image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Why do the deities in the Mahabharata often appear instantly, upon the recitation of a mantra, the singing of a hymn, or even simply upon being remembered?
I believe that this characteristic was included in the ancient scriptures in order to show us that we have access to the infinite at all times -- and indeed that in a very real sense we can and should avail ourselves of that access on a regular basis, in this life.
Many previous posts have explored the critically important assertion of Alvin Boyd Kuhn which is in many ways a key to our understanding of the ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories of humanity, in which Kuhn (addressing the stories of the Bible in particular) declares:
Bible stories are in no sense a record of what happened to a man or a people as historical occurrence. As such they would have little significance for mankind. They would be the experience of a people not ourselves, and would not bear a relation to our life. But they are a record, under pictorial forms, of that which is ever occurring as a reality of the present in all lives. They mean nothing as outward events; but they mean everything as picturizations of that which is our living experience at all times. The actors are not old kings, priests and warriors; the one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul. The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it! [For full quotation and source with links, see this previous post].
Now, what Kuhn asserts in the above paragraph is just as true for the world's other myths. Let's see how it applies to the specific aspect of the Mahabharata mentioned above (the ability to summon the gods and goddesses at a moment's notice).
If we apply this paragraph directly to the Mahabharata, we can paraphrase some of these assertions as follows:
The episodes in the Mahabharata in which men or women are depicted as summoning powerful deities through the recitation of a mantra, the singing of a hymn of praise, or even by simply thinking upon that deity and wishing for him or her to appear, are in no sense a record of what happened to a man or woman long ago in a more magical (or imaginary time and place). As such, while they might be tremendously entertaining, they would have little significance for our lives today. They would be the (miraculous and extraordinary) experience of a people not ourselves, and would not bear a relation to our life. But these events are actually recorded in these myths to provide us with a vivid picture of something that is in fact a verifiable reality of a situation that is present in your life and in mine -- indeed, a reality in all lives. They mean nothing as outward events: the beautiful wives of Pandu, for instance, did not summon gods outwardly. Nor was Arjuna's invocation of the goddess Durga an outward event. These are picturizations of truths which are part of our living experience at all times. We indeed are in contact with those same mighty supernatural powers -- with Krishna and Durga and the heavenly Twins or Ashvins -- right at this present moment. The actors in these myths are not beautiful wives or powerful warriors: in every single episode, these actors are none other than the human soul possessed by each and every one of us. The Mahabharata (and all the other myths and scriptures and sacred stories) is a drama of our lives -- our lives right here, right now, in this modern life, in the city where you live, in the situations you experience -- and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself or herself to be the central figure, present in every single scene!
In the previous post, we discussed some of the unusual marriage activity recorded in the Mahabharat, in which the two wives of Pandu take five different divine gods to be the fathers of the five powerful sons who collectively become the heroes of the story, the Pandavas (a name which means descendants of Pandu). The summoning of the five different gods is done through the recitation of a mantra: immediately upon its recitation, the desired god appears.
Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, as we saw, Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) recites a hymn of praise to the goddess Durga, at which the powerful goddess appears and blesses him, telling Arjuna that he will be victorious and that in fact it would be completely impossible for him to be defeated in the upcoming battle.
At other points in the epic poem, such as in Book I and section 3, the celestial Twins called the Ashvins are summoned by a disciple named Upamanyu, who has consumed some leaves of a tree that made him blind, causing him to stumble into a deep well, where he was trapped until he called upon the Ashvins for succor.
And there is also a powerful sage or rishi named Vyasa or Vyasadeva who is the mythical author of the Mahabharata itself and who also appears as a character who weaves in and out of the various scenes, appearing when he is needed before retreating again to his contemplation and disciplines in the remote mountains. Vyasa also has the characteristic of being able to appear whenever he is thought upon: at his birth (recounted in Book I and section 63) he tells his mother "As soon as thou remembers me when occasion comes, I shall appear unto thee."
What are we to make of these wondrous episodes in the Mahabharata, each one of which is surrounded by all kinds of memorable action and human drama? These depictions of the gods and goddesses (and, in the case of Vyasa, this epic poet and bringer of inspired verse) appearing at an instant when a human man or woman concentrates upon them are not to be understood as outward events, in Kuhn's argument, but rather as an inward reality, as a depiction of our experience in the here and now.
If Kuhn is right, then what (oh what) could these specific episodes be depicting?
I believe the answer is hinted at in yet another earlier post exploring the powerful teaching contained in the Mahabharata -- an examination of the Bhagavad Gita, which is a section within the Mahabharata itself. There, we saw compelling evidence that the conversation between the semi-divine bowman Arjuna and his companion and divine charioteer, the Lord Krishna, relate to the "metaphor of the chariot" found in other ancient Sanskrit scriptures.
In that metaphor, the chariot helps us understand aspects of our incarnate condition. The war-cart itself is our body, and the mighty horses which pull it are our senses and our desires (both of which can easily run completely out of control, and threaten to wreck the entire enterprise). The reins in the metaphor, we are told in another Sanskrit scripture, are our mind, through which the horses can be controlled.
But obviously, there must be someone or something else behind and above the reins in order to direct the chariot: behind and above "the mind" itself, that is. This concept of a someone or something else, standing apart from the mind and above it, was discussed in the first blog post of this series, entitled "Self, the senses, and the mind." This higher self is referred to by many names, among them the True Self, the Supreme Self, the Lord in the chariot, and (in the Sanskrit text cited for this metaphor) the Atman. In other cultures and other traditions there are many other names to refer to the same concept.
But in all cases we are dealing with a Higher Self who is in some sense and to some degree connected to the infinite and the ultimate. This is the infinite, the ultimate, the un-definable: the divine charioteer who is beyond the "chattering" and the "endless transforming" and the "labeling and defining and delineating" of the mind (and again, the mind is not a negative or bad tool, any more than the reins on the chariot are a bad tool -- it is an essential tool, but it is not the one who should be driving the chariot).
We get in contact with this infinite aspect by standing apart from our mind, our senses, and our desires (not by getting these to somehow "go away" or "stop" being what they are -- the horses on the chariot will not go away, nor will they turn into something other than horses -- but we can stand apart from and above them in order to see that we are not them and we do not have to go wherever they want to pull us, that in fact we can tell them where we want them to take us).
Practices we have at our disposal for getting into contact with the infinite include mantras, chanting or singing of hymns, prayer, meditation, yoga, rhythmic drumming, and more.
The gods and goddesses in the stories show up quite suddenly and instantly because they are, in a very real sense, already there. We are already connected with them. This does not mean that they are simply "our imagination" or "not real" (as if our "imagination" is not connected to the very same vital flow of infinity that is completely unlimited in its potential and its power). As we see in Kuhn's quotation above, which is so valuable that we can and should return to it in analysis like this, just because the myths are depicting inner realities as outward events does not mean that they are not "real" if they do not take place in the outward space. These myths are dramatizing truths about our living experience at all times. You and I are in contact with Krishna and with Durga right now: if we do not realize it, that is only because we are allowing the chatter of our minds or the horses of our senses to keep us from connecting with the power of the unbounded, the undefined, and the infinite (unbounded aspects of which Krishna and Durga show themselves to be in the Mahabharata).
It is also noteworthy to point out that divinities who can appear at a moment's notice are also found in other esoteric mythologies and scriptures around the world. The Norse god Thor, for instance, was notable for being able to appear whenever his name was called by the other gods, in time of need (which they had to do on more than one occasion). The other gods usually had to call on him when they were being bested by a powerful jotun, and thus Thor usually appeared in a fighting rage (or, if he wasn't in a rage when he appeared, one glance at the menacing jotun usually caused Thor to go into battle mode).
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
But, it should be noted that Thor's ability to appear in an instant means that he, too, is somehow representative of that divine charioteer who is above mind and above even the physical world, and yet somehow available to us at all times, if we just learn how to direct our focus in the right direction.
It is also not inappropriate, I believe, to point out that the risen Christ in the stories of the New Testament also displays the ability to simply appear out of nowhere amongst the disciples, sometimes when they are least expecting him to do so.
In the preceding post, which looked at the two wives of Pandu who used a mantra to call upon divine gods to appear, we also saw that the pattern of five husbands in the Mahabharata appears to have an echo in the New Testament episode of the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, who likewise is said to have had five husbands. In that encounter, the previous post points out that Jesus tells the woman that she can have everlasting water, living water, springing up unto everlasting life -- and that this living water is somehow "within."
I believe that this again is a "pictorial form" (in Kuhn's words) of something that is in fact a "present reality" in the life of each and every human soul. This "picture" is one of an unbounded, an infinite, and a life-giving stream, available for the asking because it is already "within" us. We already have access to this living water, but we need someone to tell us that it is something that we can actually get in touch with. That is what the ancient myths and scriptures are there to do.
By his demonstrated ability to simply appear out of nowhere and disappear again at will, the risen Christ in the gospels would also, under this interpretation, be pointing us towards connecting with the infinite within ourselves. And this, according to some analysts, is exactly what Paul in his epistles declares to his listeners, using the strongest language possible in some cases:
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you [. . .]? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)
Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907) and others have argued that the writer who calls himself Paul is pointing his listeners to a spiritual truth, not an external flesh-and-blood individual. He is pointing them to what he elsewhere declares to be "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).
This is not to say that Paul did not believe what he was talking about to be "real" or that he did not believe it to have life-altering power: on the contrary, the tenor of his letters indicates that he knew what he spoke of to be absolutely real, and absolutely earth-shaking in its ability to transform. Nowhere in the above discussion should anything be taken to indicate that the infinite, the ultimate, the un-limitable and truly un-bounded divine power -- which the Bhagavad Gita describes as the Lord Krishna and which the Hymn to Durga addresses as Kali, as Maha-Kali, as Uma, and as "Durga, who dwelleth in accessible regions," and as "identical with Brahman" -- is in any way not real.
But, as the quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn tells us, these are not stories about ancient events that happened to someone else: these are aspects of our life, right here and right now. They are telling us about a divine aspect to which we have access right here and right now, and with which we are already internally connected in some mysterious way.
As the verse in the Old Testament wisdom-book of Proverbs tells us, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24).
Even closer than a brother, because not external to us at all.