Sunday, January 27, 2008

Banteay Srei: Hindu Legominisms in Cambodia

Gurdjieff students who have read Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson will be familiar with the chapter "Beelzebub on Art," which discusses Gurdjieff’s concept of Legominisms, a device whereby important esoteric teachings are recorded in popular works of art so that they will survive social cataclysms where violent conflict destroys the schools or priesthoods where said teachings are passed on.

Historical Cambodia is, without any doubt, one such culture--even recently--, and at Banteay Srei we discover a prime example of the phenomenon. Strictly speaking, of course, the following examples may not precisely fit the definition of legominisms--which "ought" to illustrate the law of seven and contain lawful inexactitudes--but I think what we find here will be interesting enough to allow some leeway from all but the strictest traditionalists--and we'll have some fun while we do it.

I have provided links (blue underlined text) to several key photographs in this post which need to be clicked on in order to see the actual pictures, which are collectively posted at my other blog.

Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple about 1,000 years old in Cambodia, within a day’s drive from Angkor Wat. It’s famous because it exhibits some of the most exquisite and intricate stone carvings in the entire country—if not the world. Collectively, the carvings recapitulate a wide variety of Hindu myths. As I have mentioned in other posts, much of the iconography reveals a deep connection between the folk traditions of Hindu mythology and inner work of various kinds.

During the work weekend, my old friend Paul and I were reviewing photographs of Banteay Srei, when we noticed something rather intriguing about one of the lintels at the temple.

In this particular lintel, a God sits at the center of an elaborate, floral naga. He is interacting with two characters: an elephant, and a lion. The God may be Vishnu, but I am not an expert on Hindu iconography by any means, so I can't tell you for certain. (If we have a reader who is certain, let me know, and I will correct the text accordingly.) The important point is that each deity or God in the carvings can be taken to represent an aspect of the higher self.

What first struck me about this particular carving is that the God (we'll assume it's Vishnu for now) is clearing pushing the lion away with one hand, and “adopting” the elephant with the other.

Why would Vishnu be doing that? I asked myself.

When related to other imagery in the lintel—and elsewhere—it began to suggest a number of fascinating possibilities.

When we examine the idea of the lion, we may think of boldness, of aggression, of a predatory nature. He’s a meat—eater, a fierce and dangerous animal, and he certainly looks like one the way the artists depicted him at Bantey Srei. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the lion is a symbol of our outward being, the passions of the flesh. Clearly, Vishnu is shunning this—distinctly pushing the lion away with his left hand. On the other hand, he is grasping and adopting the elephant with his right hand. At the left and right extremes of the lintel--the outer fringes of the frieze-- the lion rides atop the elephant suggesting a domination of the inner (the elephant) by the outer. In the center--the point where the balance is found, and where the "opposing points" of the symbolic naga (which may represent the human spine) are found-- the deity is provocatively making a clear and undeniable choice for the elephant.

It’s unlikely any of this symbolism is coincidental. It’s true, of course, that traditional peoples of the regions used elephants as the “muscle” of their animal workforce, and that lions were dangerous predators to be avoided, but the repeated use of Gods in the imagery suggests that the literal interpretation carries an important underlying spiritual message.

The elephant has served as a symbol of benevolence and good fortune in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Elephants are known as emotional creatures: highly familial, social, protective of their young, loved ones, and clan. And it’s known in modern biology--as it was no doubt known to ancient peoples, who almost certainly understood nature's nuances far better than we understand them today--that elephant society is built on strong matriarchal bonds. These, when in place, ensure an intact heritage of social tradition and the effective sublimation of aggression in males into relatively non-destructive channels. [see comments in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel about the grasp of their immediate natural environment by contemporary Papua New Guinea tribesmen, as opposed to the relatively feeble understandings of westerners.]

Elephants, in other words, may represent both inwardness and inner order.

Consistent with this idea, we see a female deity- possibly Devi--elsewhere in a meditative pose, sheltered under the protective trunks of two elephants. The elephants form a "cave" of sorts, certainly intimating the presence of a sealed vessel. She appears to be taking blissful refuge in Her inwardness, practicing containment. This iamge of e meditative deity within a symbolic vessel occurs repeatedly throughout the temple.

Even more interesting to me was the use of the lion in other areas. We see the lion emerging from the mouth of a naga, or serpent. The lion is vomiting (there’s no other word for it in my eyes) what appear to be, according to doctrinaire symbolic interpretations, a chain of lotus blossoms.

I don’t think they are lotus blossoms, however; their distinct resemblance to a spinal column can’t be overlooked. Given the intimate association between nagas and the “esoteric” study of energy within the spine (see my other posts on the subject) it seems this may be no accident. We might infer, in other words, that outwardness, in the form of the lion, ejects, or wastefully spends, the energy of the spine, which rightfully belongs to the inward nature. Perhaps this is symbolic of the loss of spiritual energy through outwardess, or emotional, reaction.

In another section of the temple we see what may be Vishnu (holding a mace) triumphant on a triad of elephants, surrounded by water, on which float teams of beatific worshippers. Here is the inner spiritual seed of man elevated by intimate association of the three minds (intellectual, emotional, moving) with one another in an enclosed, nurturing environment: an environment which is hermetically sealed and does not waste its energy. The image is repeated elsewhere underscoring its symbolic importance.

Elsewhere in the temple, we see a complex allegorical image bearing an unmistakable image of a horse, a carriage, a driver, and the master of the carriage. This represents a traditional Yoga sutra which Gurdjieff adopted as a fairly central theme, recounting and discussing it a number of times in the literature that emerged from his teaching. This one is hard to miss.

The temple is rife with such imagery; a terrific place to visit, if you should have the chance.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.


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