Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Resurrection, Mayan style

Yesterday, I promised to speak a little bit more about this idea the Mayans had of rebirth, which they arrived at independently of all the old world cultures. 

The reason that their esoteric art contains so much information congruent with Western (Christian) and Asian esotericism is that esotericism draws on a body of knowledge that is interestingly consistent across cultures and time. Although it is, commonly, mixed with superstitious and naturalistic influences in every culture, the ultimate sense and core of the teaching is the same everywhere, and a familiarity with esoteric principles can help the astute scholar to identify elements in any esoteric art from any age that are held in common with the great and ancient ideas of esotericism.

Because of the aggressive mixing of spiritual principles with political and social institutions which has taken place across time, one might think the origins are often obscured — and they are. As David Stuart put it, 

"The symbols of ancient Maya religion can often appear infinitely complex to the modern eye. There is a conscious and almost intentional otherworldliness to Mayan religious art, and our understanding is hampered by the limited sources available to which to work." (Palenque – the eternal city of the Maya, p. 191.)   

One of the reasons the comparisons to Hieronymus Bosch's great esoteric work is apt is simply because of this intentional otherworldliness. This is a characteristic of true esoteric art work; yet the best esoteric artwork manages to capture mystery without completely obscuring it. We should remember that such works are records meant to be read; and, more often than not, to be read by largely illiterate peoples. As such, the imagery needs to be legible through what one might call common sense. We don't refer to the images in the cathedral at Chartres as esoteric; yet they were meant to illustrate biblical teachings to individuals who couldn't read. It's a distinct possibility that Mayan bas reliefs and temple imagery had similar aims.  

Speaking from the standpoint of esotericism, we can conjecture that perhaps not all the information in Maya religious art has been lost, simply because—like Bosch's paintings— it is not as foreign as it appears to the untrained eye.  It's a matter of understanding the aim of the artists, and the inner meaning of the artworks—a meaning which, although not always obvious, exists as distinct from the outward aspects.

The practice of encoding esoteric principles and knowledge in public works of art has been consistent throughout the history of mankind, since it serves as a method of legitimizing and cementing the authority of the ruling class. Unlike today's world, where secular democracy is the ideal, in ancient cultures, secular and religious oligarchies were the ideals. The oligarchy was not by default and of necessity an oligarchy of blood, although it could be. It was often an oligarchy of spiritual hierarchy. Many cultures arranged themselves so that the highest spiritual authorities were the ones in charge of temporal affairs. This tendency is still a strong one, as we can see from contemporary efforts of Islamic, Hindu, and Christian fundamentalist movements to exert strong, if not outright dictatorial, political influence over the countries they exist in. 

Untangling the documented questions of authority and succession from Mayan symbology, we find a consistent set of ideas that is nothing if not familiar: a divine energy flows from a higher level; it is embodied in humans, and undergoes degradation; but human beings have the opportunity to rise higher from the level they are on, and be reborn as new beings. 

In exoteric terms, this is always supposed to represent rebirth in either a  second but different world much like this one (hence the practice of grave offerings), or a more ethereal "heavenly" kingdom; in esoteric terms, however, it is meant to represent rebirth in terms of consciousness

The Mayans, living in cultural environments rich in psychoactive substances, were no strangers to altered states of consciousness, and their art reflects it. Because altered, or yogic, states of consciousness can be induced not just by drugs, but also by various Tantric practices, and because the relationship between the two, although not exactly one-to-one (higher spiritual states are, in the end, quite different than states induced by drugs), is strong, cultures engaged in experimental states of consciousness will nearly always stumble on yogic practice, as the Mayans did. Their yogic practice was not, in the end, at all divorced from the yogic practices of the old world, although they developed independently of one another (or so current evidence would seem to suggest.)

In the art at the Temples of the cross complex in Palenque, we see a wide range of images that bear interesting comparisons to other divinely inspired esoteric works, as I pointed out yesterday in parallels between the work of Hieronymus Bosch and the Mayan religious artists. It's important to understand that the Mayans, like every other culture, developed a science of Being, because it adds to our understanding of them not just as consummate artists — they rivaled and even exceeded the abilities of many old world cultures — but as human beings, a culture with a deep and meaningful spiritual practice which is, for all intents and purposes, now lost to us.  

Lest we assume that their religious practices were too foreign and mysterious to bear any comparison to the great religious works of Christianity, let us remember how readily traditional religious practices merged with Christianity when the Spanish invaded Central America: 

"The dressing rituals described in the Palenque texts are startlingly reminiscent of the rituals and modern Mesoamerica and communities, where great effort is spent to dress the images of Catholic saints in native ceremonial huipiles and  necklaces of gold coins." (Ibid)

Mergers of this kind don't take place without tangible points of esoteric contact; in fact, esoteric Islamic and Yogic thought were, upon close examination, largely congruent, which is why Islam gained an easy foothold in Indian culture. In that case, the blended roots of the traditions are obvious (See McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought); far less so in the conjunction of Mesoamerican and Christian esotericism, yet the parallels are there.   

Efforts to understand the esoteric implications of Mayan art through the "universal" lens of historical esotericism, whose roots lie in the essential and unchanging nature of mankind's collective psyche, may help us to uncover what their thinking on these subjects was; and, as we delve deeper into it, I believe, we see that they were very much like us; intelligent, inquisitive, ingenious — and above all interested in discovering what it means to be human and what it means to be alive. 

In understanding their religious impulses, I believe, we stand a little closer to them than when we see them as nothing more than artistically talented warriors who engaged in bloodletting and human sacrifice.

 The study also underscores the deep connecting links between all human beings, throughout all ages and in all time, as we engage in our collective search to understand ourselves.


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