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:

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

The Spear & The Sword: Michael, Murugan, and the Power of Slaying Demons

Murugan, Lord of Yoga, and Saint Michael, Master of Theurgy, both wield their spear against the demons who plague the progress of their votaries. But why the spear and not another weapon? From the point of view of metaphysics, the spear is the only weapon which can well and truly vanquish the satanic powers.

It may be objected that the Hermetic Michael brandishes the flaming sword of the Gate of Paradise. In point of fact, the Archangel only uses the flaming sword under certain conditions; the Hermetic images in question are not properly Hermetic, but rather occult or magical, coming as they do out of the oeuvre of the Golden Dawn with its mission of syncretic breadth rather than esoteric depth. Within the context — and strictly within the confines — of the modern West’s non-religious (not to say anti-religious, as that isn’t universal) ritual magic, St. Michael does duty as the devonic guardian of the southern portion of the sky, holding the asuric forces of impure sub-lunar fire in check. It is thus, and thus only, as living barrier rather than warrior, physician, and teacher, that Michael bears the sword.

The spear is pointed, while the sword is bladed; the spear is not other than viveka, the discriminative Intellect. As such, the spear is aimed true to the very heart of any question and thrust deep with will and certainty. The only means of slaying a demon — whether it be of temptation, pride, misperception, or egotism — is to pierce through to its very core and touch its essence, that virtue of which the demon is a perversion. No evil exists unto itself, but only apes a good. Demons are “fallen angels” insofar as they are inverted manifestations of some more essential fact. An equilateral triangle may point upwards or downwards while retaining the same geometry.

By contrast, the work of the sword is the magical act of analysis, by which the sub-intellectual mind increases thoughts and emotions and, thus, confusion, by endlessly slicing the demon into smaller and smaller pieces — each of which holographically retains the same essence, but which comes to embody a different facet of the same perversion. This rationalistic or sentimentalist magical abuse thus works only on the periphery to multiply the problem geometrically, making the demon into numerous smaller, subtler demons. It is, in part, for this reason that incautious divination, hypnosis, and psychiatry are condemned or advised against.

It is an interesting point that it is the throat center in which God Śiva holds the world-poison in safety, and also in which Saint Michael thrusts the tip of his spear in the battle with the Adversary. The throat center is the highest point of the ego, the individual selfhood; therein arises the ahaṃkāra, the “I-maker”, of Sāṃkhya and Yoga, so therein lies the “original sin” of separateness. But it also serves as the most immediate experience of unity and self-existence and, so, as the gateway to the perception of interconnection of the Intellect (“unity in plurality” of the center of the head) and the experience of unitive contemplation (“plurality in Unity” of the crown center). The world poison is held in the throat, but the lunar Soma-ambrosia which purifies one of mortality also drips into this center.

Unlike the sword’s flat blade, the spear’s tip is spade-shaped; it pierces in easily but is impossible to remove the way it went in. The nature of the yogic will is that we cannot reverse our trajectory along the Way; we must see through every act to completion, finding the kernel of each circumstance, striking it with the Intellect, and moving through it and on to the next experience, or else pull up short and remain merely stuck in place until force is applied again in the proper direction. The shaft of the spear is the selfsame “straight and narrow path” of Christ, the vertical axis of the Cross of Calvary which links Heaven and Earth by way of the deiform human.

This axis is also the spinal column, one of the features by which a human is properly human, our deiformity made literal. The world over, the importance of good posture during meditation and prayer is recognized, because the spine is none other than the holy spear of Murugan-Michael by which we both attain to and make manifest the Kingdom of Heaven, the Śivaloka.

In this case, the spear is of course point upright, the butt of the hilt set, as for a mounted charge, into the root center at the base of the spine. On His peacock mount, Murugan thrusts forth, and with his peacock-feathered wings, Michael adds force to his assault against the Dragon of Dispersion. The peacock symbolism adds to the spear by demonstrating the bringing together of diverse mental forces and ego itself necessary for the process of Realization. Beatitude is not had through half-measures and partial efforts, but from total devotion of all faculties to the aim.

If, as I’ve said, the spear’s hilt is set at the spine’s lower terminus, the haft extends all the way to the base of the skull, with the heard of the spear within the skull, its tip resting against the inside of the crown. When the thrust is made, this constitutes the famous shattering of the seal of Brahman whereby the Yogin spills his own śakti into the Mahāśakti, the Great Goddess Who eternally mothers all worlds and universes. But it is once again only by force applied precisely and unflinchingly that the obstacles are overcome and the final Union is achieved, and this is what Murugan-Michael teaches us by His upheld spear.

Religious Symbolism: A brief word

“Throughout its history, mankind has been baffled by profound symbology. More so when it does not conform to its own ‘sweet and refined’ standards. Even when one particular group or cult successfully assimilates it and starts revering it, other groups or cults continue to abhor it. It is natural for one group to abhor the symbols of all others, forgetting conveniently that the ‘other groups’ are doing the same! The picture of the ‘Slain Lamb’ or the cultus of the ‘Sacred Heart’ are just two illustrations to show this. On the other hand, a close look at such symbols will not only dispel our ignorance about them but can also produce positive admiration. Is not the water of the sea, which appears as dark blue or green from a distance, really colourless and transparent when examined at close quarters?” ~ Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses (Sri Ramakrishna Math)

This is an excellent statement on the esoterics of religious symbolism and iconography. Frithjof Schuon has observed that it is inevitable that different religions should have very different, even mutually exclusive, attitudes toward symbolism, as each one has its own “target audience”, a different segment of humanity — ontologically necessary, within the world of relativity — to which it must address itself and bring the outpouring of sanctifying Grace.

Link: “Zombies—what’s up with that?” at The Mystical Christ

A nice, brief look at part of why zombies and unstoppable killer robots from the future appeal to us, from an esoteric perspective. There’s a lot to unpack, here, and it connects nicely with my own recent articles and poetry on the “morbid” and “decayed” as faces of the Divine. This may be the single most direct symbolic parallel between Śaivism and Christianity.

Siva & Hermes: On the Two Hands of God

Hermes is “good to the benevolent, evil to the malevolent;” the Christ appears as an angel to angels, as a demon to demons, and as a man to men. Śiva and His Śakti appear in deep meditation, mild affection, and disturbing violence. It seems that the God we worship on Sunday is the very Devil on Monday. If you don’t believe me, ask poor Job!

There can be no doubt that the same Divinity which lovingly creates and tenderly preserves also destroys without mercy. Such is the view from within this very realm of contingency, and it has made many an atheist of believer and maltheist of devotee. But why are we moderns so morally outraged by such a situation? Our world of free will limited — or, more precisely, guided — by causality is ontologically incapable of the sort of “perfection” which we have decided it ought to display; we thus make ourselves blind to the very real perfection which inheres God’s creation.

Perfection, however, is neither perceived nor attained to by ignoring conflict and suffering, but by making ourselves capable of experiencing them with open eyes, responding to them deliberately, and, eventually, coming to see them from within, as transmuted iron becomes gold.

We modern esoterists tend, just as our predecessors the world over, to be drawn to the uncanny just as much as to the holy. I am as much a listener of goth, death rock, and black metal as I am to Buxtehude, Desprez, and the many bhajans. Śaivas purify themselves with strict moral precepts and meditate to know the Light Transcendent as the very Self of each soul, and smear dust, ash, and grave dirt upon their naked bodies; both acts point in the same direction, however differently they appear. I worship the God of Love and Light as the same as the God of ghosts, imps, and devils, for God is the God of all, and not just of the sanctimonious few. If this were not so, of what use were the Incarnation, Ministry, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus?

Occultists of the West have, from the late 19th century on, mistaken “right-handed” practice with salvation and “left-handed” with diabolism. Crowley took this error a step further in first identifying the two, and then claiming the schizophrenic result to be the selfsame “Middle Way” of Lao-tze and the Buddha. This misunderstanding — an eruption of shallow moralism in reverse — has not always been in the West, and is quite contrary to the philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism often invoked to support it.

Śiva appears in formal manifestation as both Rudra the howling god of dissolution and tears, and as Sadaśiva the mild and loving Revealer and Savior. Jung spoke of Hermes both as the Devil himself — as in the first part of the legend of Emperor Julian “the Apostate” — and as salvific psychopomp. Kabbalah displays the forces of Mercy and Severity (or Justice) as the highest forces below the Abyss of the Uncreate. It is a sore mistake, however, to take this as a doctrinal statement — as if “evil” were as good as “good”. Rather, it is a distinction purely of methodology.


On the standard form of the Tree of Life diagram (above), the Kabbalist places Gevurah on the left and Gedulah (Chesed) on the right, at the fifth and fourth descending positions, respectively. From the perspective of the exoteric onlooker or, indeed, the student of esoterism just entering the Way, this suggests what we tend to experience: in this universe, Severity is a bit closer at hand than anything resembling Mercy and — being on the left — comes to resemble the forces of evil which batter the just, unjust, innocent, and guilty alike. But the same numerology which places Gevurah in the fifth place — closer to the tenth place from which the uninitiated mind views the world — also displays the Mercy of Gedulah as prior to Gevurah’s Severity; that is, Mercy is closer to the Center than Severity and, so, more essential.

More information is revealed when we “humanize” the Tree. More to the point, we must not so much project the Tree upon ourselves (as is often suggested in modern occult sources) as project ourselves into the Tree. The Tree of Life diagram is not reversed, as in a mirror, but “faces” us directly. As such, we must turn around and, as it were, “back into” the Tree. When we do so, we find now that Severity takes the right hand and Mercy the left! Here is a key to comprehending the relationship between right-hand Yoga and left-hand Tantra. The goal of Yoga is achieved through strict morality and transhuman discipline; the goal of Tantra is come to by discipline and morality, certainly — Tantra is not the hedonistic libertinism portrayed in popular books on “sex magic” and “the ultimate orgasm” — but lightened and redefined according to motherly tenderness (a portion of the reasoning behind the Tantric focus on devotion to Śakti-Devi rather than Paraśiva). The Kali Yuga — or Iron Age, in Western terms — in which we are now living is characterized in part by a general difficulty of seriously engaging in spiritual practice; in His mercy (!), God Śiva has thus made it easier to attain Him, and so we have the various Hindu bhakti movements, Tantra, Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Christian sacraments, Islam — in short, all of the means of “salvation by faith” rather than by “works” or “gnosis”. By this measure, the church-going Christian is as much a practitioner of the Left-Hand Path as the Tantrika making sacrifice of a goat and symbolically smearing himself with the menstrual blood of the Goddess!

Of course, there is no “pure” path open to us; the Yogi and the Gnostic pray at churches and temples, partake of sacraments, and beg for the grace to go on day by day, just as the bhakta and the faithful Christian votary demand more essential moral changes in themselves and greater discipline of concentration during worship. In the Kabbalist’s Tiphareth, we see the admixture of method. This is not Crowley’s childish bouncing back-and-forth any more than it is a tepid puddle left when fire and ice try to merge; neither is it the Buddha’s Middle Way (which resembles, in its classical form, nothing so much as right-hand Yoga). Rather, it is a recognition that, as the sun shines on one and all, so too are the means of liberation delivered upon the whole world in a myriad of forms suitable to humanity’s innumerable temperaments. It is thus that Śiva demonstrates to us His love regardless of our missteps, thus that the Perennial Philosophy blazes forth the world over, no matter the outward conditions, and thus that Faivre says, “Wherever Hermes passes, religious tolerance prevails.”