Unbelievable Save!!

Last night at the (IIHF) International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Men’s Championships Canada defeated Finland in a thrilling overtime victory which included possibly the best save of all time by a non-goalie. Canada’s team captain Mason Mctavish made a mistake that led to a Finnish player racing towards the Canadian goal and shooting the puck past the goalie for an almost certain goal to win the championship. That is until McTavish literally swatted the puck out of the air, tapped it to the side of the net, and scraped it out and away. At all times the puck was mere millimeters from cross the goal line in the air, on the line, and in the corner of the net until McTavish’s frantic efforts cleared the puck out towards Canada’s eventual game winning goal.

As we continue to struggle in this world with war, drought, extremist and divisive politics, and so on it is so refreshing to just lose ourselves in the beauty of sport at its best: the world top young athletes battling at the peak of their skills. Canada and Finland are two of the top hockey countries in the world (Canada being the top, of course), and to enjoy 70 minutes of all out play is so good for the soul.

As you watch the following replay of this now historic moment, watch the crowd; listen to their wild roaring. That is thousands of Canadians being as Canadian as can be… united and loving hockey. We can be one world… we can cease doing what may destroy us… if we just put down our worst instincts and enjoy the best of each other.

Let this Canadian moment inspire you to do so…

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Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 6): The Bhagavata Purana and Uddhava Gita.

Getting to the the sixth and final part of our series on Indian religious texts, we arrive at a kind of (partial) prequel to works such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, a narrative history (purana) of the life of Lord Krishna. This is known as the Bhagavata Purana.  

Though it contains many sections, it is Book Ten of this particular purana (compiled by 600 AD) that contains an account of Krishna’s life from childhood to adulthood. The Bhagavata Purana is also (arguably) the most significant source of material for depictions of Krishna in the fine arts, other than the Ramayana. It contains two distinct parts: Krishna’s boyhood antics in Vrndavana (aka Vraj Forest): stealing butter to feed monkeys, frolicking with young maidens, and his eventual activities as an adult fighting demons, courting his many wives, engaging in statesmanship, and so on. 

A key concept in Hinduism, as demonstrated by Krishna in Book Ten, is “lila”, what one might describe as a spontaneous type of “divine frolicking” of the Lord. Vishnu is the maintainer of all that is created, and since he is its master he spends his time joyously playing amongst his creations; the Ultimate Reality becoming the Universe to experience Himself (Vishnu) through Himself (Krishna). Lila has several meanings and thus there are many different interpretations of the word, depending on which school of Hindu philosophy you adhere to. 

Lila is also the joyous interplay between a devotee and what they worship, as symbolized by young Krishna prancing in the woods with a group of young cow-herding maidens (gopis). The gopis love Krishna and swoon for him, demonstrating how the soul should swoon for God. This soul-swooning is the core of Bhakti Yoga, “the path of devotion” (yoga is a term meaning “path”, not solely the physical activity of stretching in a physiospiritual manner). This misuse of such a word is similar to how the word gong-fu (“skill”) got mixed up with wu-shu (martial arts) and thus in the West we call wu-shu “kung fu”. One can have gong-fu in anything; famous Chinese painters are considered to have great gong-fu when it comes to brush control. 

Another key concept is prakrti, the primordial material from which everything is created or evolves; physical matter. It has three qualities (gunas): goodness (sattva), energy (rajas), and inertia (tamas). These gunas are oft-discussed in Hinduism and Indian culture in general. All human positives and negatives are considered to be some mixture of the gunas. One can act with good intention (sattva) and yet their passions make them disorganized (rajas). Or one can be in error (tamas) and yet try not to repeat their mistake (sattva). Better yet, the gunas can be seen as influences: various positive, neutral and negative abstract nouns at play in our psychology. Thus, anyone/everything is ultimately part of the play of gunas on a cosmic level.

The basic core narrative of the overall Bhagavata Purana is as such: demons rule the Universe, having beaten the good deities in a giant cosmic war. Krishna (Vishnu) returns as Truth, figures out how the demons think, makes a peace deal,  then overcomes them, bringing back positive values such as peace, justice, and joy. It is such a glowing account of how wondrous Krishna is that some some argue the actual work itself is an avatar of Vishnu. This work also contains a list of the Vishnu’s various official avatars to date, which include among others:

1. Varaha: the boar that lifted the Earth out of the cosmic ocean.

2. The Buddha.

3. Narasimha: a half man – half lion who came to end religious persecution and restore justice on Earth during ancient history.

4. Kurma: a turtle god who helped the gods and demons churn a particular Ocean Of Milk to obtain an elixir of immortality.

5. Vamana: a dwarf who fooled the demon king Bali into giving him as much land as he could move across in three strides. Once this boon was granted Vamana stepped across all of Heaven and Earth. He then stepped on Bali’s head, sending him down to rule the Underworld. 

6. Matsya: a fish that warns various people about coming events. 

7. Lord Krishna.

A lesser known section of the Bhagavata Purana, one rarely discussed outside of India due to the rarity of English editions, is Book Eleven, known as the Uddhava Gita (which many consider to be a companion piece to the great Bhagavad Gita itself). 

In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write this particular series for my blog was to introduce you all to the Uddhava Gita, which will both deepen your appreciation for Indian culture, and give you an advantage if you ever chose to pursue post-secondary anthropological study of Indian culture.

As we have discussed, in the Bhagavad Gita warrior Arjuna discussed the nature of reality with his charioteer (Krishna in disguise) Krishna as a great battle is about to commence. A similar discussion occurs in the Uddhava Gita, as an old man named Uddhava turns to Krishna for practical advice on spiritual matters, as Krishna prepares to return to his divine residence. Uddhava has been the friend and counsellor to a living god, thus he wonders how he should live life in Krishna’s absence.

Though it is explained through multiple forms and concepts, a main theme of the Uddhava Gita is, by fixating on Krishna through devotion (bhakti) one achieves unity with him and thus with the undivided nature of the Universe itself, the Ultimate Reality (brahman). In a sense, by completely devoting oneself to the adoration of Krishna, one does not need to divide their mind this way and that, but drop all questions and answers and becomes completely what they are (brahman), without thought of reward. In that state one becomes deeply and truly divine.

Summary:

1. The Bhagavata Purana is the source of much spirituality-based fine art in India.

2. It is most notable for its depiction of young Krishna prancing through the forest playing his flute for the gopis, who personify loving devotion to God.

3. The Uddhava Gita works as a companion to the Bhagavad Gita in enriching the narratives around the religious teachings of Lord Krishna and the concept of devotion (bhakti).

Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 5): The Dhammapada

I hope you are enjoying this excursion into ancient Hindu and/or Indian literature. They are practically the same thing, considering the Hindu influence on so much art, music, dance, religion, and theology over thousands of years in South Asia, and beyond. 

Since we have been discussing the classic texts of India in general, it is essential to turn now to that other major Indian religion that altered the world, one that began with a young prince set on learning the meaning of Life.

This prince (Siddartha) has been living the good life: non-stop feasts, sports, intoxicating drink, and endless frolicking with young women. But the fun ends permanently when one day when he encounters an old man, a sight his father had kept him from seeing in order to not spoil his idyllic, youthful sense of the world around him. On that same day the prince also sees examples of disease and death, and loses his lust for life. It all seems so meaningless: how can Life have any flavour if we all just get sick, old and then die? 

He meets with the sages and they don’t have any answers, so the prince renounces his heritage and sneaks away from the palace on a mission to discover the secret to living with the unpleasant aspects of Life. He speaks and debates with all he meets, and studies with wise men near, finding no satisfactory answer. He even tries extreme fasting bodily austerity, yoga, and meditation,  and still the secret(s) of Life elude him. So one day he sits down under a tree and decided he is not moving until the Universe reveals an answer. The stakes are his very life, in search of the Ultimate Truth.

After some time Siddartha has a sudden flash of insight and discovers the secrets he has been looking for: Suffering is central to being human, craving is what causes that suffering, suffering can thus cease when one lets go of craving, and there are eight proper ways of living that allow a person to let go of various physical and spiritual cravings. These four realizations are known as the Four Noble Truths, and thus Siddartha was now a person of great understanding: a Buddha (“one who is awake”). Since Siddartha was the first one to awake to this knowledge he is the first of the buddhas, “the” Buddha. So having arrived at his objective spiritual goal, he goes back to his kingdom and starts teaching his friends and family what he has learned over the years. 

Soon he is teaching all over India, and establishing forest communities where people can gather and focus their energy on understanding and enacting this new Buddhist way. In fact some Hindus believe that the Buddha was Hindu, i.e. another avatar of Vishnu, such was his impact on humanity and his growing theology of personal experience as grounds for spiritual evolution.

So the Buddha sermonizes and gives talks, and so on, until he gets old and passes away. Now Buddhists are faced with the task of continuing his legacy, but he wrote nothing down. Ancient sages passed down oral traditions, and court scribes kept a written record of things. So eventually Buddhists gathered at four different councils: to sort out, by consensus, what they thought were the Buddha’s authentic dialogues and sayings.If it sounded like something he might have said, it was included the canon, if not, out it went (even if it was something he actually said and no one could fully confirm it). These talks, sermons, and sayings then were gathered into a collection referred to as the Pali Canon (Pali being the language it was eventually written in), passed down orally since the end of the Buddha’s ministry (480 BC), and finally written down in 29 BC. 

The Buddha’s understanding and theology is laid out very much like the Upanishads: organized around themes rather than a strict sequential outline, while adapting stories and language to fit the abilities of the audiences he was addressing. Thus, a sermon to fishermen used fish metaphors, a conversation with a gardener used floral metaphors, and so on. Eventually the Pali Canon was organized into three categories or “baskets” (Tripitaka) of information.

The “Three Baskets” are: the Compilation of Monastic Rules, the Compilation of Discourses, and the Compilation of Philosophy. All of what are considered the Buddha’s teachings are contained in these three baskets. As this is the Tripitaka of the earliest school of Buddhism (Theravada), it is considered the closest thing to an orthodoxy, though later schools developed their own scriptures and such. It has sort of become like the Bible to Catholics, a source document from which something different arose (e.g. Zen Buddhism, in which you hardly ever see reference to the Pali Canon, in favor of later scriptures and commentaries by Zen masters and monks). An example of this is the fact that though the Tripitaka is a huge, multi volume collection, only one small section of it has become a kind of Buddhst “Bible”, a collection of the sayings called the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada or “Path of Truth” (disseminated circa 300 BC, transcribed circa 100 BC) is basically an expanded set of useful proverbs for daily life; things you can think about during the day without having to engage in complex philosophy or theology. Because of this, the Dhammapada is considered on the great classics of Indian literature for its ability to summarize the colossal Tripitaka into a form anyone can comprehend and learn from.

Summary:

  1. The Pali Canon (Tripitaka) is a huge collection of manuscripts detailing what Buddhist monks decided were the original, authentic saying of Prince Siddartha (the Buddha), who became the great first figure of the Buddhist religion. The Buddha is now considered an iconic teacher, saint, or divine figure, depending on what branch of Buddhism one adheres to. 
  2. The Four Noble Truths are the great insights offered to the world by the Buddha, meant to transform or enlighten those who contemplate them. 
  3. The Dhammapada is a selection of sayings from the Tripitaka that are hugely popular amongst Buddhists, and general readers alike. 

Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 4): The Mahabharata & Bhagavad Gita.

Having looked at the Ramayana, we can now move on to the other great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (“The Grand Legend of the Bharata Family”), compiled between 300 BC – 300 AD. It is the world’s longest poem at over 1.8 million words, and is 10x longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined! It is so massive I cannot even begin to simplify without needed several, exceedingly long posts, but at its core it is the epic of all epics. It also contains so much philosophical material some people consider kind of like a fifth Veda. 

(Note: the Mahabharata also has a small, abridged version of the Ramayana near the end).

In brief, the Mahabharata tells the tale of the ongoing conflicts between various members of the royal Kaurava and Pandava families, cousins all fighting among themselves and others for dynastic supremacy, in a great war fought mostly on the plains of Kurukshetra. Though a work of fiction, some scholars think the Mahabharata is based on some real world battles in the area. Another interesting aspect is how the war was fought according to what are known as dharmayuddha, a set of ethical rules for “righteous war”: These include:

1. Fighting begins no earlier than sunrise and ends no later than sunset.

2. No more than one warrior may attack another warrior.

3. Warriors may engage in personal combat, only if they carry the same weapons and are using the same transport: foot, horse, chariot, etc.

4. No warrior may kill or injure a warrior whose back is turned away.

5. Specific rules for each weapon must be followed: no strikes below the waist with a mace, etc.

6. Warriors may not engage in any “unfair” warfare.

What makes the Mahabharata important in Indian culture though is not so much its basic literary value as its spiritual impact, as one of its sections is the legendary text known as “The Song of The Lord”, the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita by itself is considered a classic work of Indian spirituality, memorized and recited in part by millions of Hindus since its transcription in 200 BC. On its surface it may seem like a minor scene in the Mahabharata, but it is the most impactful: a warrior named Arjuna is overlooking the battlefield and is distraught by having to go to war against his own kin. Why should he kill his own family, especially for impermanent things like titles, wealth, rank, and so on? Arjuna sits down dejected until his charioteer Krishna engages him in conversation, and soon Arjuna is sitting at Krishna’s feet, listening and questioning. Soon Krishna reveals why he is so knowledgeable, he is an avatar of the god Vishnu, and then proceeds to reveal to Arjuna his true form. At this stage Krishna then says “I am Time, which is the destroyer of all”. When atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the blast of the first atomic bomb test he uttered the words “I am Death, the destroyer of worlds” in reference to this line. 

What I think is most interesting about the Bhagavad Gita is Krishna’s theophany, his ‘manifestation of a god to a human’. He shows Arjuna his true form – Vishnu at his utmost glorious and terrifying – called the Vishvarupa (“The Universal Form”). So the forms of Krishna, Vishnu, and Vishvarupa are the same deity at different levels of theophany. The Vishvarupa is rather extreme: he has an infinite number of eyes, arms, heads, and so on, as opposed to Krishna, who is handsome and blue tinted, or Vishnu who only has four arms. Jimi Hendrix’s album Axis: Bold As Love has Vishvarupa-like image on the cover with Jimi himself and his two band members as the lead heads. 

Summary:

1. The Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem, about a family war. It contains the Bhagavad Gita, a holy dialogue between a man and a particular manifestation of a God.

2. In the Bhagavad Gita, we discover (the) Vishvarupa, the infinite/Supreme form of Vishnu. 

Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 3): The Ramayana.

Though the aforementioned Upanishads were eventually compiled and written down circa 700 – 500 BC, it is around 500 BC that we see the compilation of the Ramayana – “Rama’s Journey” – one of the world’s longest epic poems. In it young Prince Rama leaves his home, ends up going on a mission to rescue a young Princess who is locked up in an enemy structure, gets into a huge battle utilizing the great cosmic “Force” that is Brahman, and returns a conquering hero (part of the inspiration for the movie Star Wars). The Ramayana is extremely popular because it is an engaging story through which one can learn about morality, through the various adventures and challenges Rama faces. Thus, one finds the Ramayana presented in myriad ways all over Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc.), within shadow puppetry, children’s books, TV shows, ancient stone murals, narrative dance & drama, etc. 

The main plot is as follows: an ancient King named Dasharatha has three wives, all of whom he loves. They all bear him sons, but Rama is most amazing: handsome, naturally gifted in archery, kind, brave; he has it all. And who better to be his friend than his own brother Lakshmana, who is fiercely loyal and completely devoted to him. Rama is also loved by the citizens of the kingdom, and nothing makes them happier than seeing Rama amongst them. Better yet, Rama gets married to Sita, most beautiful and respected of all princesses, after winning her hand by lifting a magic bow given to Sita’s father’s ancestors by Lord Shiva himself. Sita is smart, brave, devoted, quick-witted, and friend to all, so the citizens are pleased to see Rama and Sita together. Soon the King decides that he is getting too old to rule so he plans to abdicate and give the reins of power to Rama.

When Kaikeyi (mother of Rama’s brother Bharata) hears the news she is happy; who doesn’t love Rama and Sita? But Kaikeyi’s maid servant Manthara is angered and jealous, because she wants to be supreme amongst all maid servants. So Manthara goes to work psychologically on Kaikeyi and soon turns her against Rama. The King owes Kaikeyi two favors from the past that he is honor bound to uphold, so she demands that Rama be banished for 14 years, so Bharata himself can reign and grow on the people by which time Rama will have been semi-forgotten, and no one will care if he is king or not (so Manthara and Kaikeyi assume). There is no way Sita or Laksmana are ever going to leave Rama’s side, thus is their love, so the three go off into the unknown.

Thus begins a number of mini adventures that culminate in the moment that sets off the most dramatic part of Rama’s epic. One day Ravana, King of The Demons, sees Sita and whisks her away. He is smitten and nothing will keep him from being with her night and day, even if it means locking her up in his kingdom on the island of Lanka. Laksmana and Rama are devastated, but they have allies, including Sugriva (King of the Monkey People) and his minister-general Hanuman, a divine Monkey/God who can shape-shift, become the size of a mountain and so on. Rama and his various allies go to Lanka, and engage in a massive battle (that is quite amazing to read; it goes on and on and ramps up and up with each passing page). Finally, Rama takes out Ravana and all is well. 

In a final chapter (that is not part of the original texts) the people want to make sure that Sita did not have any sexual relations with Ravana and thus become impure, so she is exiled (while secretly pregnant with Rama’s twin sons). Eventually, people are satisfied she is pure and righteous, and at that point she disappears into the ground as she reveals her divine status as an avatar of Lakshmi, who incarnates whenever her husband Vishnu himself incarnates, who in this case is revealed to be Rama.

What is amazing about the Ramayana is that it seems so idyllic at first, and Rama/Sita are so wonderful that nothing is ever going to go awry. But as the story goes along you begin to see a pattern developing. Eventually you realize that all good is a “manifestation” of either Vishnu, or an aspect of the morality devotees of Vishnu promote, in all situations one can find themselves in. All bad is essentially the “lack” of Vishnu, and thus it is really a story that demonstrates the totality of Brahman manifesting in infinite Atmans, i.e. infinite souls. 

Summary: 

1. The Ramayana is a fun way to discover that any aspect of Rama and Sita’s story is somehow contained in every other aspect of the story: in poetic, entertaining, and uplifting ways, all the while teaching us core concepts in Hindu religion.

Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 2): Vedas & Hinduism.

To build a foundation for the study of Hinduism, in the last post we learned that the Vedas are ancient rituals having affiliated hymns, commentaries and general scriptures called Upanishads, which teach that truth is known through personal experience: the Truth is that there lies a Great Universal Conscious behind all of Reality (Brahman), of which Atman is/are manifestations. This is the basis of classic Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and most theology, folklore, dance, music and so on in India can be traced back to these core concepts. 

The Upanishads are also known as Vedanta, the “end” of the Vedas, not only because they are the last part of a veda, but they also sum up the meanings and messages of Vedic religion, all focused on the idea that Brahman is the “Godhead”, the Supreme Consciousness/spiritual power that is the foundation of everything tangible and intangible. And we are each Atman, our “self-soul” – a wave on the ocean of Brahman, an individual only in the sense that we have a particular form of the thing we are made of. To make a long, complex story short, out of it all came the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of Creation. 

The god Brahma creates, Vishnu maintains that creation, and Shiva “destroys” i.e. uncreates in preparation for a new round of creation. Brahma’s consort is Saraswati, the goddess of music and art. Vishnu’s  consort is Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity, and Shiva’s consort is Parvati, goddess of love and fertility. Each of these consorts is also the goddess of various other things, but are mostly known for the arts, prosperity, and love/beauty.As we will discover later, it is Lakshmi who is most well known, but these three goddesses are the main ones you need to know of. 

In fact, they are considered the Trimurti (fem: Tridevi) in Shaktism, the branch of Hinduism that posits Brahman as a great feminine form of power/Godhead called Maha-Devi (or Shakti), with Saraswati as Creatrix, Lakshmi as Preservatrix, and Parvati as Destructrix, while Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are associates/agents of these goddesses. These gods and goddesses are also known for their incarnate forms, their avatars, and thus you see a multiplicity of avatars, gods, and goddesses though All is Brahman. Thus, though technically, the core Hindu pantheon is tripartite, worship is often partisan: some think Shiva is the top god in the Trimurti, others think one of Vishnu’s avatars (Krishna) is the ultimate amalgamation of humanity/godhead combined, and so on. So even though Brahman is the Ultimate of Ultimates, the point of all worship, one single street in an Indian village could contain sectarian shrines for Vishnu, Saraswati, Vishnu, or Kali, etc., as if they were all the quintessence of Brahman or Shakti. 

The word “Hindu” originally referred to people living near the Sindhu (Indus) river, but eventually came to denote people who believed in Vedic religion. Now, Hinduism refers to four main kinds of Indian religion: those who worship Shiva (Shaivism), Vishnu (Vaishnavism), Shaktism, and/or what is known as “Smartism”, the Smarta tradition in which five entities are worshiped: Vishnu, Shiva, the Shakti, Ganesh (the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati), and Surya (the Sun god).

As you can see, things get more and more involved with each step, and soon Vedic/Hindu religion becomes a highly complex structure of schools, philosophies, gods, scriptures and so on. This is why my series focuses on the classic books, rather than the religion. It gets so hard to remember terms and who’s who, I would rather you came away with a few useful facts instead.

In summary:

1. Brahman is the supreme cosmic energy/awareness, and Brahma/Vishnu(Krishna)/Shiva are the top gods (unless you believe in the Tridevi : Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati as the top goddesses). 

2. The worship of Vishnu, Shiva, the Tridevi, or the five entities of the Smarta tradition are the main forms of Hinduism in India. 

Classic Religious Texts (Pt. 1): India

Welcome to my miniature Classics of Religious Literature series. This will focus on classic texts that have been at the root of much cultural phenomena. Since it is most likely that you are not particularly familiar with the religious texts of India I thought we would start there, as they are a treasure trove of ideas and concepts. 

Remember: India is a part of Asia, though we usually think of Asians as Chinese or Japanese, rather than Punjabi, Tamil, and so on. So I will be discussing Indian texts in the context of the Asian continent in general. 

Around 4000 years ago a group of Indo-Europeans came from somewhere in or near Eastern Afghanistan and settled in the Indus Valley (Pakistan). Referring to themselves as arya (noble people), these Aryans met with a local civilization and through their co-mingling established what we know as Indian civilization. The Aryans had various beliefs and rituals, which also included incanted hymns later written down in ancient Sanskrit. These hymns praised the powers of nature as elemental forces with an ability to manifest as gods and goddesses, i.e. wind could take on a human shape. So the God of Fire (Agni) was not a god that manifested as fire or controlled it, but rather was Fire itself manifesting in a form humans could understand. These elemental forces were called devas. The devas were appreciated for their own unique qualities, and thus things like storms and death were revered not feared. 

As time went by the various rituals and commentaries on those rituals by wise men were written down in four collections of scriptures called the Vedas. The oldest (Rig Veda) is thought to have been written sometime between 1500 – 1200 BC, with the other three (Yajur VedaSama VedaAtharva Veda) coming in between 1200 – 900 BC). The first part of each Veda is its karma kanda, hymns and their commentaries, while the second part is the jnana kanda, the various statements about the nature of reality, history, theology, and so on; general scripture.

The various jnana kanda are more famously known as The Upanishads. Etymologically, Upanishad means “to sit near” and thus we understand them as statements of wisdom told from master to student, who is usually sitting at their feet. And though the various Upanishads are attached to specific Vedas, they can be studied on their own for their unique merits, thus we find them in print without the karma kanda with which they were previously connected. 

The Vedas are the oldest organized religious writings in the world, and were around hundreds of years before the philosopher Plato, the ministry of Jesus, and so on. So, when parallels can be found between them, it is possible that any later philosophers and religious leaders had knowledge of the Vedas, if not studied them directly. A major difference though between the Upnaishads and pretty much every other religion of the ancient world was the fact that they are darshana, “things that are seen”. One does not believe the master (guru), one goes off and tries to realize his teachings through study, meditation, and right living. Your body and mind prove the truth, not the authority of the guru. In other words, you must see it for yourself.

So what Great Truth does the guru point the student toward? That behind all of the Many is a One. The Multiple things of the world are extensions of a deeper Single thing. There is a structure to all of Reality that is reflected in all of its various forms. To study this One thing is called brahmavidya, the “Supreme Science”, the study of consciousness. All of reality is made of a Great (Divine) Consciousness known as Brahman, and our individual manifestation of it is called Atman. Atman and Brahman are the same but Atman is a wave on the ocean, separate but equal. Even the devas are “made of” Brahman, as well as the later Supreme God(s) of Hinduism that lord over the devas. 

So to summarize:

1.  Vedas are ancient rituals with accompanying hymns, commentaries and general scriptures called Upanishads. 

2. These scriptures teach that Truth is known through personal experience, and that the truth is there is a Great Universal Conscious behind all of Reality (Brahman), of which Atman is/are manifestations of. This is the base of classic Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and most theology, folklore, dance, music, painting, poetry, and so on in India can be directly or indirectly traced back to these core concepts. 

177 million seconds since Ornette…

What I admired most about him was his seeming courage, how he moved through Life faced with fierce critical resistance even while being hailed as a genius. But he moved, oh how he moved! Always beatific, always enigmatic, he demonstrated what seemed like courage, but what was in actual fact a will of such force that he did not need courage at all. He was of such a mind that his desire to find a path of self-expression was so immense as to direct his every step, his every breath. He lived and breathed music, music , music: seeking, seeking, seeking, even into old age, long after other artists of his age usually give up such a drive. It takes youth and the physical vitality of an athlete to put in the hours of practice he did throughout his entire life, and when his body became old it was his existential drive that seemed to power him like an invisible generator. At our final lesson he was showing clear signs of age and slowing down, but his drive was undeterred; he spoke cheerfully about the new possibilities and directions in music he wished to explore, like a young saxophonist who had finally discovered the path toward their true identity in sound.

What more can be said? I miss him so much…

An Introduction To Jewish Folklore.

Since we have been looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls and the various manuscripts in the Nag Hammadi Collection, I thought I would lighten things up a bit with some fun facts about basic jewish folklore, the myths and terms that developed as Jewish people scattered out into the world after the destruction of the their Second Temple in 66 CE by Roman troops, during the time of Emperor Nero. These legends and terms are not “official” Jewish theology like the Torah or the other books of the Tanakh. But they did play a part an important part in the daily life of various Jewish communities over the last 2000 years. Many of them are not well known outside of Judaism, so I hope you will find them interesting.

Shokelin: This is the Yiddish word for the swaying that Jews do when they pray, most famously at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The philosopher Judah Halevi was of the opinion that it came from the fact that religious texts were scarce in the post-Second Temple scattering and thus people had to sway so others could peek past them at the open Torah scroll, etc. The Talmud states that shokelin is the expression of ecstasy that Psalm 35:10 refers to (“All my bones shall say, ‘who is like you, oh Lord’…”).

Ziz: a giant legendary bird who is so massive that when standing on the ground its body and head reach all the way up to heaven where it sings songs to God. When some travellers once saw a ziz standing in a lake only up to its ankles they thought the water was shallow enough to bathe in, so they dropped in an axe to see just how deep it would go… it took seven years for the axe to reach the bottom. When the Messiah returns the flesh of the Ziz will be served to the righteous at the resultant celebratory banquet.

A – T – Ba – Sh: A Biblical code in which the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet replaces the last letter and so on. The name is actually the key to the code: Aleph (first letter), Tav (last letter), Bet (second letter), and Shin (second last letter). This system allows for words to be transposed into other words, creating chains of word association for interpretation for both common scripture and mystical literature like the Zohar. 

Al Tikrei: A Hebrew phrase meaning “do not read” (i.e. do not read just in the regular way, but other ways as well), al tikrei is a method of using another pronunciation or spelling to give a scripture another layer of meaning while not negating the common reading. This technique was inspired by a segment of Psalm 62:11 – “God has spoken once, and I have heard it twice…”. For example, if (hypothetically) the letters AABA were the Hebrew word for salt and AACA was the word for guitar, a scripture could be then interpreted as “their sins will be like how bitter salt is a terrible choice for lunch”, or “their sins will be as if they had eaten a guitar, a really terrible idea.”. 

Agrat Bat Mahalat: Queen of the Demons who wanders around fucking things up along with a cohort of her underlings. Not only is she the concubine of Samael (the king of the demons) but also the granddaughter of Ismael, Abraham’s first son. The sage Chanina Ben Dosa though had the power to banish her from the world forever, so she pleaded with him to allow her to get up to at least a few shenanigans on Tuesdays and Fridays. Thus the Talmud recommends no one go out at night alone on these days. 

Pidyon ha-ben: “The redemption of the son”, a ceremony that takes place thirty days after the birth of a first born son. If the family is not from the priestly or Levite class, the rabbi asks the father to choose between handing over five pieces of silver or handing over the child. Naturally, the father pays the money, and the priest waves his hands over the kid, “redeeming” him from just being a regular person. If the son is not the first born, preceded by a sister or miscarriage, or born via C-section, they don’t have the ceremony.

Sitra Achra: An Aramaic word from the Talmud for “the other side”, the opposite of the divine realm, being the realm of demonic powers. This realm of evil power and demons influences mankind, except on the Sabbath when the demons are forced to slither back into the abyss until their power is restored by the arrival of the first day of the week.

Lamed vavnick: “one of the thirty-six”, one of a group of 36 men (in every generation) hiding amongst the general population, men whose righteousness keeps the world from descending into total chaos. If a generation finally arrives that is worthy, one of these 36 will rise up to be the Messiah. Though they can pop out of the woodwork to save and uplift others every once in a while, they must go right back into obscurity, as they are forbidden by God to reveal themselves, upon pain of death. The founder of the conservative Ukrainian Hasidic branch of Judaism (Baal Shem Tov) was said to have known who all 36 of these men were, and helped them out financially. 

Chelm: a Polish town whose citizens were used in folklore as the basis of silly stories and jokes, most often local “wise” men who came up with stupidly simple solutions to complex problems. For example, one day the citizens come to a rabbi and say, “how shall we overcome our poverty?’ and the rabbi says, “Easy, it shall now be that the poor will have cream and the rich will have to make do with milk”. The people said, “How will this occur?”, and the rabbi said, “Simple… we’ll call cream ‘milk’ and milk, ‘cream’!”. The Chelmians though are usually kind, compassionate people. Once, when the elderly local deacon responsible for wandering the village and waking everyone up for prayers got too frail for the job, the people of Chelm felt compassion and concern for him. So rather than fire him, they gathered up all the shutters from their windows and installed them in his living room so he could knock on them without having to leave the house!

Olam Haba: the “World To Come”, basically referring to Earth rebuilt back into an Eden-like paradise after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, though there is differing opinion about whether it is a physical or divine realm. Though it is considered too amazing to be imagined by ordinary humans, the metaphor used to understand it is as if our world now is a narrow hallway in which mankind prepares itself for entrance into the grand banquet hall that is Olam Haba. This new earth is basically the Jewish conception of paradise, rather than a ‘Heaven’ far off in space, as humans remain here for eternity. Every good Jew and even righteous non-Jews would be able to live in this world, as well as anyone who had walked even a few feet in the Holy Land (modern day Israel), But you would lose your place in Olam Haba if you: publicly shamed someone, said the Tetragrammaton (a mystical, ultra-holy name of God) in public, read heretical Jewish books that were not part of or related to the Tanakh, became a scribe or doctor, were not very enthusiastic about observing Jewish customs, or were a man that walked behind a woman. Saying the Tetragrammaton was completely forbidden, as it contained such spiritual power one could use it to perform God-like feats of healing, creation, traveling great distances within seconds, and so on. It is also considered to have been written on the rod that Moses used to part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16). In Jewish mythology, Adam’s first wife Lilith used the name of God to fly away when she was not given equal status with Adam. 

Lilith: Adam’s first wife who was also the demon Queen of the Night. When she requested equality with Adam and God refused she flew away in rage to the Red Sea. Adam complained to God, so He sent three angels to bring her back. They failed but made her promise to not make too much trouble for humanity. Lilith eventually became the wife of Samael, the Prince of Demons and leader of the evil forces in Sitra Achra (the one who also sent the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve). Lilith is known to fly around and attempt to create children by sleeping with men while they are having a wet dream. She also eats children but cannot harm any child with the names of the three angels sent to her at the Red Sea written on its birth-room doorpost. In the Middle Ages it was considered dangerous to drink water at the solstices and equinoxes because during these moments Lilith’s menstrual blood would drip down and poison it. 

Shabbos goi: a non-Jew (Gentile) hired to do certain types of work for Jews on the Sabbath, their holy day of rest in which they cannot do many activities in and out of the home, most often lighting oven fires for cooking and such. Technically, Jews are not allowed to ask Gentiles to do things they themselves cannot do… but a Jew could indirectly infer that such a thing needed to be done, and the Gentile could offer to do it to help out. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky worked as a shabbos goi when he was young. 

Luz: “almond nut”, a small, nearly indestructible bone at the base of the spine from which God will fashion a new body for righteous resurrected people in Olam Haba. In folklore is is said that the Biblical Flood was so strong that Adam’s luz was dissolved. This bone can only be sustained and fortified in life by regularly eating the final Sabbath supper each week, and bowing to God in prayer is thought to guarantee a strong resurrection body due to the stimulation the luz receives from this act. Luz is also the name of a legendary city situated on the edge of the Holy Land at a site anointed with divine oil by the Biblical patriarch Jacob, whose grandfather was Abraham. Luz was indestructible, and its inhabitants were protected from the Angel of Death. It is hidden from sight and can only be approached through an entrance hollowed out of an almond tree that is also hidden from human sight. 

Shlemiel: an inept person, as typified by the citizens and rabbis of Chelm. It is said that when a shlemiel falls on his back he breaks his nose. No matter what the circumstances, the shlemiel will find a way to mess it up. It is said that when the angel that hands out souls was wandering the earth he tripped and all the foolish shlemiel souls fell into Chelm. This is similar to the nebich (“poor thing”), except the nebich is a born loser thanks to his ineptitude, e.g.  leaves a winning lottery ticket in his pants and then washes them, or is resurrected into Olam Haba and requests only a piece of toast as his eternal reward. 

These are but a few of the many hundreds of terms and legends from Jewish folklore, but I hope you have enjoyed learning about them.

A Brief Introduction To The Dead Sea Scrolls

Since I recently blogged about the Nag Hammadi Collection I thought I would continue our little adventure in ancient texts with an introductory look at another amazing collection, also from the Middle East.

Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his friends Jum’a Muhammed and Khalil Musa came across some ancient storage jars in a cave near the Ein Feshka springs, close to the ancient town of Qumran near the Dead Sea. They thought that there might be someone interested in buying these old “books” so they brought some back with them, and soon found a buyer willing to take them “off their hands”. As they found more they sold them and soon the word got out that some Bedouin kids were selling ancient documents for waayyy less than they were probably worth, considering the growing interest. In the following years archeologists and treasure hunters would discover more scrolls and hundreds of fragments in the area, thus the findings would come to be known as the Qumran Cave Scrolls, and eventually the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These jars contained fragments and texts which were later revealed to be books of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh, except for the Book of Esther), plus rules for community life, commentaries, proverbs, fragments of the “lost” Book of Enoch, the secret teachings of Elijah, lists of false prophets, visions, and even a “treasure map” (the location of hidden caches of silver and gold). As most of these texts were either tattered or decayed, it is thought that the jars were genizot: storage vessels for worn out sacred texts prior to their burial (as it was forbidden to throw texts containing the name of God in the garbage). But whose genizot were they?

Though there is much debate, and no conclusive proof for or against any particular theory, it seems likely that they were genizot of the Essene sect, a branch of Judaism that stood apart from the Jewish groups of the day: the secular-minded (Hellenized) upper class Sadducees (no afterlife), the strict lower class Pharisees, the armed, Rome-hating resistance fighters called the Zealots, and a small group of Messianic Jews that was gathering behind a relatively unknown guy from Nazareth named Jesus. Little is known about the Essenes but what can be inferred from archeological study posits that they were apocalyptic (End Times fixated), communal, and tended to live outside of major centers as often as within them. The most compelling “evidence” so far may come from the fact that the Community Rule scroll (which outlines the laws of the sect) and Roman historian Josephus’ account of the Essenes shows similarities. Modern evidence also suggests that the Essenes might have been former Temple priests who rebelled and exiled themselves after the various Jewish kings took over the role of high priest, thus the organized and ritualistic nature of the various scrolls.

The first document we will look at is 1QS, also discovered in 4Q253-264a, and 5Q1. What does that mean? This work was found in the first Qumran cave, on the first scroll discovered (1-Q-S). The same text was also found in the fourth Qumran cave (4Q) on manuscripts 253 – 264a, and the first manuscript found in the fifth Qumran cave (5Q1). Since there are many Qumran and surrounding discoveries, fragments, scrolls, and such, I will make sure all the numbers and letters are clear.

1QS, the Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association, is also known as the Community Rule, a set of instructions and rules for community life. Since the English word community is not an exact equivalent, it is most accurate (and useful) to use the terminology from the text itself, Yahad (“unity”), instead. Thus these were not rules for a community (singular) but basically a charter one could use in any community or chapter wishing to establish authority, and the rights of those under that authority. The community would understand their various rights and roles, and there would be unity amongst the people, i.e. a comm(unity) if you will. This didn’t always mean that each yahad was strictly religious. The text in the Community Rule also implies a yahad could be more philosophical if they were not an organized group living out in the desert, waiting for the Messiah for example. Once again, like the other manuscripts found in and around Qumran, missing text, as yet understood ergo untranslatable ancient words, allegory, and metaphor often make the various Dead Sea manuscripts and fragments hard to make factual statements about, based on clear evidence. But here is what can be said with certainty.

The group at Qumran, as the Community Rule manuscript describes, was an association of priests, a secondary order of priests (Levites), the community (“Israel”), and Gentile proselytes. Other Jews and Gentiles outside of the community “walk(ed) in the wicked way” and thus are “Men of Perversity”. But if such a person repented of sin, and went through a two year conversion process, they would be assigned a rank in the yahad and thus could advance themselves through maase ha-torah, “works of the Law”. The group considered themselves as having entered a new covenant with God, which fulfilled the old Mosaic covenant.This new covenant was called the Covenant of Mercy, or the Covenant of The Eternal Yahad.

On 1QS alone though is a small, two column appendix that is kind of amazing when seen in light of the rise of Christianity. The Community Rule is for a decidedly Jewish sect…yet this appendix (The Charter for Israel in The Last Days) seems to reference God fathering the Messiah of Israel, the Jewish war leader who would rise up from the line of David and lead the people in battle against evil in order to establish the New Jerusalem! The text is damaged and hard to read, and there are arguments for and against such an interpretation. But the idea of a divinely fathered Messiah showing up in the holy writings of ex-Second Temple Jews? They are not Christian, they are not classical Jews… pretty amazing stuff.

The Yahad was serious about maintaining law and order in each other’s presence, and any spoken mention of the name of God equaled immediate and permanent banishment (even in prayer!). The Common Rule also lays out the prescribed punishment (the rationing of food) for more mundane violations:

1). Anyone who speaks foolishness: three months (of rationing).
2). Anyone whose clothing is so ratty you can see his genitals through it: 30 days.
3). Anyone who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation: 10 days.
4). Anyone who breaks into foolish horse-laughter: 30 days.
5). Anyone who accidentally participates in fraud: 3 months.

As we continue on with our series on the Dead Sea Scrolls let’s review some basic terms from “regular” Jewish culture. As Judaism became a highly literary religion after passing down its traditions orally for hundreds of years, certain terms became necessary for outsiders to learn if they were to understand the relationship between core and subsidiary writings. Basically, Jewish sacred literature is divided into these categories:

1). The Tanakh is the set of writings Christians call the ‘Old Testament’, organized into three sections: Torah (The Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus…), Nevi’im (The Prophets: Samuel, Isaiah…), and Kethuvim (The Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job…).

2). Midrash is a word that means “Biblical interpretation”, the actual method of interpreting the Tanakh, and a collection of commentaries on the Tanakh. 

3). The Torah is the first five books of the Tanakh, believed to be written by Moses while dictated by God himself. It was also believed that Moses also gave laws and commands to the Jews that were not written down, and thus a general ‘Oral Torah’ (The Talmud) was also handed down from generation to generation, alongside the official histories and laws in the original, written Torah. After the Jewish (Second) Temple was sacked by the Romans (during the reign of Nero in 66 CE), this oral tradition was written down so the scattering Jews could hold to a central belief system as they spread out across the world, and added their own updated material to it when their spiritual teachers (rabbis) needed to adapt to new cultural and spiritual situations. Thus we see the birth of what is known as Rabbinical Judaism, what you might call the core, basic form of the Judaism we see today. 

4). The Talmud: Jewish Law, which includes a). the Mishnah, brief explanations of various scriptures in the Torah and b). the Gemara, auxiliary commentaries on the Mishnah.  

5). The Zohar is a 13th century Spanish manuscript used by the various mystical branches of Judaism known as Kabbalah. It is filled with various mishnah, gemara and midrash as well as text on related subjects. It is not part of mainstream Judaism, but various Kabbalistic sects still exist, some even being Christian or Hermetic. Some even read it as a kind of mystical self-help book, like one might read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu for daily wisdom, or businessmen read the Art of War by Sun Tzu for success strategies.

But as the Dead Sea Scrolls were being categorized and translated, a new set of writings began to emerge, a type of scriptural interpretation known as a pesher. The pesher writings (pesherim) dealt with either a specific subject or provided a running commentary on specific scriptures, one after the other, explained in turn. These running pesherim were usually found in the Nevi’im (Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc), though there is a pesher on Psalms, which at Qumran was considered a prophetic manuscript. The reason pesherim focused on such writings is that it often meant the “interpretation of dreams”, like Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with feet of iron and clay. So a pesher had the quality of ‘mystery-solving’ through divine understanding. We see this occurring in a pesher (p) on Habbakuk (Hab) found in the first cave at Qumran (1Q).

1QpHab, a Pesher on Habbakuk, is the attempt by its author to figure out the secret truth(s) in Habbakuk the same way Daniel did for Nebchanezzar, through divine inspiration. Here is a verse (from my own copy of the Tanakh) that the writer “peshers” upon (Habbakuk 1:6): For lo, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce, impetuous nation. In 1QpHab the author writes the following: “For I am now about to raise up the Chaldeans, that brutal and reckless people”. This refers to the Kittim (the enemy, i.e. the Romans), who are swift and mighty in war, annihilating many people, and have no faith in the laws of God”. The author then goes on to link many verses to the Romans and their various crimes against humanity, even getting in a few good licks on idolatry: “Woe to those who say to mere wood, ‘Be alert!’, or ‘Wake up!’ to some dumb stone. Can it enlighten you?”.

Also found amongst the various scrolls was one made of copper (3Q15: the 15th manuscript found in the 3rd cave at Qumran), inscribed upon which was a list of various caches of treasure (written in a unique form of Hebrew). The sites are scattered throughout what would have been Judea, but mostly concentrated in and around the Temple Mount, Jericho, and Qumran. At first it was believed the scroll was Essene but the work of a single individual; a private list rather than one the community would have known about (possibly a folktale written down like a legend of pirate gold). But since it is not a religious text, but rather a list (common to antiquity) some think it was a real inventory of some kind, like how Greek temples kept inventories of the various votive objects or gifts brought to them (such as coins, jugs, earrings, and so on). Thus the Scroll is kind of like a business document, since copper was also the medium of choice for Roman documents considered important for posterity: public documents, military discharges, and such.

One of the early editors of the scrolls, John Allegro, even mounted a search for the treasure but found nothing, especially when the Israeli government refused to let him dig under the esplanade of the Dome of The Rock(!). But the treasure may have been already looted by the Romans like how they looted the hidden treasures of Dacian king Decebalus, whose territory they conquered (part of what is now known as Romania). Decebalus diverted a river, buried treasure, then made the river resume its normal course. The Romans found and tortured a Dacian informant, and thus they got what they were looking for. It is thought that the Romans also did this to someone who knew about the Temple Mount treasure, and/or all the others, or possibly found another copy of the Copper Scroll. According to Roman-Jewish historian Josephus’ book WAR, the Roman looting of treasure in that region was so extenisve that the value of gold in nearby Syria fell by 50%! So where do all these Copper Scroll treasures supposedly rest? Let’s look at the actual manuscript:

1). “In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east at a distance of forty cubits: a strong box of silver and its vessels — seventeen talents by weight. KEN“. Letters like the ones at the end (K-E-N) appear in other manuscripts, and editors have not figured out what they are supposed to mean. It is also not known what the precise modern value of talents (and other monetary units) would be, but they would collectively be worth many millions of dollars.

2). “In the dam of the Secacah Valley, dig down three cubits: twelve talents of silver coins, “in the fissure that is in Secacah, to the east of the Pool of Solomon: vessels of votive offering, along with their inventory list”, “at the head of the aqueduct of the Secacah Valley, on the north, under the big stone, dig down three cubits: seven talents of silver coins”, and “in the grave that is in the Wadi Ha-Kepah at the point of entry as you go from Jericho to Secacah, dig down seven cubits: thirty-two talents of silver coins”. I am combining four different cache listings into one because they are all at Secacah, which is actually mentioned in the Old Testament part of the Bible (Joshua 15:61) as one of the villages which the tribes of Judah inherit. Also, the grave at Wadi Ha-Kepah (the twenty-seventh cache) is the clearest geographical reference on the Scroll, as a path to and from a major city would have been well known. (Note: wadi is an Arabic word for a small valley or dry river bed). 

3). “At the grave of the common people — it is ritually pure — in it: fourteen votive vessels, and their inventory list is next to them”. The Qidron Valley was the traditional site for the burial of common people… though personally I find it odd that the Scroll would call the grave of the common people “ritually pure” considering it is where the ashes of the burnt pole of the Asherah idol was dumped (as stated in the Bible, 2nd Kings 23:6).

This is only a very basic introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I am going to add a little more in the days ahead once I scrounge through my old research notes, but hopefully it will whet your appetite for more information. I got all of this from reading The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, with all translations and commentary by Michael Wise, Martin Aregg Jr., and Edward Cook (2005). It is the book I got my old research notes from, and thus everything you have read is their intellectual property. If you want to get way more of the really great stuff from this book, go out and buy it. It is very inexpensive considering its size (662 pages) and a fabulous resource.