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.

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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.