Shakti and Shakta

by John Woodroffe | 1929 | 243,591 words

A collection of papers and essays addressing the Śakti aspect of the Śākta school of Hindu philosophy by John Woodroffe, also known as Arthur Avalon....

Chapter XXV - Varṇamālā (the Garland of Letters)

THE world has never been altogether without the Wis dom, nor its Teachers. The degree and manner in which it has been imparted have, however, necessarily varied according to the capacities of men to receive it. So also have the symbols by which it lins been conveyed. These symbols further have varying significance according to the spiritual advancement of the worshipper. This question of degree and variety of presentation have led to the superficial view that the difference in beliefs negatives existence of any conmonly established Truth. But if the matter bc regarded more deeply, it will be seen that whilst there is one essential Wisdom, its rcvelation has been more or less complete. according to symbols evolved by, and, therefore, fitting to, particular racial temperaments and characters. Symbols are naturally misirnderstood by those to whom the beliefs they typify are unfamiliar, and who differ in temperament from those who have evolved them. To the ordinary Western mind the symbols of Hinduism are often repulsive and absurd. It must not, however, be forgotten that some of the Symbols of Western Faiths have the same effect on the Hindu. From the picture of the “Slain Lamb,” and other symbols in terms of blood and death, he naturally shrinks in disgust. The same effect, on the other hand, is not seldom produced in the Western at the sight of the terrible forms in which India has embodied Her vision of the undoubted Terrors which exist in and. around us. All is not smiling in this world. Even amongst persons of the same race and indeed of the same faith we may observe such differences. Before the Catholic Cultus of the “Sacred Heart” had overcome. the opposition which it at first encountered, and for a considerable time after, its imagery was regarded with aversion by some who spoke of it in terms which would be to-day counted as shocking irreverence. These differences are likely to exist so long as men vary in mental attitude and temperament, and until they reach the stage in which, having discovered the essential truths, they become indifferent to the mode in which they are presented. We must also in such matters distinguish between what a symbol may have meant and what it now means. Until quite recent times, the English peasant folk and others danced around the flower-wreathed Maypole. That the pole originally (like other similar forms) represented the great Liṅga admits of as little doubt as that these folk, who in recent ages danced around it, were ignorant of that fact. The Bishop’s mitre is said to be the head of a fish worn by ancient near-eastern hierophants. But what of that? It has other associations now.

Let us illustrate these general remarks by a short study of one portion of the Kālī synlbolism which affects so many, who are not Hindus, with disgust or horror. Kālī is the Deity in that aspect in which It withdraws all things which It had created, into Itself. Kālī is so called because She devours Kāla (Time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness. The scene is laid in the cremation ground (Śmaśāna), amidst white sun-dried bones and fragments of flesh, gnawed and pecked at by carrion beasts and birds. Here the “heroic” (Vīra) worshipper (Sādhaka) performs at dead of night his awe-inspiring rituals. Kālī is set in such a scene, for She is that aspect of the great Power which withdraws all things into Herself at, and by, the dissolution of the universe. He alone worships without fear, who has abandoned all worldly desires, and seeks union with Her as the One Blissful and Perfect Experience. On the burning ground all worldly desires are burnt away. She is naked, and dark like a threatening rain-cloud. She is dark, for She who is Herself beyond mind and speech, reduces all things into that worldly “nothingness,” which, as the Void (Śūnya) of all which we now how, is at the same time the All (Pūrna) which is Peace. She is naked, being clothed in space alone (Digambarī), because the great Power is unlimited; further, She is in Herself beyond Māyā (Māyātītā)that Power of Hers which creates all universes. She stands upon the white corpse-like (Śavarūpa) body of Śiva. He is white, because he is the iIluminating transcendental aspect of consciousness. He is inert, because he is the changeless aspect of the Supreme and She the apparently changing aspect of the same. In truth, She and He are one and the same, being twin aspects of the One who is changelessness in, and exists as, change. Much might be said in explanation of these and other smbols such as Her loosened hair, the lolling tongue, the thin stream of blood which trickles from the corners of the mouth, the position of Her feet, the apron of dead men’s hands around Her waist, Her implements and so forth. (See Hymn to Kālī by Arthur Avalon. Vol. 9, Tantrik Texts.) Here I take only the garland of freshly-severed heads which hangs low from Her neck.

Some have conjectured that Kālīwas originally the Goddess of the dark-skinned inhabitantu of the Vindhya Hills taken over by the Brāhmanas into their worship. One of them has thought that She was a deified Princess of these folk, who fought against the white in-coming Aryans. He pointed to the significant fact that the severed heads are those of white men. The Western may say that Kālī was an objectification of the Indian mind, making a Divinity of the Power of Death. An Eastern may reply that She is the Saṃketa (symbol) which is the effect of the impress of a Spiritual Power on the Indian mind. I do not pause to consider these matters here.

The question before us is, what does this imagery mean now, and what has it meant for centuries past to the initiate in Her symbolism? An exoteric explanation describes this Garland as made up of the heads of Demons, which She, as a power of righteousness, has conquered. According to an inner explanation, given in the Indian Tantra Śāstra, this string of heads is the Garland of Letters (Varṇamālā), that is, the fifty, and as some count it, fifty-one letters, of the Sanskrit Alphabet. The same interpretation is given in the Buddhist Demchog Tantra in respect of the garland worn by the great Heruka. These letters represent the universe of names and forms (Nāmarūpa), that is, Speech (Śabda) and its meaning or object (Artha). She the Devourer of all “slaughters” (that is, withdraws), both into Her undivided Consciousness at the Great dissolution of the Universe which they are. She wears the Letters which, She as the Creatrix bore. She wears the Letters which, She as the Dissolving Power takes to Herself again. A very profound doctrine is connected with these Letters which space prevents me from fully entering into here. This has been set out in greater detail in the 2nd Edition, 1926, of the “Serpent Power” (Kuṇḍalinī) which projects Consciousness, in Its true nature blissful and beyond all dualism, into the World of good and evil. The movements of Her projection are indicated by the Letters subtle and gross which exist on the Petals of the inner bodily centres or Lotuses.

Very shortly stated, Śabda which literally means Sound—here lettered sound—is in its causal state (Paraśabda) known as “Supreme Speech” (Parā Vāk). This is the Śabda-Brahman or Logos; that aspect of Reality or Consciousness (Cit) in which it is the immediate cause of creation; that is of the dichotomy in Consciousness which is “I” and “This,” subject and object, mind and matter. This condition of causal Śabda is the Cosmic Dreamless Sleep (Suṣupti). This Logos, awakening from its causal sleep, “sees,” that is, creatively ideates the universe, and is then known as Paśyantī Śabda. As consciousness “sees” or ideates, forms arise in the Creative Mind, which are themselves impressions (Saṃskara) carried over from previous worlds, which ceased to exist as such when the Universe entered the state of causal dreamless sleep on the previous dissolution. These re-arise as the formless Consciousness awakes to enjoy once again sensual life in the world of forms.

The Cosmic Mind is at first itself both cognizing subject (Grāhaka) and cognized object (Grāhya); for it has not yet projected its thought into the plane of Matter; the mind as subject cognizer is Śabda, and the mind as the object cognized, that is, the mind in the form of object, is subtle Artha. This Śabda called Madhyamā Śabda is an “Inner Naming” or “Hidden Speech.” At this stage, that which answers to the spoken letters (Varṇa) are the “Little Mothers” or Mātṛkā, the subtle forms of gross speech. There is at this stage a differentiation of Consciousness into subject and object, but the latter is now within and forms part of the Self. This is the statc of Cosmic Dreaming (Svapna). This “Hidden Speech” is understandable of all men if they can get in mental rapport one with the other. So a thoughtreader can, it is said, read the thoughts of a man whose spoken speech he cannot understand. The Cosmic Mind then projects these mental images on to the material plane, and they there become materialized as gross physical objects (Sthūla artha) which make impressions from without on the mind of the created consciousness. This is the cosmic waking state (Jāgrat). At this last stage, the thought-movement expressee itself through the vocal organs in contact with the air as uttered speech (Vaikharī Śabda) made up of letters, syllables and sentences. The physical unlettered sound which manifests Śabda is called Dhvani. This lettered sound is manifested Śabda or Name (Nāma), and the physical objects denoted by speech are the gross Artha or form (Rūpa).

This manifested speech varies in men, for their individual and racial characteristics and the conditions, such as country and climate in which they live, differ. There is a tradition that there was once an universal speech before the building of the Tower of Babel, signifying the confusion of tongues. As previously stated, a friend has drawn my attention to a passage in the Ṛg-Veda which he interprets in a similar sense. For, it says, that the Three Fathers and the Three Mothers, like the Elohim, made (in the interest of creation) all-comprehending speech into that which was not so.

Of these letters and names and their meaning or objects, that is, concepts and concepts objectified, the whole Universe is composed. When Kālī withdraws the world, that is, the names and forms which the letters signify, the dualism in consciousness, which is creation, vanishes. There is neither “I” (Ahaṃ) nor “This” (Idaṃ) but the one non-dual Perfect Experience which Kālī in Her own true nature (Svarūpa) is. In this way Her garland is understood.

“Surely,” I hear it said, “not by all. Does every Hindu worshipper think such profundities when he sees the figure of Mother Kāli?” Of course not, no more than, (say) an ordinary Italian peasant knows of, or can understand, the subtleties of either the catholic mystics or doctors of theology. When, however, the Western man undertakes to depict and explain Indian symbolism, he should, in the interest both of knowledge and fairness, understand what it means both to the high as well as to the humble worshipper.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: