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Diwali reflections...


Religious experience  — treasure,  trap or both?

Guru as confirmer 

What can India's vision of Kali mean for people of European background?

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Diwali discussion

by Colin Robinson, 23 September 2009

To members and friends of Mystics of Kali.

Here are some reflections I want to share with my fellow mystics of Kali on the occasion of her annual festival.

Religious experience  — treasure,  trap or both?

Sri Ramakrishna and C.G. Jung both spoke of religious experience as something that happens everywhere and has, or can have, very great positive value. Jung also saw the Nazi movement as a collective religious experience. If he was right about this, what conclusions do we draw from the enormous futile violence that resulted? Perhaps religious experience (collective or individual) isn't always quite enough?

A quote from Agehananda Bharati, the Austrian-born scholar and sadhaka...

"Such an attitude is typical of all converts in all countries and at all times. The early Buddhists, the early Christians, the National Socialists, the Communists  — they all have the same confident and comforting feeling of personal salvation and inner security: they have found the answer to all problems." (Agehananda Bharati; The Ochre Robe; George Allen and Unwin, London, 1961; p 108.) 

There is a sort of experience that gives you a sense of certainty, sometimes called faith or conviction. A certainty that inspires complete commitment, willingness to die for something. That certainty may be a source of empowerment, but perhaps also a fatal limitation on your ability to look at things in different ways?

Now a quote from Oliver Cromwell, leader of militant Protestants in the English civil war. He was speaking to people of his own persuasion who were quarrelling among themselves: "I beseech ye, Sirs, in the bowels of Christ, bethink ye that ye may be wrong." 

Perhaps there is wisdom in this advice (whatever we may think about other words and deeds of Oliver Cromwell)? I also find an interesting earthiness in the reference to Christ's intestines  — room for comparison with the language of Tantra and Aghora?

And yet, if religious experience isn't always enough, what else is there? Perhaps I might rely on a holy book or an infallible teacher... But can I recognize which book is holy, or which teacher is infallible? If I can recognize them, is not that process of recognition itself an experience? 

As Woodroffe says: "Ultimately there is experience alone..." (Shakti and Shakta p 179)

Wisdom must come, directly or indirectly, from experience. The question is how it comes. Is it a single, sudden, lightning-like flash, or is it something that builds up, over years, centuries, millenia? Are traditional images, religious literature, communities/orders/lineages the necessary respositories of the shared experience of ages?

Guru as confirmer...

The Sanskrit word "guru" means heavy or serious. The Latin word "gravis" has similar meanings, and is the origin of the English adjective "grave" meaning serious or solemn. Guru also means the spiritual mentor (who can be either male or female, according to the Tantras).

Probably the best known role of the guru is giver of mantra (words used in meditation). A guru may also give a non-verbal symbol: something to visualize when meditating. 

Another role that a guru may play: a person who has already received something via direct experience, for instance through a dream, may ask a guru to bless, to confirm, what has been received. This is not a new idea -- it is mentioned about a thousand years ago in the writings of Abhinavagupta, the Kashmiri tantric master. Also in the nineteenth century Tantra-tattva of Siva Candra Vidyarnava.

It is here that the traditional role of the guru merges with the role of the Jungian analyst. The Jungian analyst, as matter of principle, does not choose a symbol for the analysand (the person undergoing analysis)... but does help the analysand to accept and work with powerful symbols that come from within. 

Role of gurus in my own path... The spiritual path I follow has emerged out of my own experience, but has certainly been confirmed by blessing received from people whose experience I respect, including Jungians and yogins. For instance, the malas, or garlands of beads, which I use in meditation have come from respected people in a path akin to mine. Another kind of confirmation has come from my study of Indian writings about Kali.

Reflecting on the role of the confirming guru, I've come to a new way of looking at the relation between traditions of India and of Europe... 

What can India's vision of Kali mean to people of European background? 

* A model - example to be followed? This is the approach taken, for instance, by worshippers at Kali Mandir, California. They make an effort to practise Kali worship exactly as it is done at a particular Indian temple - the temple at Dakshineswar, the northern suburb of Calcutta. 

Their devotion is undeniable. Yet I can't quite forget Jung's warnings about imitation. Can we expect the same methods to have the same results for people who come from different backgrounds, and who live in different environments?

For instance, if I worship entirely in Indian languages, while doing the rest of my living and thinking in English, perhaps that creates a split between my worship and my everyday life  - a split that would not be there if I was an Indian person, living and thinking in Hindi or Bengali or Tamil?

* A resource? Here I'm thinking of the thoughtful article by feminist writer Rita Gross "Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess". Gross calls for "intelligent selection" rather "wholesale transplant". 

The word "resource", though, implies that it is the seeker who chooses and uses the female deity. Is this really what happens? Or is actually Kali, the female deity, who calls and guides the seeker? 

* A ferment (as in Woodroffe's passage about western and eastern religions providing a ferment for each other)? Obviously I like the word "ferment". Perhaps, though, it puts a little too much emphasis on change rather than continuity?


for people outside India, the tantric vision of Kali can also be thought of a source of confirmation for something that has been emerging (despite resistance) in the West... People of European culture speaking and writing about a sacred power that is not separate from this world, but pervades this world. 

I've referred in Ferment in the past to Marsilio Ficino, the Catholic natural philosopher of Renaissance Italy who wrote about the anima mundi, the feminine soul of the world. Recently I have been looking at other western people who expressed similar views... Giordano Bruno, a pioneer of modern cosmology who was burned as a heretic: he wrote "Nature is God in things." Frank Lloyd Wright, the twentieth century American architect and Unitarian, who said "I believe in God, but I spell it nature."

The world-pervading character of the Goddess is a great theme of India's tantric literature. Still, in India, as in the West, there has been considerable resistance to the earthy, this-worldly, naturalistic aspect of Shakti. As we saw in Ferment Jan/Feb 08, the nineteenth century Hindu reformer Swami Dayanand was one of those who considered the Tantras to be a decadent departure from the purity of Vedic religion. 

The cultural differences between India and Europe seem very important to believers in the greatness of European civilization; and no less important to Hindu nationalists. The cultural differences are also stressed by academic Indologists like Rachel Fell McDermott. 

Is it possible, though, that differences between cultures of India and Europe are, in the end, less important than differences within each culture -- specifically, the debate in both subcontinents between purism and naturalism?

Looking forward to hearing or reading your thoughts,

Om Shantih


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