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Inner Revolutions

For most, the term revolution brings to mind matters of nations and politics. We see irruption, violence and wars in which all involved parties incur tremendous loss. However, on a less severe scale, revolutions can simply refer to the emergence of a new attitude within the collective psyche of a culture. Such was the case when Joseph Campbell arrived in India in 1954.

In his Asian Journals — India and Japan, Campbell recounts in diary form his six months of travel there. It was his first time in the country and the collective attitude was fixed on claiming autonomy from Western perspectives and influence. However, it is often the case that when something is shunned with great emphasis by an individual or culture, the very content that is being rejected takes on even greater presence in the awareness. And so, just one week after his arrival, Campbell writes: “I came to India to hear of brahman, and all I have heard so far is politics and patriotism” (Asian Journals, 12).

It is a fair remark to make seeing that similar attitudes will emerge in all cultures; and that few, if any, are able to escape the age-old pattern of incompatibility between politics and spirituality. All the same, we can imagine Campbell’s disappointment, especially after having devoted tremendous effort to the study of Vedic literature and traditions, not to mention his editing of Indologist Heinrich Zimmer’s voluminous store of notes into several publications, the most popular being Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. This abrupt meeting of political climate with the quest for spiritual understanding summoned in Campbell an inner revolution that distinguished the transience of politics from the timelessness of spirit.

In keeping with Campbell’s remark on brahman, consider the following, more applicable, denotation to revolution: “The rotation of a celestial body on its axis.” Applied metaphorically, this definition lends itself to the dynamics of understanding the relationship between an individual’s sense of self (ego) and brahman (the source of one’s existence and, indeed, existence in itself). Granted, it may be a little inflated of me to associate human beings with celestial bodies. But then, on a grander scale, I ask what in the phenomenal universe is not a celestial body? Besides, the perspective is refreshing, and does well to present the sanctity of a human being (for once) in a wholly beautiful and worthy light.

That said, what is this brahman that Campbell desires to hear more of? What is this mystery from which the ego emerges and around which the senses and intellect revolve? The answer is both simple and complicated—simple in that we have words with which to define it; complicated in that what we are trying to define is transcendent. Nonetheless, we try. We give it names like Pure Being; Pure Existence; Pure Consciousness; The Absolute; The Immanent; The Transcendent; Source; Self, and so on.

Traditionally, spiritual seekers strive to “realize” the truth of brahman—that is, they strive through meditation, devotion, and study to experience the ego-sense as none other than brahman itself. The full integration of this experience is called “enlightenment”—a permanent and irreversible state of consciousness characterized by oneness and bliss (or so I have read).

However informative these definitions and meanings may be, like a celestial object revolving on its axis, they can only circumambulate the truth, but fail to provide the (purportedly) crucial ingredient to knowing brahman: experience. To this point, I recall the opening quote to The Power of Myth where Campbell distinguishes between meaning and experience:

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life . . . I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (The Power of Myth, 3)

Although the context here is not addressing brahman or enlightenment per se, the insights are strikingly relevant. Furthermore, they express Campbell’s affinity for experience over meaning. In similar fashion, I wish to conclude on an experiential note by recounting my first encounter with the term brahman. Some 25 years ago, I was camped out on a mountain ridge in New England, reading Shankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination (Vivekacūḍāmaṇi) In it, he addresses the relationship between the ego-sense and brahman thusly:

A jar made of clay is not other than clay. . . the form the clay takes has no independent existence. What, then, is a jar? Merely an invented name! The form of the jar can never be perceived apart from the clay. The reality is the clay itself. This universe is an effect of Brahman. (Crest Jewel of Discrimination, verse 190)

Surely, these are simply words and descriptions, and fall shy of experience. Nonetheless, I vividly recall a series of—how shall I say it?—inner-events that accompanied those words as I read the same lines over again and again. And whether those events were delusions or real was of no importance to me. Of great importance, however, was that they were irrefutably true, unspeakably profound, profoundly simple, and of the highest order. All I can really say for sure is that it was a fortunate afternoon, that it brought me to a daily practice of meditation, and that I fully agree with Campbell’s valuation of experience and the hearing of brahman.

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