’s mythologies. We could argue all day about whether that is a reflection of our own ambivalent moral lives, an observation of the actual moral order of psychic and spiritual forces, or both (I am more inclined to this last option), but that lies beyond my present scope. The fact is that we all know something, however little, of our own culture’s demonology, and this imagery has stuck with us for a reason.

Hindus often say that we do not have the notion of Satan, one of several major points brought to distinguish dharmic from Abrahamic thought. Of course this is true, as far as it goes, but the comparison often lacks a metaphysical explanation. Who, or what, is Satan after all?

Hindu and Buddhist demonology is naturally a reflection of dharmic theology. That is to say, in short, that just as the Divine and angelic forces — not to mention the purely “natural” forces, such as the bhutas and ganas — appear in and through a multiplicity of forms, so do the demonic. More, demons are not seen to be essentially evil, but contingently so; the devas, mythologically (and, thus, symbolically), display occasional slips of self-awareness and self-control, while asuras are characterized by them. There have famously been asuras who were able to gather themselves enough to perform great austerities, but clung so tightly to their own little egos that they traded away all of the merit so earned for physical immortality and other occult powers of comfort and self-aggrandizement.

This entire point can be summarized by saying that the asuras lack a sense of underlying Unity. Devas know of the Reality to Whom they owe their existence, and intentionally place themselves in service of It; the nature spirits and goblins recognize and worship It. Even most humans have the excuse of generally being unaware of God’s presence. The asuras alone hold the dubious distinction of being aware of divine omnipresence, and yet being too proud of egocentric to see It as anything more than a cosmic vending machine.

We might then say that the asuras parody the devas; likewise, Christian theology holds that “the Devil is the ape of God.” Of course, one might posit the obvious: that the asuras have no underlying Unity, but the Abrahamic demons do in the person of Satan, making them irreconcilably different demonologies. This, however, is only so if we begin with the assumption of irreconcilable metaphysics. The divine law behind all revealed metaphysics, however, is only One, and only a bit of work with the buddhic Intellect will find us the conceptual bridge.

While making methodological allowances for the human need of a personal God and the ontological privilege of the relative as such, Hinduism places metaphysical emphasis on the Absolute. With the exception of Islam — which simply and succinctly emphasizes the relationship of the relative to the Absolute by way of its central doxology — the Abrahamic faiths are exoterically concerned with Whom Schuon calls the Relative-Absolute, the logoic-demiurgic Lord of the Creation. In other words, Christians and Jews focus their worship at the personal God, while the dharmic traditions either aim directly for the Absolute God, or else recognize the relative as gateway to the Absolute even at the level of exoterism.

The vision of exoteric Christianity — for this entire discussion must, to some degree, focus on the exoteric or, at any rate, the formal, as the only venue in which the influence of demonic forces is especially relevant — is limited not just by the notion of metaphysical distance (radical dualism of individual soul and God), but also by metaphysical assumptions about time. The Abrahamic faiths have tightly constrained views of time, with definite beginning and end to history, priority to the creation of humanity, and so forth, because they emphasize the relationship of relative creation (relativity-of-forms) to the Relative-Absolute (the personal Lord) and are, as soteriological strategems, aimed precisely at providing vehicles of Grace in the Age of Darkness. I will have more to say on this in a future article on Genesis, but for the present purpose it is enough to say that the Judeo-Christian creation myth is mostly about the salvation history not of the entire world, but of a specific “human world”, namely the Middle East and what we today call the West from the dawn of the Kali Yuga. It is, in short, the poetic description of a dawn on an existing world, not the birth of a new planet.

The theology which arises from this metaphysic must be limited by these same factors, and the resultant demonology must likewise reflect it. If the God of Abraham is the Lord of a dark age, He must stand in opposition to those forces which arise in such a time of darkness — that is to say, demons. With darkness appearing to be in the ascendant, it is without irony that Jesus and Saint Paul can call the head of demons the Prince of this world, the Archon (Governor), etc., and even the Prince of the Powers of the Air — a poetic way of calling him the usurper of the astral throne of the law-giver, known as Zeus, Indra, El, or Yahweh.

In the astrological application of Vedic mythologems, the demonic leader is dual: Rahu, the lion-head separated from its body, and Ketu, the serpent body without its lion’s head. The similarity to the Gnostic vision of the Archon is quite striking, and may hint at either a Vedic influence on early Hermetic and Christian mythologies, or else a parallelism in metaphysical insight, or both. Jewish Kabbalah also places a divided being at the head of the demonic hordes: Thaumiel, according to some kabbalistic schools, is the crowning intelligence of the “Tree of Death”, the diagram of the relationships of evil forces. “Thaumiel” itself translates as “twins of God” or, perhaps, “twin gods”, and represents the dualistic and adversarial activity of the demonic. Other forces on the Tree of Death include Ogiel (Hinderers), Satariel (Concealers), Gash’khalah (Breakers-in-Pieces), Tagirion (Litigation), Orev Zarak (Ravens of Dispersion), and Samael (False Accuser); again, each of these is more than a hint toward the dualism and combative or subversive behavior of evil. Compare with the Old Testament “Satan”, which means “the Opposer”, and the English “Devil”, which comes from the Greek “diabolos” — “slanderer” or “accuser” — and we see the same theme.

Dualism — characterized mythologically as “knowledge of good and evil” and distinction of “nakedness” before a God now see as separate and external — is the “original sin”, the seed of Kali Yuga. It manifests in the individual soul as the ego, the very sense of “I-ness” opposed to “thou-ness” and “that-ness”. While not strictly evil in itself, it is that which permits of evil. And, as each soul has an ego as the sub-unit of individuality, so does the universe possess something of a corresponding “sense of self-identity”.

The Lord, as the Oversoul, is the very Soul of the Universe — Puruṣa of Samkhya and Yoga. The individual ego is something of an odd hybrid of Consciousness and matter in the form of the body-mind complex. Given that the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm, there must be some analogy to the ego on the cosmic scale. While the Lord cannot be said to have an ego, least of all to be possessed by that ego, that is only because He is perfectly aware of His ultimate identity with the Absolute and, thus, is not subject to karma or its fruits. Yet the universe itself is subject thereto as it is, in fact, the very engine of action and its fruits. If the personal God is the Intelligence of Unity-in-relativity, there must be a corresponding vector for duality or disunity. And this intelligence or cosmic ego we may as well call the Devil.

Now, the largest part of dharmic objection to the notion of Satan — apart, that is, from the misguided efforts of missionaries to brand the Hindu devas as demons to undermine Hinduism and gain converts — is that the Absolute cannot have opposition. How can the All-in-All have an enemy if nothing can truly be other than It?

The forces of involution and crystalization, the very forces which created a universe of matter and which brought Consciousness to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth within that universe, are the same forces which allow for the solidification of individual identity; metaphysical gravitation is the cause of each little “I”. Ultimately, this is a necessary part of the whole process of manifestation. It is also, however, the force of sin and evil, insofar as the activity of any natural law is perceived to be evil by those intelligent beings striving in the opposite direction. As gravity is evil to the exhausted rock climber or training airline pilot, so is involution inimical to the one who looks heavenward with longing. To the Hindu, with her much broader view of time, this enmity is provisional, situational; to the Abrahamic monotheist, however, it looks much more dire and directly adversarial. With history limited to a few thousand years — again, just a single world-age — and each individual concerned with just a single lifetime’s reverberations, any adversity at all takes on the visage of monstrosity, cruelty, and willful corruption. The urgency of this metaphysic is predicated on a genuine sense of the need to rely wholly on grace; the Abrahamics are, at their core, paths of bhakti tailored to this Age of Conflict.

The idea of Satan as coequal with God is a popular and admittedly fear-mongering misinterpretation. Traditionally, Satan is a temporary problem, at worst, destined for ultimate defeat. Again, this is all speaking to the Age. When darkness and strife seem to be in power, when ignorance abounds, and ungodliness is the norm, the powers which allow for such things seem to be both evil and threateningly strong. Hence, the Devil is also known as the “Ruler of the present Age”. But it must be re-emphasized that God’s Grace trumps all the forces of sin; thus, at the “end of time” — again, the end of the age in which we live — there will be a “new Heaven and new Earth”, which is to say a renowned Sat Yuga, or Age of Truth.

Of course, the exoteric Christian will not accept the foregoing discussion for, as Huston Smith points out, “a portion of the esoteric position being obscured from him, he cannot honor it without betraying the truth he does see.” (Introduction to the revised edition of Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions, pg xvi) But, as far as it goes, that isn’t an absolutely bad thing, as the Way of Grace must be open, in this Age more than any other, to one and all according to their constitutional needs. But the figure of Satan stands as one of metaphysical, if strictly relative, necessity in the scheme of salvation by substitutional atonement of Christianity, as well as that of perfect surrender to God’s will in Islam. Jesus and Muhammad, each in his way, provides the model for salvation in God; the Devil provides the model of imprisonment in the limits of our own small personalities.

This leads us, finally, to the well-known, but extra-biblical, story of the Fall of Lucifer. It is surprising for many, even life-long Christians, to discover that at no point does this myth appear in the Bible. It is hard to say precisely to wear and when it may be traced; elements of Prometheus are there alongside distinctly Judeo-Christian ideas, and many more besides. It is found in its fullest development, of course, in Milton’s wonderful Paradise Lost, though it seems to have been popular well before then. For those not familiar, here is the basic outline:

At some point in the distant past, the Devil was an angel of God; it is said that he is called “Lucifer”, the Light-bearer, because he was originally God’s most luminous angel. He eventually got it into his mind to rebel against God. Some versions have Lucifer deciding that he is superior to God, and attempting to usurp His power; other versions, such as Paradise Lost, have Lucifer’s pride being hurt by God’s demand that the angels minister to newly-created humanity. In either case, Lucifer’s self-importance sways a large swath of the angelic host to follow him into battle against those angels who remain loyal (usually lead by Michael, whose name means “God-like”). They are handily defeated, cast out of Heaven and into a place constructed specifically to contain them away from God’s light: Hell. This, though again not in the Bible, is the commonly-believed origin story of the Christian Devil even among many esoteric theologians.

Though often romanticized as the story of the first free-thinker, it is important to note that the central theme is of egotism on the largest possible scale, and at the highest possible order. Lucifer finds himself, in whichever version of the story one chooses, unwilling to do the work of enlightenment for which he is especially well-suited. He is thus cast from the heavenly Light of which he is composed into the infernal fire. This immediately brings to mind the esoteric Islamic doctrine that Hell’s fire is nothing but God’s Light upon meeting egoic resistance; in other words, the fire of Hell is simply the working of the human will in opposition to God’s Grace, and is either quenched by devotional surrender, or else burns until there is no more fuel to burn (i.e., the ego is no more). The Hindu parallel is that of tapas, a word usually translated as “austerities” or “penance”, but which literally means “fire”; tapas is the process of sacrificing our own internal barriers to the internal yogic fire (agni), and it is notable that concentration, meditation, and other practices of Yoga, even in perfect physical stillness, produces a strong sensation of internal heat. So, Hell is nothing but subconscious tapas, and “escape” therefrom is constituted of engaging in tapas deliberately.

Again, the Devil in this tale provides the example of what not to do, though the scale is larger. Where the biblical Fall of Adam says something of the egotism in humanity, the Fall of Lucifer is about the individuality of the manifest universe. It is in this sense that the Sufi teaching goes: Separate existence is the only sin. Whether the personification of, or the symbol of, separate existence, the Devil is not too far removed from the Vedic asuras; it is all a matter of the size of one’s perspective. Where the Christian sees a once-for-all damnation, the Hindu sees a temporal mistake which will be righted in the course of enormous spans of a time both measurably longer and metaphysically broader than the laser-focus of its Abrahamic counterpart. The esoterist, of whichever tradition, must only remember that the Middle East and West’s linear time is contained within the spiral time of Dharma, and that all priorities shift with a glimpse of the bigger picture.

“Is Hinduism Rational?” on People of Shambhala

The first part of a two-part article of mine is now appearing on People of Shambhala. You may find it here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/is-hinduism-rational-part-i/

Please read and let me know what you think! Part 2 should be up next weekend.