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.


I have stumbled upon intrigue.
Not subterfuge, certainly,
for there have not been lies
nor even withholdings.
But Siva is a God
who conceals
until revelation will not blast
our souls apart.
So from my own karma
by Siva’s grace
has intrigue departed;
no lies to uncover
but only the messages
of certain men’s hearts
laid out
as offerings to Truth.

Neuroscience & Panpsychism, some notes

The overwhelming misfortune of humanity is not that we are ignorant of the existence of truth, but that we misconstrue its nature. What errors and what sufferings would have been spared us if, far from seeking truth in the phenomena of material nature, we had resolved to descend into ourselves and had sought to explain material things by our own being, and not our being by material things – if, fortified by courage and patience, we had preserved in the calm of our imagination the discovery of this light which we desire all of us with so much ardor. ~ Louis-Claude de St-Martin

A friend of mine asked me to read this interview from Wired Magazine, concerning a neuroscientist’s interpretation of panpsychism and his views on how consciousness arises in the brain and other complex integrated information systems, and give him my thoughts on it. Instead of just shooting off a text message, I wanted to write my thoughts down in a slightly more fleshed-out form. While still basically just notes, here are those thoughts as they occurred to me. For the record, I am not a neuroscientist; further, I deeply respect what neuroscientists do, even if I do not always agree with their (admittedly tentative) conclusions. I am thus sharing these thoughts out of interest in the topic, and not any claim to expertise.

First thought: I love how things which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Hermetists, Platonists, and other contemplatives have known for, literally, millennia are called “new” and “radical” and “revolutionary” when a physicist or neuroscientist says them with a lab coat on, but when a mystic says them wearing a dhoti, a robe, or a nice pair of jeans and fitted t-shirt, they’re dismissed as “delusion” or “irrational”. It’s all in having the right uniform.

Next thought: This is an interesting interview, and Koch’s hypothesis is an important one. From the perspective of a contemplative, however, it is incomplete. Koch still relies on the threadbare assumption of reductionism: that consciousness somehow arises from matter. This belief is based on the metaphysical assumption that there is no metaphysic, which is rather self-defeating. Rather than consciousness “arising” from integrated information systems, I would say that integrated information systems are the material structures which most efficiently permit of conscious experience within the matrix of matter.

According to Samkhya and Yoga, matter is just the grossest phase of Prakrti (roughly, “Nature” and “Substance”), while Purusha (“Consciousness”, “Spirit”, “the Essence of Personhood”) exists, in a sense, separately. They mix and mingle in the form of cosmoi, but Purusha is never truly native to Prakrti and, thus, to matter. Consciousness can thus be separated from matter, but this does not end consciousness; rather, the breaking-down of a complex integrated system represents the elimination of a single vertex of mingled consciousness and matter. While it is far from perfect, it is helpful here to remember the common metaphor of brain-as-radio receiver; if you take a hammer to your radio, you do not thus destroy the signal, but only the tool by which you experienced it. The difference is that, in the case of consciousness and the brain, the “experience” goes both ways. The “signal” is not a product merely transmitted, but is itself the substrate-independent essence of experience-as-such; cut off the receiver, and it may appear to the outsider as if the signal itself has disappeared, but all that has happened is that it no longer has a ready medium of communication.

Koch briefly mentions his interest in Buddhism, and uses the vaguely Platonic term “panpsychism”, but has fallen into a common trap in the modern West of believing that Buddhism, Platonism, and the like, can somehow be extricated or rescued from their spiritual contexts. Not only is this not possible  a reductionist Buddhism is not Buddhism at all it is not desirable, for it undercuts the very element which makes a methodology like Buddhism capable of teaching us anything significant. In short, it removes the method from the methodology. A deeper study and practice of Bauddhadharma would, I think, be every bit as valuable to Koch in the development of his hypothesis as his neuroscience research itself.

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.