Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Hermit

...Another in my series of posts from the business class lounge in Seoul; today, a bit more about symbolism at Angkor Wat.

Maybe it goes without saying that the culture which produced Angkor Wat had different priorities than our own.

Just how different is debatable. After all, the people who lived in that world had to earn a living, feed their families, and deal with the usual emotional uproars of life, just as we do. Nonetheless, the overwhelming emphasis on religion is clear. As in contemporary Medieval Europe, the divine right of Kings held sway… emphasis on divine. The political authorities of the era had no authority without religious authority. Hence the huge temples at the very center of every city. The entire society revolved in a circle around the religion du jour.

…And, if you were an authority and didn’t have a temple, hell, you had to build one, sometimes, fast.

The iconography on the temple walls at Angkor recapitulates Hindu mythologies in the same manner that the stained glass at Chartres tells the story of the Bible. In both cases, the temples served as visual “books” for the largely illiterate populace, showing them, in tangible imagery, what they had heard at the feet of their parents or grandparents.

All over the world, at that time, there was a flowering of religious architecture—along with a blossoming of a kind rarely seen since, a moment when spiritual masters as intensely profound and diverse as Dogen, Meister Eckhart, and Rumi brought their work and their messages to mankind. A moment that may not have seen its like since. Something unique and remarkable was at work on the planet at that time—what, we can hardly guess at, but during the 12th, and 13th centuries, a remarkable divine influence was making itself felt across the globe.

We don’t know who the masters of Angkor were- aside from inscriptions dedicating temples, they left few to no records behind. But we can be sure they must have been there, from the touches they left behind: the extraordinary architecture, the subtle and refined artistic sensibilities, the utterly magnificent expounding of Hindu mythology on temple walls.

One particularly touching element in this grand show of pageantry is a small, consistent image that crops up all over the walls of almost every temple we saw here. That element is the very nearly ubiquitous image of the hermit.

The hermit is a smaller, almost uninteresting figure who crops up again and again in the scrollwork, the baroque Hindu fleur-de-lis covering columns and lintels. (The scrollwork motif at Bantey Srei owes more than a little to traditional Greco-Roman design: anyone who has seen the artwork at Pompeii and Herculaneum might reasonably presume that the style slowly filtered east, into unknown lands.)

This morning seemed like a good time for a last look at Angkor. Braving a rather fierce morning sun, Neal and I walked, for the second time, along the outside galleries of the inner temple compound at Angkor. Each of the four walls—close to 80 meters or so a side? -- is densely populated with elaborate depictions of Hindu Gods and their countless minions, living out epic battles and mythic encounters.

On the east wing of the temple is what turned out to be my personal favorite: the story of churning the sea of milk (with a naga that extends almost the entire length of the wall, as it happens) to create the elixir of immortality (I’ll try to get to a discussion of the esoteric meaning of that very cool myth in the next post or two.)

As we walked around the galleries from west to south to east to north with the circus of supernatural bas-reliefs on our left, on our right was the row of columns that supports the ceiling of the gallery, undecorated…

except at the base.

At the base of each side of every column, the figure of a bearded hermit, legs folded, hands together in prayer, engages in meditation. In the midst of all the explosive imagery, the unruly hubbub of eternal mythic confrontation,

the ascetic is the guy who’s holding everything up.

Of course we could argue this is just a coincidence. But perhaps, just perhaps, there was an understanding being expressed here: an understanding that the root of all being springs from a silent, hidden effort, from a very private, very serious wish to deepen our connection with the planet.

The iconography of the hermit leads us to the question: what supports our effort?

The effort of society?

The effort of the planet?

The relentlessly repeated motif of the mundane, humble, inglorious hermit points us in the direction of containment. Of quiet work, silent work.

Work that lies outside the glamorous allure of the Gods in battle.

...as of today, some cool additional pictures of nagas are now posted at lee's other blog.


May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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