Friday, October 25, 2013

The Fall of Arthur / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Christopher Tolkien, ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

When most of us think of Britain's mythopoeic tradition, the legends of King Arthur and his knights come quickly to mind.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien found them "too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive," but Tolkien did enjoy them as a child.  His appreciation for them as an adult was great enough to move him to edit (with E.V. Gordon) a Middle English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and later to translate the poem into modern English, retaining its alliterative verse form.  It is not clear exactly when, but roughly around this stage of his career, Tolkien also began writing an alliterative poem "in the Beowulf meter" (according to his friend R.W. Chambers)  entitled The Fall of Arthur.

The poem was never completed by Tolkien, but numerous manuscripts survived.  Much to our benefit, Tolkien's son Christopher has assembled the best of these verses into a striking version of the story of the death of Arthur.  Tolkien is a master of Britain's traditional poetic meter and "Norther" alliterative verse, having composed numerous works in this style, so it is a pleasure to read Christopher's edition of his father's work, and to see how Tolkien chose to tell a story often told, but often told out of the context of the time.  Tolkien's knowledge of the literature and history of medieval England makes him especially equipped to give us what seems to be an authentic version of legend.

Along with the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien provides us with three essays of his own.  The first is the most interesting.  It recounts various tellings of the events that are included in Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur, including those by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory.  Christopher Tolkien ably puts his father's imaginative treatment of the story into the context of this tradition, allowing us to see what Tolkien retained from that tradition and what is new in his narrative.  Perhaps the most interesting addition that Tolkien brings to the legend is his treatment of Guinevere (or "Guinever" as Tolkien chooses to spell her name.)  While modern treatments of her character make her out to be a beautiful, but star-crossed, heroine, Tolkien's Guinever seems more akin to Lady MacBeth.  Possibly less sympathetic, Guinever seems a good deal more autonomous and powerful than the more popular Guinevere.

Christopher Tolkien's second essay seeks to draw connections between The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien's larger legendarium, The Silmarillion.  While this essay includes a good deal of interesting paragraphs and valuable insights, it is largely disconnected and confused.  One is never sure if there are any broader points to be made by the essay.  The third essay amounts to little more than a record of various alternative drafts of the version that Christopher Tolkien chose to make "canonical" as The Fall of Arthur.  We are provided with page upon page of alternate passages that serve little purpose than to let the reader know that Christopher Tolkien needed to make numerous editorial decision in creating the canonical version.  Given these alternate passages, one could, in principle, re-do the work of the editor and create a number of very different versions of Tolkien's work, but it is hard to imagine who would want to bother.

In all, The Fall of Arthur is a welcome addition to the compiled work of J.R.R. Tolkien, it illustrates Tolkien's poetic genius, and tempts one to further explore both Tolkien's other alliterative poems and the treatments by other authors of the Arthurian legends.    

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self / Stephen Cope -- N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1999

Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is a combination of memoir and an account of Cope's understanding of the essence of yoga, particularly the form of yoga that he experienced in his ten-year residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The result is an idiosyncratic interpretation of yoga, shaped by Cope's history as a psychotherapist.  On the whole, the work is well-written, presenting composites of characters from his years as a therapist and yoga practitioner. 

Cope decided to take up residence at the Kripalu Center for a one year "sabbatical" shortly after his partner of fifteen years left him for a very much younger man.  It appears his own motivation was less spiritual and more psychotherapeutic.  Consequently, it is no surprise that he interprets yogic practice (his own and others) as a means to deal with personal psychological turmoil.  It is only at the end of the book that he gives any indication that the "true self" for which he is searching is without the empirical characteristics that are the objects of psychotherapy.

Much of the book describes various residents and visitors at the Kripalu Center and the psychological motives behind their yogic practice.  Cope at least initially presents yoga to be the effort to recall the self from exile and create a "royal road home."  Search for the "true self" often means coming to terms with unconscious motivations and psychic states that make one's life painful, unfulfilling, inauthentic, or simply lacking in some respect.  Among the insights that Cope finds helpful is that one's mind and body are importantly connected.  The practice of yoga allowed Cope to understand that his false constructions of his identity were reflected in how he experienced his body.  He often makes much of how yoga practitioners will find a pain or tension in some specific part of the body and draw the conclusion that it is there because of some mental or psychological unease.  Undoubtedly, there are connections between ones mental states and physical states, but the connections that Cope often asserts seem highly speculative.

Cope admirably recognizes that one should approach claims made by yogis with not only an open mind, but also with a skeptical mind, and true to a pragmatic approach to psychotherapy (and spiritual liberation), whatever succeeds for the practitioner/patient should not be denigrated; however, for anyone steeped in 20th century scientific realism or pretty much any moderately exacting criterion for the justification of beliefs, much of what is "successful" seems a bit like so much snake oil.  It's great if a placebo works, but if it involves accepting unfalsifiable claims about the empirical world, it's hard not to listen to one's skeptic mind.

Toward the end of the book, Cope provides an account of a crisis within the Kripalu Center, when the Center's spiritual leader is discovered to have been having sexual relations with some of its residents.  Cope's account of the explosive anger among the residents indicates that the submissive guru-follower relationship that often characterizes spiritual seekers could not contain the individualist, egalitarian, and free-thinking attitudes among the Center's residents and visitors.

By the end of the book, Cope comes to resolve for himself a question that he raises throughout the book.  In the face of the trials and tribulation of the world, how can the assertion by his guru that "everything is OK" be correct.  The answer comes from Cope's realization that his true self is not the empirical self that experiences trials and tribulations. It is an eternal self that embraces all the universe, or at least all consciousness.  He writes, "For several sublime moments, the boundaries that separated us [Cohen and his friends], our complicated personalities, our struggles, our tragedies, all receded into the stillness of Lake Mahkeenac.  We were together on the ladder, in the meditation hall, on the mountaintop.  We were young.  We were old.  We were successful.  We were failures.  We were at the end of our lives.  We were at the beginning of our lives. And everything was absolutely OK....In the shimmering stillness, the world of space and time became transparent, revealing a hidden world in which we were all parts of one another."  It is this identification with a transcendental self that is different from, or at least indifferent to, the self that suffers the trials and tribulation of the empirical world that offers spiritual liberation and one is pleased that Cope appears to have reached beyond his fixation with psychotherapy to understand this.

Yoga and Quest for the True Self concludes with an informative appendix on the "metaphysics of yoga" which describes a number of important ideas in various schools of the Indian philosophical tradition.  Many of these ideas are divergent, even contradictory.  Consequently, Cohen calls it a "stew."  According to Cohen, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health synthesizes many of the elements of the stew.  He notes, however, that it is heavily influenced by the nondualism of the Vedanta and Tantric traditions, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, and hatha yoga techniques, a raja yoga context.  Most of all, Cohen is impressed with the idea of the "sacredness of the moment."

In all, Yoga and Quest for the Ture Self is a worthwhile account of one man's experience with yoga, but the reader will need to have a high tolerance for reading about the psychological trials of Cohen's characters, not all of whom are well enough drawn to earn one's sympathy and sustain one's interest.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems / Sir R.G. Bhandarkar -- Strassburg: Verlag von Karl J. Trubner, 1913

Religion in India is significantly different from Christianity.  By the fourth century, Christianity had established a fairly stable canon of sacred literature.  Not long after that, two institutional churches, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, came to dominate all Christian doctrine.  There were, of course, heterodoxies that arose and variations within these churches, but they were, by and large, insignificant variations that never took hold.  The Protestant Reformation did manage to create new, lasting theological doctrines, but again, the differences were slight, at least in comparison to the differences that one finds in the religious experience of India.

In Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar gives a dense account of a huge number of religious systems that arose in the course of India's long history.  Indian religion has its roots in the ancient Vedas and came to a philosophical apex with the Upanishads.  These texts were filled with numerous and contradictory theological and cosmological doctrines.  They simultaneously portray a pantheon of countless gods along with views of God as both transcendent and immanent in the world.  The concept of incarnations and avatars helped to make sense of these contradictions, but one must see the Vedas and the Upanishads as a collection of contradictory religious and spiritual insights written by numerous authors over many centuries.  They are early drafts of the religious and spiritual insights that India has been interpreting and revising to this day.  Two strands of thinking have, however, gained prominence:  Vaisnavism and Saivism.

Bhandarkar's account of the history of Vaisnavism begins in the latter half of the first millennium B.C.E.  During this time, Buddhism and Jainism arose in the east, while in the west theistic systems became popular, particularly one devoted to the worship of Vasudeva.  Bhandarkar highlights references to Vasudeva in the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavadgita.  In time, Vasudeva became identified with a Narayana, a supreme being that evolved from the early concept of Nadayana, the "resting place or goal of men."  Vasudeva also came to identified with Vishnu, a rather minor god in the Vedas that appears supreme in later literature.  Thus Vaisnavism came about as a combination of "streams of religious thought, namely the one flowing from Vishnu, the Vedic god at its source, another from Narayana, the cosmic and philosophic god, and the third from Vasudeva, the historical god."  From that time, a wide variety of systems have emerged, among the most important is the worship of the Cowherd God, Gopala-Krishna. 

In the eighth century, Samkaracarya and his followers began promoting a doctrine of spiritual monism and world-illusion.  This was seen to be in conflict with Bhakti, or the love of God, which Vaisnavism required.  In succeeding centuries, more pronounced and fanatic version of Bhakti evolved in which a "single-minded and devoted love of God" became necessary for attaining eternal bliss.

Bhandarkar observes that Vaisnavism celebrated God in his beneficent form, "The lovableness of the works of God, his greatness and majesty and his mysterious nature are...matters that strike the mind of man; and these appear to have operated in bringing Vishnu into prominence.  What contributed to the formation of Vaisnavism were the appearances and occurrences which excited love, admiration and a spirit of worship," but these are not the only sources for the theological inspiration. Bhandarkar also writes, "Many are the occasions in the life of man, which excite fear; there are epidemics and other diseases, poisons, serpents, storms, thunderbolts and wild and awful scenes, and consequently the god who brings on these occasions and protects when appeased will be thought of oftener then other gods."  Fear is the sentiment behind this theology and it is the god Rudra-Shiva and Saivism that evolved from it.

Rudra makes appearances in the earliest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, and unlike Vishnu, is a relatively important god.  There and in subsequent literature, he is given  additional names including Shiva.  According to Bhandarkar, the Saiva system has three principles and four parts.  The principles are the lord (Pati), the individual soul (Pasu), and fetters (Pasa).  The parts knowledge (Vidya), action (Kriya), meditation (Yoga), and conduct (Carya).  Vidya provides an account of the three principles and amounts to a set of theological and metaphysical doctrines, along with a description of the fetters which inhibit us from salvation.  The actual spiritual path of Saivism involves the religious ritual and yogic practices, and moral discipline outlined in the last three parts.  Much of the section on Saivism includes descriptions of the practices of various Saiva sects.

In the final pages of Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Bhandarkar revisits the debate over the immanence or transcendence of God.  His conclusion is that the distinction is not relevant to Indian religions.  For both Vaisnavism and Saivism, God is understood to be both immanent and transcendent.  His explanation as to how both can be true is cryptic; however, one might begin to understand this by thinking of the individual self as a deluded and alienated fragment of the Godhead.  Our delusion and alienation is what makes God transcendent relative to our earthly circumstance. Our task in life is to overcome the fetters that separate us from the Godhead and realize its immanence.