“Come to my Country !”
Meditating on artas a rite of passage.
The idea of a voyage resonates deeply with a spiritual quest. Every culture encapsulates the ‘rites of passage’. Cultures are never static, but rather like migrant birds, cross over geographic boundaries. W.B.Yeats, in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” says “Monuments of unageing intellect……..gather me,into the artifice of eternity.” 1
What the poet is searching for is a place where “…images that yet, Fresh images beget.(‘Byzantium’). Here is a land of the imagination, where “birds on the trees….set upon a golden bough to sing….of what is past, or passing, or to come”. (‘Sailing to Byzantium’). The artifice has a timeless quality, which is beyond the “common bird or petal, And all complexities of mire or blood.” (‘Byzantium’)2
The mystical poet Kabir of the 15th century, says:
"The arrow of the song has pierced me !
Come to my country."
But what is this country of which Kabir repeatedly reminds us ?
"I’m a bird from another country, my friend
I don’t belong to this country…"
Like a migrant bird, or “Hamsa”, the soul is forever restless for another land. Of this ‘Hamsa’, or swan, Kabir speaks:
Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.
From what land do you come, O Swan ? to what shore will you fly ?
Where would you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek ?….
There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule; where the terror of death
is no more.
There the woods of spring are a-bloom and the fragrant scent ‘He is I’
is borne on the wind;
There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed, and desires no other joy.
(Poems of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, XII)
The poet, or artist, longs to discover the land of the imagination. Here the forms that embody dreams, are not temporal like the “complexities of mire or blood”. And yet, this inner landscape of the spiritual quest, has its own alchemy, of
…sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall…
(‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
Flames that no fagot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flames..
Wrought in this inner furnace of the heart, base metal is transformed into deathless gold. The elemental is given a new meaning in the icon; and sacred architecture, built from the natural substances of clay, rock or timber, reach upward to a spiritual world, transforming the physical reality of the world in,which we live and die. The voyage is itself a passage into another subtle world of symbol, and the “sign within the sign” (Kabir.)
The Spirit of the Place.
There is a close connection between the imagination and what some artists have called the “spirit of a place”. This link goes back to the primal roots of culture, when wandering peoples felt that certain places were inhabited by a Presence. It is this Presence in a place which speaks to the
imagination. I have often played with the idea that a Site, that is a geographic place having very specific features, also has a kind of Sight. We speak of ‘sight-seeing’. The traveler goes in search of a site. But it is not only we who see the site, the place also sees us. Mircea Eliade speaks of places having a hierophany. That means that a place is also the location for a vision—an epiphany. Through entering a place, and deeply engaging with that geographic site, we realize a new kind of vision.
Culture has arisen out of this engagement between a particular community and a place. The early emergence of the concept of ‘nation-hood’, was from a deep seated feeling of belonging to a particular place, so that blood and mire, as W.B.Yeats puts it in his poem about Byzantium, get inter-mingled. Blood, symbolizing the forces of life that run through the body of an individual, become part of the earth where the individual lives and dies. The redness of the earth, what the poet William Blake understood as “Beulah”, the red clay from which the Creator fashioned the body of the human being, is linked symbolically to the colour of human flesh. In fact the body itself is a “place”.
The poet Kabir often uses the metaphor of an earthen vessel to describe the body. “Come to my land” is an invitation to experience what his body senses—to see the world as his body sees it. “Come to my land” is thus a passage into the physical world of those who inhabit the land, for whom the land is their way of seeing, listening, tasting and touching. It is a communion with the other, by sharing not only the home of the other, but also eating the same food that nourishes the physical body of the other. This is the essence of that human culture of hospitality. And yet, as Yeats reminds us in his two poems on Byzantium, a country, or its culture, is not just something material, or tangible. It is also a vision, which reaches out to a shore that is a step “into the artifice of eternity”
Once out of nature I
shall never take
My bodily form from any
But such a form as
Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold, and
(“Sailing to Byzantium”)
“Byzantium” is not just a place on the Bosphorus, a place that represented a vibrant culture for more than a thousand years. Byzantium is for Yeats, a city of the mind, a memory that is also a way into his own inner world of imagining. This city becomes for him a heavenly city, an image of a place which lies beyond this world, and its mundane geography.
People nowadays tend to speak of a “global culture” and this seems to imply an art which has no local roots, being rather like some modern airport, or shopping mall, a place that is like every other place. But we all know that such places have no culture, they are really nowhere, and no-thing. Culture, like a living tree, always has its roots in a particular place, with its own very unique geographic setting. The uniqueness, and creativity of a particular vision, emerges out of this “sense of place”, be it the place where we live, or visit as a place of pilgrimage; or that inner place, of the heart. It is through our body that we experience the world around us. Again as Kabir says:
Where did you come from ?
Where are you going ?
Get the news from your body !!
That is why it is important that no matter where we travel, we must always listen to what our own body is telling us. We experience the outer world through the body, and so it is the body that mediates to world to our consciousness.
The Message of the Voyage.
Henry Corbin has written an essay on “the theme of the Voyage and the Messenger”.3 It was Corbin who coined the term “the imaginal”. He discusses “The Story of the Bird” as it appears in
Iranian mystical Sufi literature.
“In an ecstatic ascension of the mind, it crosses the valleys and ranges of the cosmic mountain of Qaf. It was this story of Avicenna’s which Fariduddin ‘Attar orchestrated so magnificently into the mystical epic entitled ‘The Language of the Birds’” (p.145).
The Modern playwright and director, Peter Brook, developed this ‘Conference of the Birds’ (as
it is also sometimes called) into an understanding of story-telling and dramatic action. For Peter Brook the ‘space’ in which the actors play their parts, is the cosmic space, the ‘empty space’ which is also like the prayer carpet that the devout Muslim carries with him.4 It is like a portable mosque, something that can be rolled up and transported by a migrant people. But it is a place that can be rolled out anywhere, at any time. As Shakespeare was to say, the stage is at once a specific site, but also a microcosm, a universe of its own.
More and more modern individuals are becoming nomadic like their primal ancestors. The period of settlements, more or less permanent, which defined the individual, is disappearing. An urbanized, shifting population, is no longer rooted to an agricultural plot of land. We become birds of passage, but this does not mean that we no longer communicate with the land. The four
elements of earth, water, light energy and air, continue to be the medium through which we are able to listen to the voice that speaks to us through our bodies.
There is a deep link between bio diversity, and cultural diversity. A culture emerges out of the contact between a human community and the landscape that enfolds a settlement. Culture and nature are not opposed to each other, rather culture is the response that human beings make to nature. The fact that natural environments differ from one geographic context to another, means that cultures as they have emerged historically have also assumed very different forms. But still these cultural differences do constitute a challenge to human unity, and dialogue. Where human communities are on the move, the cultural forms that they evolve in their historical journey from place to place, give rise to tensions and misunderstandings. Cultures are, as we have already
remarked, never static. Constantly people are meeting and interacting in new ways—and this changing pattern of relationships constitutes the vitality and adaptability of cultures. But in the
process of exchange, there is always the resistance brought about by the very need to evolve new forms of culture. Cultural growth, or evolution, is itself a process of parturition, of having to come out of the past, in order to embrace the future. That is why culture is intimately connected to rites of passage. This is an essential way of understanding the life journey of the individual, whose path through the various stages beginning with birth, and concluding with death, mirrors in a way the life cycles that we find in nature. Every living form passes through stages of inception, germination and growth, followed by decline, and concluding in disintegration and dissolution back into the common humus from which life emerges, and to which all living beings return. Thus a philosopher like Aristotle related all forms of conscious evolution to biological rhythms that we find in nature. Civilizations rise and fall in the same way that natural processes develop, only to finally disintegrate, and give rise to new life forms.5
But whereas in nature these rhythms of life take place without the resistance brought about by the individual will to oppose change, in human cultures what we call a “tradition” is always in dialectical conflict with what is new, and questioning past solutions in the light of new conditions. Creativity is a perennial challenge to the structures of tradition. Tradition is often equated with what is dead and out-dated, whereas the vibrant and living aspects of a culture look towards the future, and value the necessity to change with the times.
Of course, change is not always good. There is a change that is for the worse, a change that is the
beginning of a decline. To be sick, is to change in a negative sense. Cultures degenerate, and there a radical approach to re-vitalizing a culture has to discriminate between what is living, and what is dying in a cultural tradition. Coomaraswamy once made the rather mis-understood comment “from primitive man to modern man—what a decline !!!” Gandhi was also accused of condemning modernity, and wanting to go back to the past. To be “modern” is not necessarily to be better, or more healthy. There is much in modern society that is clearly a loss of integrity, involving a loss of culture. Globalization, for example, involves radical and far reaching processes of change. But these are not necessarily for the better. But this is not because change in itself is bad. Change is necessary, as the world in which we live, indeed the very natural environment in which we are, is constantly in a process of change. The Buddha was to point out that nobody can enter the same river twice. The flow of life giving waters in a river, mean that what we might perceive as the same river, is in fact constantly changing. We need, however to understand change, in the context of life, rather than disease and death. What remains as a connecting thread, is the will to live; culture needs to be renewed, and in that process, to be transformed.
Pilgrimage as a process of change
From ancient times to go on a journey is itself a rite of passage. Thus the symbol of the boat, to
take one example, is an invitation to set out on a voyage. Civilization have their origins in the will to go on a quest, to reach out to further shores. “Mission” properly understood, is the call to cross over boundaries, to set out for a land that we do not know, to meet people that we have never encountered before. If we look carefully at the spirit underlying what is known as the “Acts of the Apostles”, we find that there is a call to go beyond what is known, to reach that which we do not know, and do not understand. It is a call to encounter, and dialogue with the “other”. There is an apocryphal saying of Jesus which has been inscribed over the gate that Akbar built at Fathepur-Sikri, near Agra, which reads : “Jesus, on whom be peace, said: The world is a bridge—cross over it, but do not build your house on it.” Life, as we understand it in this mortal state, is a transition. It is a time in-between two states of being. It is the Way, or ‘Marga’. It is not the goal. It is this understanding of the human journey that underlies the sacramental nature of taking to the road, on a pilgrimage.
The cultural hero, as in the Mahabharata, has to go into exile, visiting the wilderness of the forest, mountain or desert. The passage into the unknown is called a “Thirtha Yatra”, or pilgrimage to the sources (Thirtha) from which the life of a whole landscape comes. The Thirtha is a spring, and in Jainism the cultural hero is a “Thirthankara”; one who crosses over the source to find the further shore. But what the seeker is looking for is not just a living source of water, which evolves into a stream, and eventually flows like a great river to meet the ocean. What the seeker is journeying towards is not just a place in the landscape, that is a sacred ground, but rather the quest is for an inner place of meeting (sangha) where traditions flow together, creating a new entity. Many little streams contribute to the great river that we might link to a civilization, and this river itself finally merges with the ocean. Unity here is not a negation of diversity, but a discovery of diversity in unity.
Crossing over, as a way of
The mysterious principle underlying the quest, the call to visit another “country” from the place where one is born and bred, is that only by travelling far away to another land, can one find oneself. There are many stories like that which indicate that it is only possible to find the treasure that lies buried in the centre of one’s own home, by stepping out to look for it, in answer to a dream that calls the seeker to another land. In Indian art theory, to dance, is to “step over”
or to “trans-gress”. The Lord of the Dance, Shiva, is the one who steps over the demon of blindness (Andhaka) who lies beneath his foot, resting on the ground. The lifted leg of the dancer
is a sign of ‘Moksha’, or liberation. The dancer plays with what is firm, rooted in the particular place where the dancer stands, and the dancer’s will to step forward into the unknown. In the Islamic tradition, the whirling Dervish, is like the door, or ‘Darvaza’, which also is attached to the
vertical beam of the doorway. The door swings to and fro, allowing the seeker to pass from the outer to the inner, from the visible world to the invisible mystery.
Dance is the sacrament of movement; it is also the transforming liberation of the body. To dance, is to re-create the universe. It is a cosmic expression. The Creator is a dancer—and the dance is also the mystery of destruction. Creation and destruction come together in the dance—life and death. Dance is energy, action, but also stillness. To be a dancer is to know the secret of repose. In the same way that music revolves around the eternal Silence, dance hinges on the axis of stillness. It is in this image of the dance that all opposites come together:
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
The image of the ruin.
From the time of the Romantic poets in Europe, the ruin has evoked a sense of culture finally returning to nature. The romantic artist Carl Jasper Friederich made many pictures in which the ruined edifice of a Gothic Church, seems to crumble back into the primal forest from where many of its architectural forms derive their symbolic force. The Holy Ground, whether in Europe or in India, carries the significance of the primal sacred grove. The Temple, with its hall of a thousand pillars, reminds one of the garden of Cyrus, here turned to stone.6 The image of the ‘Garden of Cyrus’ was developed by the philosopher and alchemist Sir Thomas Brown as a basis for his understanding of culture as a way of cultivating nature, of discovering in nature the underlying structures of the whole universe. The gardener, like Adam, is the archetypal ruler, or
Prophetic King, whose task is to maintain the order that underlies the whole universe, of which the enclosed garden or Paradise, is a microcosm.
In the Koranic story (18: 61-83, known as ‘The Cave’) we hear the legend of Moses and Khidr. Moses goes on a spiritual quest with his disciple to find the mysterious Khidr, who is a teacher of the prophets.7 (In Arabic the honorific title ‘al-Khidr’ means ‘The Green One’) Moses finds Khidr where two oceans meet, and Khidr agrees to take Moses on a spiritual quest, as long as he refrains from asking questions. They have various adventures together, and repeatedly Moses is shocked by the strange actions of Khidr, and cannot help challenging him by asking him the meaning of what he does. Finally they arrive at a small village, where none of the inhabitants are willing to welcome them. Khidr discovers a ruined wall, which he proceeds to repair. Moses cannot help remonstrate with Khidr “If you had wanted, you could have demanded wages for doing this !” Khidr finally loses his patience with Moses, saying “This is where you and I part ways, but I will now give you the explanation of the things to which you could not forbear objecting”
Khidr now reveals that under the ruined wall there lies a treasure. This treasure has been buried
there by a devout man, whose two sons are now orphans. Khidr is repairing the ruined wall, so that when the boys come of age, they can come to this place, and dig up the treasure which has been buried for them there. The story of Khidr is itself a parable relating to the spiritual quest. Often this strange spirit of the Green seems to be linked to that which is destroyed. He probably represents the spirit of regeneration in every cultural tradition. Under the ruin lies hidden and buried the seed-treasure of the future. Khidr is the guardian of that which has yet to be revealed, but which remains hidden in the unconscious. In the Sufi traditions of Islam he is linked to water, and also to Jesus, who according to one account, had the power to walk on the waters, and to save those who were drowning. The strange, incomprehensible acts of Khidr are related to the genius of the unconscious. Finally he tells Moses, the law-giver, who is shocked by the apparent irrationality of Khidr’s symbolic acts: “I certainly did not do this of my own accord”. He, like the spirit on Nature, acts in accordance with the hidden purposes of the Divine Creator, whose compassion we cannot understand.
The ruin seems to be the end of all that human industry has laboured to erect. In harmony with the cycles of time, what humans achieve, has finally to crumble and return to the soil from which these edifices arose. Nature moves in, and takes over the proud constructs that human beings have made. Nature teaches us humility. In fact, according to one tradition, the reason why the great prophet Moses was sent by God to find Khidr, arose from his own assertion that he, Moses, was the wisest man of all. God shows to Moses that there is someone wiser than him, who can be found at the “confluence of the oceans”. Here he discovers aprimal vision, which is far older than prophecy, but which holds the mysterious key to the meaning of life.
Today we live in what appear to beapocalyptic times. Kabir, the mystic, speaks of a mystery that lies beyond the human constructions of Temple or Mosque. Kabir cries:
It’s just as well, my pitcher shattered-
I’m free of all that hauling water !
The burden on my head is gone……..
A single well, Kabira—
And water-bearers many!
Pots of every shape and size
But the water always One.
(‘Bhala Hua Meri Gagri Phooti’ by Kabir)
Here the artist becomes the iconoclast. Beyond the created form, lies a mystery that no words can contain. The image has to be destroyed, to discover the formless that lies beyond all form. There is an elemental beauty in these images, which reminds us that all forms of Culture have to return to the sources of Nature, which are like the primal golden egg—what the Islamic tradition referred to as ‘Sifr”, the ‘Nought’ from which all number derives. This is the Sypher that art points to—what the poet Yates calls “the artifice of eternity’ (in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
Jyoti Sahi Dec. 2008
‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from The Tower.(1928) by W.B.Yeats, Selected Poetry
‘Byzantium’ from The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) by W.B Yeats. Selected Poetry
‘The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy’ by Henry Corbin translated by Joseph Rowe, 1998
Chapter: ‘The Theme of the Voyage and the Messenger’ pp. 135-163
Cf ‘Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa’ by John Heilpern. Routledge 1999
Cf “The Preference for the Primitive” by E.H.Gombrich. 2002. Section on ‘Aristotle on Growth and Decay’ pp. 15-16
Cf “The Garden of Cyrus, or Net-work plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered” by Sir Thomas Brown (1658)
The following notes are derived from ‘Khidr: The History of the Ubiquitous Master’ by Shawkat M. Toorana.