Saturday, March 06, 2010

Visions of infinity

Wiki: Français : Linteau. Provenance: Cambodge, province de Siemreap, Prasat Koki (Phnom Kulen). Style de Kulen, 9ème siècle, grès. Au centre: Indra, dieu de l'orage et gardien de l'Est, entouré de serviteurs. Musée Guimet,Paris.

For the longest time, I've wanted to post Heinrich Zimmer's rendering of this traditional story from the Brahmavaivarta Purana.  It represents the most expansive cosmological vision of the ancient world, IMO, and is a triumph of the imagination.    A short extract from this story appears in Misner, Thorne, Wheeler's Gravitation.  Note: a day of Brahma is 4.32 billion earthly years.

....[Indra, the chief of the devas] summoned Vishvakarman, the god of arts and crafts, and commanded him to erect such a palace as should befit the unequaled splendor of the king of the gods.

  The miraculous genius, Vishvakarman, succeeded in constructing in a single year a shining residence, marvelous with palaces and gardens, lakes and towers.  But as the work progressed, the demands of Indra became even more exacting and his unfolding visions vaster.   He required additional terraces and pavilions, more ponds, groves, and pleasure grounds.  Whenever Indra arrived to appraise the work, he developed vision beyond vision of marvels remaining to be contrived.  Presently, the divine craftsman, brought to despair, decided to seek succor from above.  He would turn to the demiurgic creator, Brahma, the pristine embodiment of the Universal Spirit, who abides far above the troubled Olympian sphere of ambition, strife and glory.

  When Vishvakarman secretly resorted to the higher throne and presented his case, Brahma comforted the petitioner.  "You will soon be relieved of your burden," he said.  "Go home in peace."  Then, while Vishvakarman was hurrying down again to the city of Indra, Brahma himself ascended to a still higher sphere.  He came before Vishnu, the Supreme Being, of whom he himself, the Creator, was but an agent.   In beatific silence Vishnu gave ear and by a mere nod of the head let it be known that the request of Vishvakarman would be fulfilled.

  Early next morning a brahmin boy, carrying the staff of a pilgrim, made his appearance at the gate of Indra, bidding the porter to announce his visit to the king.   The gate-man hurried to the master, and the master hastened to the entrance to welcome in person the auspicious guest.  The boy was slender, some ten years old, radiant with the luster of wisdom.  Indra discovered him amidst a cluster of enraptured, staring children.  The boy greeted the host with a gentle glance of his dark and brilliant eyes.  The king bowed to the holy child and the boy cheerfully gave his blessing.   The two retired to the hall of Indra, where the god ceremoniously proffered welcome to his guest with oblations of honey, milk and fruits, then said: "O Venerable Boy, tell me of the purpose of your coming."

  The beautiful child replied with a voice that was as deep and soft as the slow thundering of auspicious rain clouds.  "O King of Gods, I have heard of the mighty palace you are building, and have come to refer to you the questions in my mind.  How many years will it require to complete this rich and extensive residence?  What further feats of engineering will Vishvakarman be expected to accomplish?  O Highest of Gods," — the boy's luminous features moved with a gentle, scarcely perceptible smile—"no Indra before you has ever succeeded in completing such a palace as yours is to be."

  Full of the wine of triumph, the king of the gods was entertained by this mere boy's pretension to a knowledge of Indras earlier than himself.  With a fatherly smile he put the question: "Tell me, Child!  Are they then so very many, the Indras and Vishvakarmans whom you have seen—or at least, whom you have heard of?"

  The wonderful guest calmly nodded.  "Yes, indeed, many have I seen."  The voice was as warm and sweet as milk fresh from the cow, but the words sent a slow chill through Indra's veins.  "My dear child," the boy continued, "I knew your father, Kashyapa, the Old Tortoise Man, lord and progenitor of all the creatures of the earth.   And I knew your grandfather, Marichi, Beam of Celestial Light, who was the son of Brahma.  Marichi was begotten of the god Brahma's pure spirit; his only wealth and glory were his sanctity and devotion.  Also, I know Brahma, brought forth by Vishnu from the lotus calix, growing from Vishnu's navel.  And Vishnu himself—the Supreme Being,  supporting Brahma in his creative endeavor—him too I know."

 "O King of Gods, I have known the dreadful dissolution of the universe.  I have seen all perish, again and again, at the end of every cycle.  At that terrible time, every single atom dissolves into the primal, pure waters of eternity, whence all originally arose.  Everything then goes back into the fathomless, wild infinity of the ocean, which is covered with utter darkness and is empty of every sign of animate being.   Ah, who will count the universes that have passed away, or the creations that have risen afresh, again and again, from the formless abyss of the vast waters?  Who will number the passing ages of the world, as they follow each other endlessly? And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, and its Shiva?  Who will count the Indras in them all—those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds;  those others who passed away before them; or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given line, ascending to godly kingship, one by one,  and one by one, passing away?  King of Gods,  there are among your servants certain who maintain that it may be possible to number the grains of sand on earth and the drops of rain that fall from the sky, but no one will ever number all those Indras.  This is what the Knowers know."

  "The life and kingship of an Indra endure seventy-one eons, and when twenty-eight Indras have expired, one Day and Night of Brahma has elapsed.  But the existence of one Brahma, measured in such Brahma Days and Nights, is only one hundred and eight years.  Brahma follows Brahma; one sinks, the next arises; the endless series cannot be told.  There is no end to the number of those Brahmas—to say nothing of Indras."

  "But the universes side by side at any given moment, each harboring a Brahma and an Indra: who will estimate the number of these?  Beyond the farthest vision, crowding outer space, the universes come and go, an innumerable host.  Like delicate boats they float on the fathomless, pure waters that form the body of Vishnu.  Out of every hair-pore of that body a universe bubbles and breaks.  Will you presume to count them?  Will you number the gods in all those worlds—the worlds present and the worlds past?"

  A procession of ants had made its appearance in the hall during the discourse of the boy.  In military array, in a column four yards wide, the tribe paraded across the floor.   The boy noted them, paused and stared, then suddenly laughed with an astonishing peal, but immediately subsided into a profoundly, indrawn and thoughtful silence.

  "Why do you laugh?" stammered Indra.  "Who are you, mysterious being, under this deceiving guise of a boy?"  The proud king's throat and lips had gone dry, and his voice continually broke.  "Who are you, Ocean of Virtues, enshrouded in this deluding mist?"

  The magnificent boy resumed:  "I laughed because of the ants.  The reason is not to be told.  Do not ask me to disclose it.  The seed of woe and the fruit of wisdom are enclosed within this secret.   It is the secret that smites with an ax the tree of worldly vanity, hews away its roots, and scatters its crown.  This secret is a lamp to those groping in ignorance.  This secret lies buried in the wisdom of the ages, and is rarely revealed even to saints.  This secret is the living air of those ascetics who renounce and transcend mortal existence; but worldlings, deluded by desire and pride, it destroys."

  The boy smiled and sank into silence.  Indra regarded him, unable to move.  "O Son of a Brahmin," the king pleaded presently, with a new and visible humility, "I do not know who you are.  You would seem to be Wisdom Incarnate.  Reveal to me this secret of the ages, this  light that dispels the dark."

  Thus requested to teach, the boy opened to the god the hidden wisdom. "I saw the ants, O Indra, filing in long parade.  Each was once an Indra.  Like you, each by virtue of pious deeds once ascended to the rank of a king of gods.   But now, through many rebirths,  each has become again an ant.   This army is an army of former Indras."

  "Piety and high deeds elevate the inhabitants of the world to the glorious realm of the celestial mansions, or to the higher domains of Brahma and Shiva and to the highest sphere of Vishnu, but wicked acts sink them into the worlds beneath, into pits of pain and sorrow, involving reincarnation among birds and vermin, or out of the wombs of pigs and animals of the wild,  or among trees, or among insects.  It is by deeds that one merits happiness or anguish, and becomes a master or a serf.  It is by deeds that one attains to the rank of a king or brahmin, or of some god, or of an Indra or a Brahma.  And through deeds again, one contracts disease, acquires beauty and deformity, or is reborn in the condition of a monster."

  "This is the whole substance of the secret.  This wisdom is the ferry to beatitude across the ocean of hell."

  "Life in the cycle of countless rebirths is like a vision in a dream.  The gods on high, the mute trees and the stones, are alike apparitions in this phantasy.  But Death administers the law of time.  Ordained by time, Death is the master of all.  Perishable as bubbles are the good and the evil of the beings of the dream.  In unending cycles the good and evil alternate.  Hence the wise are attached to neither, neither the evil nor the good.  The wise are not attached to anything at all."

  The boy concluded the appalling lesson and quietly regarded his host.  The king of gods, for all his celestial splendor, had been reduced in his own regard to insignificance.   Meanwhile, another amazing apparition had entered the hall.

  The newcomer had the appearance of a kind of hermit.    His head was piled with matted hair; he wore a black deerskin around his loins; on his forehead was painted a white mark; his head was shaded by a paltry parasol of grass; and a quaint, circular cluster of hair grew on his chest: it was intact at the circumference, but from the center many of the hairs, it seemed, had disappeared.  This saintly figure strode directly to Indra and the boy, squatted between them on the floor, and there remained, motionless as a rock.  The kingly Indra, somewhat recovering his hostly role, bowed and paid obeisance, offering sour milk with honey and other refreshments;  then he inquired, falteringly but reverently, after the welfare of the stern guest, and bade him welcome.  Whereupon the boy addressed the holy man, asking the very questions Indra himself would have proposed.

  "Whence do you come, O Holy Man? What is your name and what brings you to this place?  Where is your present home, and what is the meaning of this grass parasol?  What is the portent of that circular hair-tuft on your chest: why is it dense at the circumference but at the center almost bare?  Be kind enough, O Holy Man, to answer, in brief, these questions. I am anxious to understand."

  Patiently, the old saint smiled, and slowly began his reply.  "I am a brahmin.  Hairy is my name.  And I have come here to behold Indra.   Since I know that I am short-lived, I have decided to possess no home, to build no house, and neither to marry nor to seek a livelihood.  I exist by begging alms.  To shield myself from sun and rain I carry over my head this parasol of grass."

   "As to the circle of hair on my chest, it is a source of grief to the children of the world.   Nevertheless, it teaches wisdom.  With the fall of an Indra, one hair drops.  That is why, in the center all the hairs have gone.  When the other half of the period allotted to the present Brahma will have expired, I myself shall die.  O Brahmin Boy, it follows that I am somewhat short of days; what, therefore is the use of a wife and a son, or of a house?"

   "Each flicker of the eyelids of the great Vishnu registers the passing of a Brahma.  Everything below that sphere of Brahma is as insubstantial as a cloud taking shape and again dissolving.  That is why I devote myself exclusively to meditating on the incomparable lotus-feet of highest Vishnu.  Faith in Vishnu is more than the bliss of redemption; for every joy, even heavenly, is as fragile as a dream, and only interferes with the one-pointedness of our faith in Him Supreme."

  "Shiva, the peace-bestowing, the highest spiritual guide, taught me this wonderful wisdom.  I do not crave to experience the various blissful forms of redemption: to share the highest god's mansions and enjoy his eternal presence, or to be like him in body and apparel, or to become a part of his august substance, or even to be absorbed wholly in his ineffable essence."

  Abruptly, the holy man ceased and immediately vanished.  It had been the god Shiva himself; he had now returned to his supramundane abode.  Simultaneously, the brahmin boy, who had been Vishnu, disappeared as well.  The king was alone, baffled and amazed.

  The king, Indra, pondered; and the events seemed to him to have been a dream.  But he no longer felt any desire to magnify his heavenly splendor or to go on with the construction of his palace.   He summoned Vishvakarman.  Graciously greeting the craftsman with honeyed words, he heaped upon him jewels and precious gifts, then with a sumptuous celebration sent him home.

  The king, Indra, now desired redemption.  He had acquired wisdom, and wished only to be free. He entrusted the pomp and burden of his office to his son, and prepared to retire to the hermit life of the wilderness.  Whereupon his beautiful and passionate queen, Shachi, was overcome with grief.

  Weeping, in sorrow and utter despair, Shachi resorted to Indra's ingenious house-priest and spiritual advisor, the Lord of Magic Wisdom, Brihaspati.   Bowing at this feet, she implored him to divert her husband's mind from its stern resolve.  The resourceful counselor of the gods, who by his spells and devices had helped the heavenly powers wrest the government of the universe from the hands of their titan rivals, listened thoughtfully to the complaint of the voluptuous, disconsolate goddess, and knowingly nodded assent.  With a wizard's smile, he took her hand and conducted her to the presence of her spouse.  In the role, then, of spiritual teacher, he discoursed sagely on the virtues of the spiritual life, but on the virtues also, of the secular.  He gave to each its due.   Very skillfully he developed his theme.  The royal pupil was persuaded to relent in his extreme resolve.   The queen was restored to radiant joy.

  This Lord of Magic Wisdom, Brihaspati, once had composed a treatise on government, in order to teach Indra how to rule the world.   He now issued a second work, a treatise on the policy and stratagems of married love.  Demonstrating the sweet art of wooing ever anew,  and of enchaining the beloved with enduring bonds, this priceless book established on sound foundations the married life of the reunited pair.

   Thus concludes the marvelous story of how the king of the gods was humiliated in his boundless pride, cured of an excessive ambition, and through wisdom, both spiritual and secular, brought to a knowledge of his proper role in the wheeling play of unending life.