Monday, October 8, 2007

Jesus the Dalit

Oil on Canvas, part of a dyptich of the Dalit Jesus. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj Nuerenberg.

Theme III The Body: Broken & Whole

The Body - such a complex organism - carries extraordinary significance in all human cultural life. It is at the centre, too, of Hindu as well as Christian reflective tradition. For Christians, that the body is divinely created and is ‘the temple of God’s Spirit’, that Jesus was a fully incarnate person (the embodiment of the eternal Word in his case), that he declared ‘this is my body’ concerning sacramental bread, and that it is the body which in some way is to be resurrected - all these beliefs give the body central importance for Christian faith.

Yet, the body has also been seen as the arena of the soul’s battle with our lower nature, usually called the ‘flesh’, so that at times the body itself, especially sexual experience, has been despised and denigrated. Indeed, this earlier Christian aversion to the pleasures of the body, and the unhealthy repression related to it, has sometimes been blamed for many of the ills suffered within the western psyche. Hindu attitudes (Buddhist, especially Tibetan Buddhist attitudes too), it is claimed, are very different and much more healthy.

Yet, Hindu feelings too about the body have often been far from unambiguously positive. There has been strict ascetic practice as well as exuberant celebration of the body, including its sexuality. In the ‘Great God’ Siva we find both rigorous discipline of the body and roisterous delight in its powers. He is the Silent Muni, sitting alone with all senses withdrawn. But he is also the Lord of Dance, fabled for his creative potency and sexual vigour.

The life-stages noted earlier also include similar mixed Hindu attitudes to the body. We saw both the affirmation of the body’s life in family life - procreation, nurturing children, working to support the family. But there was also - in life’s culminating phase - withdrawal from and ‘renunciation’ of all such relationships. In the more technical terms of the ‘four goals of life’ there is both active dharma (’right ordering’) and there is, finally, the serene freedom of moksha, when the soul is set free from all the cramping limitations life in this karma-bound body.

All religious experience includes polarities and paradox of some kind. Often these are called coincidentia oppositorum, the coming together of opposites. In Hindu aesthetic tradition the body’s feelings have been listed in terms of opposing pairs of nine rasas or moods. First we have four pairs of opposites: There is that which is experienced as joyfully attractive (sringara) - drawing us to the beauty of the world; and there is its opposite, that which is disgustingly repellant (bibhatsa), causing us to turn away from the world. There is compassion (karuna), involving us in concern for the world and its need; and there is fierce anger (krodha), caused by that which is wrong in the world. There is heroic courage (vira); and there is its opposite, fearful terror (bhayanka). Then there is the experience of great sorrow (dukkha, or shoka), often linked with the recognition of the ephemeral nature of the world’s life; and there is playful laughter (hasya), experiencing the world as lila, play.
Another pair, that could also be seen as opposites, is sometimes added: wonder (adbhuta) and motherly affection (vatsalya).

It is when the tensions of all these opposites are finally resolved that we have the serene equilibrium of eternal peace (shanta). Such untouchable tranquillity is the ultimate goal of the varied postures and practices of yoga (in its classical form at least). ‘Yoga’ means ‘yoked’ - all sensory experience being controlled, integrated, or ‘yoked’ to, at peace with, the inner self. In fact all prayers, ending as they usually do with ‘peace, peace, peace’, aim finally at this state of integration, whether personal or cosmic.

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