The priest stands on the edge of a concrete ghat before the dirty Ganges at dawn. He is naked from the waist up, except for a sacred cord that runs over his left shoulder, symbol of the twice-born priestly-caste. He wears a saffron coloured dhoti and across his forehead are drawn three horizontal white lines, traced with ash. The mark of Shiva. He folds his hands in prayer, then bends and scoops the water and drips it across his forehead while intoning mantras to the sacred river. Barely two metres away a second devotee lights his butter lamp and pours oil, uttering his own quiet prayers. In the neighbouring ghats men, women and children swim in the dawn waters to wash away their karma; at Marnikarnika Ghat, the infamous burning ghat, a constant procession of corpses are carried into the Ganges before their cremation. In nearly every temple and every shrine across the city people are at their ablutions and ministrations before the rising sun. It’s impossible not to be moved at the fervour, the devotion and, dare I say it, the sanctity, of these morning rituals.
You can’t travel through India for more than 10 minutes without the words ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ coming up, usually uttered by some backpacker setting new lows in new-age credulity; the terms are almost rendered meaningless in their ubiquity. Yet, there is no denying that there is something striking about India’s rampant and colourful religiosity. Compared to our secular West––anodyne and lacking in belief or ritual––India is littered with rites, temples, gods and vibrant festivities. Idols are commonplace, small shrines are housed in every building and throughout the day, wherever you go, you’re likely to smell incense or hear chanting, bells ringing and see people bowed in prayer. As someone deeply interested in both religion and language usage and abusage it got me thinking about what it actually means to call something sacred. Is there is any truth to the statement that India is a sacred country or is it just another banal cliché? I wanted to know if the sacred was something that had an actual, objective reality or was it perceptual, a concept inherent only in the eye of the beholder?
Dr Peterson I presume?
I’ve been consuming a lot of Jordan B Peterson as I travel. I realise that he’s a controversial and polarising figure with two public and sometimes overlapping personas: the erudite scholar of psychology and religion and the staunchly conservative cultural warrior. As a refugee from the culture wars, I have little interest in the second, though I think the former has some very interesting things to say. Whilst this is not an endorsement of his views in toto, I do think we can be adult enough to listen to the thoughts of people we may disagree with without being triggered by them. To me, this is an integral aspect of a mature and self-aware society.
In my opinion, Dr Peterson forwards some great ideas regarding the nature of religion and the sacred, even if I don’t always agree with his entrenched Judeo-Christian perspectives that view humanity as inherently flawed and sinful and nature as something other, a constant terrifying and existential threat to our lives. But that is a post for another day.
One of Dr Peterson’s core arguments is that we are bound, limited beings who are finite by definition; we are constrained by our physicality, mental capacity and comprehension, not to mention by our limited lifespans. By contrast, the universe we inhabit is infinite in nature: materially and in potentia. Our finitude is less than a microscopic drop or speck in our universe’s endlessness. But to exist as limited and finite specks in an incomprehensibly infinite universe cannot do anything but leave a major imprint of existential anxiety upon our psyches. We are surrounded by a cosmos that could engulf us at any moment and which promises to do so when we eventually and inevitably die. And it’s not just our lives that will end but every trace and memory of our existence, not to mention the existences of those few who even remembered that we once fleetingly walked across this stage of being.
It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of this state of affairs. Its immensity and scope go beyond anything we can imagine or anything we can physically encompass. At the same point we feel it deeply. We feel it in our guts and in our bones. Most of our waking lives are spent staving off that feeling of something ominously terminal lurking at the edges of our consciousness: a kind of existential dread synonymous with Kierkegaard’s anguish or Satre’s ennui.
To give us an idea of how limited and finite our comprehension of the universe is, Peterson uses frame theory as an example. Frame theory proposes that there exist many frames that we are conscious of but an infinite number of frames that remain outside the scope of our consciusness. A frame is “a frame of reference”, a point of perspective. Think of it this way: you go through your days aware of yourself as a cohesive unit. You have thoughts and feelings, you experience hunger, cold and tiredness and you engage with other people and tools during the course of your day. This experience is all mediated through the lens of your conscious personality and sense of self-identity. Yet this is a single perspective, an ego-driven frame. But there are many more possible perspectives than that of your conscious and ego-driven identity. You exist on an atomic level, a bunch of atoms that have come together to make up the being that is you. You exist on a microbial level. Bacteria crawl across your skin eating away the dead flesh and any dirt that covers you while your stomach is a forest of micro flora and even more bacteria. You have glands that regulate your bodily functions all day and night; you have a vast unconscious and perhaps even a higher, spiritual you (if you are that way inclined). In the other direction, there is a frame of reference that sees you as a unit in a small gathering of closely-related biological material, a family; a greater mass of people linked by genetic material, a race; or social conditioning, a culture. Zoom the lens in and out as much as you like and you will soon realise that the possible number of frames is infinite but we are only capable of comprehending an incredibly tiny and, of course, necessarily finite amount. To try and comprehend this infinitude is to descend into Lovecraftian-style madness.
Defining the sacred
The sacred occurs where our individual finiteness meets the infinitude of the universe, says Peterson. He quotes Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns and unknown unknowns” statement to emphasise his point. The sacred is the liminal space between the finite known and the infinitely unknown and it’s a great starting point for a definition. But I don’t think it goes far enough. What is also required, I believe, is an embodied sense of this threshold between these two worlds. It’s not sufficient to merely comprehend this liminal space; rather it has to be experienced and felt. The sacred, then, is where the place where we physically feel our finiteness meeting the infinitude of the universe. The reason for this is because what we feel often contradicts and regularly undermines what we know.
The movement of the earth around the sun is a good example of this. Why is it that even the most scientifically minded among us still refer to “sunrise and sunset” instead of “the earth’s rotation bringing our current global coordinates back into a direct line with the sun”? Nearly five hundred years after Copernicus we might mentally know that the sun does not rise but physically, in our bodies, we feel the sun sinking below the horizon and into the underworld and being reborn each day, a feeling ingrained over six million years of experience. Although science tells us that the earth will complete its orbit, in our bones there is a deep embodied fear that it will not rise again. That it did so the previous day and every day preceding that, in our small and miserable existence, is the only consolation that it may do so tomorrow. So the movements of the sun take on a sacred flavour and, thus, sun adoration rituals have been commonly practised by many cultures around the world and throughout the ages. It’s also a central reason why solar rituals form a central tenet in my own sacred practises. I know conceptually that the earth revolves around the sun and that the sun is not moving across the horizon but that’s not what I feel when I sit on a hill and watch the a spectacular sunset colouring the bush in red and orange hues, filling me with a deep sense of wonder and mystique.
Another example is death. We know rationally that one day we will die, although we spend most of our lives avoiding that thought. Why? It’s an embodied fear, a felt sense of our own finiteness being swallowed by the infinity of our non-existence. Which is why death has a sacred flavour and honouring death and its sanctity is an important element of our living existence. Death rituals are a sacred part of life. Peterson calls this state a tragedy: the internal knowledge that our own finiteness is dwarfed by the infinity of the universe. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, precious and sensual, even. I say sensual because the senses are fundamental to feeling the sacred. Hence sex and death’s inextricable relationship; the mystery of procreation is creating the finite out of the void and the mystery of death is leaving the finite back to the void. And if you don’t believe that childbirth is a sacred mystery ask any new parent about the sense of awestruck ‘wonder and amazement’ they feel about the human they have made.
Peterson goes on to suggest that personally honouring the sacred, this edge of our known world, beyond which everything falls away into the unknown vastness of the universe, is a necessary aspect of existence and a counterpart to the dryness of rational, material life. In this I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s aphorism that in life we must strive to honour the mystery of ourselves through honouring the mystery of the universe. And the way we honour this is not rationally, because the finite and rational mind cannot comprehend the infinite, but through rite and ritual, prayer, supplication and also sacrifice, modalities that resonate somatically and in the ocean of the unconscious self.
The appropriate feeling here is of instilling reverence or awe, rare qualities in our modern world. If we stop and think for a minute the world abounds in miracles: robots and AI, space exploration, nanotechnology, the internet, cloning and so on. We are so used to these wonders that we take it all in our stride. We can barely conceive of how significantly the world has transformed in the past hundred years and it’s difficult for us moderns to experience the same sense of awe and reverence for the world and cosmos that was felt by our ancestors. We have become blase and with that has come environmental degradation, disembodiment and dissociation from our animal roots. Yet there is good evidence that feelings such as awe and reverence are beneficial and promote pyschological wellbeing. Awe and reverence imply a certain degree of respect for those things which we don’t understand or that are greater than us in scale. Thus an embedded sense of reverence for our place in nature and for the mysteries of the universe may act as a catalyst for us to protect nature and these very mysteries. When we realise our place in the scheme of things, no matter how insignificant, then we are less likely to meddle in our environment.
So, I have to acknowledge that the cliché’s regarding India contain truth. India really is a sacred country because Hinduism is a religion par excellence for honouring this liminal doorway between the finite and the infinite. There are lingams and yonis in every shrine in every village worshipping that sacred act of creation. There is a plethora of sun temples and moon temples and elaborate rituals regarding how the dead are farewelled. There are celebrations for everything in between. If you are in the thralls of the dead hand of rationalism you could do much worse than immerse yourself in India’s sacredness, throw away all reason and allow the terrifying edges of existence to rear up in your awareness in all their awe-inducing power.
At the same time, it’s not necessary to be religious in a traditional sense in order to venerate the sacred. I like to think that the idea of the sacred is not important from either a secular or theistic perspective, but from a personally pragmatic and psychologically-grounded approach; we can use it as a concept that is embodied in our lives for growth. In practise, this is performed by physically meeting the sense of our own finiteness through symbolic gesture and ritual in whatever meaningful way we can devise. As I stated above, one way I achieve this in my daily life is through solar rituals, mapping the cycles of my own life onto the sun and vice versa.
The concept of the sacred goes hand in hand with the necessity of religion as a personal practice, given that one of the purposes of religion is to create room for us to face the sacred. But as I have written in other posts, this does not entail that you have to subscribe to a mainstream religion or shave off your hair and join the Hare Krishnas (or any other cult for that matter). If we take religion in its literal meaning to re-bind, what the sacred asks of us is practical and conscious engagement, not empty participation mystique, with our own limitations in this vast and endless universe. Your own rituals and your own belief systems are enough. It’s not what you believe but that you believe in something and you take concrete action to honour and concretise those beliefs. Life asks that you symbolically honour your own dismal finiteness in the glorious infinite. This, it tells us, is solace and the road to transcendence.