Sunday, November 11, 2007



When I was staying at Kurisumala Ashram in the late sixties, Dom Bede Griffiths drew my attention to the writings of Sri Aurobindo. He particularly suggested that I should read his work on ‘The Life Divine’, and also I should look at his long epic poem on ‘Savitri: Legend and Symbol’. Sri Aurobindo worked on this poem over many years, only completing it just before he died. It seemed to be related to the effort of Sri Aurobindo to understand the journey of human consciousness, which he called ‘Integral Yoga’, through a passage into the underworld. Here in the world over which Yama, the Lord of Death, rules, we encounter the unconscious depths, rather as they are described also in the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’. For Sri Aurobindo, as I understood his work, the yogic path is not just one of ascent, as understood in Kundalini Yoga, where the vital energies that lie dormant at the base of the spine, like a coiled serpent, are released and allowed to flow upwards from chakra to chakra, until they transform the mind, but it is also a journey downwards, to confront all that is darkest, and least under the control of the conscious mind. Here, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the psycho-pomp, or intuitive power that accompanies the human individual, is like Beatrice, an almost divine figure of spiritual insight. This figure emerges from Indian legend as Savitri, daughter of the Sun.

At the meeting of life and death

The story of Savitri is narrated in the ‘Vana Parva’, or forest section of ‘The Mahabharata’, when the Pandava brothers were wandering in exile, meeting various sages who they found in Ashram retreats in the wilderness. There they meet the mysterious sage Markandeya who imparts spiritual understanding by recounting ancient legends, which have been preserved from primordial times in the oral traditions of forest dwellers. In the section of ‘The Mahabharata’: CCLXLI (Pativratta-mahatmya Parva) Here the sage Markandeya introduces the legend:: “There was a king among the Madras, who was virtuous and highly pious…..the name of that lord of Earth was Aswapati.” The sage continues to tell how this king was unable to have a child, and so practiced many austerities, offering ten thousand oblations to the fire, and reciting Mantras in honour of Savitri, who is also known as Gayatri. Finally, through these pious practices he and his wife were given the boon of an issue, who however, was a daughter, on the grounds that this girl should be named Savitri, and treated in every way as though she were a son.
Savitri is in a way the incarnation of the sun god, who is called Savitr. In fact in the Gayatri Mantra, which is considered the holiest prayer of the Vedic tradition, addressed to the sun, we find the words : Om Tat (that eternal Being) Savitur (light manifested through the sun, awakening the whole creation.)

The bride of light.

In a sense, the legend of Savitri is woven around the mystery underlying the Gayatri Mantra. It is the story of the passage of the sun, riding its chariot to seek out the limits of our earthly horizon, where in a forest region, at the far western brink of our world, the Light of the sun, which is like Wisdom, the spirit of illumination, discovers her beloved as an unknown youth whose blind Father is blind, was in fact a disinherited king, banished to the dark forest, where the family was living incognito in an ashram. This young man, who was called Satyavan, became the recipient of Savitri’s garland of love, which she had refused to give to all those eligible princes who came from far and wide to her “swayamvara” when she was meant to select the hero whom she intended to marry.
The journey of the sun princess in search of her beloved, is like the way that the sun goes out, traversing the heavens, only to enter finally into the darkness of night, and continue its journey into the underworld. The sun ascends, only finally to descend, and through the dark passages which no human eye has seen, go to the kingdom of the Lord of Death, there to awaken again the spirit that has to die, before it can be born again into a new life. The metaphor underlies the meaning of every initiation into the mystery of life, for as the poet Kabir has also suggested, the ultimate marriage is to be found not in this mortal life, but in what is often only understood as a process of dying.

The Primal Person

Twenty years later, when I again visited Kurisumala Ashram, Francis Acharya, the Cistercian monk who had founded the ashram, drew my attention to the link between this legend and the inner significance of the Song of Songs as describing a spiritual quest. It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux who gave to the Cistercian tradition a spiritual interpretation of the Biblical book of the Song of Songs, as representing the Soul searching for the Divine. I read in the Ashram library the Anchor commentary on the Song of Songs, which suggested that underlying what appeared to be a collection of simple pastoral love poems, was an ancient myth of the Middle East, that had close links with legends to be found in other cultures, particularly in India, concerning the love of Holy Wisdom for the human soul. (The anchor Bible, Song of Songs: A New Translation with introduction and commentary by Marvin H. Pope. Doubleday and Co, 1977)

Here the initiative lies with the feminine spirit, which is to be identified with that Creative Energy which was present in Creation from its very inception in the will of God. It is this energy that becomes incarnated, and helps in the process of divinising the human soul. Solomon the wise, dedicates himself to the search of this divine Wisdom, and it is because of this love that he has for the feminine principle that underlies the whole of Creation as we know it, that Holy Wisdom searches him out, and saves him from death. Here again we hear of this Spirit “awakening” Creation in the sense implied by the phrase in the Gayitri Mantra: “Om Tat Savitur”.

“I awakened you under the apple tree,
there where your mother conceived you,
there where she who gave birth to you conceived you.
Set me like a seal on your heart,
Like a seal on your arm
For love is strong as Death,
Jealousy relentless as Sheol.
The flash of it is a flash of fire,
A flame of Yahweh himself.
Love no flood can quench,
No torrents drown.
Song of Songs.8. 6-7

Devotion and the Song of Songs

It is this link between this lyrical book of the Bible, and the mystical experience that underlies much of Bhakti, or devotional poetry in India, that I tried in the following years to explore through a series of paintings on the Song of Songs, understood in the context of Indian love poetry, which has also been interpreted in a mystical sense. Fr. Abraham Mariaselvam, had made a study on “The Song of Songs and Ancient Tamil Love Poems” (Analecta Biblica 118, Editrie Pontificio Istituto Biblico—Roma 1988) I also found fascinating a collection of Tamil love poems, along with an introduction to the underlying symbolism behind these ancient works of the first centuries of the Christian Era, presented by A K. Ramanujan in a small book “The Interior Landscape” O.U.P 1994.

The series of sketches and notes which I made on the Song of Songs in 1988 became the basis for an Art Retreat and series of canvases that I developed between 1990 and 1994. They were eventually published by Fr. J. Ubelmesser in Weltweit, 1996.

The Shepherd.

There has been a suggestion that the ‘Song of Songs’ is a kind of Midrash, or Jewish commentary on the book of Genesis, and in particular the Creation story. The book opens with various images related to the life of shepherd communities who wander with their flocks in the desert. The image of the Tent, and later the recurring symbolism of the Palanquin remind us of the “Tent of meeting” or Tabernacle, which was a moveable Holy place, representing a Divine Presence that moves with a migrant people. There is also a strong sense of the significance of the harvest. In fact one suggestion is that the Song of Songs began as a series, or garland of hymns that had an almost liturgical significance. There is a link between the Song of Songs and the mood of the very lyrical book of Ruth in the Bible. There are also Messianic overtones, as the Lord of the Harvest, is also the expected Saviour of his people. Running through this early part of the myth is the underlying concept of Covenant. The relation between the Divine, and the human community, is a covenantal one, and this also implies a deep love, which is also found in the imagery of the Prophet Hosea, where the bond between the People of God and the Divine Presence is comparable to the lasting bond between husband and wife. But it is noteworthy that the relationship is an equal one. The two partners in this love narrative, have a remarkable autonomy, and the songs shift from the search of the male for the female, to an initiative where the woman takes the leading role. It is the feminine figure who searches, desires, and recovers the male partner. This has led some commentators to wonder whether the Song of Songs comes from a very Matriarchal society, as the Mother is mentioned seven times in the text, whereas the Father is not mentioned at all. The feminine figure in the Song of Songs bears a strong resemblance to ancient Mother goddesses of the Middle East. And there is little doubt that the love theme draws of ancient fertility rites, which have been given a new significance in the frame of the Covenant.

The veiled bride

The shepherd theme also links with an idea of death. This again reminds us of the story of Abel, the first shepherd, who is a Just man, but who is killed by his brother. The theme of death runs through the whole of the Song of Songs. One idea is that the pastoral lover dies, and goes down to the underworld. It is the task of the Divine Shekinah, or the Spirit of God that is also the Presence of the Divine in Creation, which goes in search of the lost lover. The persistent theme of search which is the thread that underlies the link between the different songs, is the idea that the Feminine Principle, which also represents life, goes in search of the human soul that is corruptible, and doomed to mortality. Perhaps in this connection that we can also understand the concept of the “blackness” of the feminine figure. One Jewish Midrash mentions the Chemosh, the chief god of the Moabites, was worshipped as a Black godess.:
“This is Chemosh, the Abomination, which is in the desert. It is a black stone, its form like that of a black woman. It was in the place and Moab and her environs used to go to midst of the high it to worship her.” (cf. Num. 21.29 : “Woe to you, Moab ! You are lost people of Chemosh!”) We are even told that “Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the god of Moab on the mountain to the east of Jerusalem” (I. Kings. 11.7) This black Madonna is thought to be linked to black aeroliths, like the black stone of Mecca, and is later connected to the black virgins who were believed to have a healing power to protect in the middle ages. The goddess Isis who mourns for Osiris in the Egyptian story, is also represented as a black goddess. In India we have the figure of Kali, or again Durga, who are manifestations of a dark power.

Holy Wisdom

The figure of Holy Wisdom.

Finally, we have to understand the image of the feminine in the Song of Songs, as in some way representing a dynamics within the Godhead. As in the later Christian concept of Trinity, Holy Wisdom, is an aspect of the Divine Persona. This image of God as Wisdom links with the second important theme of the Song of Songs: the character of Solomon. Here blackness is related in a way to the wilderness, to all that is unknown, and veiled. There is an imagery relating day to night, and the marriage of light and darkness as in the Indian concept of “Sandhya”, or time of twilight, when the opposites meet. Yaweh renews his covenant with Abraham as the sun is about to set.
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, there appeared a smoking furnae and a firebrand that went between the halves. That day Yahweh made a Covenant with Abram in these terms: To your descendants I give this land”.

The Magic pool

At one level the Song of Songs draws on very deep levels of the unconscious. The whole question of human sexuality is addressed, and ancient rites related to fertility are also evoked. Essentially, however, the Song of Songs is not pessimistic about those powerful human drives that seek passionately for life. But the ambiguity of human emotions is also recognized.

In the Mahabharata there is a chapter about the Magic Pool. Here Yudhishthira is tested by Dharma, the god of world order, who is also equated to Yama, Lord of the Underworld. Yudhishthira who has been afflicted by a mysterious thirst, comes to the pool longing to drink of its cool waters. But a voice warns him not to drink of the waters, because they are poisonous. Instead, the hero is asked to answer various questions related to the very meaning of life. Only after debating with the spirit of the pool is Yudhishthira finally allowed to drink of the waters, which now represent healing life.

The Spirit of the Grove

The symbol of the seed which has to die if new life is to come forth, can be understood in a number of the passages that speak of the significance of death. Creation evolves out of the primal chaos—the Spirit brooding over the waters. But out of this first creation, there emerges the Psyche, which embodies the energies of Creation, and evolves towards consciousness. It is like the onion, which has many layers. As you peal off the different layers, you gradually come to the heart, which is the essence of the plant. It is from this centre that a new sprout breaks forth. In Indian thought these layers, or envelops, which constitute the human psyche, lead ultimately to what is called the ‘Ananda Maya Kosha’, that is the covering of pure bliss, that is the essence of all that the psyche embodies. This is the centre of the labyrinth, which it is necessary for the seeker after wisdom to travel.

The symbolism underlying the theme of the garden or the sacred grove reminds one of the Creation story at the beginning of the book of Genesis. The waters of life are both extensive as in the image of the vast oceans, and also intensive, as in the figure of the spring, or enclosed pool at the heart of the grove. This enclosed pool is like the opening or gate to another dimension, a kind of inner cave which is the vortex from which the spiral of life begins. It is also the eye of the Creator, watching over the primal couple.

Pillar of Fire

The Song of Songs is also a greeting to the Sun. The Beloved is described in glowing terms, like the pillar of the sun. “My lover is radiant and ruddy. His head of purest gold”. We might recall the famous psalm 19: “High above, he pitched a tent for the sun, who comes out of his pavilion like a bridegroom, exulting like a hero to run his race.
He has his rising on the edge of heaven, the end of his course is its furthest edge, and nothing can escape his heat.”
The lover is like the radiant sun that descends into the oceans. It is also like the pillar of fire that led the Israelite people through the Red Sea. Here we have the symbolism of fire related to water. The flame rises up, whereas the waters flow down, seeking the lowest place.

Greeting the Sun

The Song of Songs is about Remembering, of turning towards God, and transforming emotions into feeling for God. This is the essence of what in Indian thought is understood by Bhakti, or Devotion. Feelings are a primal energy, which are embodied in the human psyche. These feelings can be chaotic, and ambivalent, but it is important that we do not reject or repress them. What is required is to canalise these energies into the spiritual domain, making them vehicles for a longing for what is noblest in the human soul. That is the essential quest underlying the discipline of Yoga.

Mountain of Meeting

The journey of the soul is through a landscape that has various features. This is not just the external landscape, but is an inner world, that resembles the outer world. Pilgrimage is a path taken by those who are searching for a Holy Place in the landscape. The heros of the Mahabharata, who were called the Pandava brothers, were forced to go into exile for fourteen years. During this time they wandered in the wilderness, and went in search of holy places, where sages had settled down in Ashram retreats. This part of the Epic is known as “Thirtha yatra”, that is the pilgrimage in search of Thirthas, which means springs, or sources of water. Very often a spring, or source of water, is associated with the primal holy place. It was at such a site that they met the mysterious sage Markandeya, who told them the story concerning Savithri, daughter of the Sun.

But in contrast to the magic pool that is found in the forest, is the Holy Mountain. The mountain, in Indian poetry is often associated with the meeting of lovers. It is the meeting of earth and sky. It is from the heights of the mountain that the stream pours down to give life to the earth
The image is composed on a triangle, with its base firmly on the ground, and its apex pointing up to the sky like a pyramid. This upward pointing triangle symbolizes the Covenant that binds together heaven and earth. To the right of the Mountain form we see the sign of the letter AUM in Sanskrit. This is like fire. This primal sound, which represents the Divine in creation, can also be understood as the tree of life, or Burning Bush, in which the voice of God was heard by Moses as he pastured his flock of sheep near the holy mount Horeb.

Kurisumala : symbol of the meeting of spiritualities.

When I started to work on this series of pictures on the Song of Songs, I had gone back to Kurisumala, which is a hill in the Cardamom hills in Kerala. Here the Apostle Thomas is meant to have passed over the hills to go to Tamilnad. A hill in this area is called the Hill of the Cross (Kurisu mala), where St. Thomas is supposed to have camped. It is here that an Ashram was founded at the foot of the mountain by two monks from the West—Dom Bede Griffiths, and Francis Acharya (Mahieu), who came to India in 1955. The Ashram was formally established in 1957. It is here that I felt that a meeting of two spiritual traditions took place, one from the Contemplative tradition of the West, and the other an Eastern approach to the spiritual quest. It is in this spirit that Dom Bede Griffiths was to write of the “Marriage of East and West”

The Womb House

The Third Poem in the Song of Songs opens with the question:
“What is this coming up from the desert, like a column of smoke, breathing of myrrh and frankincense and every perfume the merchant knows ?
See, it is the litter of Solomon.”
The word “Litter” or “bed” is the Hebrew Mittah—a place used for sleep, rest, recuperation from illness, feasting and revelry (Ezek. 23.41. Esther 6.1) It is often carried on the shoulders (I. Sam. 19.15) and can also serve as a bier (II Sam. 3.31)
Royalty, and the wealthy had beds ornamented with Ivory (Amos. 6.6) or Gold and Silver (Esther 1: 6). The bed is the nuptial bed, but is also associated with death. Among the Indian Warli tribes, the newly wed couple are placed in a litter, and covered with a cloth, as though they have died together. Marriage is a dying to the old world, and a rebirth to a new life together. The poet Kabir speaks of death as a kind of marriage—a time when we are united with our true Self.

The Bride is called “Shulamite” (Song of Songs, 7:1) This title derives from Shalom, a state of fullness, being at rest, without fear. It is used in a Messianic context. Even the name 'Solomon' is linked to Shelem, an ancient fertility god. This name also appears in the city Jerusalem, abbreviated as Salem (Gen 14:18, also Ps. 76:3)
The theme of the Bridegroom coming for his bride was an important image among the school of followers around John the Baptist. Thus we read in John 3.29 “It is the bridegroom who has the bride: but the bridegroom’s friend who stands outside and listens for his voice is very glad when he hears the bridegroom speak. So this joy of mine is now complete”

In the centre of the city is the Temple where a new wholeness is discovered. The Holy of Holies in the Temple is sometimes compared to a womb, whose mysteries are veiled behind a curtain. Here the King and his Bride are wrapped together in the sacred form known as the Mandorla, which is shaped like the almond seed or chrysalis.

The Song of songs is very much linked, liturgically, to the feast of Tabernacles. The palanquin is described as made of cedar wood, its panels symbolizing love. In fact cedar wood was used extensively in the temple that Solomon constructed, probably because the cedars of Lebanon were considered to be holy groves.
The seasons play a very important part in the imagery of the Song of Songs. After death there is new life and spring. From the enclosed egg or seed there emerges a new creation. The bride comes out of the darkness of the earth to search for the light of her lover. From their meeting, symbolized by the two birds, comes the radiance and beauty of spring.

The Palanquin

The Theme of the Royal Bed, can be extended to the idea of the Palanquin. The root of this is “appiryon”, Persian “aparyan (upari-yana)”, Sanskrit “Payanka, Palki” From this image of the moveable palanquin, comes also the notion of the Pavilion, and even Palace. The early “Tabernacle” or place where God was present, among his nomadic people, was also transportable.
A symbol for the Holy of Holies is the Ark of the Covenant. We think of David dancing before the Ark. The act of marriage is a sign of the covenant, which is the faithful love shown by the Creator for the whole of creation. Here we perceived a Mandala or icon symbolizing the wholeness of creation.

The City of the heart.

Searching and meeting are like two sides of the coin. In fact in Indian Bhakti there are two forms of devotion---the devotion of one who feels separated from the Beloved, and is always searching, and the devotion of union.
The beloved seeks for her lover in the city. In a sense the image of the Bride is associated with the city. She is compared to a tower. Like Durga, she is an enclosed fortress. The search for the lost lover, is a search within herself. She is helped by various citizens, who are watchmen. Also she appeals to her companion sisters, who like the “saki” of Indian love poetry, are the maids who accompany the bride. These maids, as we are told in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, represent in a way the different emotions that attend on the soul.

Searching the City

The Song of Songs is very much the expression of longing, and of feeling separated from the Beloved. Part of the symbolism related to this theme comes from a growing tension between what is perceived as the simple pastoral life of wandering nomadic tribes, and the emergence of the city, symbolized by Jerusalem. The shepherd lover has died, and in his place a new figure in the form of a king, who is Solomon, claims Wisdom as his bride.

A similar tension is found in Indian legends concerning the tribal hero Krishna, who is described as living in the gardens of Brindavan, and sporting with the milk maids of a pastoral community, and a later tradition of the King who is Krishna, involved in the great battle of the Mahabharata, and connected with the emerging principality of Mathura. The fact that both these figures are given the same name, and linked by an over arching myth that spans the folk tradition of tribal communities living in the wild, and an emerging civilization based on city centres, and kingly lineage, shows that there is a basic pattern that the epic tries to connect. One way of doing this is to create a narrative that spans Kingdom and exile, seeing the two in a dynamic relationship which has a deeper meaning in complementary centres of power.

While I was working on this series of the Song of Songs, I was also becoming very much aware of the tribal cultures of India, and thinking about the story known as the Karam Kahani, in the tribal belt known as Jharkhand (the land of trees) between Orissa and Bihar. In this story we also find this tension between a life based on a forest economy, and the emerging city centre which is characterized by the City of Light, or Kasi (also known as Varanasi) on the holy river Ganges, west of the Tribal region.

The narrative of the search is the interplay between city and rural economies, in which the human community is drawn in what seems opposite poles—towards increasing urbanization on the one hand, and a sense of the vital forces that inhabit the forest groves. The Karam Tree, and Karam Festival reminds the people that the true wealth of wisdom is not to be found ultimately in the man made structures of the market town, but rather in the God-given natural symbols that lie embedded in the countryside.

Mother Earth receiving the sun.

It is in this context that we are reminded repeatedly of the Mother, who is also Mother earth. It is she who is the custodian of a primal wisdom, related to nature. She holds the mystery of the cycle of the seasons, and the eternal rhythmic movement of the sun, which is both the Heavenly King Dharma Raja, but also mysterious Lord of the underworld, Yama, god of Death.

The heart of the Song of Songs

We now come to the mysterious heart of the Song of Songs, which seems to represent a mystical dimension. It is night, and the Bride, who is also the Soul or Anima, encounters the Other, who appears in one form like a wild animal. The image seems to be dream like. The bride is on her bed, sleeping. But her heart is awake. The passage reflects Isa. 26. 9:
“My Soul yearns for the in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks thee”
Can we undestand here the psyche’s love for two realities: on the one hand a cosmic world, (symbolized by the Shepherd, and all that he stands for in mythic thought) and on the other hand a metacosmic call (symbolized by the King and his city). The psyche is torn between these two, and experiences a deep sense of guilt. The love for the shepherd here is almost pushed down into the unconscious, for the love of the king is the prime duty of the realized soul. But there is a psychic danger: if the shepherd is forgotten, and sent into the underworld, the whole of creation will suffer, and the fields, vines etc will be destroyed. So, it is vital that the Bride remembers her past love (of her childhood, before her breasts were properly formed) and tries to integrate into her love for the king, this deeper more instinctual love of the wilderness. Hence the repeated warning: “do not awaken my love”…that is do not force the process by cutting off the unconscious world. Be patient, and allow the natural processes of awakening slowly, and in due season, to take place. This is the “wisdom” of the song.

Anima and Animal

The Bride hears a voice (“quol”) reminding us again of Isa. 40.3 : “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”
This voice also knocks at the door. Cf. Rev. 3.20, where Christ comes and knocks at the door.
The dews that soak the bride’s hair relate to the tears of the heart that arise from repentance, and are a gift of grace.

The Bride has entered into her inner room—a place of feminine mysteries. She has “washed her feet” and undressed, and therefore cannot open the door.
In this image it is apparent that the intention of the one who comes in the night is not just to tease her, but to reveal that she has an independent will of her own. She has a reality in herself, and therefore is not dependent on her lover. Feet in Indian tradition signify presence, contact with the soil, standing firm.
But still the bride is deeply moved. Her inmost self, or 'Rehem'(Hebrew signifying heart, or inner bowels), is stirred.
"Is Ephraim my dear son, is he my darling child ? Often I speak of him, I cherish his memory still. Therefore my guts stir for him; I will surely pity him."
Jer. 31:20

Return to the Garden of Paradise

The image of the Garden, which reminds us of Paradise, is related to the wilderness, but is also different. The garden, an enclosed, walled in place, is also a cultivated, protected world. It is in the City, or particularly in the palace. It has a fountain in the centre. It represents the wilderness, but within the context of the city. It here becomes a symbol of a new integration between the civilized community, and its primal history.

The garden is also a figure for Israel. It is the fruitful community, which is always in danger of being destroyed by external forces, who want to come and break down its protective boundary, and to turn the garden back once again into a wilderness.
“Going down to his garden”
The theme of coming back, of returning, is another recurring motif of the Song of Songs. Like the idea of “Maranatha”—come Lord. But here it is the return of the Bride that is eagerly awaited.

The enclosed garden.

Come from Lebanon, my promised bride, come from Lebanon, come on your way…..
From the crests of Senir and Hermon, the haunt of lions, the mountains of leopards.
Song of songs. 4.8
She is a garden enclosed,
My sister, my promised bride;
A garden enclosed, a sealed fountain…..
Fountain that makes the gardens fertile, well of living water, streams flowing down from Lebanon. Song of songs 4 :12,16