This is a fresco from a temple in India. The temple is in Varsana, in the Vrindavana area, the place where the goddess Srimati Radhika is said to have grown up, during her pastimes in this world. Yesterday I spent some time with a group of friends, there in the temple, discussing this piece of art. The intriguing aspects of this fresco are so many, the discussion it provoked so lively, that I am compelled to present my perspective, for posterity. I will try my best to do this in language resembling that found in art history books, with a few weird breaks from that form.
Firstly, and overview of what is occurring. This painting shows Vasudeva Maharaja carrying the child Krishna across the Yamuna, from Mathura to Vrindavana. He did this to bring Krishna beyond the reach of the cruel Kamsa, lest that tyrannical king should smash the baby, as he did many others before. In the upper right, Krishna is appearing to Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. He manifested initially in the form of four-handed Narayana, before transforming into Baby Krishna, at the request of Devaki. It’s a deep and intricate pastimes, and here we (I?) am just touching on it. Below that, Kamsa is shown smashing one of Vasudeva and Devaki’s previous children. On the left are Vasudeva and Devaki praying, or possibly Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda awaiting the arrival of Krishna, as one local sadhu asserted.
First of all, the relative size of the people and things in the painting is completely relative to their importance to this instance of the pastime. Western figurative art tends to mimic the camera (well, the laws of perspective preceded the camera). Western abstract art is, in this author’s humble opinion, mostly terrible, and not worth writing about.
But what we see in this painting is different. Compared to what a camera sees, it is completely wonky. Vasudeva is taller than a building. A palace isn’t much taller than Nanda Baba would be if he were standing. But the entirety of the pastime could not be conveyed in one frame if the artist limited themselves by imitating a camera’s view. Instead, the size of the elements is relative to their importance. Vasudeva carrying Krishna is what this picture is mainly about, therefore they are the largest. The palaces are just there to give context, so they’re small. The personalities inside the castles are important (but not as important as Vasudeva Maharaja) so they are quite large. The trees and so on are also there for context, so they’re small, whereas the jackal upstream from Vasudeva is large (it showed him where he could cross). This is all absurd from the point of view of visual perspective, but that’s what’s so great about it.
Temporal dispersion within a single instance (not a bad section title, eh?)
Furthermore, not all the events in this painting took place at the same time. Kamsa is shown killing a baby on the right, something he did previous to Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna river. Narayana is shown appearing to Vasudeva and Devaki, which happened earlier that night. On the left hand side, one local sadhu told us, Vasudeva and Devaki are shown praying, before the birth. I’ve seen a picture of Lord Rama where He crosses the Ganges River. In one picture, He is shown there with Sita and Lakshan on one bank, and on a boat in the middle, and offering respects to a sage on the far side. It was a bit like if someone shot pictures with a camera for an hour or, then put everything they capture into one frame. Except very different from what a camera sees, but that we covered.
So in this one picture of Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna River, we have events happening at different times, and size relative to importance.
Intriguing stuff. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
I’m going to take a break from the scene-of-the-week to tell you about the first time that got knocked out.
I had the experience of looking back at all the major points in my life simultaneously. Actually there are not so many as you might think. Birth is obviously a big one. There were a couple in my childhood from 6 to 12 years old that stand out. A lot of things happened in between these big events, of course, but not unexpected stuff. Learning to eat, sort of eventually. Learning to walk, then run.
The first time I rode a bike without training wheels was a big one. My mom and dad pushed me off, me sitting there on the bike. I flew forward, pedaling hard, and I felt like I was flying around that parking lot, almost empty of cars.
Speaking of two wheeled vehicles, I remember going on a ride which was, in retrospect, extremely dangerous. I was to drive a miniature motorcycle in hoops around a thick plastic sphere, going up, upside down, down, round the bottom, up again… I only made it to the top once before running out of momentum. The motorcycle fell down on top of me, knocking me unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at the world from a new angle of vision, and I couldn’t remember the transition, how I got there. That was the first time I ever got knocked out. These events are like bubbles fixed to the string of my life. In each bubble the memory plays out in a seamless loop, changing a little each time.
You can listen to this being read to you here:
Next week we’ll start again the Scene-of-the-Week series.
Each week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section. 🙂
We’re taking a break from the scene-of-the-week series to take do a little retrospection.
I look back at the main events in my life. There are five, really. Birth, obviously. Adolescence as a whole. My first real relationship. Joining the temple, and leaving the temple. That’s it.
I wonder, if one or the other of these events had been different or had not taken place, who I would be now. Of course, some of them really can’t be removed, like birth and adolescence. But they could have happened very differently.
Birth is huge. It’s the starting point of our life, and we come in with momentum. A rocket launched eastward may turn and go northward, but not so easily as one which was launched northward to begin with. The starting trajectory of a person’s life is the angle at which they come into the world, and this affects the entire course of their lives. Of course, the choices we make in our life also change who we are, but if I were born into very different circumstances, I reckon I’d be a very different person today.
Why is a person born into her particular life? This is, if not one of the main philosophical questions that have been asked by different schools throughout the ages, certainly one of their assistants. Science would generally have us believe that we are products of physical evolution, that our selves as we know them now—our bodies, that is, and maybe minds as well, depending on who you ask—are the result of many, many years of iteratively evolving genetics.
This is, of course, not the only idea on the subject. Many people believe that the circumstances of our birth—including our parents, the stability of our country or lack thereof, our talents, our personalities, our capacities, our economic levels, and all other obvious and not-so-obvious trappings and attributes that we may possess—have carried over into this life from the one before. All these different kinds of momentum, they say, are carried in a subtle body, which surrounds and accompanies the conscious self from life to life. While this is all quite far out, it does explain a lot of differences between us all, which are attributed to chance by the former school of thought, without further explanation.
You can listen to this being read to you here:
Come back next week to get the next scene of the week, the first of those in the new round. You can say in the comments which scene you’d like to see made into a short story.
There is tension in spiritual life. If I am to progress from being semi-aware to fully aware, I must face conflict, internal and external. My goal may be a state of peace, but the journey will hold challenges. One such challenge is the conflict between progress and familiarity.
I’m amazed by the endless vista before me, a limitless realm of possible conscious states, progressing up to the source of all things. And yet, like a sailor clinging to the rocks of his own shore, I am reluctant to disembark.
New lands and my old home. The wide sky and comforting ground.
States of consciousness
My home, in this context, is the consciousness that I’m accustomed to. It is now filled with family and friends, with ideas that I’ve been cultivating for years. I have a particular understanding of reality and illusion. But these things are in flux, with new elements coming and old ones going. My understanding changes. My company changes. Is there anything that is intrinsic to my very being, which will remain? if I am to progress, everything must be laid on the table and questioned.
Yet I am afraid to do it.
I recently finished my first book , Fire from the Overworld. It is a Visionary Fantasy novel, set in an alternate world. I don’t wish to toot my own horn here, but because these themes run throughout the book, I’d like to speak of it here.
Two kinds of journeys
A sketch of the story for you: two apprentice mystics live in a desert village. The girl is Yuvali and the boy is Héyowan. Both face the conflict between progress and safety in different ways.
Yuvali travels from her body, and gradually enters higher dimensions. This thrills her and she thinks she can go on forever, but to do so she must leave her old conceptions of self. She must leave attachment to her father, her mother, her village, and her body.
The other main character, Héyowan, can enter a the mind of a person or animal as though stepping into a cave. He experiences their thoughts and feelings as though they were his own. He can move into their deepest centers, to see their glowing hearts. It is a great intimacy that is possible even with enemies. He finds himself mixing with them, forgetting himself. He strives to protect the sanctity of his own identity, even while trying to help others, but often he fails.
Kinds of enlightenment
Years ago, I enjoyed reading Siddhartha (by Hermann Hesse) and The Red Lion (by Maria Szepes). I consider them to be part of the Visionary Fantasy genre. They inspired me to write more, and yet in both cases I was dissatisfied with the climax, with the point of ‘enlightenment’ of the main characters. In both books, the characters realized that everything in the universe is undifferentiated, and that they are part of that whole. When I read the books, I thought, ‘Well that’s all right. But there must be an actual center to things, not just a diffuse oneness.’ (I’m paraphrasing. I think I was not so eloquent.) This is my conviction, and along with the Vedic teachings, it has inspired the cosmology of my story.
Now, I won’t tell you whether Yuvali and Héyowan are able to reconcile all these things, so that they can make spiritual progress and also help their people, but I invite you to find out for yourself!
They say art is never finished, and I agree. Nonetheless, I’m satisfied with how the story has turned out. It’s definitely been a journey for me. As I grew near to the themes and characters, I learned about myself. I hope you do too; in your reading, writing and spiritual life.
Next week, I’ll be starting a new series called, ‘Scene a week.’ Every week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section. Sound like fun?
I am a sucker for beautiful films. Don’t get me wrong; gritty stories, which tell it like it is from the trenches, also pull me in, and if the story doesn’t acknowledge the darker side of life at all, it usually seems cheesy.
But I love stories that show me the beauty and innocence in life, which weave a thread binding real life and myth–the conscious and the unconscious.
I recently watched the film, ‘Song of the Sea,’ written and directed by Tomm Moore, who also gave us ‘The Secret of Kells.’ It’s about a boy’s journey from being mean to being a good brother. It’s about a girl coming to know and accept her inner, secret self. It shows that the mundane world in which we move about is not the only world. The people we see in cities and towns are only some of the beings in existence. Part metaphor, part Irish myth, yet set in the modern day, this film reminds of something a great teacher of bhakti-yoga said, Srila BR Sridhar Maharaja, that the world we perceive with our senses is just like the cream on top of an ocean of milk. There is so much more beneath the surface.
The artwork is gorgeous, with watercolor backgrounds and intricate patterns everywhere. The design of the characters is based on simple shapes– circles, triangles, squares and so on. The simple basis of the art makes the innovations all the more pleasing.
There are no enemies in this film’s story. Everyone is doing what they do for their own reasons, no one is wrong. Everyone is redeemed and it feels real, not corny.
He speaks about a continuum of magic systems ranging from soft to hard. A soft magic system is mysterious. Its specific rules– if there are any– are unknown to the reader. An example is Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ What can and can’t he do, exactly? No one knows. The upside of this is that it gives the story a sense of mystery. The potential downside is that if characters use the magic to solve major problems, it seems like a copout.
A hard magic system is more ‘physical,’ in the sense that the reader understands its specific limitations. Superheroes are examples of this: Superman can fly, has laser vision, speed, strength etc. Wolverine can heal really quickly, has claws etc. If Wolverine could suddenly fly, we’d feel like someone pulled a fast one on us.
The magic system in ‘Song of the Sea’ is soft, but we get a general idea of what the characters are capable of, and no one suddenly becomes super powerful. But actually the rules are evident, but they are not physical rules. The magic is limited and liberated by the choices of the characters. As they make key choices the world around them unlocks. I’ll say no more. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.
Photo: People from all over the world coming together for unusual and diverse spiritual, cultural and personal reasons
Here’s a question for all you thinkers out there: is there anything at all which cannot be contained in a story?
I say no, and here’s my case.
All types of people can populate stories
Characters can be theists, atheists, violent, philosophical, young at heart but old of body, young of body but old of heart, proud, humble, talented, foolish… you name it. The variety of people out there in the world and universe is the same as the potential variety of characters.
All knowledge can be contained in stories and characters
There are stories about math, arts, engineering, space travel, astrology, astronomy, mysticism and folklore… Indeed, the evolution and devolution of these subjects over time is also a grand story.
All places both real and imaginary can be settings in stories
You can set a story anywhere on earth, or under it, or in the oceans or in the air, or a combination of all of these. A story can take place between planets, on other planets, in a black hole, in an alternate dimension, or in a place transcendental to all dimensions.
We swim through stories all our lives
The newspaper is a collection of stories, with characters, settings and events. When we ask a friend, “How was your day?” their answer will be a story. Even if they just reply, “It was good,” or “It was bad,” that still tells us something about or friend and what they’re really going through. That’s part of their expression within a larger story. Our guesses about what’s really happening with them are stories.
Stories aren’t all fictional, but they’re all subjective
What?! How can real stories be subjective? Well, because they’re experienced by subjects–by people. A person’s personal experience, as well as their retelling of events will always be from their point of view. Someone may be rational and truthful, or may not even tell events according to their own experience. But we’re all subjects, and so whatever we experience is subjective. We’re in stories and we tell stories. It’s what we do. All fictional stories are based on real-life stories, even the really far-out ones. We don’t really create anything new–that’s my understanding. We recombine ideas in amazing ways.
There are stories everywhere, but in some places they’re denser
I’m in West Bengal now, in the village of Nabadwip by the river Ganges. I’m staying with some of my god-family who run a school for underprivileged kids. I’m learning a bit about how the different kids came to the school here. We’re working on a video series, with spotlights on a different child each month. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime I’ll say that their stories are both extremely tragic and extremely hopeful.
I spend a lot of time in India, and for some years have been going back and forth between India and England, in particular. Now there are stories in England too, but not like in India. I think of stories like threads in a tapestry. England has its tapestry, with its colors and density of strands. There is the history of the British Empire, there’s Christianity, there’s science. There is medieval England, and the pagans and druids in the ancient past. So there’s some great, diverse stuff going on. There’s no doubt about it. Canada has its story, the United States has its story. All places do, and they’re amazing.
Then you come to India. It’s also a tapestry of stories–of lives weaving together–but it’s extremely dense and colorful, and parts of it are very, very ancient. Here’s a short story I wrote, about reincarnation, poverty and brother-sister love.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way about India. Check this out:
A Rough Guide to India: “It is impossible not to be astonished by India. Nowhere on Earth does humanity present itself in such a dizzying, creative burst of cultures and religions, races and tongues. Enriched by successive waves of migration and marauders from distant lands, every one of them left an indelible imprint which was absorbed into the Indian way of life. Every aspect of the country presents itself on a massive, exaggerated scale, worthy in comparison only to the superlative mountains that overshadow it. It is this variety which provides a breathtaking ensemble for experiences that is uniquely Indian. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than to be indifferent to India would be to describe or understand India completely.”
It’s a land of extremes. Extreme wealth and poverty. Extreme depravity and saintliness, horror and beauty. Schools of thought which aim at total annihilation of the self, and others which aim at realization of one’s spiritual form and eternal relationship with a personal Godhead. There’s a history going back–depending on who’s story you take–thousands or millions of years.
Keith Bellows, National Geographic Society : “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”
Stories stories stories!
Here in India, you might meet a man in a loin cloth with no shoes, living in the mountains. He’s studied computer programming in Bangalore, but left that to become a yogi. His grandfather practiced yoga for decades and, at the time of his death, his soul left his body out the top of his head with a small explosion.
One of the kids here in the school was separated from his mother for a long time by an abusive father. He become very introverted, but with the care of the teachers he’s become an excellent actor and helps all the other kids learn. His family are refugees from a war in Bangladesh which took place before his birth. It was, ostensibly, a religious war, but seems to have been more about land and power, unsurprisingly. He’s living now in Nabadwip where, the Vedic scriptures describe, a form of Krishna appeared about five hundred years ago, named Caitanyadeva. People from all over the world come here to worship Caitanyadeva. How they learned about Him is another story, how His teachings fit in with the vast array of teachings in India is another story. All these stories mix together in a way that I’ve never heard of anywhere else.
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple has one chapter for each of nine very diverse people here in India, from a prostitute to a divine dancer. I recommend it.
Really there’s just one big tapestry of stories
Do you disagree? Have you traveled around India, stayed with some families, learned about the history and philosophical/religious groups within the country? Let’s talk. The way I see it, there are threads of stories running all over the globe, but there seems to be a real nucleus in India.
Mark Twain, American author: “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”
I’ll end with a few quotes about this land.
Will Durant, American historian: “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.
Romain Rolland, French scholar : “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”
If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments. If you agree with me, please debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by giving your e-mail in the top right part of the screen. You’ll get a free mini audio-book/e-book too. And be sure to click the relevant links to share this around!
I’m publishing once every two weeks.