THE WOMAN AT THE WELL.
The theme of the Woman at the Well (John 4: 4-26) has been a subject that I have painted a number of times. In my recent work on the Way of Jesus I have seen it as representing an essential aspect of the Tao of Jesus, seen from an Indian perspective. The Well can be understood as pointing downwards into the underworld, where the waters of life could also be related to the sources of creativity that lie hidden in our unconscious. Over the well there is a structure, or scaffold, which is used to support the pulley over which the rope is hung, that carries the vessel that goes down into the dark depths of the water. This scaffold structure which looks like the traditional Greek letter Pai or II which is used in mathematics to represent the constant relation between the radius of a circle to its circumference, which cannot actually be measured, though it can be drawn geometrically. This form is also found in the structure of the doorway and traditional “load bearing stones” that are found in villages on which travellers can rest their heavy head loads. These elements: the circular well, the scaffold that looks like a door, and carries the pulley for drawing up the vessel, the rope and water pot, are all given symbolic meanings. The well rope is often associated in Indian thought with the serpent, and a parable of the Upanishads links the confusion which the mind may entertain between snake and rope represents the nature of Maya, or illusion. When the woman confronts Jesus with the fact that he has neither the rope to draw water with, or the vessel to hold the water, she can be understood as questioning the physical means that are necessary in a yogic understanding of lifting up the vital energies. The earthen pot represents the body, and in particular the chakras where energy is stored. The rope is the Kundalini, or vital force that lifts this energy from one Chakra to the next. Such might be an esoteric understanding of the woman’s query: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” From a symbolic point of view this woman could even be related to the Anima, or feminine principle. She represents the wisdom that is concerned with the underworld, Later she adds “Our Fathers worshipped on this mountain”. The Mountain is here the opposite of the well. But it is then that Jesus says that the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.
In Feb. 1974 a meeting was held at the Christa Seva Prema Ashram in Pune on the theme of the Relevance of St. John’s Gospel for India today. I was invited to this gathering by Cecil Hargreaves, if I remember correctly. I presented on the occasion of this meeting some images from the Gospel of St John, which I had started to think about when decorating the All Saints Church in Srinagar, Kashmir, in 1968. In fact that is how Cecil Hargreaves got to know about my work. For the meeting at the C.P.S. Ashram I did a kind of meditation on the theme of the pot of water. I had been giving lectures at the Papal Seminary in Pune on primal Indian symbols, which later I put together in the form of a book called the Child and the Serpent, which was published by Routledge Kegan and Paul in London in 1980. I had noted that the symbol of the Full Vessel, or ‘purna Kumbham’ has been a basic symbol of lifein Indian folk culture. Vandana Mataji was also present at this meeting, and George Suaris. Later George Suaris worked with some other biblical scholars on what was called a “Dhvani interpretation of the Bible” which came out as an issue of BIBLEBHASHYAM (An Indian Biblical Quarterly) in Dec. 1979. In this issue Dr. Mathew Vellanickal, considered one of the most important biblical scholars at the time in India, presented a paper “Drink from the Source of the Living Waters—A Dhvani interpretation of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.”
The concept of ‘Dhvani’ which is a central idea in Indian Aesthetics, developed by the great Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher Ananda Vardhana in the seventh Cent. Has always fascinated me, and I have also written quite a lot about how this aesthetic idea which means “resonance” or “implied meaning” can be a form of Indian Biblical interpretation. Vandana Mataji brought out a book entitled Waters of Fire (CLS 1981), in which there is a chapter “Jeevan Dhara (Living Streams), “(Chapt. 4) which explores the significance of John 4:14. In fact my painting for the chapel of the Jeevan Dhara Ashram which Vandana Mataji established at Rishikesh is illustrated here at the beginning of this chapter. In this chapel the well with the water pot is the basis for the tabernacle setting. In my painting for this chapel I put two trees on either side of the well, one the Peepul tree (Ficus Religiosa: the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation) and on the other side the Neem Tree, which is a tree of healing.
I mention this because it will give you some idea as to how this particular dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman has played a very important part in Indian Hermeneutics on the Bible, especially the New Testament. I found around this time a small booklet brought out by a Hindu Ashram dedicated to St. Mira (an Indian woman mystic) which was entitled “The Face of the Buddha.” A blurb at the beginning of this booklet says “This book, “THE FACE OF THE BUDDHA”, has been published by the Mira Union in connection with the 78th birthday of Sri T.L.Vaswani (25-11-57) and distributed at a public meeting which will be held in St. Mira’s Hall, Pune.” Sri Vaswani and the St. Mira Union which he founded in Pune is well known for its charitable work, and it is this spirituality of ‘seva’ that he stresses in his understanding of the Buddhist legend of Ananda and the outcaste woman at the well.
In this booklet, on page 20 we read:
The Buddha taught his disciples to see the One Life in all and to respect the least among the lowly and the lost.
Ananda, passing one day by a well and seeing an “untouchable” girl drawing water, asks her for water to drink. She humbly says:--“Oh thou of noble birth! I am an untouchable. How can I give thee water to drink?”
Ananda answers:--“Cast matters nothing to me. I ask for water”.
She gives him water to drink. He drinks it with joy. On learning that Ananda is a disciple of Gautama Buddha, she goes to the Blessed One and says to him –“Master! Teach me the Way of Dhamma”
And the Buddha says to her:--“Blessed art thou! I teach thee the Dhamma of compassion and service”
I am not sure where this incident comes from in the Buddhist tradition. That is not mentioned by Sri Vaswani. But it is clear that what Sri Vaswani wants to bring out here is the Dhamma of Compassion and Service, which was central to his work in the St. Mira Union.
However, this event is expanded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in his little three act play entitled CHANDALIKA. (Rabindranath Tagore: A Tagore Reader Ed. By Amiya Charkavarty. Beacon Press Boston 1966) The play has been translated I believe by Marjorie Sykes, who sent me this play because of my interest in the link of this Buddhist story and the Gospel of St. John.
Well, I cannot give the whole play, but the following dialogue between the Chandala (outcaste) girl and her Mother gives something of the spirit of this little play.
Mother: (calling) Come here. I must talk with you. (To herself) At the well at this time of the day when the earth is burning like a furnace, and water for the day already brought from the well. (Prakriti enters) All the other girls of the village have gotten on with their work, and you sit and melt in the sun for no reason—unless you want to repeat Uma’s penance. Is that why you sit there ?
Prakriti: Yes, Mother.
Mother: Good Heavens! And for whom?
Prakriti: He who has called me.
Mother: Who has called you ?
Prakriti: His words are ringing in my mind: “Give me water”
Mother: “Give me water” God grant it was not some one outside our caste!
Prakriti: He said he was one of us.
Mother: Did you tell him you are a chandalika?
Prakriti: Yes, but he said, “Do not deceive yourself with names. If you call the black cloud a chandal, does it cease to be what it is? Does the water it carries lose its value for our earth? Do not degrade yourself, for self-degradation is a greater sin than suicide.” I can remember every word he spoke to me. He spoke so beautifully to me.
Mother: What nonsense are you saying? Or are you remembering a story from some former birth?
Prakriti: I am telling you the story of my new birth.
Mother: Your new birth ? You are no more my daughter, Prakriti? Tell me. When did this happen?
Prakriti: That noontime while I was washing the motherless calf at the well a yellow-robed monk came and stood before me and said, “Give me water”. I sprang up and did obeisance. When I found my voice I said, “I am a daughter of the Chandals and the water of this well is polluted by my family’s use” He said, “You and I are of the same family. All water that quenches thirst and relieves need is pure” I never heard such words before and with these chandal hands, which never before would have dared touch the dust of his feet, I poured water for him.
Mother: You silly girl, how could you dare such an act? Do you foget who you are and the destiny of your birth?
Prakriti: No, but the cup of water he took from my hands seemed to become an infinite ocean in which all the seven seas flowed together. They drowned my family, my caste and my birth.
Mother; How strange! How strange you are! Even your language is changed. It’s not your own. You are under some one’s spell. What are you saying? Do you understand your own words ?
Prakriti: Was there no water to be had anywhere else in this whole village? Why did he come to this particular well? Why did he come Mother, if not to bless me with a new life? Surely, he was seeking an occasion for such a deed. In a holy place he could not have found water that would give him the opportunity to further the mission of his life. He said : “So Seeta bathed in water such as this, which was fetched by a chandal Guhak, at the beginning of her exile in the forest.”
Mother; Child, listen to me. I do not like this. These monks have a way of changing other people’s minds by words. Today I can hardly understand you. Tomorrow your very face may seem foreign to me. I am frightened.
I think that will give you some kind of flavour of the direction that Tagore’s play takes. He sees the event as also having erotic overtones. The theme of Sringara, or erotic love, is essential to Indian drama. Of course even in the Bible the meeting at the well is also understood as a setting for a love scene, and marriage proposal as in the story of Rachel. Asking for water has all kinds of implications in Indian thought. In miniature paintings we see the young hero coming in the heat of the day to the well, and asking a girl to give him water. But this whole question of purity and pollution in relation to the water, is very typically an Indian concern. You get places in the city (at least in the old days) where there are three water pots, marked with signs showing that one is for Christians, the other for Muslims, and the third for Hindus. There are a number of songs of Kabir where he says that the water pots are different, but the water is the same. The earthen water pot symbolizes the body. Of course the whole incident is also seen as a critique of the caste system, at least in the Buddhist tradition. Ananda, who was meant to have been the beloved disciple of Buddha, rather like John was the beloved disciple of Jesus, was himself a convert from being an outlaw. That is another long story, but one which is important to the Buddhist tradition, where the outlaw bandit chases Buddha in order to kill him, but cannot catch up with the Buddha, who seems just to be walking, but cannot be reached. So the Bandit cries out Stop ! I cannot reach you! And the Buddha says to him: “The reason why you cannot reach me and touch me, is because you are running away from yourself” It is this bandit outlaw who then is converted, and becomes Ananda. So there are stories behind stories as is always the case in India.
Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the way this Buddhist story belonging to several centuries before Christ, is very similar to the Gospel account, though taking up perhaps different issues. There was a Jesuit priest called Fr. Ignatius Hirudayam in Madras, who started an Ashram called Aikya Alaya, or the house of Unity. He brought out a book entitle “In Spirit and In Truth” in 1985 just before he died, in which there are various essays by different people relating to the Ashram ideal. Of course these words “In Spirit and Truth” are also part of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman at the well.
In Sri Vaswani’s little booklet there is a small line drawing of the woman at the well with Ananda, which I believe comes from a set of paintings on the life of Buddha which is in the monastery at Sarnath, near Benares, where Buddha gave his first sermon. I find in this image two symbols given very prominent meaning. On the one hand there is the pot of the woman, from which the water is pouring out, and on the other hand there is the Buddhist monk receiving this water in his begging bowl. There is a whole meaning given in Buddhist tradition to the begging bowl of the monk, in particular to the begging bowl of the lord Buddha. There is a famous image in the caves at Ajanta, which shows the Lord Buddha in very much the same posture, with his begging bowl, and on the left side of the fresco we see his wife, carrying his child. The legend is that the Buddha returned to his home to beg for his child.
There is an important legend in South India about the begging bowl of Buddha which is discovered by an low caste dancing girl, who uses this bowl to feed the hungry. Ananda Coomaraswamy sees in this legend a parallel to the Holy Grail tradition in the West. Anyway, that is another aspect of this Waters of Eternal Life idea which we find all over the world, and which is certainly very important in India.
I hope that this information may be of some use to you. I have certainly enjoyed tracking down some of this material among my own notes, as the theme of the Woman at the Well has been an important one in Indian Christian art, probably because of the whole caste and Dalit issue. In fact I have noted that in Indian Christian art this story, and also the Journey to Emmaus, have been seen as important Gospel narratives which resonate with Indian spirituality.
Finally, going through the notes I have typed out here I would like to mention that in Tagore’s play the Chandal girl is called Prakriti. This word actually means nature. So in a way Tagore is also relating the woman at the well to Nature. Perhaps one could find in this approach also an ecological significance, in that the monk/Guru who represents the metacosmic spiritual dimension of Reality, comes to something very ordinary and earthly like a well, to ask for water to drink. In fact in his commentary on the “Dhvani interpretation of the Dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman” Fr. Mathew Vellanickal stresses :
The initiative is taken by God who meets us in ordinary circumstances of life and that in the midst of our existential problems. The human considerations and prejudices are often a hindrance to recognize God confronting us with a challenge to recognize Him in spite of appearances.
Only a recognition of our basic thirst for God and an awareness of our unrest resulting from going after one supposed satisfaction to another, will lead us to God, the authentic source of the living water that will quench our thirst for ever. Only passing through the painful process of self-discovery and self-exposure to the penetrating and purifying revelatory light and power of God we can reach the full recognition of God confronting us and be enriched by the living water that will quench for ever our thirst for life.
That, it seems to me, would be a very typical Indian interpretation of the story, both in the Gospel and the Buddhist tradition, that it is finally self knowledge, and an inner liberation from the illusion of names and forms that is the call of the Spiritual life. Could one say that in this dialogue at the well, we are presented with the outline of the “Yoga of Jesus” which is also the Way of Jesus. In one of the chapters in the collection of essays dedicated to Fr. Ignatius Hirudayam sj, founder of the Aikiya Alayam, which is entitled “In Spirit and in Truth” we find an exposition on the theme of Death and the New Life: A reading of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri by K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar (pp 67-81) Here Sri Aurobindo outlines in a poetic way, based on the legend of Savitri found in the Mahabharata, what he considers to be the Integral Yoga. Savitri goes down into the underworld to recover from Yama (who is also Dhamma) the soul that has died. It is this journey down into the very well of existence, that is the prelude to an ascent (symbolized by the mountain) which is also the discovery of that form of worship which is based on the Spirit and Truth.
In a way one could find in the story of the meeting by the Well, a Gospel version of the Song of Songs. The dialogue is about a relationship of covenant between heaven and earth. Jesus, of the house of David, is the new Solomon, who here encounters the feminine principle who is also Wisdom disguised in the person of one who has been despised and rejected by a male dominated culture. We are reminded of the story of Jacob who met Rachel by a well.
“As he looked he saw a well in the field, and lo, three flocks of sheep lying bside it; for out of that well the flocks were watered. .....
Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her Father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father...”
This becomes the basis of one of the most famous love stories in the Bible. And it is precisely at this well that Jesus meets the woman who challenges him: “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle ?” John 4 12.
In Tagore’s understanding of the Buddhist story of Ananda meeting an outcaste woman at the well, the discussion is not just an abstract exchange on philosophic issues, but a real meeting of hearts, which is the beginning of her own journey in search of spiritual self understanding. In the Indian context we need to discover again this dimension of the deep bond between the male and the female which is also essential for the Integration Process in every human being. It is that relationship of covenant as love, which is stronger even than death, that the Song of Songs celebrates.
Set me as a seal upon your hear ; as a seal upon your arm
For love is strong as death---many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Song of Songs 8:6,7
Jyoti Sahi. 25-06-2009