Saturday, February 4, 2012

Vishnu at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts

by Kalki Weisthor

The legacy of the Frist family is a dark one, and not in a good way.  Their legacy, as received by America in its current state of final decline, consists largely of the Hospital Corporation of America, and Bill Frist.  HCA, the corporate medical megalith pleaded guilty in 2003 to fourteen felonies and admitted systematically overcharging the government by claiming marketing costs as reimbursable, by striking illegal deals with home care agencies, and by filing false data about use of hospital space.  It paid two billion dollars in fraud settlements in 2000 to 2002, which the U.S. Department of Justice boasts as the largest fraud settlement in U.S. history.  Bill Frist, one of two sons of the HCA founder, was George Bush’s Majority Leader from 2003 til 2007.   Need I say more?

In some semblance of giving back for sucking the blood of the country, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts was founded at the end of the American Century in downtown Nashville, blocks from to Union Station, a tomb of the railroad history which flourished there during that same century.  Nashville is usually seen as the buckle of the Bible Belt; when I left the museum after my first visit to the exhibit Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, which appeared at the Frist from February 20 through May 29, 2011, the crowds of slack-jawed geeks I had to dodge as they wandered through traffic like giggling zombies, were on their way to see Joel Osteen, the curse of Sunday morning TV, at the Bridgestone Arena, the home of the Nashville Predators, which seats over seventeen thousand Last Men.  I’d just spent a relatively quiet couple of hours with the images of Vishnu and his avatars, however, searching for the shadow of Tradition, and I had been rewarded. 

The exhibit itself, if poorly titled and often poorly lit, was both well designed for its audience and ultimately rewarding to someone like myself, a more than casual viewer.  Since the exhibit is reported headed to the Brooklyn Museum for the fall and summer, I will speak of its continued existence, and encourage you to attend, if possible.  According to its catalog it consists of “more than 170 paintings, sculptures and ritual objects, dating from the Fourth through the Twentieth Centuries”.  Not surprisingly, its oldest objects are stone and rather worn, the oldest being sandstone! while the most distinct objects tend to be bronze; the paintings are of course more recent. 

The exhibit is of course a reflection of Indian history, so interwoven with its philosophies and religions, as seen through modern Hinduism, and that image reflected again through the deluded historical sensibilities of modern man, with his unconscious but dominant belief in the Myth of Progress.  The “educated” Tennessean beholds the glory of Rama from the Age of Heroes through the veil of the Enlightenment, thinking that his understanding has moved beyond that of the statue’s unknown sculptor, not realizing that he is but a depraved and decadent descendant.  This is in spite of the fact that the exhibit informs him in large bold type, as the Rig Veda teaches, that he lives in the Kali Yuga, the last of the descending ages in the world cycle, which began somewhere between 3,000 and 600 B.C. (depending on your source and reckoning), in which Man is but a shadow of what he once was, the last bitter whisper of the Being which Became him many ages ago. 

I go to such an exhibit with the knowledge of my limitations, my inadequacies and my shortened grasp, in hand.  Most of the world’s great traditions teach of the world cycles.  In the Vedic tradition and its heirs including Buddhism, these are known as kalpas.  All of these traditions teach us that the age in which we live is the last and the most decadent, in which the higher truth that clearly shines in the earliest times, and is mirrored in the second as memory and Being fades.  In the third age, the heroes attempt to arise amidst the coming sleep brought foreshadowed by the second, but they ultimately fail, and we enter the last, the true Dark Age, which is ended only by destruction, and the cycle begins again.

The Vishnu exhibit centers upon images of the Hindu god probably most acceptable to the victims of Modernism, Humanism and watered Christianity who are its most likely and common viewers.  Of course there are hundreds, thousands, or millions of Hindu gods, depending on where the distinctions are drawn, but modern Hindus are usually devotees of Vishnu, Siva, or Kali (Devi).  From another angle, we can look at Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Siva the destroyer.  Analogies to the Fates or the Norns hold, but just so far.  Suffice it to say that the sad title of the exhibit refers to the fact that Krishna, in mainstream Hinduism an avatar of Vishnu (though the Krishna cult sees it the other way around) is sort of the Hindu Jesus, although he probably wouldn’t’ be too acceptable at the Osteen rally down the street because of his relentless promiscuity with the milkmaids (gopis).  Nor would the sect of male followers who dress themselves as milkmaids hoping for Krishna’s attentions be cherished among most Baptists; but I digress.

Vishnu was only a minor character in the Vedas, the sacred texts of the Aryans who rolled into India on a wave of conquest between 2000 and 1000 B.C.  The Vaishnavites teach that it was Vishnu from whose belly Brahma arose to create the world, and who retrieved the Vedas from the ocean of chaos at the end of the previous world cycle, preserving the teachings for our own ages.  But the Aryans, the descendants of the Golden Age, whose teachings even in their decline spawned many of the Western world’s most virile belief systems, including those of the Iranian precursors of Zoroaster and the Wotanists, were warriors, as were their gods. They brought their Indra, royal god of thunder, in chariots of war into the valley of the Indus River where they encountered a curious people known as the Dravidians.  And from the marriage of these was born modern Hinduism.

Authorities differ on the influences of the Dravidians, who were all accounts a smallish, dark people, on and within modern Hinduism.  My Indologist professor followed the interpretation of Heinrich Zimmer, a teacher of Joseph Campbell, insofar as the Dravidian culture was seen as the source of the more esoteric, meditative aspects of Hinduism.  Zimmer maintained that Yoga and its philosophical aspect Sankhya, as well as Jainism and even Buddhism were re-emergences of the forest-dwelling, introverted religion of the Dravidians, which was absorbed into and eventually emerged dominant within the warrior religion with which the Aryans baptized India in fire.  Traditionalists like Baron Julius Evola disagree, and maintain that Buddhism and Yoga - the most successful of the non-Vedic Indian teachings – are instead the renaissance of the original Traditional understanding of the Aryans, after a period of descent and decay.  We may never know; the Dravidians left no writings, and we have only the documents in Sanskrit and Pali left by the conquerors and their heirs.

Evola’s view of tradition states that the original, highest teachings which came to man were the products of a golden age, the age of solar powers, and the man of the age, should we call him such, was a transcendent being.  The following age, the silver, was a slight decay into a more passive, feminine element.  The third age was the age of heroes, in which man tried to regain the glory of the first, to overcome the sloth induced by the second, but could not, due to his degeneration during that long era.  The fourth age is the age of decline and end; the twilight of man.  It is from this diminished perspective that we gaze with dimmed vision at the glory of the earliest times, but we cannot see.  We can see only its reflections in the remnants of an age that was itself diminished.  It was the intuitive call of this vision that drew me to the exhibition of Vishnu.

In passing I should note that the above disagreement is interesting, but not, to me, critical. If the theory of diminishing ages is correct, why can the Dravidians themselves not have been the descendants of their own golden age, or of the same originators, taken another route?  Evola sees the Dravidians as just another autochthonous people, worshipping nature or its manifestations; in fact, archeological finds in the region north of the Indus indicates that the Dravidians may have had their own previous solar religion, decayed further and faster than that of the Aryans. So perhaps their higher culture was older and more pristine in its origin than the Aryan one, or one that took a faster route to decay.  How can we know? We know only what we intuit when we heed the call to the higher within ourselves that the remnant images can help to draw forth.

The exhibit is a two-dimensional representation of the multi-dimensional truth of the teachings that produced it over a course of nearly two thousand years, and the truths of the teaching that may extend for millennia before.  Perhaps the clearest example of this is the clearly depicted series of avatars, or incarnations, of Vishnu (read: the godhead) over the course of this world cycle.  The understanding behind this is that Vishu the preserver periodically appears to maintain the world cycle on course, as it were – occasionally in his true form (as in the most frightening and memorable scene it the Bhagavad Gita, as the Vishvarupa.), but most often as an Avatar. Strangely, for a system that was firmly in place in most of its elements by about the Fourth Century B.C., the earliest avatars recapitulate the phylogeny of evolutionary theory – an apparent challenge to the opposing theory of historical devolution, which I have yet to see addressed by the Traditionalists.

At any rate, Vishnu appears first as a fish, Matsya, who retrieves the Vedas from the bottom of the ocean at the beginning of the world cycle and saves Manu (man) from the “Flood” (really more analogous to Ginnungagap), so that he can continue from the last cycle to this one (another interesting survival is the sage Markandeya).  The second avatar is Kurma, a tortoise who holds the world on this back.  The second is Varaha, the boar whose rescues the earth from the primordial ocean (a better Flood analogy, I think).  From there we move on through a man/lion to a dwarf, then to a vengeful Brahman (see below), to Rama, the King and hero of the Ramayana, then on thru Krishna, the Buddha, and then Kalki.

The latter incarnations especially deserve explorations in our latter days.  Somewhere around the appearance of Parashurama, we begin to entertain the faintest images of recorded history, and begin to see the impact of man’s recording thereof.  Parashurama is, as seen from the viewpoint of modern Hinduism, a vengeful Brahmin who comes to put the ascendant Kshatriya, or warrior class, back in its place.  Herein, we see how history is written by the victors, vis-à-vis the caste system.  To wit:

The caste systems in its less degenerate forms has four main division of labor, analogous to Georges Dumezil's three functions of society.  The top class consists of the Brahmins or Priests.  Second come the Kshatriyas or warriors.  Third is the Vaishvas or merchants.  Fourth is the Sudras, or laborers.  Below this we find the castless.  The ordering of these four above is that of modern Hinduism. Its aspect that is important to us with regard to this avatar is the conflict between the top two classes.  Dumezil’s classification says that the top two classes are in fact a double aspect of the priest/king, such aspects being equal but usually split within a society.  A major split between the two ‘modern’ schools of Radical Traditionalists, those of Evola and of Rene Guenon, results from this issue: Guenon maintaining the rightful primacy of the priest class, which would accord with and put Guenon in agreement with the mission of Parashurama.  Evola hold that the Golden age was that of the unified entity of the Priest/King, the divine ruler, and that the usurpation of supreme power by the priesthood was the degeneracy of the Silver Age.  Apparently the Silver Age has occurred and the Priests won; hence our Avatar.

So with Parashurama we enter Evola’s Silver Age, which is in other dimensions scene as the Atlantean (as opposed to the Hyperboreanism of the Gold).  Many, many years later we encounter Rama, the prototype of the modern prince or hero, and namesake of the Ramayana, one of the two major epics of Hindu tradition, set down a few hundred years after Homer and roughly contemporaneous with the traditional form of the Old Testament of the Hebrews.  At this point we have clearly entered the age of heroes.   At the same time, or a bit later, we get the written incarnation of the Mahabharata, the other main epic, which ultimately included the Bhagavad Gita, probably the best-known holy writing of the Hindus, which predominantly features Krishna and enters into the age of devotion, or Bhakti.

Bhakti can be beautiful, and may be in its highest form the only beauty available to modern man – the worship of the other in the highest form he can conceive it. Bhakti as seen in the Gita and in the remains of the Heroic tradition, is the playing of ones role, the enactment of ones dharma, to the hilt, without attachment to consequences or results.  It is the aspect of Zen that is trashily and modernistically interpreted as mindfulness.   It has its Apollonian aspect, and its Dionysian.  But the most serious advocates of Dionysus, who miss the transcendence of the Apollonian – who fail like Nietzsche to perceive the transcendent, and who abandon the transcendent for the Superman – fall ultimately into their own animal nature, of which the Superman is but the biggest and strongest aspect.

Zimmer indicates that the proper practice of modern man in this Final Age of Iron is Tantra.  Tantra is more evident in the devotees of Shiva than those of Vishnu, and in certain forms of Mahayana Buddhism, most notably the Tibetan.  It is akin to magic.  But even this, involving action as it does, still involves an effort, a striving for a higher consciousness.  Once that is abandoned, once man is devolved to far, there is nothing left but the empty form of worship of modern man, which is modernism.

Modernism is the spiritual practice of modern man, a creature so depraved that he can no longer emulate the gods or aspire or ascend to godhood, but can only slavishly worship them, in the hope that they – the divine external – can lift him up, improve his essence and status, so that perhaps in the next life he can aspire to better prospects – perhaps to an incarnation in the world of gods (which are still far below the ultimate reality). Modernism is the religion of slaves.  It is the practice of the modern mainstream Hindu, of most and all modern Christians, and its most materialistic, debased form, of the religions of Humanism and the Myth of Progress, with its fading sects of Capitalism and Communism. Modernism is the devoted self-abnegating nihilism that currently manifests as multiculturism and totalitarianism, as humanity slides into the scum at the bottom of the barrel, at the end of the current age.  It is the mindset of the followers of Joel Osteen.

Such is the end state of current religiosity.  But there are two more avatars of Vishnu: Buddha, and Kalki.  The appearance of Buddha in this pantheon is problematic and interesting.  The historical Buddha was one of six non-Vedic teachers who arose around 600 B.C., in response to a decline of the Vedic teachings.  The initial teaching of the Buddha opposed that of the prevalent Bhakti, and asserted that man could still transcend the bonds of karma and the illusion of Maya.  The earliest Buddhist scriptures tell the story of an Aryan prince who, tired of the world’s luxuries and informed of its inevitable woes, intuitively sensed that his possibility was more and higher, and embarked on a quest to realize a higher meaning.  After trying the teachings available at the time and finding no satisfaction in them, he sat in quiet contemplation for a number of days (or weeks) until at last he transcended the bounds of his personal consciousness and reached enlightenment. 

Those same sutras tell us that upon reaching enlightenment, Buddha realized that what he had found could not be taught, and resolved to make no error to do.  At this point, however, Brahma, chief of the gods, appeared to him and convinced him that there were others, maybe a few, who could benefit and be inspired by his teaching.  Thus the first sangha began, and Buddhism began to spread, assuming many forms over 2600 years and perhaps experiencing its last gasp of vitality in America today.  Of course Buddha’s teaching has devolved, too; from its original manifestation as the way which was by definition unteachable, it was corrupted through the monkism of Hinayana, the missionary proselytism of Mayahana and the magical rituals of the Vajrayana (Buddhist Tantrism) until it became just another religion, devolved at its worst into a religion of Humanism and ‘Psychology’.  A few years ago at a Zen center in Atlanta I saw for sale a t-shirt that read “Zen is for Everyone’ and began to realize that I was in the wrong place to look for eternity.

The Buddha is the strangest of Hindu avatars; he occupies a place in the family of Vishnu similar to that of Jesus among the Muslims.  That is, he is venerated, but not much.  Hinduism teaches that Buddha came to spread false teaching! And by doing so, to draw off the fools, so that the correct worship may proceed without them.  He, along with Parashurama, is the least depicted of the Avatars.  When he is depicted, he is depicted as sitting quietly (as befits a Buddha) as opposed to most of the others, who are depicted in action.

The final Avatar of Vishnu is not yet come, and he is the Avatar whom we await in our day.  Kalki comes with a sword, rides a white horse, and comes to end the modern age in blood.  He comes to abolish the degraded age, and to return its essence to the cosmic soup, so that it may began again its rise into the next world cycle.  Such a dynamic figure of destruction is curiously absent from our modern awareness, despite the growing majority of those who see that the world as it is cannot hold, and will not endure.  Gore Vidal wrote a pretty good novel about him, but in our culture he is usually overshadowed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or some other borrowed myth.  He is the instigator of Ragnarok, in a sense.  We await his cleansing fire.

I have been to see the exhibit entitled Vishnu: Hindu’s Blue-Skinned Savior twice.  The first time I was rushed through and I went back on a Sunday afternoon to bask in the timelessness of the powerful images from another existence.  The strongest of the images, the casts of the warrior avatars in stone and in bronze, and the beautiful later paintings embellished with gold and silver, held me for that space and spoke to me from out of time.  The final rooms of the exhibit brought me back to modernity.  We see how the images of Vishnu have survived into and been used by the modern world (the adoption of Hanuman, the monkey god, in the revolution against the British).  We are presented with a Hindu shrine, a model of the manner in which the modern Hindu in his home, no longer aspiring to godhood in his own life, propitiates the higher essences in the hope that he may be ennobled in some future time (which, being in time, will not come).

The music at the exhibit plays softly in the background.  Occasionally I recognize the beauty of some Ravi Shankar piece that I have in my own collection.  During my first visit, the visitor was rudely interrupted by the incongruous blaring of electrified guitar and folkish warbling from the lobby, and I remembered where and who I was, in my little manifestation, down the street from where the mindless hordes of Osteen were congregating.  I was OK though.  The images of Higher Tradition had already spoken to me, through the veil of manifestation and modernity, and for a time I could remember Myself, and reside At Home.

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