Friday, December 3, 2010

The Universe as a Mandala

As an artist I have been especially interested in the structure of the Mandala. The Mandala form is well known in Tantric art, and is used as a visual form for meditation. The Mandala can be a two dimensional image, which is like an Icon, helping the mind to find a centre for reflection. But the Mandala is also a three dimensional form, which revolves like objects in outer space. Basic geometric shapes like the square, triangle, and sphere, are what underlie the Mandala as a plastic and visible form.

A festival of Light.

Towards the close of the solar year, we find festivals dedicated to the Light. In India we have Diwali, when lights are lit in every home, inviting the goddess to com into the home and bless it. For Christians this is a time when festivals like All Souls, and later Christmas are celebrated. Here again we see that the idea of death, and birth, the tomb and the womb, are what concerns every human being, in a spiritual journey to discover the meaning of life. In my own home, my Father, who came from Punjab, used to make complex lantern frames out of bamboo sticks which he would then cover with transparent paper, and decorate with designs. This tradition of making lanterns for Diwali, which are called "kandeel" in the north of India, also relates to a Muslim tradition of making "Tazias" at the time of Moharam. I used to help my Father make these lantern forms, and then we would keep the lantern up for the coming year, and link it also with the symbols of Christmas. Through this process I learnt that all festivals are in a way inter connected, bringing people of different Faiths together in a celebration of life and light. This year I decided I would make a lantern Kandeel with decorative panels which use metaphors from the poetic tradition of the fifteenth century mystic and poet Kabir. Kabir was himself an inheritor of two important mystic traditions of North India; the Sufi world of Islam, and the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism. It is in this way that he is particularly significant for us today, as we try to find what is common to different religions, in a search for a spiritual and also social and political peace.

The Universe as a Mandala

The psychologist Carl Jung was very interested in the structure and image of the Mandala. He believed that this form is archetypal, that is it transcends the particular culture in which it can be found, linking up with a similar structure to be found in all cultures. He thought that the Mandala is the form we give to meaning itself; it is a shape that emerges from the very way in which we think, and understand the world in which we live. Dreaming the Mandala with Kabir, is to recognize that the poetic world of this Indian mystic, has links to the spiritual language of metaphor that we find in all cultures around the world. In that sense it is particular, and connected with the concrete and everyday world of each place, and people, but is also universal, showing that essentially the most important images that we try to explore through our spiritual quest, are what link all peoples and cultures in a common pilgrimage towards an experience of the Divine.

Gagan Mandala.

Kabir spoke of the Gagan Mandala. This term 'Gagan' could mean just the sky, or atmosphere, or the seasons. It is the wholeness, or coming together of all the elements, comprising of earth, water, air and fire. It is the totality of experience. The word "Mandala" simply means a circle, but it is a circle in which all is contained. It is also an expanding circle. At the centre of this circle is the seed, or Bija. But from this point there are radiating lines of force. Thes are like rays of light. But these rays not only go outwards, they also circulate. And it is this circular movement within the Mandala structure that gives rise to the outer circumference of the Mandala form.

The Cosmic Womb.

Creation is born out of the Cosmic womb of the Divine. The imagery of Kabir can be traced back to Tantric symbols which are concerned with the process of birthing. In the Vedas we are told that in the beginning all creatures emerged from a primordial egg, or golden germ. This egg was floating on the waters, and the gods observed it with wonder. They asked what it could be, and this question "what?" or "Ka?" was the name they gave to it. It is the zero, the nothingness, which is the basic unit from which all enumeration (samkhya) became possible.

The empty pot.

Kabir often returns to the concept of emptiness, Sunya. He finds this emptiness in space itself. But without space, there could not be creation, because space and time are what creation is drawn from. Space is like the loom on which the threads of reality are stretched, and the shuttle goes back and forth, making the fabric that is woven out of vertical and horizontal strands. But always space lies at the heart of everything that we see as form. Without space, there would be no possibility for growth. So all visual or tangible forms are a combination of emptiness, or the boundless, and that which gives boundary, or outer form to this inner space.

The Mango pattern

Kabir was a weaver. In that sense he was a person who was interested in patterns. Benares is famous for its fabrics, which are richly ornamented with many designs. One of the famous patterns that we find in India is the mango pattern. This could be understood as the shape of the fruit of the mango tree. This tree is associated with sweetness, and also with love. The Mango tree is auspicious, and is used by Kama, the god of love, to make his arrows with which he pierces the heart of human beings. The mango pattern could also be related to the form of the heart.

The Elemental

Though Kabir was concerned with a reality which is beyond name and form, he uses elemental images to express what is "nirguna" or abstract. Images are constructed out of natural elements like earth, stone, or wood. Like the masks which actors on the stage wear, we have many faces, which represent our different moods, and changing identities. In one of his poems, Kabir says that the clay speaks to the potter, saying "just now you are kneading me into a lump from which you make your vessel, but a time will come when your body will also be kneaded, and will return to the clay from which God has fashioned you". It is this process of becoming, but also eventually returning to the original substance from which we have been made, that the mystic understands as life's journey.

The Full Vessel.

One of the most fundamental symbols of Indian folk culture is the Full Vessel, or Purna Kumbham. The image of the full vessel is often found in Indian temples on the top of pillars. The full vessel, is related to the mind, in which the elexir of eternal life (amrit) is stored. At the beginning of time the cosmic oceans were churned. Out of this process of churning, the vessel of life emerged. This process of transforming what is changeable, and in a constant state of flux, like the waters of the ocean, into something that is everlasting, and beyond death, is what the process of Yoga is about.

The body as a vessel.

Kabir lived by the river Ganges, in Benares. So water is an important metaphor for Kabir, symbolizing the source of life. According to myth, the river Ganges has descended from the heavens to bring fertility to the parched countryside. To fetch water from the holy river, people would come with earthen vessels to carry the water to their homes. This earthen vessel Kabir related to the body itself. He said that though there are many types and shapes of vessels, the water they carry is the same. Finally the earthen vessel breaks. That is what happens to the body also.

The garden well.

There is a sufi story about a well in a persian garden where a sufi saint would sit to meditate. During the day time the gardener would draw water from the well for the plants. One day he came to find that the garden was flooded with water. He was very surprised and angry, and suspected that it was the sufi monk who was sitting in the garden who had done this. So the gardener decided that the useless old man who spent his time praying in the garden was spoiling plants. So he threw the sufi out of the garden. But then to his surprise the tree under which the sufi used to sit, uprooted itself and followed the saint. Then all the plants seemed to pull themselves from the earth, and also began to follow the sufi. Even the well lifted up from the ground, and left the garden, in pursuit of the man of prayer. Then the gardener realized that the whole garden depended on the prayer of the sufi, and it was his inner life that brought the water up from the depths, and sustained the beauty of the garden. Then the gardener followed the Sufi, and begged him to return, so that his garden could once again be re-established.

A tree full of fishes.

Kabir is known for his up-side-down metaphors. He creates images out of opposites. So in one of his songs he speaks of a tree which is full of fishes. Fishes are meant to be in the waters, and are not like birds that live in trees. But in a sense a tree is like a river flowing upwards to the heavens. The sap which flows through the branches of the tree, is like a stream of life that instead of flowing downwards, defies gravity, and reaches for the skies. We are even led to believe that birds were originally fish that developed wings, whose scales turned into feathers. So what is below will come up, and this in fact is the basic principle underlying Kundaleeni Yoga, where the energy that lies at the base of the spine, slowly is lifted up, transforming the whole body.

The brave Parrot.

In one of the songs ascribed to Kabir, we hear of a story that is found in the Jatakas, or former lives of the Buddha. There was a parrot who lived in the branches of a sandal wood tree in the forest. One day a fire spread from a clump of bamboos in the forest, and engulfed the whole forest. All the animals and birds fled. But the parrot refused to leave the tree which had been its home. The tree spoke to the bird, saying: You have wings, so fly away. I am a tree rooted in the ground, so I have to perish." But the bird refused to leave the tree that had been its dear friend and companion. However, seeing that soon both tree and bird may be destroyed, the parrot decided to fly to a nearby pool, where it flapped its wings in the water, and carried some drops that it sprinkled on the sandal wood tree. Back and forth the bird went carrying a few drops of water from the pool in the hope of quenching the forest fire. The gods were watching this brave effort of the parrot, and Garuda, the Sun bird came down to earth to see what this little bird was doing in the burning forest. Garuda was so moved by the love of the bird for the tree, that tears began to fall from his eyes. When Garuda weeps, the clouds begin to rain, and so finally the forest was saved from the fire, and the sandal wood tree was not consumed.

The burning home.

Kabir spoke of burning the home. The home is like the nest of the Cosmic bird. In mythology there is always a tension between the heavenly bird, and the serpent that has its home in the earth. The serpent is sometimes called the "Vasthu Sarpa" or serpent of the inhabited place. The Bird attacks and destroys this serpent with its fiery wings. The home is now taken up and consumed by the fire of the spirit.

The Mountain of Emptiness.

Kabir refers to Sunya Shikhara, or the mountain of emptiness. This is like the high peaks of the Himalayas, over which the Hamsa flies. In the heart of the mountain there is a cave, which is also a symbol of the heart. This cave or Guha, is between heaven and earth. It is here that we can hear the cosmic sound, or unstruck note which could be related to the Word that brings all creation into being. The Shabda, or Primal Word, is also the sound AUM, which the sacred Name of the Divine. The Hamsa has a particular cry, which is like Ham--sa--ham--sa--ham----. This could be interpretted as the sanskrit 'Sa ham' which means "I am that". Here the soul discovers its identity in the Divine Presence that resides in the cave of the heart.

The Fire Bird.

The image of Fire is used as a metaphor for the spiritual quest. Kabir often speaks of the fire that consumes the world, and also the body when it is being spritually transformed.

Bird in Flight.

One of the most important images that we find in the poetry of Kabir is that of the Hamsa, which is a bird in flight. This bird crosses over the Himalayas, and is known to circle round Lake Mansarova at the foot of Mount Kailash. It then descends to the Indian planes. It becomes a metaphor for the soul.