Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On the Forgotten Art of Turning Into a Tree


A syncretic melding of three ideas, from three diverse sources, expressed in three quotes I've stumbled across can perhaps shed some light on whatever the hell is going on. All three concern the interplay of the gods, the priesthood and the poetic imagination.

Knowing Thus

The first comes from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad  (section 1.4.10 from Max Müller's 1879 translation), a text I referred to in a recent post. It presents possibly the world's first cosmic conspiracy theory:

10. Verily in the beginning this was Brahman, that Brahman knew (its) Self only, saying, 'I am Brahman.' From it all this sprang. Thus, whatever Deva was awakened (so as to know Brahman), he indeed became that (Brahman); and the same with Rishis and men. The Rishi Vâmadeva saw and understood it, singing, 'I was Manu (moon), I was the sun.' Therefore now also he who thus knows that he is Brahman, becomes all this, and even the Devas cannot prevent it, for he himself is their Self.

Now if a man worships another deity, thinking the deity is one and he another, he does not know. He is like a beast for the Devas. For verily, as many beasts nourish a man, thus does every man nourish the Devas. If only one beast is taken away, it is not pleasant; how much more when many are taken! Therefore it is not pleasant to the Devas that men should know this.

Brahman is the original and all-pervasive non-dual essence of everything. Just by being deeply aware that there is in truth nothing that is separate from Self, the ṛṣis (poet-seers), the gods and human individuals have the ability to become all that brahman is. Knowledge of this fact makes one extremely powerful. It is this knowledge that the gods actively try to prevent humans from attaining.


According to the verse, we are like beasts of burden, or Matrix-style energy batteries, that supply nourishment to the gods. If we knew the truth we would be instantly released from this enslaved condition. The parallel with the Gnostic doctrine of the Archons is obvious, but it should be kept in mind that this text dates from around 700 BCE, many centuries before Gnosticism arrived on the scene.

Robert Calasso's unrivaled book on Indian mythology, Ka, provides an even clearer presentation of this verse:

As if continuing where Atri had left off, Vasiṣṭha said: "The neutral divine, brahman, comes before the gods. ‘In the beginning brahman alone existed.' The gods, ‘as they gradually woke up to it, became it.' This is the decisive step: awakening. Something invisible that happens within thought. Something that adds a new quality to thought: consciousness. To become aware that one is thinking: this is to enter into brahman. The gods entered there, the ṛṣis likewise, and finally men too. ‘He who knows thus,' ya evaṃ veda, the ever-repeated formula that divides men into those who know and those who don't, refers to this knowledge. 

The gods would like to banish ‘he who knows thus' from that state, but ‘they cannot prevent it.' And why is it that the gods don't invite man to enter into brahman, why do they try rather, and with treacherous insistence, to lead him astray? Because without that knowledge man is no more than a ‘herding beast' to the gods. And herds of men are useful to the gods, in just the way that herds of beasts are useful to men. They constitute wealth. ‘That an animal be stolen is regrettable; but how much more regrettable if a large number of animals be stolen. Hence it is irritating for the gods that men should know this.' Where ‘this' means brahman. Thus began and thus goes on the taciturn hostility between gods and men."

The inner reality of one's self is identical with the inner reality of Self. This formula is now so widespread in New Age and other circles that it has become almost a cliché. Actual and effective awareness of this identity, however, is something that is extremely difficult and something, according to the verse, that the gods do everything in their power to stop us from discovering.

The very fact it has become a sort of pseudo-mystical cliché indicates a further layer of deception from the Devas. When we become unconvinced of our power we certainly do not possess it.


And the power of brahman is the power of continual creation at will. It is the power of the imagination. Unlike most humans, the gods and the ṛṣis have never entirely surrendered this power. They still create, knowing the primal source of this creation, and thus have the ability to attain full awareness of non-separation.

But who are the gods? Who are the seers? As Calasso repeatedly points out, there is no definitive answer in the Indian scriptures as to who came first -- the gods or the ṛṣis? The scriptures are also not clear on the relationship of men to the ancient seers. Are the ṛṣis human or not? Different texts say different things.


This where a second quote from an entirely different source might help. This comes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), and is something I've quoted before in a different context. Blake likely had no direct knowledge of the Upanishads when he wrote this, but he was certainly familiar with the Bhagavad-Gita (in the form of the 1784 English translation by Sir Charles Wilkins), in which many of the same ideas are present. His own thoughts, though, move one step even further back:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

The ancient Poets, recognizably the ṛṣis, are identified as human beings. It was they who first animated the natural world with gods and spirits. Like brahman their imagination brought the world to life. In Blake's version, then, it was the seers who came before the gods. In this version the gods do not seem to possess autonomy until the poetic vision is systematized. It was this system imposed upon "the vulgar" -- unaware men -- that brought about humanity's spiritual enslavement.


Two things occurred: the gods became separated or abstracted from their objects, and the Priesthood formed. The gods as oppressors, as herders of men, as beings jealous of our ability to know, only began at this point. The union of spirit with matter was severed. And, most crucially, the gods arose simultaneously with the order of priests. Priests here are twisted seers -- creators who cease to create and become bitterly jealous of new and independent revelation.

The origin of religion is in this way unveiled in the passage. Religion stems from poetry, from imaginative animation, from a making that has become stale, abstracted and codified. The gods did not create us. We, while awakened seers, created them. Yet now the gods and the priests exist in parasitic co-dependence. Both support the other in order to perpetuate the lie.

At present men are fallen seers, although not as aware and so not as consciously evil as the priests, who now nourish the gods with their powers of perception and belief. We have forgotten that the transforming imagination emanates from our own hearts.


I have seen the God Pan

It is this transformative power which is the specific focus of the third quote. This arrives from Ezra Pound (in his Literary Essays), a poet directly influenced by Blake through Pound's friend and mentor Yeats, on the "tradition of metamorphoses." Pound outlines our changing relationship with the gods, and the hardening of myth into dogma:

Our only measure of truth is, however, our own perception of truth. The undeniable tradition of metamorphoses teaches us that things do not remain always the same. They become other things by swift and unanalysable process.

It was only when man began to mistrust the myths and to tell nasty lies about the Gods for a moral purpose that the matters became hopelessly confused. Then some unpleasing Semite or Parsee or Syrian began to use myths for social propaganda, when the myths were degraded into an allegory or a fable, and that was the beginning of the end. And the Gods no longer walked in men's gardens. The first myths arose when a man walked sheer into 'nonsense,' that is to say, when some very vivid and undeniable adventures befall him, and he told someone else who called him a liar.

Thereupon after bitter experience, and perceiving that no one could understand what he meant when he said that he 'turned into a tree' he made a myth- a work of art that is- an impersonal or objective story woven out of his emotion, as the nearest equation that he was capable of putting into words. The story, perhaps, then gave rise to a weaker copy of his emotion in others until there arose a cult, a company of people who could understand each other's nonsense about the gods. 

If we study the global mythopoetic tradition, there is really no denying that sudden metamorphosis occasionally does take place. Things will at times spontaneously become other things. Men and women will become animals, plants and monsters and this process will often reverse itself.

This is of course complete bullshit for scientific materialists. Transformation does occur in nature, but it happens in conformity to set laws. A thing does not change its form according to the whim or will of a deity or a magician.  The universe has rules. It's my experience that this is precisely what scientific materialists abhor the most about religion.


God, as a deistic blind watchmaker, is really not a problem if He follows the physical laws. This the materialists, and even atheists, can accept. It is the miracle that they chiefly despise. Any suggestion that the laws of physics can and do break down at singular moments -- black holes and the Big Bang laid conveniently aside -- is an immense threat to their existential sense of stability and regularity.

But metamorphosis implies something that transcends the defined boundaries of space and time. This is the groundless ground of the imagination, and it is the shifting of this ground that Pound sets out to explore.

Metamorphosis is a "swift and unanalysable process." There was once a time that wasn't a "time" when the imagination had full reign. The seers or the poets or the makers, those who animated objects of the senses with spirits, were in full awareness of the process by which the world was perpetually created anew by brahman. And they were aware that this same process could be harnessed by themselves.

Pound, like Blake, tries to explain how this time -- really a Golden Age -- gradually faded from view. As with Blake, the devolution of the imagination begins with the priests. Pound, typically, speculates that the first priest may have been "some unpleasing Semite or Parsee or Syrian,"but really his or her ethnicity is beside the point. This could have happened anywhere, but perhaps it did initially occur in the ancient Near East where the first city states became established.


Wherever this originated, however, myths became reduced to empty fables or conduits of social and political propaganda. As with Blake and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, visionary experience was molded in order to justify a lie and to prop up a privileged caste and a system of control. The fixing of things also begins at this point. Nature too became a State.

And, as in the previous texts, our relationship with the gods also changed. They "no longer walked in men's gardens." The gods once inextricably wed with the flow of our own sense perception, became divorced, abstracted, distant and tyrannical. They became the monsters of the priests.

The Production of Monsters

Another excellent book by Robert Calasso, one that beautifully weaves together Greek myths in the same way that Ka does for Indian myths, is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. In a discussion of the invention of the labyrinth by Daedalus (or Dedalus) on Crete, he begins to riff, in a passage very reminiscent of Pound, on "the developing history of metamorphoses":  

This development depended, in turn, on the developing history of metamorphoses. Form would become manifest insofar as they underwent metamorphosis. Each form had its own perfect sharpness, so long as it retained that form, but everybody knew that a moment later it might become something else. At the time of Europa and Io, the veil of epiphany was still operating. The bellowing bull, the crazed cow, would once again appear as god and girl. But as generation followed generation, metamorphosis became more difficult, and the fatal nature of reality, its irreversibility, all the more evident. 

Only a generation after Europa, Pasiphaë would have to crouch inside a wooden cow, a big toy on wheels, and have herself pushed as far as the meadows of Gortyn, where the bull she desired was grazing. And from their union was born a creature who would never be able to go back to being either beast or man. He would be a hybrid, forever. And just as the craftsman Daedalus had had to invent an inanimate object to allow the mother to love the bull, so now he had to invent another object, the labyrinth, to conceal the son. The Minotaur would be slain, Pasiphaë was to die in captivity and shame. Humans could no longer gain access to other forms and return from them. The veil of epiphany was rent and tattered now. If the power of metamorphosis was to be maintained, there was no alternative but to invent objects and generate monsters. 

The veil of epiphany is now rent and tattered. Metamorphosis becomes hardened and contained in invention, in technology. The priests always were scientists. All processes have now become irreversible. There is only one direction to time, only one movement -- towards death.


And yet the nature of brahman, of the imagination, has not been altered. It is as boundless and as lawless as ever. Only the lie deepened. Only our belief in the lie became more unquestioned, to the point where it is now almost unquestionable. As Pound testifies, metamorphosis still happens. Occasionally an unusually sensitive soul will stumble into sheer nonsense. The laws fly apart once more -- think of the descent into fairyland or UFO encounters -- yet we have learned to censor our own perception.

An experience like turning into a tree -- actually fairly common in Greek myth -- becomes objectified into a story, into a work of art, into religious dogma, into the mass-production of monsters. Or else metamorphosis is not spoken of at all. The imagination becomes self-silenced. The jealous gods fleece their flock for another season. Nonsense is denied and time stomps relentlessly forward.


  1. This is anon again from the previous Frazer/Guenon remarks. Outstanding post. I'm still saturating in the key insight of how you articulate that gradual separation of spirit and matter, or "The Fall". Blake has never made more sense to me in the way you incorporate him here. Will definitely have to read the two Calasso references you cite as well.

  2. Excerpted from Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian:
    The common assumption was that the Egyptians invented their hieroglyphs solely ‘to express the mysteries of their religion and theology, so they might be concealed from the prophane vulgar.’
    Hieroglyphic writing was generally held to be an epiphenomenon of mystery, invented to protect the truth from abuse and misunderstanding, and vulgarization, and to protect the political institutions from truths that would shatter their foundations. The origin of hieroglyphic writing was inextricably linked with the rise of the ‘twofold philosophy’ which distinguished between popular beliefs and esoteric religion. Natural religion in its primitive state of original monotheism had no need for writing. Writing became necessary only with the development of a state or ‘political society’ (assumed to have first occurred in Egypt), when the people began to deify their first kings and lawgivers.
    Religion then began to split into the politically supportive but fundamentally fictitious beliefs of the people and the knowledge of the priests, which was potentially destructive. It was then that the priests had to invent a code for transmitting their dangerous wisdom. Hieroglyphics was the ‘veil’ which they wrapped around their tradition in order to protect both the state and the truth.

    Warburton’s objection to this theory was simple and reasonable. He looked into the origins of other writing systems and found that no original writing was ever invented for the sole purpose of secrecy. Cryptography was always a secondary invention based on existing primary writing systems. The natural functions of writing were related to memorization and communication, but not to arcanization.

  3. The honey of the self is Brahman. The priest needs the gods. Noon sense me thinks. Respectfully, Dennis

  4. Schiller emphasized the antagonistic relationship between official religion and mystery cults. He explained polytheism not as a strategic function, necessary for civil society and political order, but as a consequence of natural depravation. In Schiller’s opinion, secrecy was a later development, which was necessary to protect the political order from a possibly dangerous truth and to protect the truth from vulgar abuse and misunderstanding.
    Schiller took the Saitic formula [from the Temple of the Veiled Isis (Nature) at Sais], ‘I am all that is, that was, and that shall be,’ to be the negation of a name and the proclamation of an anonymous god. Moses went through all the stages of initiation (which Schiller estimates took some 20 years) until he was brought to contemplate the anonymous Nature in its ineffable sublimity.
    In transcending the realm of human cognition, this unknowable deity would become increasingly identified with the sublimity of ‘Nature’. In the same year (1790), Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft appeared. In it he mentions in a footnote the veiled image at Sais and its inscription as the highest expression of the sublime:
    Perhaps nothing more sublime was ever said or no sublime thought ever expressed than the famous inscription on the temple of Isis (mother nature): ‘I am all this is and that shall be, and no mortal has lifted my veil…’ [These words] inspire beforehand the apprentice when he was about to lead into the temple with a holy awe, which should dispose his mind to serious attention.’
    Nature cannot be looked directly in the face, but can only be studied a posteriori. During Schiller’s time, nature was often represented as a young woman in the figure of Isis, not with a veil covering her face but wearing a veil that is dragging behind like a sail to convey the swiftness of her motion. A philosopher with a lantern is studying her footprints from afar. The motif of the veiled image and its unveiling appear often on the title pages of scientific and alchemistic books.
    It was this sublime and abstract God that Moses had come to accept in the course of his Egyptian initiation and that he had dared – at least partly – to reveal this God to his people.

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