Sunday, March 1, 2009

Love for Form

This essay seeks to unravel the links between a predisposition to a particular idiom of religious expression and personality. It looks back to a history of psychological research on religion. The primary focus of this inquiry is to look into the interface between the gender of the chosen form of deity and the inherent personality disposition of the devotee. A liberal view on important religious systems is called for before a psychological examination. With the exception of Hinduism, which affords considerable space to the veneration of feminine goddesses wihtin its mainstream practice, all the other major world religions come across as patriarchic at first glance. Indeed Freud saw the idea of God as a version of the father image. Allah, the Christian God and Christ, his son and the Jewish Jehowah are all masculine. Buddha, Mahavir and the Sikh gurus too are men. However a deeper inquiry would reveal the valence of the feminine idiom of the divine in all these seemingly patriarchic religions. In Islam, we have Fatima. Besides Sufism, which can be seen as the mystic face of Islam extols the beloved and seeks raptures in the ‘Ghazal’ or conversing with one’s beloved. The Sufis frequently see the divine in their earthly and feminine beloved. The Virgin Mary is accorded an iconic stature in Christianity. Besides Dante seeked salvation through the grace of Beatrice, his earthly beloved. Similar submission before a feminine figure is seen in Christian mystics from the early centuries after Christ. The feminine ‘bride of goddess’ is important in Kabbalistic Judaism too. And ‘Bhagwati’ or the Goddess is invoked in precedence to the male gurus in Sikhism, an outwardly patriarchic religion.

In the eastern worldview, the samkhya school of philosophy attributed to Kapil, contains the seeds of one of the first psychological inquiries into religion. Samkhya rests on a fundamental dichotomy between Purusha ( Consciousness) and Prakriti ( phenomenal realm of matter). This dichotomy is taken as universal and its successful resolution is seen as enlightenment. For a psychologist, Kapil’s views on the divine form are significant. While Samkhya saw pure consciousness as individuated, nonattributive, absolute and formless, Kapil wasn’t against devotion and meditation on a ‘divine form’. Although meditation on form was considered a step to meditation on the formless consciousness, it was neverthless a highly significant step as Samkhya saw mind as ‘material’ and hence incapable of perceiving or meditating on the ‘immmaterial’ essence of consciousness. Thus seeing the manifest forms rather than the unmanifest absolute was in keeping with the material nature of mind. On the same note Patanjali saw meditation on the ‘form’ as a way to merge into the ‘formless’. Now, Patanjali advised the seeker to meditate on the form which was pleasing to her or him, whether or not such a form existed in the cultural memory of the individual. Thus while meditation on Krishna or Durga was common, a seeker could also conceive of an entirely personal deity to concentrate on. The divine form to be meditated upon could be masculine or feminine depending on the inherent propensities of the seeker. Buddhist psychology too emphasized the significance of meditation on form when complete faith in Buddha was equated with the knowledge that liberates.

Tantra is even more emphatic on the significance of meditation on the form of the deity. Tantra is derived from an etymological root which is close in meaning to ‘interwoven’. On a philosophical level, it sees spirit or consciousness as permeating matter due to being ‘interwoven’ with it and not merely transcendental. Hence Tantra is seen as life-affirming as opposed to the more contemplative systems of yogic meditation. All major Indian religions have their own versions of tantra and it exists in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in explicit idioms. Sikhism too shows considerable effect of Tantra on its insistence on long unshorn hair and iron bangle which are derived from certain forms of aura meditation. The culture of sword in Sikhism too derives from Shakta Tantra. For a psychologist, tantra’s conceptual unserstanding of sublimation is striking. The celebrated Bengali Tantrik Chandidas held that to love a divine ideal is almost an impossibility for a human being wedded to material nature while to love another human being is natural.. From this, he points that the best way to cultivate love for the divine was to love the transcendednt in another human being. He extoled the spiritual merit of love for a person from the opposite sex. However for it to be sublimated, such love had to be unrequitted. Hence he looked at love for an unattainable woman, say one married or from the prohibited caste as a means for spiritual tansformation of the earthly passion. This clearly indicates sublimation.

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